This Compass series chronicles the first 14 heroes the Sentinel-class Fast Response Cutters have been named for. These men and women, who stood the watch before us, lived extraordinary lives as they lit the way for sailors in times past, braved gunfire in times of war and rescued those in peril at sea. As Coast Guard heroes, their stories are a constant reminder of our service’s legacy. As the namesake of the Coast Guard’s newest patrol boats, they will inspire the next generation of Coast Guard heroes.
With contributions from LTJG Ryan White
Seaman Apprentice William Ray “Billy” Flores gave his life to save his shipmates in the frenzied moments after the collision between Coast Guard Cutter Blackthorn and the 605-foot oil tanker Capricorn on January 28, 1980.
Flores, 19, was less than a year out of boot camp and was newly reported to Blackthorn when the 180-foot buoy tender capsized near the entrance to Tampa Bay, Fla.
As the boat became submerged, inexperience gave way to bravery as Flores and another crewmember stayed aboard to throw life jackets to some of his shipmates who had jumped into the water.
Flores remained behind and used his own belt to strap open the lifejacket locker door, which allowed additional lifejackets to float to the surface.
“I was on the bridge and when the ship rolled onto beams end I knew we were past the point of no return and would surely capsize,” said retired Lcdr. John Ryan, a member of Blackthorn’s crew. “I went into the water from the bridge wing and by the time I surfaced the ship had capsized over me. I was injured with a sprained back and injured shoulder. As I struggled, suddenly a life jacket from the locker that was on the main deck came floating up to me.”
Due in no small part to Flores’ fearless actions and sacrifice, 27 of Flores’ shipmates escaped the submerged Blackthorn, but tragically 22 other Coast Guardsmen perished aboard Blackthorn.
A special place in the Coast Guard’s history
Flores was posthumously awarded the Coast Guard Medal, the service’s highest award for heroism not involving combat, on September 16, 2000. Flores’ family accepted the award and selected the date because it is a day of honor for many Hispanics that celebrates Mexico’s fight for independence from Spain.
The Coast Guard’s recognition of Flores’ heroism came after many of his surviving shipmates reviewed the records of the collision and realized that Flores’ actions had not been formally honored. His shipmates poured through transcripts from the surviving crew, administrative records and newspaper clippings to ensure Flores would receive the honor he so profoundly deserved.
“I am convinced that William Flores saved my life by his selfless act that night,” said Ryan. “That quiet young man that I was impressed with from the first time I met him will forever be a hero in my eyes. I have never forgotten him and never will. It is a fitting tribute to his heroism that a cutter will bear his name.”