The Long Blue Line: 40th anniversary of Blackthorn—lost but not forgotten

After 35 years of service, the buoy tender Blackthorn collided with a 600-foot tanker S.S. Capricorn losing 23 of 50 crew members, Jan. 28, 1980. We pause to remember Blackthorn and our lost shipmates 40 years after its sinking.

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Memorial service for Blackthorn held in 2015 at the Blackthorn Memorial in St. Petersburg, Florida. (U.S. Coast Guard)
Memorial service for Blackthorn held in 2015 at the Blackthorn Memorial in St. Petersburg, Florida. (U.S. Coast Guard)

William Thiesen, Historian, Coast Guard Atlantic Area

One of forty 180-foot buoy tenders built during World War II, Blackthorn (WLB-391) was commissioned on March 27, 1944.

The principal job of a buoy tender is to service aids-to-navigation. However, as with all Coast Guard craft, buoy tenders are often diverted to other missions like the Blackthorn early in its career. During its first few months in service, Blackthornbroke ice on the Great Lakes to keep open wartime shipping lanes. By mid-1944, the buoy tender was assigned to San Pedro, California, transiting the St. Lawrence River, East Coast, Gulf of Mexico and Panama Canal to get there. For the next five years, Blackthornoperated out of San Pedro, servicing aids-to-navigation and carrying out other missions.

In early 1950, Blackthornwas reassigned to Mobile, Alabama, and transited the Panama Canal once again. While assigned to Mobile, Blackthornassisted numerous vessels in distress. In April 1951, the buoy tender searched for survivors of Esso Greensboro, which had collided with tanker Esso Suez. Blackthorn assisted distressed merchantmen Ocean Pridein July 1951, Kerry Mac in October 1951, Mission Carmelin June 1952, and Beatricein April 1954. Blackthorn also assisted Miss Cain Joyin July 1959.

Black and white photo of Buoy Tender Blackthorn. At the time of its sinking the tender was homeported at Galveston, Texas. (U.S. Coast Guard)
Black and white photo of Buoy Tender Blackthorn. At the time of its sinking the tender was homeported at Galveston, Texas. (U.S. Coast Guard)

During its time in Mobile, Blackthorn served in several airplane crash response efforts. In August 1952, ithelped search for survivors of a B-17 bomber crash and, in February 1953, it searched for survivors of National Airlines Flight 470. Between May and June 1953, Blackthornrecovered the wreckage of the National Airlines aircraft. In April 1954, it salvaged a U.S. Air Force aircraft and, in May 1956, Blackthornsearched for two missing naval aircraft. In October 1957, Blackthorn also salvaged sister buoy tender Iris, which had beached after suffering a hole in its hull.

Blackthorn was modernized throughout its 35-year 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. A few years later, in 1976, Blackthornwas reassigned to Galveston, Texas. From late 1979 through early 1980, Blackthornreceived yet another overhaul—this time in Tampa, Florida.

1980 photograph of Blackthorn after raising for inspection and subsequent sinking as a reef. (U.S. Coast Guard)
1980 photograph of Blackthorn after raising for inspection and subsequent sinking as a reef. (U.S. Coast Guard)

In the evening of Monday, January 28, 1980, having just completed its overhaul, Blackthornbegan its trip from Tampa Bay to Galveston. While the buoy tender was outbound in the shipping channel, the 600-foot tanker S.S. Capricornwas steaming into the bay. Having been overtaken by the Russian passenger ship Kazakhstan, Blackthornproceeded in mid-channel. Glare from the brightly-lit passenger vessel prevented the bridge watches of Blackthornand Capricornfrom seeing each other. 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 signaling that the ships pass starboard-to-starboard.

With Blackthorn’s officer-on-deck (OOD) confused about standard operating procedure, the buoy tender’s captain ordered evasive action. However, the order came too late and the ships collided. Initial damage to Blackthorn seemed minimal, but Capricorn’s anchor was ready to drop. The hanging anchor imbedded in the tender’s hull and, as the ships began separating, slack in the anchor chain tightened. The anchor ripped open the tender’s port side filling Blackthorn’s exposed compartments with water. The buoy tender capsized killing 23 of Blackthorn’s 50 crewmembers.

After the accident, Blackthorn was re-floated for an investigation and board of inquiry. The tender was then sunk as an artificial reef in the Gulf of Mexico. Now, 40 years after the buoy tender’s sinking, please pause to remember Blackthorn and its lost crewmembers:

SS1 Subrino Avila

SNGM Randolph B. Barnaby

MK2 Richard D. Boone

SA Warren R. Brewer

QM2 Gary W. Crumly

DC2 Daniel M. Estrada

EM2 Thomas R. Faulkner

SA William R. Flores

SS3 Donald R. Frank

DC3 Lawrence D. Frye

QM3 Richard W. Gauld

SA Charles D. Hall

SA Glen E. Harrison

MK1 Bruce Lafond

FA Michael K. Luke

MK1 Danny R. Maxcy

SA John E. Prosko

ET1 Jerome F. Ressler

CWO Jack J. Roberts

SA George Rovolis, Jr.

ENS Frank J. Sarna

EM3 Edward F. Sindelar

MKC Luther D. Stidhem

7 comments on “The Long Blue Line: 40th anniversary of Blackthorn—lost but not forgotten”

  1. After you read this story please google William Ray Flores name and read his story.
    He is one of the reasons I am so proud of my service in the USCG.

  2. Learned how to properly don a “Mae West” PFD @ boot camp in 1987 because of this tragedy.

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