Sunk by torpedo a century ago, USS Tampa left a legacy of protection

Published September 20
Updated September 22

As dusk was settling in over the Irish sea, a German submarine spotted a lone ship steaming toward England’s Bristol Channel.

The U-boat dived to attack. About half an hour later, it fired a single torpedo.

In his battle notes, the commander, Kapitšnleutnant Wolf Hans Hertwig, described an explosion, a black cloud of smoke, and a second explosion — maybe the depth charges aboard the ship.

"Then," Hertwig wrote, "not to be seen anymore."

Within 15 minutes, he had the submarine surface to search for survivors, bodies or wreckage.

"Nothing found," he wrote.

The USS Tampa sank so quickly on Sept. 26, 1918, that none of the 131 people aboard had time to signal for help. When boats and a plane went to search for it, there were few signs the ship had ever existed — only a field of debris spread across eight square miles, and later, a boat nameplate and four unidentifiable bodies.

But a century later, the sinking of the 190-foot Coast Guard cutter Tampa is a story that continues to inspire those who serve at sea. It is told through a collection of the crew’s photos, letters and postcards — and through the work of Coast Guard and naval historians, a couple of inquisitive Tampa natives, the Tampa Bay History Center and a local American Legion post named for the ship.

The sinking represented the largest loss of life for the U.S. Coast Guard during the four years and four months of World War I, according to naval historian Michael Lowrey, who is writing a book about U-Boats.

The Tampa, skippered by Capt. Charles Satterlee, had been transferred from the Coast Guard to the Navy after the United States entered the war — switching missions from protecting people against icebergs to protecting wartime convoys.

References to the ship are interwoven into Coast Guard life today — in Semper Paratus, the service’s anthem, in the name of an active duty cutter, and on a building named for the Tampa’s captain at the Coast Guard Academy.

Efforts still are underway to locate the wreckage.

On Sunday afternoon, American Legion Post 5 will mark the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Tampa with a ceremony at its hall on West Kennedy Boulevard. A memorial window there dating to 1925 is inscribed with the names of the ship’s crew, two dozen of them from the Tampa area.

On Sept. 26, a ceremony also is scheduled at Coast Guard headquarters in Washington.

"The USS Tampa was very-well thought of; she did nothing but protect people," said Nancy Turner, a former journalist who has helped preserve the ship’s legacy. "And she is named for us. It is a wonderful heritage, like being proud of a grandparent."

•••

Built at a cost of about $250,000, the ship that became the Tampa was christened the Miami and delivered in May 1912 to the Revenue Cutter Service, a forerunner of the Coast Guard. The British passenger liner Titanic had gone down about a month earlier in the North Sea and the cutter’s first patrols involved searching for icebergs.

A star attraction at early Gasparilla celebrations, the ship was renamed USS Tampa just days before its appearance at the 1916 pirate festival "because she enjoyed a close and affectionate relationship with the city of Tampa," said Coast Guard archivist Nora Chidlow.

A year later, as tensions rose over submarine activity, the United States declared war on Germany. Control of the Coast Guard — including the Tampa — was transferred from the Treasury Department to the Navy.

Fitted with newer, heavier guns and a depth-charge thrower, the Tampa was assigned the dangerous mission of escorting supply convoys. In its year of wartime service, the Tampa would accompany a total of 350 ships in 18 convoys, losing only two ships along the way, both sunk by U-boats.

On the evening of Sept. 26, the Tampa was sailing as part of a 32-ship convoy nine days out of its home port in Gibraltar, at the mouth of the Mediterranean Sea.

The Tampa slipped away from its convoy to refuel and was spotted by the U-boat, designated UB-91. Just after 8 p.m., the torpedo with its magnetic detonator sent the Tampa to the bottom of the sea.

Some days later, Adm. William S. Sims, a senior U.S. naval officer on duty in Great Britain, received a letter from the British Admiralty praising the Tampa and its crew.

