What Really Happened to the Serpens?

Jan. 29, 2020 will be the 75th anniversary of the largest loss of life in Coast Guard history, the explosion of USS Serpens (AK-97). We have already discussed this incident, but now there is a effort to look again at the cause of this loss.

Foxtrotalpha reports there may be reason to believe that the ship was torpedoed rather than having been destroyed by an ammunition loading accident.

I considered that it might have been an attack carried out by Kaiten, submarine launched manned suicide torpedoes. They were being used at that time to attack shipping in forward bases. Kaiten might have made an attack on a protected harbor easier, but the link in this paragraph provides a listing of operations that seems to preclude that possibility. That in spite of the fact that there were about 20 Kaiten capable Japanese submarines operational at the time of the sinking.

SECNAV Names Future Destroyer in Honor of US Coast Guard, World War II Navy Cross Recipient

190606-N-DM308-001 Cherbourg, France(June 6, 2019) A graphic illustration of the future Arleigh-Burke class guided-missile destroyer USS Quentin Walsh (DDG 132). (U.S. Navy photo illustration by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Paul L. Archer/Released)

The Secretary of Navy Public Affairs has announced the intention to name a Burke Class DDG after a Coast Guard officer, Quentin Walsh, who played an important part in the invasion of Normandy and the subsequent expansion of the beachhead to include the port of Cherbourg. I have quoted the press release below. (Thanks to a former dirt dart for bringing this to my attention.)

Cherbourg, France (NNS) — Secretary of the Navy Richard V. Spencer named a future Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer, DDG 132, in honor of Coast Guard Capt. Quentin Walsh, who was awarded the Navy Cross for his service during World War II.

“Capt. Walsh was a hero whose efforts during World War II continue to inspire, and his leadership in securing the French port of Cherbourg had a profound effect on the success of the amphibious operations associated with Operation Overlord,” Spencer said.

“For over two centuries, the Navy and Marine Corps team and the Coast Guard have sailed side by side, in peacetime and war, fair weather or foul. I am honored the future USS Quentin Walsh will carry Capt. Walsh’s legacy of strength and service throughout the world, and I am proud that for decades to come, this ship will remind friends and adversaries alike of the proud history of our services and the skill and professionalism of all those who stand the watch today.”

Spencer made the announcement alongside Adm. Karl Schultz, the commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard, in a ceremony aboard the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Eagle in Cherbourg, France.

“We are grateful to the U.S. Navy and Sec. Spencer for honoring one of our Coast Guard heroes, Capt. Quentin Walsh,” Schultz said. “Naming a future Navy destroyer after Capt. Walsh, the first Arleigh Burke-class ship to be named after a Coast Guard legend, highlights not only his courageous actions but the bravery of all U.S. service members involved in the D-Day Invasion of Normandy.

“The U.S. Navy and Coast Guard legacies are interwoven as reflected in the heroic actions of Capt. Walsh and the Navy Sailors under his command during the liberation of Cherbourg,” the commandant continued. “We will remain always ready to stand with our brothers and sisters in the U.S. Navy.”

During World War II, while serving on the staff of the Commander, U.S. Naval Forces, Europe, then Cmdr. Walsh was given command of a 53-man special task force assigned to capture the vital port of Cherbourg. Despite heavy casualties, his small force seized the port facilities and took control of the harbor the day after they entered the city.

After he discovered that the remaining German garrison at Fort du Homet held 52 U.S. Army paratroopers as prisoners, Walsh, under a flag of truce, exaggerated the strength of the forces under his command and persuaded the commanding officer of the remnants of the German garrison to surrender. These actions earned him the Navy Cross and, all told, he accepted the surrender of over 700 German soldiers. Walsh died May 18, 2000.

Arleigh Burke-class destroyers conduct a variety of operations, from peacetime presence and crisis response to sea control and power projection. The future USS Quentin Walsh (DDG 132) will be capable of fighting air, surface and subsurface battles simultaneously and will contain a combination of offensive and defensive weapon systems to support maritime warfare, including integrated air and missile defense and vertical launch capabilities.

