US CoastGuard Boat 718 Tampa 1917

Brass Plate washes up on Porthcawl Beach 1924

You may well ask what links our town with the US Coastguard. Well let me take you back to an April day on Rest Bay beach. Its 1924 and a 14 year old John Rixon, whilst walking on the beach, discovered a length of wood. Loosely attached to the wood was a brass plate marked US Coastguard boat number 718.

US CoastGuard Boat no 718 Brass Plaque

John returned home to show the find to his father, a local coastguard, and he passed it on to his Station Officer.

Station Officer White delivered the plate to the Customs and Excise Office in Port Talbot, from where it was sent to the American Consulate in Cardiff. Finally it found its way to the US state Department in Washington DC.

A few months later the Custom and Excise Office received a reply from US Vice-Consul James Parks, he wrote. “My Government wishes to express its appreciation of receipt of the brass plate, the plate represents the only known recovered distinguishing part of the US Coastguard Cutter “Tampa “which was sunk in the Bristol Channel on 26th September 1918”.

US CoastGuard Boat 718 Tampa 1917

What do we know about the Tampa? She was built as a Coastguard cutter for the United States Revenue Service.

On 6 April 1917, when the United States declared war with Germany, the TAMPA and other Coast Guard cutters were transferred to the Navy and fitted with heavier armament at the Boston Navy Yard.  She escorted over 18 convoys between Gibraltar and South Wales, with Milford Haven being her European homeport. During this period she was considered to be the happiest ship in the US forces, her crew was made up almost entirely of men from the town of Tampa in Florida and included father and son, brothers and cousins.

On the afternoon of September 26, 1918, Tampa parted company with convoy HG-107, and ordered to return to Milford Haven. At 1930h that evening, a German U-boat spotted the Tampa. According to the war diary of UB-91, her captain dived and manoeuvred into an attack position, firing one torpedo from a range of about 550 meters. The torpedo hit Tampa and exploded port side amidships.

U-boat UB-91 was launched on 7 March 1918 and given over to the command of Wolf Hans Hertwig. The submarine undertook 2 patrols sinking 5 ships

UB-91The UB-91 was surrendered on 21 November 1918 at Harwich. It was used, with a British crew in charge, for goodwill visits around the country, including Cardiff and Newport. It was visited by many local dignitaries, including the Mayor, whilst in Newport docks from 12th – 20th January 1919. The visits helped to raise money for local mariners’ charities.

When the submarine was broken up at Briton Ferry in 1921, the deck gun was taken to Chepstow and now forms part of the town’s war memorial

US CoastGuard Boat Tampa crewWhen the Tampa sank there were no survivors. Those lost included 111 US coastguards, four US Navy sailors, ten Royal Navy sailors and five British civilian dockyard workers who were returning from Gibraltar to new postings in the UK. Total loss of life was 131. This loss was the greatest single casualty incurred by any US Naval unit as a result of known enemy action and, because of it, the Coast Guard suffered the greatest loss, in proportion to is size, of any US armed service in the Great War. In 1999, the US Coast Guard Service posthumously awarded each Tampa crewman a Purple Heart.

The brass Lifeboat plate was presented by the State Department to the US Coastguard Headquarters in Washington DC where it is mounted with an inscription which includes Rest Bay Porthcawl as its finding place.

A message from the US Coastguard service in Washington DC.

The Coast Guard was, and still is, a small service and as such the loss of Tampa affected the Coast Guard immensely.  So much so that Coast Guardsmen from that era erected a monument in Arlington Cemetery to commemorate the loss of Tampa.That monument still stands as a reminder of what service, duty, and sacrifice, really mean.  They are not empty words.Those who serve in Her Majesty’s Coastguard understand that too and as such we are bound together by those words — that service, duty and sacrifice are not empty concepts but are in fact guideposts to how we live our lives.

Finally I leave you with these words that I hope you will agree sum up the work of the Coastguard in both the UK and the US.

“’There is no competition in maritime rescue, except with the elements. Cooperation is the key, locally, nationally and internationally’.”

Thanks to David Swidenbank Bridgend Ambassador  & Bridgend Tourism Association member from Porthcawl Museum that brought us this account.

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