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Bell from Coast Guard cutter 'Blackthorn' returns to Largo

Retired Master Chief Petty Officer John Chassereau Jr. used to worry about dwindling numbers of people who remember the sinking of the Coast Guard cutter Blackthorn.

He doesn't have to be concerned anymore.

Coast Guard officials moved the Blackthorn's bell last month from Hillsborough County to the Armed Forces Military Museum in Largo.

Officials hope that with the bell in the museum, where it hangs in a glass display case, more people will learn about the disaster.

"Before, the bell was in Virginia, not on display," said Chassereau, 62. "Then it ended up at Veterans Park in Tampa. We wanted it on this side of the bay."

On Jan. 28, 1980, the Blackthorn and the tanker Capricorn collided in Pinellas waters near the Sunshine Skyway, killing nearly two dozen Coast Guard crew members.

Chassereau's father, John Sr., a retired chief petty officer with the Coast Guard, spearheaded the effort to hold an annual service at the Skyway's Blackthorn memorial. John Jr. has been arranging the service since his dad's death several years ago.

One of the men who helped bring the bell to the museum is retired Chief Warrant Officer William Held.

"When I first visited the museum, there were only a couple of items from the Coast Guard," Held said. "So I told the people in the office I'd like to see more."

Held was the on-scene commander for the first 12 hours of the Blackthorn rescue operation and says the bell is not just an artifact. It holds real meaning.

"The bell is important to the ship," he said. "It's a significant thing, a real memento. I think it's great that it's back home (in Pinellas).

"I think it's important to remember the ship and crew and even the people involved in the rescue and to pray for the souls of the shipmates."

Held has even let the museum use his handwritten notes from those hours after the collision. He said he was surprised he still had the notes after 30 years.

"Our visitors will be able to honor the U.S. Coast Guard and see a piece of military history as well as local Pinellas County and Florida history," said Nadine Piazza, director of operations at the museum.

Piazza said this tragedy should resonate with locals.

"Many residents were living in Florida and should remember this collision as it was six months before the tragic falling of the Skyway bridge," she said.

For now, the bell sits behind glass in the "memorial area" of the museum, next to the wall of heroes. But the case will be empty one day each year.

On Jan. 28, the bell will be taken to the Skyway memorial site for the annual Blackthorn service, Piazza said. There, it will be rung 23 times, once for each of the 23 Coast Guard members who died in the tragedy.

Chassereau hopes the bell's new location will spur more interest in the memorial.

"When people drive over the Skyway," he said, "maybe this will encourage them to pull over and take a look at the memorial, see the anchor and the flagpole out there."


Discounted admission Monday

On Memorial Day, the Armed Forces Military Museum is offering a special admission price of $5. Visitors also can see the world's largest traveling American flag, measuring 10 by 45 feet.

Where: 2050 34th Way N.

Hours: 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Monday.

For more information: Visit www.armedforces

Bell from Coast Guard cutter 'Blackthorn' returns to Largo 05/29/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, June 1, 2010 1:53pm]
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