Posts Tagged ‘USS Serpens (AK-97)’

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USS Serpens Monument

During this lunch break I rode to and spent some time in Arlington National Cemetery (MAP). Because bike riding is not permitted in the cemetery, I parked my bike at one of the bike racks provided at the visitors center, and then went for a long walk in the cemetery.  During my walk, I happened upon a stone marker that stood out because of its size and shape. Upon examination, I found out that it is a memorial to the men of a U.S. Coast Guard ship named the USS Serpens (AK-97).

As I would later learn, the USS Serpens was a 14,250-ton cargo ship that was laid down in March of 1943, before being transferred to the U.S. Navy the following month for service during World War II.  She was responsible for delivering troops, goods and equipment to locations in the Asiatic-Pacific Theater, and served for almost three years, until the night of January 29, 1945, when disaster struck.

Late on that fateful January evening, Serpens was anchored off Lunga Beach, a promontory on the northern coast of Guadalcanal in the British Solomon Islands. The ship’s commanding officer, Lieutenant Commander Perry L. Stinson, and seven others, one officer and six enlisted men, were ashore. The remaining crewmen were loading depth charges into her holds when Serpens exploded. After the explosion, only the bow of the ship was visible. The rest had disintegrated, and the bow sank soon afterward.  One hundred ninety-six Coast Guard crewmen, 57 Army stevedores, and a Public Health Service physician named Dr. Harry M. Levin, were killed in the explosion, and a soldier ashore was killed by shrapnel. Only two of those on board, Seamen First Class Kelsie K. Kemp and George S. Kennedy, who had been in the boatswain’s locker, survived.  The catastrophe was the single greatest disaster suffered by the U.S. Coast Guard during World War II.

In July 1947, the Coast Guard still thought an enemy attack had caused the blast. However, by June 10, 1949, it was determined not to have been the result of enemy action.

At first report the incident in July 1947, attributed to explosion to enemy action.  But a court of inquiry later determined that the cause of the explosion could not be established from the remaining evidence.  By 1949 the Navy noted that the loss was not due to enemy action but due to an “accident intrinsic to the loading process.”

The available remains of those killed were originally buried at the Army, Navy and Marine Cemetery in Guadalcanal with full military honors and religious services. They were later repatriated under the program for the return of World War II dead,  in 1949.  The mass recommittal of the unidentified dead took place in section 34 at MacArthur Circle. The remains were placed in 52 caskets and buried in 28 graves near the intersection of Jesup and Grant Drives. It is the largest group burial to at Arlington National Cemetery.  An additional two grave sites were reserved for the octagonal monument inscribed with all of their names, which I saw on this ride.

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