Written by Nora L. Chidlow
Coast Guard Archivist
The Coast Guard suffered the single largest loss of life during World War I when enemy action resulted in the sinking of the Coast Guard Cutter Tampa off the coast of England. One hundred and thirty men, including 111 Coast Guardsmen, four Navy men and 15 British officers and passengers died on Sept. 26, 1918.
While the Purple Heart was created by George Washington in 1782, it fell into disuse until Gen. Douglas MacArthur had the medal restored as an Army award on Feb. 22, 1932. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9277 on Dec. 3, 1942, extending eligibility to the Navy, Marine Corps and Coast Guard. Finally, on Nov. 12, 1952, President Harry S. Truman signed Executive Order 10409 that allowed the awarding of the Purple Heart to be retroactive for actions after April 5, 1917. Recipients must have been wounded and died as a result of direct enemy action, which made the crew of Tampa eligible to receive Purple Hearts.
However, Tampa was overlooked until 1999, when James Bunch, a retired Coast Guardsman, proposed to Commandant James Loy that the Purple Heart be awarded to the crew. That year, only three Tampa Purple Hearts were awarded. Since then, a total of 36 have been awarded. There are presently an additional 18 Tampa Purple Heart packages currently being processed through the Medals and Awards department, with another 12 awaiting final paperwork for submission. That leaves approximately 49 Tampa Purple Hearts still unclaimed.
In February 2019, the Coast Guard announced that the history department was searching for families of the Tampa crew. With perseverance and the help of many, Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Karl L. Schultz presented the Purple Heart to 10 families of the Tampa crew at a ceremony held at U.S. Coast Guard Headquarters in Washington, D.C., Friday, May 24, 2019.
Tampa was built in 1912, originally named Miami, and assigned hurricane duty in Florida. As a result of the sinking of Titanic, the International Ice Patrol was created in 1914. Ice patrol duty was a Navy duty that was later turned over to the Coast Guard and Miami and Seneca were the Coast Guard’s inaugural cutters selected for ice patrol duty where they completed alternate four-week missions.
Miami also participated in the annual Gasparilla Festival, a pirate celebration in Tampa, Florida. In 1916, Miami was renamed Tampa as a nod to its homeport – Tampa, Florida. Its final participation in the Gasparilla Festival was in 1917. Tampa was one of six Coast Guard cutters chosen for overseas convoy duty when the United States entered World War I in April 1917, and the only one who never made it home. The cutter and its crew sailed 18 convoys without major incident, and was on its 19th convoy when it was struck down. Tampa detached from the convoy to make port to re-coal and was sailing alone with its lights off as a security measure. At 8:45 p.m., the German submarine UB-91 torpedoed the cutter and sank it with all hands in less than three minutes.
A list of the 130 crew can be found here. Names with an asterisk denotes Purple Hearts have already been awarded or are in progress. If you have information on crew whose Purple Hearts remain unclaimed, please contact Nora Chidlow, Coast Guard Archivist.