"Appreciation of the good work done by the USS TAMPA may be some consolation to those left behind and Their Lordships would be glad if this could be conveyed to those concerned."

• • •

In letters home before their final voyage, the men of the Tampa provided insight into life at sea during the naval campaign to break Germany’s blockade against Great Britain.

Algy Bevins, a water tender, groused that his family wasn’t writing to him and that he wasn’t looking forward to returning home to Davenport, outside Lakeland, to deal with their financial troubles. His brother, Arthur, was also serving on the Tampa.

Benjamin Daniels, a machinist first class, longed to get home to Baltimore to see his wife and young son Ed.

Two crew members managed to get aboard even though they had just passed adolescence.

Vincenzo Guerriera of Tampa enlisted at 16, just days after war was declared in April 1917, according to Chidlow, the archivist. Before the war, Guerriera would visit the Tampa and strike up a conversation with the crew, dreaming of one day going to sea. He joined under an assumed name, Jimmy Ross, because he was afraid his father would object.

Guerriera wasn’t the youngest crew member, though.

That distinction fell to 15-year-old Irving Slicklen of New York City, son of a lawyer. Tall for his age, Slicklen decided to enlist one day after school in March 1918. His grandmother was so appalled she ran to the recruiting office in her bedroom slippers, followed by his father, but they couldn’t get him released. His parents finally gave their reluctant blessing.

Wamboldt Sumner, the ship’s acting writer, hailed from Tampa. He loved to play baseball and always had a smile. He joined the Coast Guard out of guilt after his younger brother Homer enlisted. Homer also served on the Tampa.

On Sept. 6, 1918, Wamboldt Sumner wrote to his family that the brothers were doing well. He told them he had presented his fiancee a five-diamond ring and planned to marry her when he returned.

The ring is in the possession of Sumner’s niece, Edith Hill of Jacksonville, passed down by her mother. The family never learned any more about the betrothed, only the name Jesse.

"All we know is her first name," Hill said. Her identity, Hill said, and "how she decided she wanted my mother to have the ring, we will never know."

One line in that letter home from Sumner would prove eerily prophetic.

"We see lots of sailors and soldiers from the states, and we have to tell them all about the subs, whether we have seen them or not."

• • •

Nearly a century after the sinking, retired teacher Robin Gonzales and Turner, who had worked as a reporter with the afternoon Tampa Times, made it their passion to preserve the legacy of the cutter.

"We’re just a couple of inquisitive Tampa natives," Gonzalez said.

"Nobody knew about the USS Tampa, the history was totally lost," said Turner.

In early 2014, the two women began researching the ship independent of one another then combined forces a year later. They gathered photos from sales on EBay, and letters and pictures from relatives of the crew, creating a booklet for the Tampa Bay History Center titled USCGC Tampa: Tampa’s Own.

The center boasts a number of USS Tampa-related items in its collection, including a 242-square-foot fused-glass mosaic mural installed on an exterior wall and dedicated in February.

Gonzalez and Turner also helped develop an 11th grade American history curriculum used in all 27 Hillsborough County public high schools, Turner said.

"So many young men, 24 from the area, lost their lives in the blink of an eye," said Rodney Kite-Powell, curator at the History Center. "That was just devastating."

Research also continues on the location of the Tampa.

The ship was lost in a seabed covered with hundreds of wrecks from two world wars, said James Delgado, senior vice president in Orlando with the recovery and archeology company Search Inc.

Two close friends in Europe with the means and experience to do the work have examined several wreck sites, Delgado said. "Most have been ravaged by their initial sinking, time, and heavy trawling."

But thanks to their efforts, and with help from archivist Chidlow, video footage taken of broken metal and machinery in murky water is undergoing examination "to see what might be Tampa," Delgado said.

The work is motivated by the need to honor the lost crews and their families, he said.

"We’d like to see evidence of a warship but as yet, we have not. This is going to take some time and much patience."

Contact Howard Altman at [email protected] or (813) 225-3112. Follow @haltman

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