As the centennial of the start of World War I approaches, memory is fading when it comes to soldiers who died in the War to End All Wars.
On the front page of the Catholic Sentinel in February 1918, a small notice refers to a Mount Angel couple waiting to hear news of their son, who had shipped overseas.
The body of Pvt. Fred Unger Jr., son of a Civil War veteran, was later found in the Irish Sea off Scotland. Unger, a German-American Catholic born 130 years ago this month, had perished along with 230 others when a German U-boat torpedoed the troop ship Tuscania on Feb. 5.
Unger, a 33-year-old farmer and father of five, enlisted in Portland in the U.S. Army’s Co. D, 6th Battalion, 20th Engineers. He traveled east and boarded the Tuscania in Hoboken on Jan. 24, 1918, before shipping into the Atlantic’s frigid waters with 2,400 other souls. At one point, the passengers saw a large rainbow.
On Feb. 5, they spied the coast of Scotland and felt they had made it through the German submarine danger zone. They expected to be docked LeHavre France before long. But later that day, a single torpedo hit the 14,000-ton vessel at midship and it began to list and then sink into the North Channel, between Ireland and Scotland.
Some men made it to lifeboats, but there was nowhere near enough capacity. Other ships in the convoy began picking up survivors, but no one lasted long in the frigid waters.
“I watched her go down, gently it seemed to me, without any explosion, bucking or breaking in two, and as she went down a gentle glow was seen in the shape of a bowl over the spot where she sank,” said E. Denman McNear, watching from another ship.
Among the dead was Fred Unger, Jr. found off the island of Islay and buried by local citizens on Feb. 8. Many of the men who died there had made it into the Tuscania’s lifeboats, only to drown when the small vessels were dashed on rocks offshore.
Many of the bodies were later transferred to their homelands, including that of Fred Unger, who had become a farmer in South Dakota and is now buried in Parkston alongside wife Cunigunda, who died in 1958.
Tom Unger, a 78-year-old Silverton resident, remembers talk of his Uncle Fred. Tom’s father, Fred’s brother, would say that quite a few of his 15 siblings died unusual deaths. Another brother, a blacksmith in Hillsboro, was crushed when his whirling sharpening stone broke apart. One sister died while on the operating table when the oil stove nearby exploded.