Engineer Sub-Lieutenant John Gemmell

This essay is about the single First World War casualty commemorated by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission in Hawaii.

The grave of Engineer Sub-Lieutenant John Gemmell
The grave of Engineer Sub-Lieutenant John Gemmell

Engineer Sub-Lieutenant John Gemmell is the most westerly of the First World War casualties commemorated by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission in the United States. He died of pneumonia in Hawaii and is buried in O’ahu Cemetery.

John Gemmell was born on 18 February 1891 at Catrine, a mill town in Ayrshire, the son of Hugh and Hannah Gemmell.[1] The town had grown up around the cotton mill, one of the first built in Scotland, and Hugh Gemmell worked there as a clerk. When John Gemmell left school, he became a maritime engineer, eventually serving on RMS Otranto, a liner operated by the Orient Steam Navigation Company.

Following the outbreak of war, RMS Otranto was requisitioned by the Admiralty on 4 August 1914 and Gemmell, commissioned as an Engineer Sub-Lieutenant in the Royal Naval Reserve, was appointed one of her assistant engineers. Otranto was converted to become an armed merchant cruiser by the addition of eight 4.7-inch guns, and other modifications, and assigned to the West Indies Squadron. She was one of two British ships to survive the Battle of Coronel and spent the rest of the war primarily in the waters around South America.[2]

Engineer Sub-Lieutenant Gemmell continued to serve in HMS Otranto until mid/late in 1917 when he returned to England. On 4 February 1918 he joined HMS Ophir.

Built in 1891, Ophir was a former ocean liner also owned by the Orient Steam Navigation Company. In 1901 RMS Ophir served as a Royal Yacht when it took the future King George V and Queen Mary (then the Duke and Duchess of Cornwall and York) on a tour of the British Empire. The liner was requisitioned by the Admiralty in February 1915 and in March was converted to become an armed merchant cruiser with the addition of six 6-inch guns. Her war service at sea began on 21 March 1915 and primarily comprised convoy escort duties as part of 9th Cruiser Squadron in the Central Atlantic and off the coast of West Africa. Just after John Gemmell joined her, in April 1918 she sailed from the United Kingdom to Sierra Leone and on a voyage that would take her round the world via the Cape, the Far East, into the Pacific and to South America.

HMS Ophir at HM Dockyard, Halifax, Nova Scotia, during the 1901 Royal Tour
HMS Ophir at HM Dockyard, Halifax, Nova Scotia, during the 1901 Royal Tour

On the latter stages of this journey, Engineer Sub-Lieutenant Gemmell fell ill en route to Hawaii and when HMS Ophir came alongside on 10 September 1918 he was discharged to Fort Shafter military hospital,[3] severely ill with pneumonia. He died at 5.00am on 19 September 1918. That afternoon he was buried in O’ahu Cemetery, in the small British plot near the boundary wall at the junction of Nuuanu Avenue and Robinson Lane, which contains the graves of British soldiers and sailors who have died in and around the Hawaiian islands. The funeral party was provided by the crew of HMS Ophir. That evening HMS Ophir sailed for Paita in Peru. Later, his grave was marked by a large stone cross ‘erected by his shipmates’.

The grave (left) of Engineer Sub-Lieutenant John Gemmell
The grave (left) of Engineer Sub-Lieutenant John Gemmell

Engineer Sub-Lieutenant John Gemmell is also commemorated on the Catrine and district war memorial, which stands on Chapel Brae above the River Ayr overlooking Catrine.

Catrine War Memorial
Catrine War Memorial

His medals group comprises the 1914-15 Star, British War Medal 1914-20 and Victory Medal.

Acknowledgement:
Steve Curry for the photos of O’ahu Cemetery.


1. (Back) Hugh Gemmell married Hannah Currie on 20 December 1889 at Sorn in Ayrshire. Charles Currie Gemmell (29 November 1899-1964).
2. (Back) In a storm on 6 October 1918, while en route to Scotland with soldiers of the American Expeditionary Force on board, HMS Otranto collided with another troopship, HMS Kashmir. Over 500 crewmen and soldiers were taken off during a gallant rescue by the destroyer HMS Mounsey  but Otranto foundered. Only 21 men managed to swim ashore—431 men were drowned.
3. (Back) Now Tripler Army Medical Center.

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