White cross erected at WWI hero’s Derry grave

More than a century after his death, a memorial has been erected at Derry City Cemetery to a genuine hero of the First World War.

The white cross erected at Capt. Kokeritz's grave.
The white cross erected at Capt. Kokeritz's grave.

In November 1917, at the height of World War One, Captain Erik Kokeritz’s merchant ship, the SS Rochester, was torpedoed by a German U-boat en route from England to the USA.

The Swedish-born sailor, along with most of his crew, survived the attack and, after spending nearly five days in an open boat in rough seas and the piercing cold, they were rescued and, eventually, taken to Derry.

However, Capt. Kokeritz, suffering from pneumonia, died at the City Hotel, Foyle Street, in February 1918 and was buried in a plot at the City Cemetery with no headstone or any sort of memorial or marker.

Captain Erik Kokeritz.

And that remained the case until a local genealogist, who specialises in World War One, started uncovering the remarkable story of Capt Kokeritiz and the SS Rochester.

David Jenkins recalls the tale in his acclaimed book published just last month.

David told the ‘Journal’ he knew he was on to something special when he first heard the story of Captain Kokeritz.

My head was full of questions,” said David. “Who was this captain and what was his story?

“I decided to visit the City Cemetery to find his grave and, maybe, his headstone might give me some clues. 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. Just a stretch of grass that covered a number of other graves which had no headstones either.

“It was there and then that I decided it was time to use all my genealogy skills in order to uncover the story of Captain Kokertiz.”

And what a story it was.

David was soon to unearth a remarkable story that, in 1917, dominated news headlines around the world - a story that, at the time, captivated the American and French public like no other. It was a story of courage, bravery, heroism and patriotic determination - all in the face of a resolute enemy who wanted to sink Kokeritz’s ship at all costs. Indeed, Kaiser Wilhelm, himself, had put a price on the captain’s head. If the SS Rochester were sunk, America would enter the world’s first truly global conflict.

“I stood at Captain Kokeritz’s grave,” David recalled, “and told him I would tell his heroic story and get him the recognition he so rightly deserves.”

And, thanks to David’s retelling of the story - not to mention the assistance of local cemetery historians - Capt. Kokeritz has, at long last, got the recognition he deserves.

The small white cross includes the famous sailor’s name, the Swedish and US flags - the Rochester was American-owned - the date of his death and the Latin proverb, ‘Semper Fortis’ (Always Courageous) - the motto of the US Navy.

David says: “It’s great news to hear that Seamus Breslin and Friends of Derry City Cemeteries have erected the cross for Captain Kokeritz which has created new interest from people across the world in his story that had been forgotten about for over 100 years.

“The reaction to my book has been amazing locally and internationally and many people have stated that they would like to help with the funding of a permanent headstone for the captain. So, hopefully, in the New Year there will be developments towards having one erected for this WWI hero”.

The book is available to buy at Foyle Books, Magazine Street, or email [email protected] for further details.