By: Petty Officer 2nd Class Jonathan Lally, United States Coast Guard
The dark, cloudy, moonless night held an ominous vibe as multiple vessels in a convoy steamed toward Wales through the choppy, rolling waves in the Bristol Channel on Sept. 26, 1918.
The crew of one vessel in particular settled in for the evening listening to the soft purr of the vessel’s engines reverberating throughout the ship, while the sounds of rolling waves from the sea lashed at the ship’s hull steaming through the channel. The watchstanders on the bridge were on the lookout for any signs of the enemy hiding in the murky waters.
The 190-foot Coast Guard Cutter Tampa’s crew and mission were to escort and protect the convoys they were assigned to in the Gibraltar area during World War I. On this particular night in September, the cutter Tampa crew potentially detected some sign of an enemy submarine and darted out ahead of the convoy to investigate.
At 8:45 p.m., the crews aboard the other vessels in the convoy heard a loud explosion. Later that evening when the convoy arrived in port it was discovered the cutter Tampa was missing and a joint search between the United States and British services was conducted. Unfortunately, all the search and rescue teams discovered were a few pieces of wreckage and two unidentifiable bodies in naval uniforms.
More than 130 Coast Guardsmen, U.S and Royal British Navy sailors, and civil employees had lost their lives in one of the greatest single casualties incurred by any Naval unit by known enemy actions. The lost was felt more closely by the surviving Coast Guardsmen, in proportion to the service’s size, of any armed service in the war.
Letters written by Commodore Ellsworth P. Bertholf, commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard during World War I were sent out to the families of the servicemembers who had lost their lives in this devastating loss of Coast Guardsmen. One of those families who received a letter from Bertholf were the Saldarini family, who also received Petty Officer 2nd Class Alexander Louis Saldarini’s, acting quartermaster aboard the cutter Tampa, dog tags.
Fast-forward 100-years into the future, and the sinking of the cutter Tampa is still remembered by Coast Guardsmen and women in the present.
“One hundred one years ago today [Sept. 26, 2019] 130 Sailors and Coast Guardsmen onboard cutter Tampa paid the ultimate price to safeguard liberty during World War I. Then, as today, the Coast Guard was a vital component of the national defense. Our service has a long legacy of men and women who have served above and beyond the call of duty to their nation,” said Capt. JoAnn Burdian, commander Coast Guard Sector Miami. “From cutters to lighthouses to life-saving stations our members have selflessly laid their lives aside to ensure others may live, that is the legacy of our service. Today we honor our fallen shipmates.”
A somber looking gentleman sat in the place of honor in front of an audience of Coast Guard service members, who were there to honor his granduncle, their fallen shipmate Alexander Louis Saldarini, acting quartermaster of the cutter Tampa during World War I.
John Kendall, grandnephew of Saldarini, sat looking at the audience in awe and shock. He couldn’t believe how much these service members were going out of their way to honor his granduncle.
“This is more than a celebration of life and service, but a recognition of a family’s legacy of service to this nation,” said Kendall. “Since the 1600s my ancestors have been in America and there has always been a male member of my family who has served in this country’s military branches.”
Kendall was the guest of honor during a ceremony where Burdian, presented the Purple Heart Medal posthumously awarded to Saldarini, which Kendall received on his granduncle’s behalf during a ceremony held at Coast Guard Station Lake Worth Inlet.
Commanding officers from Miami-based Coast Guard cutters attended the ceremony and also presented Kendall with their unit coins as a means to help honor their fellow cutterman.
The shock and awe on Kendall’s face at the honor rendered to him on behalf of his granduncle was mixed with humility.
Few in the audience knew that Kendall himself is a retired serviceman who served during the Vietnam War.
“I was drafted into the military near the end of the war and after my initial military training I was able to get a couple days of leave to go home,” said Kendall, recalling his experience. “I was traveling in my uniform and when I was at the airport I was spit on, cursed at and called ‘baby killer.’ Now as a 19-year-old kid I didn’t understand how serving my country was a bad thing.”
Kendall said it was something that affected him and later when he finished his time in service he never mentioned his time in service until more recently.
“The honor I’m receiving on behalf of my granduncle just blows my mind as I recall the dishonor I received when I served,” said Kendall, still in awe of how the Coast Guard members rendered honor to him and his family.
The Purple Heart Medal is awarded to members of the armed forces of the U.S. who are wounded by an instrument of war in the hands of the enemy and posthumously to the next of kin in the name of those who are killed in action or die of wounds received in action. It is specifically a combat decoration.
The Purple Heart is described as the military’s oldest medal.
Gen. George Washington created it in 1782 to recognize meritorious service—bravery in combat—but it soon fell into disuse. In 1932, to mark the bicentennial of Washington’s birth, Gen. Douglas MacArthur spearheaded an effort to revive the medal. It was designed to commemorate bravery, but also recognized soldiers with wounds.
For more information on the story of the Coast Guard Cutter Tampa’s tragic sinking and learn about the USS Tampa Purple Heart Project visit here.