USS Serpens (AK-97)
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USS Serpens (AK-97) was a Crater-class cargo ship commissioned by the US Navy for service in World War II. She was the first ship of the Navy to have this name: she is named after Serpens, a constellation in the northern hemisphere. Serpens was manned by United States Coast Guard personnel and was responsible for delivering troops, goods and equipment to locations in the Asiatic-Pacific Theater. ...
Destruction, 29 January 1945
Late in December 1944, the Liberty ship commenced loading at Wellington, finished it at Auckland, and returned to the Solomons in mid-January 1945. Late in the evening on 29 January 1945, Serpens was anchored off Lunga Beach. The commanding officer and seven others, one officer and six enlisted men, were ashore. The remaining crewmen were loading depth charges into her holds when Serpens exploded. After the explosion, only the bow of the ship was visible. The rest had disintegrated, and the bow sank soon afterward. One hundred ninety-six Coast Guard crewmen, 57 Army stevedores, and a Public Health Service physician, Dr. Harry M. Levin, were killed in the explosion, and a soldier ashore was killed by shrapnel. Only two of those on board, Seaman (SN) 1/c Kelsie K. Kemp and SN 1/c George S. Kennedy, who had been in the boatswain's locker, survived.
An eyewitness to the disaster stated: "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 drama 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."
Lieutenant Commander Stinson reported: "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." The two survivors, SN 1/c Kemp and SN 1/c Kennedy, according to Stinson, ". . .showed a lot of savvy by grabbing a couple of water lights that we kept stowed in the [boatswain's] locker. They used them to attract attention when they climbed out onto the floating portion of the bow." Both men were injured but were rescued by a base commander in the area.
Memorial to the dead of USS Serpens at Arlington National Cemetery.
At first report the incident was attributed to enemy action but a court of inquiry later determined that the cause of the explosion could not be established from the remaining evidence and by 1949, the Navy noted that the loss was not due to enemy action but due to an "accident intrinsic to the loading process." The loss of Serpens remains the largest single disaster ever suffered by the Coast Guard. The dead were initially buried at the Army, Navy and Marine Corps Cemetery at Guadalcanal. Their remains were later exhumed and taken to Arlington National Cemetery where they were interred on 15 June 1949. A large monument in their honor was erected over the grave site and dedicated on 16 November 1950.