USS Quentin Walsh will be constructed at Bath Iron Works, a division of General Dynamics in Bath, Maine. The ship will be 509 feet long, have a beam of 59 feet and be capable of operating in excess of 30 knots.

German prisoners march out of surrendered Cherbourg under U.S. Army guard. U.S. Navy photo.

“5 facts you may not know about the Coast Guard at Normandy” –Coast Guard Compass

File:Lci-convoy.jpg

Normandy Invasion, June 1944 A convoy of Landing Craft Infantry (Large) sails across the English Channel toward the Normandy Invasion beaches on “D-Day”, 6 June 1944. Each of these landing craft is towing a barrage balloon for protection against low-flying German aircraft. Photograph from the U.S. Coast Guard Collection in the U.S. National Archives. Photo #: 26-G-2333

On this the 75th anniversary of the Normandy landings, Coast Guard Compass offers  “5 facts you may not know about the Coast Guard at Normandy.”

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“SHE FELT THE NAZIS’ WRATH:” A U.S. Coast Guard infantry landing craft still flies its flag, though knocked out of the invasion, ripped and wounded on the beaches of France. Moving in for a landing, the LCI ran afoul of an underwater obstruction, which tore a gaping hole in her bow. Then as its cargo of troops piled ashore, Nazi shells battered her out of further action.”; no date; Photo No. 2395; photographer unknown.

Coast Guard participation in the invasion included three Coast Guard manned attack transports, two more that were partially CG manned, eleven Landing Ship Tanks (LST), 24 Landing Craft Infantry, Large (LCI(L)), and 60 wooden hulled 83 foot patrol boats. In addition the Coast Guard manned numerous smaller landing craft.

Some previously published info:

Coast Guard History Coming Back On-Line

The 83-foot Coast Guard cutter USCG 1 off Omaha Beach on the morning of D-Day, tied up to an LCT and the Samuel Chase

When the Coast Guard switched all of its on-line servers to the DOD system, now many months ago, it was frankly a disaster for those of us who frequently look for Coast Guard history information on line. It resulted in a large number of broken links on my “Heritage” page, and loss of access to many documents. I have not purged the broken links because I hope the titles will reemerge. Of course this information is still out there, but its just no longer available on-line.

It appears they have been working to rebuild the site on the new servers. They seem to have done a lot in preparation for the upcoming 75th D-Day Anniversary. Unfortunately there are still huge holes in the on-line presence. The cutter section is particular thin, including only Active and the Coast Guard manned LCI(L)s that participated in the Normandy invasion, but it does appear they are laying the ground work for more complete information.

While the site is certainly not comprehensive yet, it is at least getting more interesting.

A recent addition is listed as a chronology, but it is really more of a “This Day in Coast Guard History.” Below is a sample.

May 23

1928  CGC Haida and the USLHT Cedar rescued 312 passengers and crew from the sailing vessel Star of Falkland near Unimak Pass, Alaska after Star of Falkland had run aground in the fog the previous evening.  Both the cutter and the tender managed to save all but eight from the sailing vessel.  This rescue was one of the most successful in Coast Guard history and was also one of the few instances where the Coast Guard and one of its future integrated agencies worked together to perform a major rescue.

1930  Lieutenant Commander Elmer F. Stone received a medal from Congress for extraordinary achievement in making the first successful trans-Atlantic flight in 1919.  Stone was the pilot of the Navy’s NC-4.

1946  Commodore Edward M. Webster, USCG, headed the US Delegation to the International Meeting on Radio Aids to Marine Navigation, which was held in London, England.  As a result of this meeting, the principal maritime nations of the world agreed to make an intensive study of the World War II-developed devices of radar, LORAN, radar beacons, and other navigational aids with a view to adapt them to peacetime use.  This was the first time that the wartime technical secrets of radar and LORAN were generally disclosed to the public. [USCG Public Information Division News Release, 7 June 1946.]

1972  President Richard Nixon and the Chairman of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet of the USSR, N. V. Podgorny, signed the “Agreement on Cooperation in the Field of Environmental Protection between the United States of America and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.”  Under the agreement, the U.S. Coast Guard was the lead U.S. agency, in association with the EPA and MARAD, for the Task Group on Prevention and Cleanup of Pollution of the Marine Environment from Shipping.

