Hidden away in a quiet corner of the City Cemetery in Derry/Londonderry the body of an unsung American hero of World War One lies forgotten in an unmarked grave.
But now a genealogist has written a book to share the story of Captain Erik Kokeritz and campaign for the proper recognition of his final resting place.
David Jenkins’ book Captain Kokeritz: An American Hero, tells how more than 100 years ago in the same cemetery the funeral of the courageous mariner was a huge military-style affair in tribute to his courage in breaking a German blockade of Britain and France during the Great War.
Kokeritz, who emigrated to America from Sweden as a young man, and another captain called Alan Tucker were the first US Merchant Navy officers to attempt to get supplies through the German blockade, having left New York for Bordeaux.
Their journeys were global front page news with the world watching to see if the Kaiser’s U boats would sink them and heighten demands from the American public that their government should join the war against Germany.
A celebration to mark their arrivals in Bordeaux in 1917 was attended by 30,000 French people and the two were later feted in Paris by the government who awarded them bravery medals.
Talking to journalists in France however a modest Kokeritz played down the hero’s mantle.
He said: “We entered the danger zone on Monday evening where I met only one sailing vessel and found not the least trace of any submarines. Thus, you see, it was not difficult for us to force the blockade and we have nothing much to be proud of in having reached port safely.”
Even so entire pages of newspapers were devoted to the captains’ exploits which only increased the anger of the Kaiser according to David Jenkins who says: “The Kaiser was so enraged by their success, he had a price put on the heads of both captains. He wanted both ships sunk and the captains dead.”
Several months later on subsequent trips back to America the Kaiser’s revenge was exacted on the Orleans and the Rochester though his hated captains both cheated death.
“In July 1917 Captain Tucker’s ship, the Orleans, was sunk by a U boat off the French coast but the captain managed to escape from the German crew,” says David.
“In November 1917 Captain Kokeritz’s ship, the Rochester, was sunk 400 miles off the north west coast of Ireland coast.”
The book outlines how after the Rochester was torpedoed and 23 sailors were killed. Kokeritz got surviving members of his crew into three lifeboats.
David writes: “For five days he commanded his own lifeboat in stormy seas and he was eventually rescued near Tory Island and brought into Londonderry.”
Most of the seamen who survived the nightmare of the attack and the tortuous lifeboat journey had frostbite and swollen feet.
Records show that they were taken to Derry’s City Infirmary or the Sailor’s Rest. Kokeritz who was suffering from pneumonia stayed at the City Hotel in Derry where his condition worsened and he was found dead in his bed. His death certificate states he died of pleurisy. He was 43.
Kokeritz’s funeral had all the ceremony of a military and naval funeral, with his coffin taken to the City Cemetery on a gun carriage covered with the Stars and Stripes and the Union flag. The cortège was accompanied by the band and pipers of the 3RD Battalion Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers.
And that’s where the story would have ended if it hadn’t been for David Jenkins whose fascination with Kokeritz had been sparked by a conversation with an historian friend who had read about the Rochester story.
But David’s visit to the City Cemetery in search of more information yielded nothing.
“The lady at the cemetery office gave me a map with the grave position on it and, in no time at all, I was standing at the plot of the captain. But there was no headstone. I stood at Captain Kokeritz’s grave and told him I would tell his story and get him the recognition he so rightly deserves.”
David says he was surprised that no headstone was ever erected on Kokeritz’s grave especially as he was accorded such a high profile funeral.
“My aim with the book is to bring the Kokeritz story back into the public eye and maybe someday have a headstone put up for this American hero,” he adds.
During his research, David was unable to trace any living relatives of the captain in America and searches of WW2 websites and official records provided no further clues or indications that any memorials to Kokeritz exist on the other side of the Atlantic.
David has dedicated his book to his grandfather Samuel Jenkins and his seven brothers who served ‘with courage and bravery during WW1’ and says there’s no doubt Kokeritz was another hero who at one time captured the interest of the world but had now been largely forgotten.
Captain Kokeritz: An American Hero by David Jenkins is out now. For info email: email@example.com