Written by Petty Officer 1st Class Judy L. Silverstein.
It was toward the end of World War I, on a stormy night, when Coast Guard Cutter Tampa disappeared off the coast of Wales with all crewmembers aboard. Considered the greatest single casualty incurred by any naval unit as a result of enemy action during the war, the legacy of Tampa’s sacrifice is recalled by those who serve.
More than 90 years later, one woman’s quest for filling in gaps within her family’s history led her to the story of Tampa’s sinking and eventually, to the Purple Heart. A medal of considerable prestige, it dates back to the era of Gen. George Washington and is given to members of the U.S. military for their courageous sacrifice.
Joining Allied Forces
Originally commissioned in 1912 as U.S. Revenue Cutter Miami, Tampa was assigned to law enforcement and search and rescue missions in the waters off Florida’s coast. Beginning in 1913, the crew was given rotating assignments to observe and warn ships of iceberg dangers in the newly-formed International Ice Patrol, born in the wake of the Titanic tragedy. In 1916, the ship’s name was officially changed to “Tampa,” due in part to the strong ties the ship developed with the City of Tampa as they patrolled the west coast of Florida.
Tampa’s mission changed drastically when the United States joined the Allied forces and entered into World War I. Attached to the U.S. Navy for the duration of the war, Tampa was retrofitted with heavier armaments.
According to Coast Guard documents, Tampa’s crew departed for Gibraltar, at the southern end of the Iberian Peninsula and the entrance to the Mediterranean. Once there, she joined other cutters – Algonquin, Manning, Ossippee, Seneca and Yamacraw – to form Squadron 2, Division 6, Atlantic Fleet Patrol Forces.
As part of the squadron, Tampa protected allied convoys traveling between Europe and Gibraltar. The crew quickly earned a distinguished reputation in these convoys, serving more than 350 ships and maintaining a pristine record of operational readiness. She was further known for having a hardworking crew that easily embraced the notion of teamwork. On Sept. 5, 1918, the crew and commanding officer were commended by U.S. Navy Rear Adm. Albert Niblack, commander of U.S. Naval Forces on Gibraltar, for their tireless duty and esprit de corps, despite grueling duty.
But on Sept. 26, 1918, during an escort to Milford Haven, Wales, the crew’s luck would change.
Logbooks document dark, stormy skies, and heavy winds. Though the reason remains a mystery, Tampa darted out of and ahead of the convoy. Some speculate the ship may have detected movement indicating the presence of a submarine. Yet we know that at 8:45 p.m., a loud explosion was reported by those aboard other ships in the convoy. When the Tampa did not appear in port, a search was launched by U.S. naval destroyers and British patrol craft. Despite search efforts, very little wreckage was found along with two unidentified bodies wearing naval uniforms.
The loss of Tampa’s crew was considered the greatest single casualty incurred by any naval unit as a result of enemy action during the war. It has also been said that because of its size, the Coast Guard suffered its greatest loss proportionately of any armed service during World War I.
The tragedy was felt throughout the fleet and the ship’s namesake city deeply mourned the Tampa’s loss. The crew’s manifest shows that 28 of the casualties were from the Tampa area.
An honor long overdue
In 1999, eight decades after the incident at sea, Purple Hearts were awarded posthumously to the relatives of Coast Guardsmen who were aboard Tampa on that fateful day. However, many descendants were unaware of familial links to crewmembers until a burgeoning interest in ancestry intersected with increased availability of information via the Internet.
For years, Diane Roberts Vess was one of those. She painstakingly searched for information about her grandmother’s side of her family, armed with a few bits of stories, she followed the scant leads she had.
Several years ago, a message on an Internet board yielded information about her great uncle – Charles Henry Klingelhoefer. Klingelhoefer was a warrant carpenter aboard Tampa and was 42-years-old when he perished at sea. He was also one of seven brothers who served in the armed forces.
Vess was a bit surprised at the historic role her great uncle played in World War I and found the history riveting.
“Even though it is many years later, our family is extremely proud to receive this Purple Heart bestowed posthumously on our grand uncle, Charles Henry Klingelhoefer, by the U.S. Coast Guard,” she said. “It is truly an honor to know that one of our distant relatives is being recognized for having died so tragically while serving this great country of ours.”
The crew of the modern-day Tampa, now the fourth cutter to bear that name, was present for the posthumous presentation of Kligelhoefer’s Purple Heart. On a day filled with remembrance and giving a Coast Guardsman his long overdue recognition, the audience learned of Tampa’s link to a significant time in American history. The cutter’s crew stood proudly, aware of those who have served courageously before them.