U.S. Revenue Cutter Miami, before it was renamed the Tampa.
In the summer of 1917, the Tampa was one of six United States Coast Guard cutters sent overseas on convoy duty. Only the Tampa did not return. The German submarine UB-91 torpedoed and sank the Tampa off the coast of England on September 26, 1918. It was the single, deadliest day for Florida’s men and women in uniform. Combined with other casualties both at home and abroad, more Floridians died on that day than on any other during the Great War.
The Tampa was originally known as Miami, and before that as simply Cutter # 22, which was built at Newport News, Virginia and launched February 10, 1912. The government paid $250,000 for this vessel, which dispersed 1,181 tons, was 190 feet long and had a 32’ 6” beam. At the time there was no United States Coast Guard (formed in 1915), and Miami would be used by the Treasury Department’s Revenue Cutter Service. Miami’s first duty station was Key West, Florida, arriving in November 1912. By the following year, Tampa had become her homeport while on hurricane duty. After strong bonds developed between the ship and its host community, Miami officially became Tampa on February 1, 1916.
Crew of the Tampa marching in Tampa in 1917. Tampa Tribune 9/24/1937 p. 3.
In the months leading up to and weeks after the United States entered World War I on April 6, 1917, recruits from both Tampa and Key West signed aboard the USCG cutter. Enlistment was for up to three years or the duration of the war for any man between the ages of 18 and 35 in good physical condition. Especially desirable were those with experience as machinists, coxswains, coal heavers and, of course, seaman. Some men volunteered for Coast Guard duty to avoid being drafted into the Army or Navy, while others were drafted and assigned to the Tampa. The crew came from seventeen different states and four different countries— Greece, Sweden, Norway and Denmark. But the largest contingent were men from Florida; 39 of them, more than one-third.
In July 1917 the Tampa was assigned convoy duty in the war zone of the North Atlantic, as part of Squadron 2, Division 6 of the Atlantic Fleet Patrol Forces. After being fitted with newer, heavier guns and a depth-charge thrower, and taking on supplies in Boston and Brooklyn, she set sail for European waters on September 29, 1917. The Tampa finally arrived at her duty station at the port of Gibraltar on October 26, 1917. Her mission: to escort merchant steamers which were approaching from Great Britain or leaving Gibraltar and to protect these convoys from submarine attacks.
USCGC Tampa at the Gibraltar Naval Base No. 9.
Since her arrival on station, Tampa steamed on average 3,566 miles each month and took part in 18 convoys, comprising a total of 350 vessels, through the submarine-infested waters between the United Kingdom and Gibraltar, losing only two ships, both sunk by U-boats. Rear Admiral Albert Parker Niblack, commander of the U.S. Naval Force on Gibraltar, commended Tampa Captain Charles Satterlee in a letter on September 15, 1918: “This excellent record,” wrote Niblack, “is an evidence of a high state of efficiency and excellent ship’s spirit and an organization capable of keeping the vessel in service with a minimum of shore assistance. The squadron commander takes great pleasure in congratulating the commanding officer, officers and crew on the record they have made.”
Less than a week after receiving this special commendation, Tampa left port on its 19th mission as part of a 32-ship convoy. Nine days out of its home port in Gibraltar, she detached from the group to refuel in Milford Haven, Wales. Sailing alone over the Irish sea, a German submarine spotted the lone ship steaming toward England’s Bristol Channel. At 8:45 p.m., on September 26, 1918, she was struck by a single torpedo launched by UB-91 which blasted a hole amidship. A second explosion—perhaps its depth charges— followed. She sank in less than three minutes with all hands. One hundred and eleven Coast Guardsmen, four Navy men, a captain and ten seamen of the Royal British Navy, and five civil employees — a total of 131 persons — all lost their lives. When American and British destroyers and seaplanes went to search for it the next day, there were few signs the ship had ever existed. Only a field of debris spread across eight square miles, and later, a boat nameplate, a few life preservers marked “Tampa,” and two unidentifiable bodies in uniform. The sinking was the greatest single casualty incurred by any Naval unit as a result of known enemy action.
Families of the crew were not notified by telegram of Tampa’s demise until October 3, and newspapers hurriedly reported the news the same day. The loss hit hard back home, especially in the Tampa area, where two dozen of the Coast Guard crew were from. Among the 39 Floridians aboard, there were three sets of brothers and two first cousins. They were sons, husbands, fathers, brothers, uncles, friends mostly in their 20s; a few were still teenagers. They were either residents of Florida at the time of their enlistment in the Coast Guard, and/or they were Florida natives. And they would all be sorely missed, and not forgotten.
Only five of the Tampa’s victims are listed on the Scrolls: Robert Leake Agee, William Foster Newell, Wesley James Nobles, William Henry Reynolds, and Paul Otha Webb. Twenty-four additional names from the Tampa were commemorated on the West Coast Memorial Highway Monuments, which were dedicated by the Tampa Rotary Club in 1921. Four names of Tampa’s crew —Harold George Myers, Newell, Nobles and Webb—were inscribed on the World War Heroes Memorial at Williams Park in St. Petersburg, Florida, erected in 1938. Eight new names —William Leonard Felton, Bert Hunter Lane, Felix George Poppell, Perry Roberts, John Smith, John Edgar Talley, Charles Henry Thompson, and William Weech—were included by the Florida Department of Military Affairs in its list “Florida’s Fatal Casualties” completed in the 1980s. None of these lists included Herrick Leopold Evans, Jr., whose engraved name does appear with 562 others on the Tablets of the Missing at Brookwood American Cemetery in the Chapel that was dedicated in England in 1937.
This story which appeared in the Pensacola News of October 4, 1918, reflects the confusion over the number of Floridians aboard the Tampa. Was it 30, 32 or 33?
This headline from the Tampa Tribune of October 4, 1918, got the total number of Florida men right, though all 39 were not identified.
Here is a complete list and information about all 39 Floridians: