The Legacy of the WWI Cutter Tampa

USS Tampa at Gibraltar (USCG)

Published Jun 14, 2020 7:06 PM by U.S. Coast Guard News

[By Nora L. Chidlow and Arlyn S. Danielson]

Launched in 1912 and christened the Miami, Coast Guard Cutter Tampa was part of a small but nimble fleet of revenue cutters that patrolled American coastal waters. After the sinking of Titanic on April 14, 1912, cutter Miami’s Florida cruising missions of maritime law enforcement, search and rescue, aid to mariners, and derelict destruction, expanded to include ice patrol duty in the North Atlantic. Due to the cutter’s close association with the city of Tampa, Florida, her name was changed to Tampa on February 1, 1916.

On April 6, 1917, the day the United States declared war on Germany, all of the armed services were thrust into World War I. The U.S. Coast Guard was no exception. The war proved a baptism of fire for the Service, newly-formed in 1915 from a merger of the Revenue Cutter Service and the Life Saving Service. With the U.S. entry into the war, the Coast Guard was transferred from the Treasury Department to the U.S. Navy.

In 1914, near the start of the war, the British Admiralty began to introduce the convoy system to merchant shipping. By May 1917, it had become a highly effective way to stem the loss of ships to German U-boats in the North Atlantic and Mediterranean Sea. Starting in the summer of 1917, six of the Coast Guard’s long-distance cruising cutters, including Tampa, were sent overseas for convoy duty.

On September 29, 1917, Tampa sailed out of New York, bound for Halifax, Nova Scotia. It would be the last time Tampa’s crew would see American shores. Along with cutters Algonquin, Manning, Ossipee, Seneca, and Yamacraw, Tampa became part of Squadron 2, Division 6, of the Navy’s Atlantic Fleet Patrol Force. On October 6, the cutter departed Halifax and was the last Coast Guard cutter to arrive in Gibraltar, in the evening of October 26. The following day, Tampa reported for duty and was assigned ocean escort duty for her first convoy to England.

Tampa sailed 18 convoys between Gibraltar and Milford Haven, Wales, without major incident and only minor repairs. Escorting 402 merchant steamers between Allied ports, Tampa’s wartime service contributed significantly to the convoy system’s success. On September 6, 1918, Rear Admiral Albert Niblack, commander of Squadron 2, of the Navy’s Atlantic Fleet Patrol Force, awarded Tampa and her crew a special commendation praising the cutter’s exceptional war service, high morale, and crew capabilities.

Eleven days later, on September 17, 1918, Tampa departed on her 19th escort mission. At noon on September 26th, running low on coal, Tampa’s commanding officer, Captain Charles Satterlee, requested permission to detach from the convoy. His request was denied due to the danger of sailing alone in daylight in submarine infested waters. He made a second request at 1600, as the coal supply had become critical. This time it was granted and, at 1615, Tampa proceeded toward Milford Haven, Wales, with lights out as a security measure. 

Steaming alone at dusk, with only her silhouette visible against the nighttime sky, Tampa was sighted by German submarine UB-91. Attacking at 2015 hours, UB-91’s last torpedo located in her stern tube struck Tampa’s hull amidships. A second explosion caused either by ignited coal dust or the cutter’s detonating depth charges followed the blast.

Tampa sank with all hands in less than three minutes. UB-91 surfaced at 2025 to look for debris and bodies but found nothing. After she failed to arrive in port on time, a British aircraft and two Royal Navy patrol boats deployed the following morning to search for the cutter. Eventually, three U.S. Navy ships identified the wreckage. After the war, the captain of UB-91 confirmed that he had sunk Tampa.

Tampa’s crew consisted of 130 men, including 111 Coast Guard officers and enlisted men, four U.S. Navy men, and 15 Royal Navy civilians. They were native and foreign born, from New York City, Tampa, Key West, Denver, and even Russia and Norway. Many signed-up for active duty as soon as the U.S. declared war on Germany while others had been part of Tampa’s crew for years. All had to serve at least a year, but many re-enlisted while at sea. Several foreign-born crewmembers became American citizens while serving on board. 

Faded image of Tampa’s crew in 1913, showing officers in the bottom two rows and minority crew members the next level up on the right side. By 1918, many of these men had transferred or gone ashore. (U.S. Coast Guard)

Naval officials kept quiet about the Tampa’s loss until information could be accurately compiled. Families of lost crewmen were not notified of the sinking until October 3rd, when the Coast Guard sent out telegrams - at the same time newspapers reported Tampa’s demise. In the decade following the sinking, families, friends, and Coast Guard colleagues erected memorials in locations associated with the lost crew. Captain Satterlee’s friend and fellow Coast Guard captain, William Wheeler, spearheaded the effort to build a Coast Guard memorial at Arlington National Cemetery. Many Tampa families attended its dedication on May 23, 1928.

At the time of Tampa’s loss, the Purple Heart Medal was not in use. However, in 1952, President Harry Truman signed an executive order awarding the Purple Heart retroactively to World War I veterans. Even though Tampa’s crewmembers had become eligible for the medal, they remained forgotten for over 80 years. In 1999, a retired Coast Guardsman proposed to Commandant James Loy that the Purple Heart Medal be awarded to Tampa’s lost crew. On November 11, 1999, eighty-two years after UB-91 sank Tampa, the cutter’s crewmembers were recognized with a Purple Heart Medal ceremony at the Coast Guard Memorial at Arlington Cemetery.

One of many newspaper headlines regarding the loss of Tampa. Many Tampa families read the newspapers before receiving notification from the Navy. (U.S. Coast Guard)

For the 1999 ceremony, relatives representing only three crewmembers could be located. Many Tampa descendants were simply not aware of their ancestor’s service or the fact that they were eligible for the Purple Heart Medal. Since then, the Coast Guard Historian’s Office has led the effort to identify Tampa descendants so more Purple Hearts may be awarded. On May 24, 2018, Commandant Karl Schultz awarded 10 Tampa Purple Hearts in a special ceremony at Coast Guard Headquarters. Today, approximately 58 Tampa Purple Hearts have been awarded or are being processed. The Coast Guard will continue to search for more Tampa descendants until all of her heroic crewmembers have been recognized.

On May 24, 2019, at Coast Guard Headquarters, Commandant Karl Schultz together with then-Acting DHS Secretary Kevin McAleenan presented Purple Heart Medals to the descendants of 10 Tampa crew members. (U.S. Coast Guard)

Nora L. Chidlow is an archivist and Arlyn S. Danielson is a curator with the United States Coast Guard. 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.