|NOVEMBER 2000||Volume 2 Number 4|
Remembering One Connecticut War Casualty
Mark Jones, State Archivist
The caller began, "I think I have some historical documents." She explained that she had purchased a photographic portrait of an unidentified elderly man at a local yard sale in order to use the frame. Upon taking the image out of the frame, she had discovered three documents pertaining to the World War I service record of Harold Benjamin Irsh. They stated that Irsh had lived in Hartford and had died as a member of the United States Coast Guard. The caller related her unsuccessful genealogical search for Irsh relatives in the United States and asked whether the documents were of interest to CSL.
Thus began the search for the identity of Harold Benjamin Irsh. CSL contains valuable resources pertaining to those who served in the War To End All Wars. Three volumes of Service Records; Connecticut Men and Women in the Armed Forces of the United States During World War 1917-1920 is a starting point. Irsh enlisted in the U.S. Coast Guard on March 18, 1918, when he was almost twenty-one years old. On September 26, 1918, he "Drowned in Foreign Waters" aboard the Coast Guard Cutter Tampa.
From two sources, I learned that on the evening of September 26, 1918, the cutter Tampa was making its way to the port of Milford Havens, Wales, having completed its primary function to escort convoys from Gibraltar to Great Britain. At 8:45 pm, the convoy heard a loud explosion. During the next day, a search patrol found enough wreckage of the Tampa to list her as sunk, with one hundred-fifteen aboard, 111 of whom were members of the Coast Guard. A message was sent to the U. S. from the British Admiralty.
"Their Lordships desire me to express their deep regret at the loss of the U.S.S. Tampa. Her record since she has been employed in European waters as an ocean escort has been remarkable. She has acted in the capacity of ocean escort to no less than 18 convoys from Gibraltar comprising 350 vessels, with a loss of only two ships through enemy action. The commanders of the convoys have recognized the ability with which the Tampa carried out her duties of ocean escort. Appreciation of the good work done by the U.S.S. Tampa may be some consolation to those bereft and their Lordships would be glad if this could be conveyed to those concerned."
Meanwhile, the search for Irsh had hit a dead end. City Directories for Hartford did not list the Irshes as residents after the war. Then a package came from the original caller with the three documents she had found. One of them was a Certificate of Service for Petty Officer 2nd. C. Harold Benjamin Irsh issued by the State Library's Department of War Records. Created by an act of the legislature in 1917, this department sent out hundreds of certificates and maintained a surname card file of veterans. The card file indicated that the Irshes lived in Buckland, Connecticut.
In 1919, the Department of War Records sent out a five-page Military Service Record Form to known veterans and/or their families, promising that those completed and returned would be filed in the State Library as a "permanent memorial" to the World War veterans'1 Harold Irsh's mother completed the form in October indicating that Harold was single and had worked as a machinist at the Terry Steam Turbine Co. in Hartford. Less than two months after enlisting, he was serving aboard the Tampa as a Fireman, 2nd Petty Officer.
The Department of War Records urged persons completing the form to send in a photograph, and in October 1919, Mary Irsh returned two photographs of her missing son. These images added to my knowledge of this young man. Harold Benjamin Irsh was no longer a service entry or just a name on a Certificate of Service or plaque in France. He was a real person struck down in the seas off Wales on board an ill-fated Coast Guard cutter.
The explosion aboard the U.S.S. Cole has driven home once more to our nation that our servicemen and servicewomen are in a dangerous profession. "For years, the nation paused at the 11th hour on the 11th day of the 11th month to honor its war dead from WW I. Now we know this as Veterans Day." On this November 11, I shall be thinking of Harold Benjamin Irsh .
1 These forms are part of Record Group 12, Records of the Connecticut State Library. They are a rich resource for genealogists and social and ethnic historians.
Portrait by Harry G. Blackmore, 11 Pratt Street, Hartford, Connecticut. 12, Records of the Connecticut State Library. They are a rich resource for genealogists and social and ethnic historians.
Portrait by Harry G. Blackmore, 11 Pratt Street, Hartford, Connecticut.
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