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Swedish-born mariner Erik Kokeritz’s final resting place in Derry’s City Cemetery is now marked by a single white cross – but for more than a century his grave lay unmarked.
Kokeritz emigrated to the US in 1894 and, by the time World War One broke out, he was sailing as a merchant sea captain.
When, in 1917, US commercial ships were needed for the war effort, Kokeritz was one of two captains to volunteer to take supplies across the Atlantic.
In the autumn of 1917, his ship, the SS Rochester, left England to return to the US but 400 miles off the Irish coast it was torpedoed by a German U-boat. Twenty-three of the crew were dead as the ship sank.
But Kokeritz – and 22 of his crew – survived. For four days and nights they drifted at sea. The survivors were taken to Derry where half the men were treated at the city’s infirmary. All were suffering from exposure. Captain Kokeritz took rooms at the City Hotel. Unwell, he was ordered to take bed rest but, in the months that followed, his condition worsened and, on February 3, 1918, he lost consciousness and died the following day.
He was buried in the City Cemetery and his grave lay unmarked for more than a century. However, local historian and genealogist David Jenkins, thanks to more than a decade researching the Kokertiz story, revealed the full story in a book published last year and, since then, interest in the Swedish sailor has snowballed.
Dr Joshua M. Smith, Director of the American Merchant Marine Museum in New York, is among those supporting moves to erect a memorial to Kokeritz.
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He told the ‘Journal’: “I’m very happy to support David Jenkins’ efforts to have a headstone made, and I am encouraging several groups to assist with funding. I plan on making a contribution myself.
“This ship may have sank a century ago, but I think it’s important that we honour those who did the right thing, or acted to save others at the sacrifice of themselves.”
Dr Smith says that, “in doing the right thing by Kokeritz, in providing a simple stone marker for his grave, we reinforce the trans-Atlantic connections between Northern Ireland and America”.
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Recently, the Friends of Derry City Cemetery group placed a white cross where Captain Kokeritz is buried in the cemetery.
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