Today we bring you a guest post by R. Boyd Murphree, Project Manager, Florida Family and Community History, Digital Services and Shared Collections, University of Florida, George A. Smathers Libraries. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org and is also on Twitter @boyd_murphree.
As the end of the centennial of World War I approaches (November 11, 2018), it is important to recognize that while the major loss of human life was on land in such terrible battles as Verdun, the Somme, Passchendaele, and the Argonne, tens of thousands of men and women died as a result of the war at sea. Americans who know about this aspect of the war might point to the German sinking of the British passenger liner Lusitania—the sister ship of the Titanic—on May 7, 1915, as the most famous naval incident of the war: 1,198 out of 1,900 people onboard died, including 128 Americans; the sinking dramatically increased anti-German sentiment in the United States and contributed to the eventual American decision to declare war against Germany on April 6, 1917. While the sinking of the Lusitania resulted in a terrible loss of civilian life, the worst American military loss at sea occurred in the final months of the war on September 26, 1918, when a German U-boat sank the USS Tampa off the coast of Britain. The sinking killed everyone on board the Tampa: 131 men died, 34 of them Floridians.
The story of the Tampa began in 1912 when the ship, originally christened as the US Revenue Cutter Miami, was launched at Newport News, Virginia on February 10 that year. Weighing 1,181 tons and 190 feet in length, the steam and sail vessel was armed with three 6-pound guns. After initial trial voyages off Virginia and Maryland, the Miami was stationed for coastal duty in Key West. The vessel also took part in iceberg patrols in the North Atlantic following the sinking of the Titanic on April 14, 1912. In January 1915, the US Revenue Cutter Service merged with the US Life Saving Service to form the US Coast Guard. As a result, the Miami became one of the first ships in the modern Coast Guard. On February 1, 1916, while serving in Tampa Bay during the Gasparilla festival, the Miami was renamed the Tampa and continued to serve off of Florida and the North Atlantic.
Following America’s entry into the war in April 1917, the Coast Guard transferred its cutters to the command of the US Navy. The USS Tampa retained the same officers and crew, but the ship was outfitted with new weapons and features to combat German U-boats, which were sinking large numbers of American and Allied ships off the coasts of Europe and North America. On September 29, 1917, the Tampa left New York for Europe. The ship took up its new station at Gibraltar and spent the next year escorting convoys of merchant ships through U-boat infested waters from Gibraltar to Britain. During this time, the Tampa spent 50 percent of its service at sea. The Navy commended the Tampa for its “excellent record” of service.
Among the young crew of the Tampa was Seaman Algy Knox Bevins of Davenport, Florida. Algy joined the Coast Guard in 1916 and first served aboard the USCG dredge Barnard stationed at Key West and Jacksonville. Soon after the United States declared war on Germany, Algy entered the Navy and was transferred to the Tampa. Serving onboard with his brother, Arthur, Algy wrote to his parents a week after joining the Tampa, describing his duties and assuring them of his safety:
Both Arthur and myself are in the cutter service. We have enlisted for one year and have been aboard one week today. It is way ahead of the Barnard for we are getting a little more money than the dredge was paying and at the same time traveling a little and serving Uncle Sam. I am [firing] and Art is passing coal. There is a good chance for advancement which the Barnard did not offer. . . . The cutter is not like the regular navy yet we are under the navy now. Our duties is life [saving] and coast guarding. Something which there is very little danger [encompassed] with the regular service. [Don’t] worry about us for we both like it and there is nothing to worry about.
Almost a year later, writing from Europe, the brothers continued to reassure their parents of their safety:
Both well etc. and going about our duties without any fears and it strikes me that if we can see nothing to be afraid of why you all should [have no] great cause to worry. The danger is no more here than in any other industry back home so just put those petty fears aside and look on the bright side always.
The brothers were right. Serving aboard an escort ship was relatively safe. The real danger of U-boat attack came to unescorted ships sailing unattached to a convoy. Unfortunately, although the odds of a U-boat launching a successful attack on the Tampa were slight, the risk of an attack was always present. For the Bevins brothers and rest of the crew of the Tampa that risk became real on September 26, 1918, when U-boat UB-91 found the ship in its sights on a foggy night as the Tampa made its way into the Bristol Channel off England. The submarine fired one torpedo that hit the Tampa’s stern. Other ships in the convoy that the Tampa was escorting heard a loud explosion, and the Tampa was never seen again. The ship went down with no survivors. Only a single body was found among a few pieces of wreckage.
Florida newspapers brought news of the shocking loss to their readers. The Navy did not make the sinking public until October 3. That day, the Ocala Evening Star ran the headline “Ship Went Down With All on Board,” but was unable to provide many details besides noting that a submarine had sunk the Tampa off the English coast. On October 8, the Pensacola Journal reported the death of First Lieutenant J. T. Carr, the Tampa’s engineer officer who had been stationed in Pensacola before America went to war. Two days later, on October 10, the Punta Gorda Herald noted the loss of the Tampa was especially tragic for the ship’s namesake town as nineteen crew members came from that city. The paper bemoaned, “Thus are the horrors of war brought home to us all.” Such an attack, the Herald declared, made a mockery of Germany’s recent peace overtures—on October 5, the German government declared its willingness to negotiate peace terms. “Unconditional surrender,” the newspaper argued, “is the best terms she [Germany] should receive.” The Lakeland Evening Telegram covered a touching memorial ceremony held for Bert Lane, a Lakeland native, whose life had ended on the Tampa, and who had “laid down his life for the cause of his country.” This tribute would have been repeated across the state as Floridians mourned the loss of so many of their young men.
Citations and Additional Sources
American Legion, “Our Name Sake “U.S.S. Tampa” and Her Legacy.” http://www.post5tampa.org/history.html.
Bevins Family Papers. State Archives of Florida. https://www.floridamemory.com/collections/bevins/.
Gonzalez, Robin Robson, Nancy J. Turner, and Jen Larcom. USCGC TAMPA Tampa’s Own: Pageantry, Protection & Patriotism. Tampa History Center. https://www.dropbox.com/s/ha7sjsbm7eo6mpf/booksofar.pdf?dl=0
Herscovici, Derek. Remember the Tampa! Tampa Magazine (July 28, 2016). http://thetampamagazine.com/remember-the-tampa-military-ship/.
Naval History and Heritage Command. NH 1226 USCGC Tampa. https://www.history.navy.mil/our-collections/photography/numerical-list-of-images/nhhc-series/nh-series/NH-01000/NH-1226.html
Unites Sates Coast Guard. U.S. Coast Guard History Program. U.S.S. Tampa, C.G. Casualty List, World War I. http://www.post5tampa.org/files/U.S.S._Tampa_Casualties_1918.pdf.