The Coast Guard community reflected on two anniversaries this past week — one momentous and one tragic.
Jan. 28 marked a historic day for the creation of the Coast Guard. It also marked the 40th anniversary of the deadliest accident in the life-saving service’s history.
In 1915 Congress passed the Coast Guard Act, and President Woodrow Wilson signed it into law on Jan. 28, 1915. According to the Coast Guard Museum website, the act created the U.S. Coast Guard as a new service, modeling it on the structure of the U.S. Navy and putting it under the command of the U.S. Department of Treasury.
The Coast Guard was created from the merged U.S. Life-Saving Service and the U.S. Revenue Cutter Service, which had been established in 1790 to prevent smuggling until the re-establishment of the Navy in 1798.
Although placed under the Treasury Department, the Coast Guard was temporarily transferred to the Navy Department during World War I and again during World War II. In 1939, the Coast Guard also integrated and incorporated into the U.S. Lighthouse Service and, in 1942, the Bureau of Marine Inspection and Navigation. In 1967, the Coast Guard was placed under the U.S. Department of Transportation. Following the tragic events of Sept. 11, 2001, the Coast Guard was placed under the new U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
On Jan. 28, 1980, the Coast Guard experienced one of the deadliest events in its 229-year history when a cutter crashed at the mouth of Tampa Bay. This year marked the 40th anniversary of the sinking of the Coast Guard Cutter Blackthorn, and the loss of 23 of its 50 crew members.
After 35 years of service, the 180-foot buoy tender Blackthorn collided with the S.S. Capricorn, a 600-foot tanker.
According to the Coast Guard Historian’s Office, the Blackthorn was commissioned on March 27, 1944. In addition to aids to navigation, the cutter’s other assignments included icebreaking on the Great Lakes, search-and-rescue missions along the California coastline, and the rescuing of survivors involved in air and sea disasters along the Gulf Coast.
This past Tuesday, Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Karl Schultz, Department of Homeland Security Acting Secretary Chad Wolf, Blackthorn survivors, family and many others gathered for a ceremony to honor the 23 who crossed the bar and those who continue their legacy today.
Also, the family of Seaman Apprentice William “Billy” Flores unveiled a statue at Coast Guard Sector St. Petersburg, Fla. The statue honors Flores, who helped save fellow crew members on the Blackthorn when it sank. He is credited with saving lives by distributing life jackets to crew members and using his belt to keep a locker full of life jackets open, allowing crewmembers to access the flotation devices as they floated out of the locker. The 18-year-old will forever be immortalized in a statute at the Circle of Heroes, an underwater memorial located about 10 miles off the Pinellas County coastline.
In 2000 Flores was posthumously awarded the Coast Guard Medal, the Coast Guard’s highest peacetime service award. The U.S. Coast Guard Cutter William Flores was named in his honor in 2012.
Kristi Langenbacher is a Coast Guard spouse and writes about military family life.