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Firing Gun
Posted September 26, 2018 | 2:28 PM

A Gasparilla Fixture, Ship Disappeared 100 Years Ago

On Sept. 26, 1918, a torpedo sank the USCGC Tampa, devastating residents of its namesake city and Hillsborough County

The USCGC Tampa, retooled as a Navy escort ship during World War I, slipped beneath the waves on Sept. 26, 1918.

The 190-foot ship, a fixture at early Gasparilla celebrations in its namesake city, sank to the bottom of Bristol Channel in Great Britain after it was struck by a torpedo fired by a German submarine.

In February this year, the Tampa Bay History Center unveiled a mosaic on its outside wall that tells the story of the ship and its final voyage. The Hillsborough County Board of County Commissioners, through its Public Art Program, commissioned the colorful tile mosaic.

Strawberries
A mosaic on an outside wall at Tampa Bay History Center tells the story of the ill-fated USCGC Tampa.

In pictures and words, the 10-by-12 -foot mural describes the ship and its crew - from the cutter's launch in 1912 as the Miami, to participation in Gasparilla celebrations from 1913 to 1917 and rechristening as USCGC Tampa, to iceberg patrol, to its transfer to the Navy when the United States entered WWI in April 1917.

A total of 131 people - 115 U.S. sailors, including 24 Tampa men, 11 British sailors, and five civilian workers - died when the ship sank a century ago. It was the Navy's single-largest combat loss of lives in the Great War.

Refitted with larger weapons and painted Navy gray, the U.S. Coast Guard vessel was watching for German submarines as it accompanied merchant vessels off the western coast of Europe during the war. On that fateful September day, while leading a convoy from Gibraltar to Milford Haven, Wales, a U-boat's torpedo struck the ship. All hands on board perished.

Tampa residents were devastated. The ship and its crew had become fixtures at Gasparilla festivities, firing the cutter's cannons at a mock pirate ship during the latter vessel's annual "invasion" of the city. The booming exchange initiated the tradition of gun blasts that continues today. The Tampa's appearance also served as a Coast Guard recruiting tool, which largely is why two dozen local men were crew members.

"It's our proud heritage," says Nancy Turner, a Hillsborough County resident who is a tireless advocate for keeping the USCGC Tampa's story afloat for modern residents. "How many cities have a ship named for them?"

The History Center, where the mural overlooks Cotanchobee Fort Broke Park, is near the site of the Tampa's berth when the vessel was in Tampa.

Since the sinking, several U.S. Coast Guard ships have been named Tampa. The current USCGC Tampa is based in Portsmouth, Virginia. Launched in 1984, the 270-foot ship's motto, "Thy way is the sea, thy path in the great waters," was lifted from an Arlington National Cemetery memorial to the vessel's long-submerged predecessor.

Says the U.S. Coast Guard: "Few words carry as much weight in the annals of Coast Guard history as the word 'Tampa.'"

Top photo: Before it sank off the coast of Great Britain, sailors aboard the USCGC Tampa fire a gun aboard the 190-foot vessel.

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