THE WILLIAM H WELCH SHIPWRECK
Early on the morning of the 26th February, 1944, HFTC No. 6 Course set out on an all-day exercise. Near Melvaig the crofters asked No. 12 (Pat Walker's) platoon for help - a Liberty ship from America bound for Loch Ewe, had foundered on a rock half-a-mile off shore, in a 40-mile an hour gale, and her crew was being swept away by 50 foot breakers. They commenced rescue operations, alerted the rest of H.F.T.C. who organised all possible assistance - including Ben Forbes who brought refreshments by car as the mobile canteen would have been blown over in the storm.
The nearest road was three to four miles from the scene, 12 miles from Poolewe, and it took over an hour's "battering" against the elements to reach the area from the track. All day they scaled the cliffs recovering victims, and carried them on improvised stretchers (16 men per stretcher party) over very rough terrain of bogs and hills through a raging blizzard to the naval ambulances.
For rescuing "a survivor who was lying in an apparently inaccessible spot separated from the shore by a 12 foot gap through which oily water and wreckage was rushing - the cliffs rising 30 to 40 feet on either side" the North Highland District Commander commended I.G.B. Goad, J.D. Hargreaves, A.S. MacDonald and M.A. Bayne. All others did a magnificent job.
At II p.m. a soldier struggled in from one of the last rescue parties saying his companions were lying exhausted in the snow, but would not abandon their stretcher case. So a fatigued H.F.T.C. turned out a 60-strong search party, and found them well after midnight - all returned safely.
In all 12 American seamen were saved, but 60 lost their lives. Security at the time prevented publication of this dramatic episode in which H.F.T.C. played so gallant a part.
Three years ago the Wester Loch Ewe Community Council erected a Memorial on the coast opposite the Island of Foula on which the William H Welch was wrecked. The Association contributed to this project.
Extract from The Yank (The U.S. Army Weekly) April 14th 1944
"The Tommies went back to their camp frozen wet and exhausted. They tumbled into their cots hardly stopping to take off their clothes .......The duty officer came into the huts and called for volunteers. Every one of the Tommies turned out again and went back once more over the icy road across the rocks"
Recollections of Cliff Longman (6)
I suppose the most dramatic episode in which I was involved was when, on return from an exercise on Slioch or Beinn Airidh Chare, or some such inhospitable mountain, we were asked by our sergeant to "volunteer" to go to help rescue survivors from a Liberty ship that had hit the rocks at the entrance to Loch Ewe. We were taken by road to Cove at the sea end of the loch. By that time it was getting dark with deep snow on the moor. We were given stretchers and we stumbled through the snow about two miles to the cliff top above the wreck. In a snowstorm and gale the poor sailors who had swam ashore were lying covered in oil, suffering from hypothermia, or were dead. Four of us took one of them on a stretcher back to a waiting ambulance at Cove, but when we got there we found that our sailor was dead. We went for another, whom I am glad to say survived. When I am asked about this rescue, my memory is of stumbling through the snowstorm in a bewildered daze, and how unwieldy and awkward a stretcher is. No heroics there, I'm afraid, but at least we helped a bit when the USS William H. Welch was wrecked on a rocky island off the shore.
The island of Foula. The William H Welch was wrecked on the left end of the island. The entrance
to Loch Ewe is to the right.
The tablet describing the tragic events
The lifeboats which were washed ashore. Audrey is holding a lifebelt.
The bay where the survivors were rescued and the Memorial
John W King (survivor) and his wife, Marie at a meeting with John Trimmer