Today’s post was written by Nick Baric, a processing Archivist at the National Archives in Washington, DC.
In May of 1918 a group of American sailors detached to a base at Kyle of Lochalsh in the Scottish Highlands found themselves in a bit of hot water. They faced accusations of removing a jewel box from a reputed haunted house on the Isle of Skye. The allegations came to light in the form of a letter of complaint regarding the sailors’ conduct from a local authority, the Procurator Fiscal, on behalf of the property owner.
Handwritten letter admitting to theft of item from haunted house
A component of the U.S. Forces Operating in European Waters, the base at Kyle of Lochalsh (along with Base #18 at Inverness and nearby Base #17 at Alness) was charged with “assembling American mines for the North Sea Barrage.” This mine barrage’s mission was keeping German U-boats trapped in the North Sea and away from the vital sea lanes connecting the United States and to its allies. After the war, these same forces were charged with sweeping and removing the mines to facilitate post-war shipping.
Historically, relations between American military personnel stationed overseas and the local population can become strained. To head off problems, Navy authorities will declare certain districts off limits to American sailors and efforts were made to provide entertainment and leisure opportunities. Incidents do still arise of which this one was an example of middling severity. An investigation by superior officers was promptly launched. The testimony of one sailor, Seamen Second Class Philip W. Sagel, is included below. All the sailors’ testimonies were similarly simple and sincere, with no denying that they had in fact entered the “haunted house” and had removed the box as a “souvenir”.
Upon the conclusion of the investigation, a solution was obtained that was amenable to local authorities, the property owner, and Navy authorities. In a final letter to Navy authorities, the Procurator Fiscal W. J. Robertson wrote, in part, as follows: “I do not think it is necessary that it should be brought before our court. I am aware that the house is said to be haunted and it was very natural that your lads should have gone to explore it. It is a pity, however, that they took the jewel box away, but I am prepared to accept the explanation that they did so as a souvenir, thoughtlessly … there was no nefarious intent.” With the jewel box returned to its proper owner, the incident was declared over. There was apparently no further disciplinary action taken against the sailors.
Second handwritten letter
One can only surmise that back home during reunions or when asked by their children, grandchildren, or even great-grandchildren about their service in the Great War, perhaps these old sailors would recount their adventures in a haunted house in the Highlands!
[Source: All documents quoted and reproduced here come from File 30/2/18 in the series SUBJECT FILES RELATING TO NORTH SEA MINE BARRAGE ACTIVITIES IN SCOTLAND, 1917-20 (UD Entry 9-O, NAID 12006036) RG 313: Records of Naval Operating Forces]