Meanwhile if you are looking for Coast Guard history, there may be more on-line information and certainly a huge number of photographs on the Naval History and Heritage web site. Here is a good example. Also Wikipedia can be a good source.

USS TAMPA PURPLE HEART MEDAL CAMPAIGN –COMDTNOTE 5700

Passing this along. Are they also going to provide Purple Hearts for the Seneca’s eleven lost crewmen?

Miami-class cutter USCGC Tampa photographed in harbour, prior to the First World War. Completed in 1912 as the U.S. Revenue Cutter Miami, this ship was renamed Tampa in February 1916. On 26 September 1918, while operating in the English Channel, she was torpedoed and sunk by the German Submarine UB-91. All 131 persons on board Tampa were lost with her, the largest loss of life on any U.S. combat vessel during the First World War. Official U.S. Navy photo NH 1226 from the U.S. Navy Naval History and Heritage Command

united states coast guard

R 261000 FEB 19
FM COMDT COGARD WASHINGTON DC//CG-092//
TO ALCOAST
UNCLAS //N05700//
ALCOAST 062/19
COMDTNOTE 5700
SUBJ:  USS TAMPA PURPLE HEART MEDAL CAMPAIGN
1. The U.S. Coast Guard needs your help with locating and contacting descendants of the USS TAMPA, which was tragically sunk during World War I with all hands lost. The Service has yet to present 84 of the outstanding Purple Heart Medals awarded posthumously to the crew. We intend to recognize as many of the descendants as possible this Memorial Day. We need your help to do this.
2. Background:
A. USS TAMPA, a Coast Guard ship and crew serving under the Department of the Navy, was lost with all hands after being torpedoed by a German U-boat off Wales on 26 September 1918. This tragic loss occurred just weeks before the end of World War I. It was the single largest loss suffered by the Coast Guard during that conflict.
B. At the time of TAMPA’s loss, the Purple Heart Medal was not in use. In 1942,
eligibility was extended to include the Coast Guard, but it was not until 1952 that the awarding of the Purple Heart Medal was made retroactive for actions after 5 April 1917. However, TAMPA was overlooked until 1999, when a retired Coast Guardsman submitted a proposal to award the Purple Heart to her crew.
C. In 1999, then-Commandant Admiral James Loy authorized the posthumous awarding of the Purple Heart Medal to the crew of USS TAMPA. Today, over one hundred years after TAMPA was lost and twenty years after the first TAMPA Purple Heart was awarded, the Coast Guard is still attempting to identify those families who have yet to receive their ancestors’ Purple Heart.
3. The purpose of this ALCOAST is to raise awareness of the Purple Heart award program and to continue to identify those families who have yet to receive their ancestors’ medals. You can help.
4. Summary of USS TAMPA Purple Heart Medals awarded:
A. There were 130 men on TAMPA, including 111 Coast Guardsmen and 4 Navy men.
B. 26 TAMPA Purple Heart Medals have been claimed since 1999.
C. 3 TAMPA Purple Heart Medals are presently in progress.
D. 84 TAMPA Purple Heart Medals remain unclaimed.
5. The names of the 84 TAMPA crew whose Purple Heart Medals remain unclaimed are listed here: https://www.history.uscg.mil/tampa/.
6. To submit applications for TAMPA Purple Heart Medals, please contact Ms. Nora Chidlow, Coast Guard Archivist, at Nora.L.Chidlow@uscg.mil or 202-559-5142. She has served as the primary point of contact between the Coast Guard and many TAMPA descendants, and also with the Medals & Awards branch.
7. To apply for their ancestor’s Purple Heart Medal, descendants are required to provide documentation showing the descendant’s relationship to the TAMPA crew member, such as family trees, pages from family Bibles, birth/death certificates, and/or pages from Ancestry or other genealogical applications. Please expect about 4-6 weeks’ time for processing.
8. I encourage all members of our Coast Guard family to share this ALCOAST with the widest possible audience. We owe it to our shipmates in USS TAMPA and their descendants to ensure their heroism and sacrifice are recognized and remembered.
9. RDML Melissa Bert, Director of Governmental and Public Affairs, sends.
10. Internet release is authorized.

