Apologies for missing Day 4. It’s one of those lifetimes. And, I should be happy to have one of those lifetimes, because it sure beats the alternative….
Today, I walked the dog TWICE and pondered what to write. I couldn’t come up with anything. I scrolled through Facebook and went through my friends’ pictures of seiners at work and memes that they’d posted. Nothing spoke to me. That’s not to say I don’t love pictures of seiners, ‘cause I do–in my weird, boat-stalker-y way. But, there wasn’t anything there that really spoke to me on-topic, as it were, about darkness and light and such things. So, I put it away, all of it, and thought about what will be my next project: bringing my thesis back from the dead and publishing it. Exciting, eh? What’s even more exciting is that it’s all about minor aids to navigation in U.S. Waters from 1785-1939, a time that encompasses the old USLHS (that’s U.S. Lighthouse Service). You’re probably having the same reaction I had when Dr. Robert Browning, U.S. Coast Guard Historian, suggested the topic to me back in 1993. I swear the first words out of the man’s mouth after, “Well! Nice to meet you!” were “Have I got a thesis topic for YOU!”
I smiled politely and nodded.
And didn’t give it a second thought.
Until I did.
Buoys, it turns out, are pretty dang fascinating. I hunted through the Coast Guard Archives, the National Archives, the U.S. Patent Office (THERE’S a cool place to go for inspiration!), the Southern Historical Collection, the archives at Yorktown ATON School… I wrote to people, I interviewed people, I scored a trip on Red Birch, another WWII vintage black-hull fleet 180’ tender, to find out how they changed out ice buoys in Chesapeake Bay. I wrote it all up. I produced a Commandant’s Bulletin insert in 1995 that remains in print today. I had one of the ATON Admirals (6th District, I think), so positively giddy to meet me, that he invited me to the annual Aids to Navigation Conference at the Mayflower in Washington, D.C.
“We don’t have medals,” he smiled.
And he handed me a tie-tac in the shape of a lighthouse.
I still have it.
It is the coolest award … ever.
“No one ever pays attention to us,” he said. “We’re just out there doing a job, but we’re not Search and Rescue or Drug Interdiction, or doing things like Mariel [Boatlift]. We’re just out there doing a job…”
He’s right. They’re just out there doing a job.
But he’s NOT right.
It was a 180’ Black-Hulled Fleet Tender named Blackthorn that rocked the Coast Guard to its core in 1980.
I was an archivist for the Coast Guard from 1993-96. It still ranks as one of my favorite jobs that I’ve ever held. As part of it, I went through the Cutter Files. ALL OF THE CUTTER FILES. I organized them, created finding aids, got to know each vessel by pictures, by SITREPs, by their individual histories. I got through the As. I’d moved on to the Bs.
Some things in a job will never let you go.
The plain, grey Hollinger box with a white label sat on my desk. “BLACKTHORN WLB-391” had been written on it in Sharpie. Well, archivally, that’s the first thing you change. I flipped open the box. Row after row of file folders. The old kind. Archivally, that’s the second thing you change. Papers had been stapled together, the staples had rusted, and so had paperclips.
Photos …. Photos … The first thing you start with is the photos….
She looked pretty banged up in the bow. The pictures were those 8×10 black and whites that look a little grainy. I set them aside. There were pictures of WLB-391. Construction pictures, crew pictures, the standard stuff. I sorted them and set them aside as well. While photos are first, they’re not the first thing you look at as far as creating a finding aid.
SITREPs from Tampa.
I opened it.
And the story unfolded.
“Having just completed her overhaul, Blackthorn was outward bound from Tampa Bay on the night of 28 January 1980. Meanwhile the tanker Capricorn was standing into the bay. The captain, LCDR George Sepel was on the bridge, but ENS John Ryan had the conn. Having been overtaken by the Russian passenger ship Kazakhstan, Blackthorn continued almost in mid-channel. The brightly lit passenger vessel obscured the ability of the crews of Blackthorn and Capricorn to see each other. Capricorn began to turn left, but this would not allow the ships to pass port-to-port. Unable to make radio contact with the tender, Capricorn’s pilot blew two short whistle blasts to have the ships pass starboard-to-starboard. With the officer of the deck confused in regard to the standard operating procedure, Blackthorn’s captain issued orders for evasive action.”
A dark night on the bridge of Blackthorn, an Ensign at the conn; a perfect storm of ships and plays of light, the confused blast of whistles as they traveled over water….
“Though the ships collided, damage did not seem to be extensive. The problem, however, was that Capricorn’s anchor was ready for letting go. It became imbedded in the tender’s hull and ripped open the port side. Just seconds after the slack in the anchor chain became taut, Blackthorn capsized. Six off-duty personnel who had mustered when they heard the collision alarm were trapped in the dark. Several crew members who had just reported aboard tried to escape and in the process trapped themselves in the engine room. Though 27 crewmen survived the collision, 23 perished.”
It was the largest peacetime loss of life for the Coast Guard. It happened in 3 minutes. Capricorn’s anchor had capsized Blackthorn. While 27 men were pulled alive from the water, they were not unchanged. Twenty years later, LCDR Sepel, then living in Juneau, Alaska, still had nightmares about that night.
January 28, 1980.
What the official incident record omits is the finding of the coroner. Witnesses at the time claimed they heard banging on the hull.
Banging on the hull…
The ship never flooded.
The coroner found fatal injuries “consistent with suffocation”
In the dark.
No water in the lungs.
They had not drowned….
I sat there, staring at that report for a long time.
It wasn’t the only time I shed a tear when cataloging the Cutter Files. Or The Incident Files. Or files relating to historical people/heroes of the Coast Guard … don’t get me started on Doug Munro, okay? Medal of Honor winner that he was, and brave beyond the call of anything even resembling duty, and the results of his sacrifice to provide covering fire for the Marines on Guadalcanal (September 27, 1942, and the Marines have never forgotten this), but those last words: “Did they get off?” break my heart even today…
Banging on the hull of Blackthorn.
Hoping against hope someone will hear. And know.
We’re still here. We’re still alive…
“In the end the primary responsibility for the collision was placed with LCDR Sepel as he had permitted an inexperienced junior officer to conn the ship in an unfamiliar waterway with heavy traffic.”
The cold assessment of the situation. Official. Indifferent.
Because the echo of that drumbeat against the hull is too much to bear….
For more information:
Bright-lit sea, lithely shifts
Leaving trails of blithe-smudged night
And clear-dark skies full of
Cheer, of anchors weighed and
Knots pulled free as men and ship
Traverse the deep, whilst thoughts of
Home and loved ones dear
O’er-stepped by duty , promise’d ,made,
Resound in hearts that
Ne’er expected loss.
Rending metal, shrieking
Echoes, pounding feet of
Men made desperate,
Evening sky pierced so dark
Rapping fades as
Even hope becomes a
IN MEMORIAM… et SEMPER PARATUS
CWO Jack J. Roberts
SS1 Subrino Avila
MK1 Bruce Lafond
MK1 Danny R. Maxcy
SA Charles D. Hall
ET1 Jerome F. Ressler
ENS Frank J. Sarna
SA William R. Flores
MKC Luther D. Stidhem
MK2 Richard D. Boone
QM2 Gary W. Crumly
DC2 Daniel M. Estrada
EM2 Thomas R. Faulkner
SS3 Donald R. Frank
QM3 Richard W. Gauld
DC3 Lawrence D. Frye
EM3 Edward F. Sindelar
SNGM Randolph B. Barnaby
FA Michael K. Luke
SA Warren R. Brewer
SA Glen E. Harrison
SA John E. Prosko
SA George Rovolis, Jr.