By Lt. Josh Waters, Navy Department Board of Decorations and Medals
World War I saw technological advances that changed the face of warfare. Prominent among these was the use of submarines, or U-boats. Although they had been in use since the mid-1800’s, submarines only became effective weapons during WWI and were Germany’s answer to the powerful British Navy. Eventually, the U-boat “wolfpacks” became so effective they nearly severed the critical supply lines between America and Europe. By the end of the war, U-boats were responsible for the loss of more than 12 million tons of Allied shipping, 5,000 ships, and nearly 15,000 Allied sailors and merchantmen. To counter the U-boat threat, Allied Powers began using a convoy system in which commercial vessels were escorted by military warships for protection.
In 1918, the United States Coast Guard Cutter (USCGC) Tampa was one such vessel assigned to escort duty. Her primary mission was the location and destruction of enemy submarines attempting to attack convoy’s laden with vital war materials. On September 26, 1918, the Tampa was assigned to escort mercantile convoy HG 107 from Gibraltar to the West Coast of England. According to official reports, the Tampa detached from convoy HG 107 at 4:15 PM and proceeded alone to Milford Haven, Wales. At 7:00 PM the Tampa was last sighted on the horizon by the Commodore of convoy HG 107. No one knew this would be the last time Tampa or her crew would ever be seen. At 8:45 PM a radio operator in the convoy reported feeling the shock of an underwater explosion. Tampa was expected in Milford Haven at approximately 3 AM, and when she didn’t arrive, the dawn saw search and rescue preparations underway. On September 27 and 28, trawlers and military vessels participating in the search discovered debris, including lifejackets and general wreckage marked “TAMPA,” and a lone body floating in the water. Two more bodies were recovered on a beach 55 nautical miles from the wreckage. The exact nature of what occurred didn’t become known until after the war. A recovered war diary described how the German UB-91 spotted Tampa alone in the Bristol Channel at 7:30 PM, and at 8:15 fired one torpedo from a distance of 550 meters. The torpedo hit Tampa on the portside amidships with secondary explosions following minutes later, believed to be Tampa’s depth charges detonating as she sank. At the time of her sinking, naval commanders concluded: “it appears that the Tampa and all on board were lost as the result of an explosion, presumably due to enemy action.”
In all, 131 officers, enlisted men, and passengers were lost. Among these were four U.S. Navy personnel: Lieutenant Junior Grade Hadley H. Teter (Medical Corps), Ensign David Hoffman, Ensign Edward Reavely, and Pharmacist’s Mate Second Class Carl L. Dalton. They were aboard Tampa because in 1918 the Coast Guard did not have its own afloat medical detachments, and routinely used Naval personnel to fill this role.
Today Sailors killed by enemy action are normally awarded the Purple Heart. But that was not so in 1918. The medal was not authorized for use by the Navy until 1942 and at first could only be awarded for wounds received after December 6, 1941. In 1952, President Truman signed Executive Order 10409, authorizing the Navy to posthumously award the Purple Heart retroactively to April 6, 1917, America’s entry into World War I. Unfortunately, by then it appears the loss of Tampa, and particularly the fact that four Navy personnel had been among her dead, had been forgotten.
In 1999, 81 years after the loss, the Commandant of the Coast Guard posthumously awarded the Purple Heart to the Coast Guard personnel who perished with Tampa.Unfortunately, the four Navy personnel were not among those awarded the Purple Heart. This oversight was brought to the Navy’s attention in 2018 by the family of Ensign David Hoffman. Following in-depth research of the incident, the Navy approved the Purple Heart, posthumously, for LTjg Teter, Ens Hoffman, Ens Reavely, and PhM2 Dalton.
On December 6th, the Navy was able to recognize one of the Sailors sacrifice. In Pensacola, FL, Ms. Jacqueline Hoffman, the niece of Ens David A. Hoffman posthumously accepted the Purple Heart from Navy Operational Support Center (NOSC) Commanding Officer Cmdr. Jeff Hodges. The ceremony, held at Veteran’s Memorial Park, rightfully honored the sacrifice of the Hoffman’s service, after more than 100 years.
It is unfortunate that in some cases like this, proper recognition is a long time in coming. The Department of the Navy is committed to ensuring prompt and appropriate recognition for every Service member who has performed acts of heroism or exceptional merit. Whenever cases such as the Tampa are discovered, the awards branches and historians within the Department go to great lengths to ensure the Navy’s most senior leaders have thorough and accurate information with which to make an informed, fair, and balanced decision. Although the loss of Tampa occurred long ago, we must remain ever mindful and grateful to those brave souls who fought the enemy at sea, and made the ultimate sacrifice in defense of our freedom and way of life.
Borch. 1996. The Purple Heart: A History of America’s Oldest Military Decoration. Borch and Westlake Publishing, Tempe, Arizona.
Havern. Tampa I (Coast Guard Cutter). Sep. 2018. USCGC TAMPA Ship History. https://www.history.navy.mil/content/history/nhhc/research/histories/ship-histories/danfs/t/tampa-i.html
DON. Loss of U.S.C.G.C. TAMPA. Department of the Navy, May 1962. History of Loss of USCGC TAMPA.