“The shipwreck that changed the Coast Guard forever” –5th District Public Affairs

The following is a 5th District press release quoted in full.

The shipwreck that changed the Coast Guard forever

This video outlines the Marine Electric shipwreck and the incident’s lasting impact on the Coast Guard.  

Editors’ Note: Click on images to download high resolution version.

Story and artwork by Petty Officer 2nd Class Corinne Zilnicki

When the clock tolled 12 a.m. on Feb. 12, 1983, the 605-foot cargo ship Marine Electric trekked northward 30 miles off Virginia’s Eastern Shore, plowing slowly through the gale-force winds and waves stirred up by a winter storm.

An able-bodied seaman relieved the watch and peered forward, noticing for the first time that the ship’s bow seemed to be riding unusually low in the water. Dense curls of green ocean rushed over the bow, some of

them arching 10 feet over the deck before crashing back down. The crew had been battling 25-foot waves for hours, but until now, the bow had bucked and dipped as normal.

Now it seemed only to dip.

Over the next two hours, the waves intruded with increasing vigor. The entire foredeck was swallowed in 6 feet of water. The main deck was completely awash.

At 2:30 a.m., the ship’s master, Phillip Corl, summoned his chief mate, Robert Cusick, to the bridge and shared his fears: the bow was settling, they were taking on too much water, and the crew was in real trouble.

At 2:51 a.m., the captain made the first radio distress call to the Coast Guard.

“I seem to be taking on water forward,” Corl said. “We need someone to come out and give us some assistance, if possible.”

By the time assistance arrived, the Marine Electric had listed, rolled violently to starboard, and capsized, hurling most of its 34 crew into the 37-degree water. Chaos ensued.

Chief mate Cusick surfaced with a gasp, managed to get his bearings, and spotted a partially-submerged lifeboat nearby. After swimming through towering waves for 30 minutes, he pulled himself into the swamped boat and started thrashing his legs to stay warm.

“All the time I kept looking out and yelling out, ‘lifeboat here,’ just continually yelling out to keep myself going,” the chief mate said. “Then I waited and prayed for daylight to come.”

The Coast Guard had long since dispatched an HH-3F Pelican helicopter crew from Air Station Elizabeth City, North Carolina, and directed the crews of several cutters to the Marine Electric’s position, but the tumultuous weather conditions slowed the rescuers’ progress.

Naval Air Station Oceana had to recall available personnel before launching a helicopter crew, including rescue swimmer Petty Officer 2nd Class James McCann.

At 5:20 a.m., the Coast Guard helicopter crew was the first to arrive on scene. They had expected to find the Marine Electric’s sailors tucked into lifeboats and rafts, but instead, they found a blinking sea of strobe lights, empty lifeboats, and bodies strewn below.

The Navy aircrew arrived and deployed McCann, who tore through the oil-slicked waves, searching for survivors. He managed to recover five unresponsive sailors before hypothermia incapacitated him.

The Coast Guard crew scoured the southern end of the search area and discovered one man, Paul Dewey, alone in a life raft. They dropped the rescue basket so he could clamber inside, then hoisted him into the helicopter. About 30 yards away, they spotted Eugene Kelly, the ship’s third mate, clinging to a life ring, and lowered the basket to retrieve him.

Cusick remained huddled in his lifeboat until the sailors aboard the Berganger, a Norwegian merchant vessel whose crew was helping search the area, sighted him and notified the Coast Guard. The helicopter crew retrieved him in the rescue basket, then took off for Salisbury, Maryland, to bring the three survivors to Peninsula Regional Medical Center.

Meanwhile, more Coast Guard and Navy rescue crews converged on the scene to search for survivors.

Coast Guard Capt. Mont Smith, the operations officer at Air Station Elizabeth City, had piloted a second Pelican helicopter through turbulent headwinds for over an hour in order to reach the site.

He and his crew scanned the debris field below for signs of life. The people they saw were motionless, and it was difficult to determine whether they were simply too hypothermic to move, or deceased. Smith spotted one man and hovered over him, squinting through the whipping snow, trying to decide what to do.

