WWII Catastrophic Explosion of USS Serpens - Coast Guard’s Worst Loss Of Life
"I felt and saw two flashes after which only the bow of the ship was visible. The rest had disintegrated and the bow sank soon afterwards."Lt. Cmdr. Perry Stinson (USCG), Commanding Officer, USS Serpens
In March 1943, an EC-2 class “Liberty Ship” was laid down under a Maritime Commission contract as “Hull #739” by the California Shipbuilding Corporation of Wilmington, California. The vessel was launched less than a month later as the SS Benjamin N. Cardozo. Two weeks later, the ship was transferred to the U.S. Navy and designated AK-97.
The transport was 442 feet in length, displaced 14,250 tons and had a top speed of 11 knots. For defense, the ship carried one 5-inch gun, one 3-inch gun, two 40 mm and six 20 mm anti-aircraft cannons. The vessel’s crew consisted of 19 officers and 188 enlisted men. In late May, the Navy renamed the transport Serpens, after a constellation in the Northern Hemisphere, and commissioned the vessel in San Diego under the command of Coast Guard Lieutenant Commander (LCDR) Magnus Johnson.
An enlisted man on board a nearby Navy boat gave the following eyewitness account...
As we headed our personnel boat shoreward, the sound and concussion of the explosion suddenly reached us and, as we turned, we witnessed the awe-inspiring death drams unfold before us. As the report of screeching shells filled the air and the flash of tracers continued, the water splashed throughout the harbor as the shells hit. We headed our boat in the direction of the smoke and, as we came into closer view of what had once been a ship, the water was filled only with floating debris, dead fish, torn life jackets, lumber and other unidentifiable objects. The smell of death, and fire, and gasoline, and oil was evident and nauseating. This was sudden death, and horror, unwanted and unasked for, but complete.
After the explosion, only the bow of the ship remained. The rest of Serpens had disintegrated, and the bow sank soon after the cataclysm. Killed in the explosion were 197 Coast Guard officers and enlisted men, 51 U.S. Army stevedores, and Surgeon Harry Levin, a U.S. Public Health Service physician. In addition, a soldier who was ashore at Lunga Point was killed by flying shrapnel.
Only two men on board Serpens survived–Seaman 1/c Kelsie Kemp and Seaman 1/c George Kennedy–who had been in the boatswain’s locker at the time of the explosion. Both men were injured, but were later rescued from the wreckage and survived. Only two Coast Guardsmen’s bodies were recovered intact and later identified out of the nearly 250 men killed in the explosion.
At first, the loss of Serpens was attributed to enemy action and three Purple Heart Medals were issued to the two survivors and posthumously to Surgeon Levin. However, a U.S. Navy court of inquiry later determined that the cause of the explosion could not be established from surviving evidence. By 1949, the Navy officially closed the case deciding that the loss was not due to enemy action but an “accident intrinsic to the loading process.”
All that remains of the Serpens is the ship’s bow section sitting upside down on the sea floor off Lunga Point. The transport’s dead were initially buried at the military cemetery at Guadalcanal. The crew’s mortal remains were later exhumed; shipped to the U.S.; and, on June 15, 1949 interred at Arlington National Cemetery.
A monument to the Serpens listing all of its lost crewmembers was erected over the gravesite and dedicated on November 16, 1950.