Written by William Thiesen
Coast Guard Atlantic Area Historian
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.
Lt. Cmdr. John Ryan (U.S. Coast Guard retired)
In the quote above, Lt. Cmdr. John Ryan recounted a young man who had joined the crew of the buoy tender Blackthorn (WLB-391). The 19-year-old seaman apprentice had graduated from Coast Guard Training Center Cape May in 1979 and was less than a year out of boot camp when he came aboard. Born and raised in Carlsbad, New Mexico, his parents gave the young man permission to leave high school early to enlist in the U.S. Coast Guard. His name was William Ray Flores.
One of 40 180-foot buoy tenders built during World War II, Blackthorn was commissioned in 1944. Like the rest of the service’s aging fleet, Blackthorn underwent numerous overhauls during its career. In 1968, it received improvements in its heating and ventilation systems, and a new generator. In 1972, the buoy tender underwent another overhaul renovating the berthing, heads, and dispensary and adding a new lounge and pollution abatement system. From late 1979 through early 1980, Blackthorn received yet another overhaul—this time in Tampa, Florida.
On the night of Jan. 28, 1980, having just completed its overhaul, Blackthorn began the journey back to its homeport of Galveston, Texas. While the buoy tender was nearing the mouth of the bay in the shipping channel, the 600-foot tanker S.S. Capricorn was steaming into the bay. Having been overtaken by the Russian passenger ship Kazakhstan, Blackthorn proceeded in mid-channel. Glare from the brightly-lit passenger vessel prevented the bridge watches of Blackthorn and Capricorn from seeing each other at first. After regaining its bearings, Capricorn began to turn left, but this prevented the two ships from passing port-side to port-side. Unable to make radio contact with Blackthorn, Capricorn’s pilot blew two whistle blasts to signal that the ships pass starboard-to-starboard.
With Blackthorn’s officer-on-deck confused about standard operating procedure, Ryan, the commanding officer, ordered evasive action. However, the order came too late and the ships collided. The damage to Blackthorn seemed minimal at first, but Capricorn’s anchor had imbedded in the tender’s hull and, as the ships began to separate, the slack in the anchor chain tightened. When the chain became taught, the anchor ripped open the tender’s port side filling Blackthorn’s exposed compartments with water. The buoy tender soon began a roll onto its port side.
In the darkness, as Blackthorn began to capsize, Flores and a shipmate located the life jacket locker. They threw life jackets to crew members already in the water and Flores used his trouser belt to hold open the locker door allowing more to float to the surface. After most of the survivors had abandoned ship, Flores stayed with the sinking tender determined to save more shipmates trapped in the sinking hull. In his selfless effort to save more lives, Flores sacrificed his own life. As if given the gift of life by Flores, Ryan later recounted, “As I struggled, suddenly a life jacket from the locker that was on the main deck came floating up to me.”
Even though the sinking resulted in the death of Flores and 22 of his shipmates, many more would have died if not for his heroic efforts. After the accident, the lost buoy tender was re-floated for a subsequent investigation and board of inquiry. The tender was then sunk as an artificial reef in the Gulf of Mexico. A monument was later erected in memory of the Blackthorn in St. Petersburg, Florida, where annual commemorations are observed on the date of the tender’s loss.
In the years after the sinking, surviving crew members who had witnessed Flores’s bravery, lobbied the service to recognize and honor their fallen shipmate. Flores’s shipmates gathered records and eyewitness accounts to ensure that he was duly recognized for his self-sacrifice and devotion to duty. In September 2000, the family of William Flores accepted from the service the posthumous award of the Coast Guard Medal, the service’s highest award for heroism not involving combat action. Twelve years later, he was honored again with the commissioning of his namesake cutter, Fast Response Cutter William Flores (WPC-1103), based out of Miami.