Yesterday marked 34 years since the sinking of Coast Guard Cutter Blackthorn. Of Blackthorn’s 50 crewmembers, 23 lost their lives during the Coast Guard’s worst peacetime disaster. Chief Petty Officer Judy L. Silverstein was at the ceremony honoring the ship’s crew. Below are her thoughts immediately following the ceremony.
Written by Chief Petty Officer Judy L. Silverstein.
My work as a Coast Guard reservist has offered a front row seat to history and the chance to be part of meaningful customs and traditions. The annual ceremony commemorating the Coast Guard Cutter Blackthorn, the worst peacetime loss of life for our service, has always been a beautiful and solemn occasion, and this year was no exception.
Commissioned in 1944, Blackthorn began her service as a seagoing buoy tender, served as a Great Lakes ice breaker, and soon afterwards patrolled the warmer waters off California, eventually serving Gulf ports in Galveston, Texas, and Mobile, Ala.
Refurbishment brought the ship to Tampa Bay for her final, fateful voyage. Today, Blackthorn lives on – as one of the area’s artificial reefs. She also endures through a fitness center recently dedicated to Ensign Frank J. Sarna III and a vessel named for an apprentice seaman credited posthumously for saving the lives of many of his fellow crew on that tragic night, 34 years ago. The tradition of naming buildings and vessels is characteristic of the Coast Guard’s long-standing history of demonstrating respect and remembrance for our fallen.
In addition to learning from our past, those were themes Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Bob Papp highlighted in his role as keynote speaker at this year’s ceremony. As one of only 46 still serving who was on active duty in 1980, his perspective is somewhat unique.
“While the loss of the Blackthorn was a seminal event in my young career, most Coast Guardsmen don’t have a personal memory of the tragedy,” he said. “Memorials such as this help us to ensure that we not only honor their final sacrifice, but that we also continue to learn from it so those lessons will live on in our Service, just like the memory of our Shipmates.”
Living in Tampa Bay makes it difficult to avoid thinking about her crewmembers. Speaking with the families of Blackthorn victims only serves to make the annual ceremony all the more poignant and personal.
Patricia Sarna, mother of Ensign Sarna, talked about how close the crew was after spending nearly six months together in Tampa Bay, while the ship was retrofitted. Clutching a rose tied with ribbon emblazoned with her son’s name, she stood amidst a group of family members who survive their loved ones some three decades after the Blackthorn collision.
“Our hearts and our prayers are linked,” she said.
The significance of the tragedy is highlighted by the stories that keep emerging. Chuck Anzibel, a newly-minted 3rd class public affairs specialist in 1980, was working the radio at Air Station Clearwater when the mayday call came in.
“You train for it,” he said, “but you never really think something that awful will happen. I still think about it all the time.”
Yet in spite of the tough memories, Anzibel gives high praise to the annual ceremony, which had nearly 450 attendees this year.
“It gets bigger every year, which is great,” he said, noting its importance. “It keeps the public reminded that accidents can happen right here in Tampa Bay, and that the job of the Coast Guard is more dangerous than people think.”
Held in Blackthorn Memorial Park at the base of the Sunshine Skyway Bridge overlooking Tampa Bay, the ceremony includes an aerial salute by Air Station Clearwater crews, reading of the names of Blackthorn victims and the tolling of the ship’s bell. There are also commemorative wreath presentations and choir music. The carefully-crafted ceremony honoring the crew includes a military gun salute and bagpipes.
Steeped in tradition and respectful remembrance, the annual Blackthorn commemoration is a moving tribute offering glimpses into the finest Coast Guard traditions and our history. But its well-honed components also give a measure of comfort.