WWI Profile: David Elton Lewis 1891-1965

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David Elton Lewis
Brunswick County, NC
US Navy
Lieutenant (junior grade)

May 1, 1917 -unknown

David Elton Lewis was born in Brunswick County, NC, in 1891. A partial family tree is located in FamilySearch.

Two of David’s brothers also served in WWI. Grover Ransom Lewis enlisted in the Navy in NY in March 1918 [Source: Ancestry.com] John Quincy Lewis, served in the US Army. Grover was not originally included in the Brunswick County WWI Veteran List as his NY WWI Service Record shows he was born in Wilmington, NC. However, we now know he lived in Brunswick County which will allow us to add his name to the Brunswick County WWI Veteran List.

The 1900 Census shows his family living in Shallotte. David is 9 years old, one of eight children.

When David was about 12 years old, his father and uncle were lost at sea.

On the night of December 9, 1903, his father, Captain James Harker Lewis, and his uncle, Captain William Edward Lewis, along with all three crew members were lost at sea at the mouth of the Cape Fear River. Captains James and William Lewis were captains and foremen of fishing crews but were passengers on the small schooner Clarence H. which was delivering goods from Shallotte to Wilmington, NC. The story was printed in newspapers across the nation.

According to the Dec. 11, 1903 edition of The Morning Post (Raleigh, NC), the boat was discovered lying bottom up on Oak Island beach that morning. That afternoon, his uncle’s body washed ashore. The Dec. 13 edition of The Morning Star reported that there was no evidence that Captain William Lewis had water in his lungs, indicating that his cause of death was likely the blow to his forehead, possibly from the mast. His body was sent to Shallotte for interment. His gravesite is unknown.

His father’s body washed ashore near the same location on January 9, 1904 and was identified by the papers in his clothing, according to the Jan. 15, 1904 edition of the Wilmington Messenger. He was laid to rest in the Old Smithville Cemetery in what is now Southport. By March, all five bodies had been recovered.

David’s grandson Dave Lewis of Brunswick County Historical Society shares this story about his grandfather.

My great-grandmother moved to Wilmington with all her children after my great-grandfather was lost in a shipwreck off Southport in 1903. She put my granddad to work in a cotton mill which he stayed for about one week. That was not for him, so he went down to the waterfront looking for work. After shoveling coal on a freighter from NY to China he taught himself to read and write and obtained his Engineer License allowing him to sail as Chief Engineer on any size ship. That was why he was in NY before enlisting in the Navy.

Family lore tells me that my great grandmother was told by family members, “they would be back before the peach trees bloom”, but they never returned to Brunswick Co. except for visits.

The 1910 Census shows him living with his mother and some siblings, working on a tug boat. As mentioned above, he is able to read and write now. His name appears in several years of city directories for Wilmington.

On May 1, 1917, David Elton Lewis enlisted in the US Navy Reserve as a Lieutenant (junior grade) [Source: Ancestry].

David’s WWI Draft Registration was completed on February 27, 1918, later than the required registration of June 5, 1917. Written on his registration by the Registrar and signed by David was the statement, “Was on the high seas on June 5.”

David’s passport application or Application for Seaman’s Certificate of American Citizenship of March 15, 1918 [Source: Ancestry] states that he has been a Seaman for 4 years, with his recent position as an Assistant Engineer on the Medina. The photograph attached to the application is shown at left.

Family documents confirm that he served on Medina for about five years.

In the September 1914 issue of International Marine Engineering she was referred to as “One of the most modern and largest freight steamships operating on the Atlantic coast.” When World War I broke out, she became a supply ship for the US Army, but was placed under the operational control of the US Navy. In August of 1918, the SS MEDINA was the Commodore’s Flagship in a convoy of about twenty ships enroute to Europe. During that arduous voyage, two ships in her convoy were torpedoed, but the MEDINA escaped without harm. Following cessation of hostilities, MEDINA was returned to her original owners. [Source: SS Medina]

It is not known whether Lt(jg) Lewis was serving at the time, but it is very likely. The following is a more detailed account of the convoy being torpedoed.

Note: The Medina served as the Commodore’s Flagship. Traditionally, “commodore” is the title for any officer assigned to command more than one ship at a time. A commodore’s ship is typically designated by the flying of a broad pennant, as opposed to an admiral’s flag. [Source: wikipedia]

Source of newspaper clipping: Chronicling America
The U.S.S. West Bridge, commanded by Lieutenant Commander Mortimer Hawkins, U.S. Naval Reserve Force, left New York, August 1st, 1918 in convoy with about twenty other vessels. The S.S. Medina acted as the Commodore Ship.

At about 1740 on August 15, the Captain of the West Bridge was notified by the Chief Engineer that the main engine turbine rotor was stripped and that the ship could not proceed or make any repairs. The Medina was notified of the engine trouble and the inability of the West Bridge to maintain position or hold speed.

At about 1800 the U.S.S. Montana, which was in the convoy and about four miles ahead of the West Bridge, was torpedoed. At 2358 one torpedo struck the West Bridge on her starboard side amidships abreast of the engine room. A second torpedo struck immediately afterwards at about twenty feet forward of the first. The vessel listed to starboard immediately and the captain ordered “Abandon Ship”. She settled quickly so that there was about two feet of water on her well decks, but as she sank she came back to an even keel while the survivors stood by the stricken vessel in lifeboats.

The West Bridge began settling and all hope of saving her was abandoned. The lives of four West Bridge crewmen were lost. [Source: Torpedoing of USS West Bridge]

David returned to Wilmington, presumably as he continued to serve; the 1919 City Directory lists him as US Navy. In 1920 (Census) he continued working aboard the SS Medina.

His grandson, Dave Lewis referenced above, added the following touching information.

I have the old painting of the ship [Medina] that hung in my grandparents’ dining room while they were living at Carolina Beach. The picture hung there as long as I can remember.

In 1922, David married Gertie Lancaster in Southport. The 1930 Census shows him living in Wilmington, working as a Marine Engineer. By the 1940 Census, he was in Texas. He and his wife raised two sons.

David Elton Lewis was living in Wilmington when he passed away on January 5, 1965. He was laid to rest in Greenlawn Memorial Park Cemetery, Wilmington. No military honors are displayed.

If you would like to help us honor David Elton Lewis or another Brunswick County WWI veteran, please use the following links:

Click here for the announcement: Announcement: Honor a Brunswick County World War I Veteran
Click here for directions to donate and honor a veteran: How to Honor a Brunswick County World War I Veteran

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