This blog is part of a series honoring the long blue line of Coast Guard men and women who served before us. Stay tuned as we highlight the customs, traditions, history and heritage of the Coast Guard.
Written by Nora Chidlow and Arlyn Danielson
Coast Guard Historian’s Office
The clouds of war hung thick in the air as Mildred Culver McGourty lay ill with influenza at her parents’ home in New London, Connecticut. It was Oct. 3, 1918, and World War I would end just weeks later. Newspapers carried that wave of hope for the families of loved ones serving overseas. Mildred’s life was just beginning at 25, newly married, with a husband serving in the U.S. Coast Guard in the war zone, and an infant daughter. But everything changed that day, with the arrival of a telegram from Coast Guard headquarters in Washington, D.C.
“Regret to inform you that Coast Guard Cutter Tampa lost at sea with all hands.”
Lt. John Farrell McGourty, Mildred’s husband, was stationed aboard Tampa. She sank into a deep despair as she realized he would never come home. She had hung onto every word of his letters while he was in the service. He had been at sea for all of their marriage, and she was now a war widow with a young child.
McGourty, 36, was a career Coast Guardsman, serving 13 years. Prior to enlistment, he studied law at Yale, but evidently felt a maritime career was far more exciting. His parents were both Irish immigrants who initially settled in Massachusetts and later moved to Connecticut. While at the Coast Guard’s School of Instruction (now Academy) in New London, McGourty was quickly smitten with Mildred from their first meeting in 1915. On a taxi ride to her parents’ home one evening that year, he proposed to her. Her reply:
“Oh, I don’t think so, Mr. McGourty!”
They were married on Dec. 18, 1915, at her parents’ home. The guest book shows many prolific Coast Guard names as ushers, including Frederick Billard, who would later become commandant in 1924. Two years later, upon learning that Mildred was pregnant, McGourty urged her to return to New London until the birth of their daughter, also named Mildred, in May. He did not want her to be alone while he was at sea. McGourty boarded his final assignment, Coast Guard Cutter Miami, in the fall of 1915, not knowing he would be sent to the war zone or that he would become an eternal part of the ocean three years later.
Tampa, built in 1912 as the Miami, was part of a small but nimble fleet of revenue cutters patrolling American coastal waters. After the sinking of Titanic on April 14, 1912, Miami’s Florida cruising missions or maritime law enforcement, search and rescue, aid to mariners, and derelict removal, expanded to include ice patrol duty in the North Atlantic through the year 1916. Due to its close and affectionate association with the city of Tampa, Florida, the name was changed to Tampa on Feb. 1, 1916.
With the entry of the United States into World War I on April 6, 1917, the Coast Guard was officially transferred to the U.S. Navy for the duration of the war. World War I was a time of trial and error for the newly formed Coast Guard, which was established in January 1915, when the Revenue Cutter Service and the U.S. Life Saving Service merged. Tampa was one of six long distance cruising cutters selected for overseas convoy duty in the war zone of the North Atlantic. These cutters were part of Squadron 2, Division 6 of the Atlantic Fleet Patrol Forces. Tampa was the last of the Coast Guard cutters to arrive in Gibraltar late in the evening of Oct. 26. The following day, the cutter reported for duty and was assigned Ocean Escort for its first convoy to England. The crew sailed 18 convoys without major incident and only minor repairs. Tampa escorted 402 merchant steamers safely between Allied ports during the conflict. But never made it home after its 19th convoy.
On Sept. 6, 1918, Tampa and its crew were given a special commendation by Rear Adm. Albert Niblack, the commander of Squadron 2, Division 6 of the Atlantic Fleet Patrol Forces, praising the ship’s exceptional war service, high morale, and crew capabilities.
Tampa set off on its final convoy on Sept. 18. At noon on Sept. 26, running low on coal, the crew requested permission to detach from the convoy. That request was denied due to the danger of sailing alone in broad daylight in submarine infested waters. A second request was made at 4 p.m., which was granted, and at 4:15 pm, Tampa proceeded full steam alone towards Milford Haven, Wales, lights turned off as a security measure.
Tampa, sailing alone at dusk, with its silhouette visible against the night sky, was sighted by a German submarine, the UB-91. At 8:15 p.m., UB-91 launched a torpedo, blasting a hole in Tampa’s hull amidships. This was followed by a second explosion, caused either by ignited coal dust or depth charges being detonated as water filled the ship. Tampa sank with all hands – 118 Coast Guardsmen, 4 Navy officers, and 16 British passengers – in less than three minutes. There were no witnesses and the submarine resurfaced at 8:25 p.m. to look for bodies and debris, but found nothing.
When Tampa did not arrive in port at its expected time, a plane and two Royal Navy PC boats were sent in search of the ship the following day. A large debris field was spotted, and, eventually, three U.S. Navy ships confirmed the wreckage.
McGourty was one of Tampa’s senior officers and one of the censors. He wrote often to Mildred, asking her to keep sending snapshots of their daughter, and describing his off-duty activities and efforts to make the best of a very difficult wartime situation. He mentions his annoyance of having to read an endless stream of sentimental love letters written by the crew to their stateside sweethearts. The crew could not give their exact location in their letters, but often sent postcards as an alternate. McGourty’s last five letters to Mildred arrived after she learned of his death, and she kept all of his letters for the rest of her life. Newspapers carried the story of Tampa’s loss on Oct. 4, just hours after Mildred received that fateful telegram. She remarried after the war, but the sailor she had danced with in New London was forever close to her heart.
In November 1999, Mildred McGourty Blair, now 82, accepted her father’s Purple Heart at a ceremony at Coast Guard Headquarters. Her son, Chris Blair, was at her side as she received the prestigious award and remembers her insistence at accepting it, despite the fact she never liked crowds. At the time, she was just one of three recipients. Blair had been just four when she unveiled a tablet on the second Tampa in memory of her father and his crewmates. Although she never knew him, she undoubtedly grew up with her mother’s memories and stories of him. Today, as the 100th anniversary of Tampa’s loss nears in 2018, more than 20 Purple Hearts have been awarded to descendants of its crew, with still more stepping forward.
Chris Blair is the keeper of his grandfather’s legacy. At his home in Nyack, New York, overlooking the Hudson River, he has studied his grandfather’s heavy, slanted handwriting, meticulously interpreting each letter written to his grandmother. They are full of love and concern for her, their family, and convey his fervent hope to be home amidst the fog of war. John Farrell McGourty would likely have waved all of this aside, duly noting that he was just doing his job as an officer of the United States Coast Guard in wartime, but would have felt extremely proud to serve his country.