“We all felt helpless,” Smith said. “There was no way to know if the man was dead or alive. We had to try something.”

Petty Officer 2nd Class Greg Pesch, the avionics electrical technician aboard the helicopter, volunteered to go down on the hoist cable. After some deliberation, Smith agreed.

Pesch’s descent in the rescue basket was a harrowing one.

“The whole world seemed to be churning,” Smith said. “I struggled to maintain a smooth hoist, but I know it was erratic.”

Once in the water, Pesch grappled with the basket, trying to hold it steady as he guided the unresponsive man inside. It took several attempts, and then he scrambled into the basket himself and ascended back to the helicopter alongside the victim.

The aircrew spotted another potential survivor, and although Pesch attempted to descend again, the hoist cable spooled back on itself on the drum. The crew was forced to abort their mission and departed for nearby Salisbury Airport, where the man they had pulled from the water was pronounced dead on arrival by paramedics.

Dewey, Kelly and Cusick were the only men pulled from the ocean alive that morning. Their 31 shipmates had either succumbed to hypothermia or drowned.

All told, Coast Guard, Navy, and merchant vessel crews recovered 24 bodies from the scene of the capsizing. Seven were never found. It is likely the ship’s engineers were trapped belowdecks when the vessel capsized.

“Throughout Coast Guard history, the missions of the service have been written in blood,” said Dr. William Thiesen, historian, Coast Guard Atlantic Area. “Such was the case with the loss of the Marine Electric. This tragic event led to stricter marine safety regulations and the establishment of the Coast Guard’s premiere rescue swimmer program.”

While the incident itself served as the catalyst for the major changes to the Coast Guard and maritime community at large, the rigorous efforts of Coast Guard Capt. Domenic Calicchio brought the necessity for such changes into sharper focus.

Calicchio was one of the three marine safety officers charged with investigating the capsizing and sinking of the Marine Electric. The board of inquiry launched their investigation on July 25, 1984, and examined every aspect of the WWII-era cargo ship, its upkeep, the events leading up to its demise, and the Coast Guard’s rescue efforts on that morning.

The investigation revealed that although the Marine Electric had been recently inspected several times by both the American Bureau of Shipping and the Coast Guard, marine inspectors had failed to note several discrepancies or recommend needed repairs. Investigators concluded that the casualty had most likely been caused by inadequate cargo hatches and deck plating, which allowed the crashing waves to flood the vessel’s forward spaces.

Calicchio felt the Coast Guard needed to revamp its marine safety procedures and demand more of maritime companies, but more importantly, that the Coast Guard needed to demand more of itself.

His push for reform resulted in several additions to the Coast Guard’s marine safety protocol, including guidance on hatch cover inspections, and new requirements for enclosed lifeboats and their launching systems, for ships’ owners to provide crews with cold water survival suits, and for flooding alarms to be installed in unmanned spaces on vessels.

The Coast Guard also tightened its inspections of 20-year or older ships, which led to the near-immediate scrapping of 70 similar WWII-era vessels.

“Calicchio embodied the service’s core values of honor, respect, and devotion to duty,” said Thiesen. “He championed marine safety and pursued the truth even at the risk of his career of a Coast Guard officer.”

While the Coast Guard changed many policies to make a safer marine environment after the the sinking of the Marine Electric, the service continues to make improvements on its marine safety program today. By 2025, it is estimated that the demand for waterborne commerce worldwide will more than double. The Coast Guard has published its Maritime Commerce Strategic Outlook in preparation for the increasing demand. 

The Marine Electric shipwreck also served as the genesis of another crucial development: the Coast Guard rescue swimmer program, which was established in 1984. The program’s physical fitness standards, training and organizational structure were developed over a five-year implementation period, and in March of 1985, Air Station Elizabeth City became the first unit to receive rescue swimmers.

The first life was saved two months later.

The Marine Electric, a 605-foot cargo ship, as seen underway before its capsizing and sinking on Feb. 12, 1983. The converted WWII-era ship foundered 30 miles off the coast of Virginia and capsized, throwing most of its 34 crew into 37-degree water, where 31 of them drowned or succumbed to hypothermia. (U.S. Coast Guard photo)