James O. Wilson, who went by Ollie, was born in Chamblee in 1896. He registered for the draft on June 5, 1917 at the A-10 precinct in Atlanta. Three months later, he married Elizabeth Delong of Dunwoody and in July of 1918 he was inducted into the military. Wilson began his training at Chamblee’s Camp Gordon but was soon sent to Fort Screven at Tybee Island, Georgia.
At Fort Screven, Wilson became part of the Automatic Replacement Corps, Company 2 Coast Artillery Corps. They boarded the ship Otranto headed for England on September 25, 1918. The Otranto, a British ship that had delivered cargo to the United States, was part of a 16-ship convoy.
The sea was rough on October 6, 1918, with waves estimated between 50 and 75 feet. An order came through for the ships to slow their speed. The Otranto slowed while another ship, the Kashmir, did not. Sam Levy was aboard the Otranto that day and recalled 50 years later, “The Kashmir was just picked up by the waves and tossed on top of the Otranto.” (The Atlanta Constitution, July 18, 1968). A great hole was left in the Otranto.
Royal Navy destroyer HMS Mounsey, under the command of Lt. Francis Craven, came to the rescue of the Otranto. The Mounsey pulled up as close as possible to the Otranto. About 500 men were able to get from one ship to the other, including Sam Levy.
Ollie Wilson was not one of the lucky ones. The violent storm tossed the Otranto on to the rocks of the Islay, Scotland shore and the 470 still on board died, including around 130 men from Georgia. Most of the Georgia men had trained at Fort Screven.
The people of Islay worked to dig graves and bury the dead with dignity. They had dealt with a previous tragedy in February of 1918 when a German U boat torpedoed the ship Tuscania, carrying 2,500 U. S. and British soldiers.
There was a happier ending for Walter Brawner of Augusta, Georgia. Although Brawner boarded the Otranto, he was removed and sent to Camp Merritt in New Jersey because he was too ill to make the trip. He was listed among the dead on the Otranto initially, but a correction was issued in the Nov. 28, 2018 Atlanta Constitution that he had recovered and was back in Augusta. That same newspaper lists James O. Wilson of Chamblee as one of the Otranto lost.
Read more about Sam Levy, his experience on the Otranto and his importance to the Atlanta Jewish community at atlantajewishtimes.timesofisrael.com/atlanta-leader-honored-at-world-war-i-memorial.