The 75th Anniversary of the Loss of USS Serpens
"I felt and saw two flashes after which only the bow of the ship was visible. The rest had disintegrated and the bow sank soon afterwards."
-Lt. Cmdr. Perry Stinson (USCG), Commanding Officer, USS Serpens
The quote above refers to the Coast Guard-manned USS Serpens (AK-97). On January 29, 1945, 75 years ago, a catastrophic explosion destroyed the transport. In terms of lives lost, the destruction of the Serpens ranks as the single largest disaster ever recorded in Coast Guard history.
In March 1943, an EC-2 class “Liberty Ship” was laid down under a Maritime Commission contract as “Hull #739” by the California Shipbuilding Corporation of Wilmington, California. The vessel was launched less than a month later as the SS Benjamin N. Cardozo. Two weeks later, the ship was transferred to the U.S. Navy and designated AK-97. The transport was 442 feet in length, displaced 14,250 tons and had a top speed of 11 knots. For defense, the ship carried one 5-inch gun, one 3-inch gun, two 40 mm and six 20 mm anti-aircraft cannons. The vessel’s crew consisted of 19 officers and 188 enlisted men. In late May, the Navy renamed the transport Serpens, after a constellation in the Northern Hemisphere, and commissioned the vessel in San Diego under the command of Coast Guard Lieutenant Commander (LCDR) Magnus Johnson.
An aerial view of Lunga Point, Guadalcanal, during World War II showing the airfield captured by the U.S. Marines early in the Guadalcanal Campaign. (U.S. Navy)
Following a shakedown cruise off Southern California, Serpens loaded general cargo at Alameda, California, and, on June 24, set sail to support combat operations in the Southwest Pacific. The transport steamed between the supply hub of New Zealand and various Pacific islands, such as Tonga, Vitu Levu, Tutuila, Penrhyn, Bora Bora, Aitutaki, and Tongatabu. In early December, Serpens began operations into the southern Solomons, re-supplying bases and units on Florida Island, Banika Island, Guadalcanal and Bougainville. In February 1944, Serpens was ordered back to New Zealand for dry-docking and, for another four months, the transport delivered materials to bases in the New Hebrides and Solomons.
In late July 1944, LCDR Perry Stinson assumed command from LCDR Johnson. From that time into the fall of 1944, Serpens resumed operations carrying general cargo and rolling stock between ports and anchorages within the Solomon Islands. In mid-November, the transport loaded repairable military vehicles from the Russell Islands and Guadalcanal and sailed for New Zealand. After offloading in New Zealand, three of the transport’s holds were converted for ammunition stowage. Late in December 1944, Serpens commenced loading at Wellington, New Zealand, completed loading at Auckland and returned to the Solomons in mid-January 1945.
Monday, January 29, found Serpens anchored off Lunga Point, Guadalcanal. Lunga Point had served as the primary loading area for Guadalcanal since the U.S. military’s first offensive of World War II began there in August 1942. LCDR Stinson, a junior officer, and six enlisted men went ashore while the rest of the ship’s crew loaded depth charges into its holds or performed normal shipboard duties. Late in the day, in the blink of an eye, the explosive cargo stowed in Serpens’ holds detonated. An enlisted man on board a nearby Navy boat gave the following eyewitness account:
As we headed our personnel boat shoreward, the sound and concussion of the explosion suddenly reached us and, as we turned, we witnessed the awe-inspiring death drams unfold before us. As the report of screeching shells filled the air and the flash of tracers continued, the water splashed throughout the harbor as the shells hit. We headed our boat in the direction of the smoke and, as we came into closer view of what had once been a ship, the water was filled only with floating debris, dead fish, torn life jackets, lumber and other unidentifiable objects. The smell of death, and fire, and gasoline, and oil was evident and nauseating. This was sudden death, and horror, unwanted and unasked for, but complete.
After the explosion, only the bow of the ship remained. The rest of Serpens had disintegrated, and the bow sank soon after the cataclysm. Killed in the explosion were 197 Coast Guard officers and enlisted men, 51 U.S. Army stevedores, and Surgeon Harry Levin, a U.S. Public Health Service physician. In addition, a soldier who was ashore at Lunga Point was killed by flying shrapnel.
Only two men on board Serpens survived–Seaman 1/c Kelsie Kemp and Seaman 1/c George Kennedy–who had been in the boatswain’s locker at the time of the explosion. Both men were injured, but were later rescued from the wreckage and survived. Only two Coast Guardsmen’s bodies were recovered intact and later identified out of the nearly 250 men killed in the explosion.
At first, the loss of Serpens was attributed to enemy action and three Purple Heart Medals were issued to the two survivors and posthumously to Surgeon Levin. However, a U.S. Navy court of inquiry later determined that the cause of the explosion could not be established from surviving evidence. By 1949, the Navy officially closed the case deciding that the loss was not due to enemy action but an “accident intrinsic to the loading process.”
Today, all that remains of the Serpens is the ship’s bow section sitting upside down on the sea floor off Lunga Point. The transport’s dead were initially buried at the military cemetery at Guadalcanal. The crew’s mortal remains were later exhumed, shipped to the U.S. and, on June 15, 1949, interred at Arlington National Cemetery. A monument to the Serpens listing all of its lost crewmembers was erected over the gravesite and dedicated on November 16, 1950.
Please pause to remember the men of the Serpens who 75 years ago lost their lives in the line of duty.
William Thiesen is the U.S. Coast Guard Atlantic Area historian. This article appears courtesy of Coast Guard Compass and may be found in its original form here.
The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.