Purple Hearts Finally Awarded to Coast Guard Crew Killed in World War I

Miami-class cutter USCGC Tampa photographed in harbor, prior to the First World War. All 131 persons on board Tampa were lost when the vessel was sunk by a German torpedo. (U.S. Navy)
Miami-class cutter USCGC Tampa photographed in harbor, prior to the First World War. All 131 persons on board Tampa were lost when the vessel was sunk by a German torpedo. (U.S. Navy)

Descendants of the lost crew from the Coast Guard cutter Tampa received the Purple Hearts earned by their relatives in a ceremony Friday, more than a century after the ship went down to a German U-boat's torpedo with all 131 aboard.

The sinking of the Tampa off the coast of Wales at about 8:30 p.m. Sept. 26, 1918, just weeks before the war ended on Nov. 11, represented the single largest loss of life for either the U.S. Coast Guard or Navy in World War I, according to the Coast Guard.

Descendants of those lost attended a ceremony at Coast Guard Headquarters in Washington, D.C., where 10 members of the Tampa crew were posthumously awarded the medal.

James Christopher Wilkie, 29, was a cook aboard the Tampa. His grandson, William Bonaparte, 77, of Charleston, South Carolina, who served in the Army in Vietnam, attended the ceremony.

His only wish was that his late mother, Anna Bonaparte, could have been present, he said. "She was four years old when he died," but spoke of her father often though she had little memory of him, William Bonaparte said.

"My mother really wanted this," he said of the Purple Heart.

"It was her dream," Joan Bonaparte, William's wife, said of her mother-in-law.

William Bonaparte said the family would take the medal back home to Charleston and hold a small ceremony at his mother's gravesite.

Another descendant, Henry E. Heydt Jr., of St. Augustine, Florida, and his wife, Ingrid, brought with them a clipping from the Oct. 4, 1918, edition of the Brooklyn (N.Y.) Daily Eagle, which noted that 14 of the Tampa's crew were from Brooklyn and Long Island.

One was 2nd Lt. Roy Ackermann Bothwell, 28, of Brooklyn, Henry Heydt's first cousin twice removed. The newspaper clipping said, "Relatives are clinging to the hope that some survivors will yet be reported, but the large majority have accepted the word 'missing' as meaning definitely that the men have perished."

Bothwell's brother, Army 1st Lt. Harold E. Bothwell of the 306th Infantry, had been killed in France three weeks before the Tampa's sinking, though Roy Bothwell had been unaware of his brother's death, Heydt said.

"That was the whole family," Heydt added, since the parents had no other children.

The Tampa was ending its 19th mission as a convoy escort on runs between Gibraltar and southern England when it was hit by the torpedo, believed to have been launched by U-boat UB-91. It sank in three minutes off the Welsh town of Milford Haven, according to Coast Guard archives.

Of the 131 aboard, 111 were from the Coast Guard and four from the Navy. The rest were British sailors or civilians.

The Tampa crew was "defending people they never met, defending our values," Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Karl Schultz said at the ceremony. "Their names live on, woven into the fabric and the legacy of the Coast Guard."

The Coast Guard belongs to the Department of Homeland Security. At the ceremony, Acting Homeland Secretary Kevin McAleenan said, "One hundred years after the Tampa's loss, [the ship] remains at the forefront of the Coast Guard's memory."

He said the posthumous awards of the Purple Heart were "long overdue."

Purple Hearts were not awarded by the U.S. during World War I, but resumed in World War II. The award was extended to the Coast Guard in 1942. In 1952, Congress made the awarding of the Purple Heart retroactive to April 5, 1917.

However, the crew of the Tampa was not eligible for the Purple Heart until 1999, Schultz said. The search for descendants has continued since then.

At the ceremony Friday, Adolph Carlson III, of Elsmere, Delaware, received the Purple Heart on behalf of his great uncle, Coxswain Harold Tonneson, 37, who was originally from Norway but had settled in Brooklyn.

Perhaps unbeknownst to the Coast Guard, Tonneson kept a dog and a cat aboard the Tampa, according to his letters home. Tonneson also wrote of going to Montana to start a farm when the war was over.

"I think he was probably tired of the sea," Carlson said.

The others from the Tampa who were posthumously awarded the Purple heart Friday include 1st Lt. Archibald Scully, 35, of Baltimore; Master-at-Arms Joseph Cygan, 27, of New Bedford, Massachusetts; Bayman Edward Shanahan, 21, of Jersey City, New Jersey; Seaman Edward Dorgan, 21, of Woodhaven, New York; Fireman William Hastings, 21, of Philadelphia; and Seaman Shelby Laymen, 25, of Rineyville, Kentucky.

Also receiving the posthumous Purple Heart was Boy 1st Class Paul Other Webb, 21, of St. Petersburg, Florida. The rating "Boy" was in use at the time in the Coast Guard, and more than five other "Boys" were listed in the Tampa's crew, according to Coast Guard records.

-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.

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