On the night of Jan. 29, 1945, the United States Coast Guard suffered its worst tragedy when the USS Serpens, a cargo ship crewed primarily by Coast Guard members, exploded off the coast of Guadalcanal, in the British Solomon Islands, carrying ammunition and other cargo bound for U.S. bases in the Pacific. While the crew was loading depth charges into the holds, a massive explosion suddenly occurred. More than 250 men lost their lives: nearly 200 Coast Guard members, 57 members of an Army stevedore unit and a U.S. Public Health Service surgeon. Only two of those aboard survived. The cause of the explosion was never definitively determined.
Every year, the Coast Guard honors those lost with a wreath-laying ceremony at the USS Serpens Memorial in Section 34 of Arlington National Cemetery (ANC). On January 27, 2023, attendees included Coast Guard officers and enlisted personnel, as well as Serpens crew members’ families. Senior Chief Petty Officer Matt Rogers stated, in his opening remarks, “Today, we pause in our busy lives to remember the deeds of these brave men who took the final measure of devotion in the victorious Allied effort to preserve the free world.”
Those who died in the Serpens disaster were originally buried at the Army, Navy and Marine Cemetery in Guadalcanal, with a full military honors service. On June 15, 1949, their remains were reinterred in Section 34 of Arlington National Cemetery.
The event at ANC on January 27 included a Color Guard, prayers and the singing of the national anthem. Following a yearly tradition, six Coast Guard members stepped to the podium and spoke of the history of the Serpens and its crew. Another addressed the families of those lost: “To you we offer the Coast Guard’s solemn condolences and heart-felt gratitude,” he said. “Your loss has helped preserve the freedoms we all enjoy today.”
Then, Coast Guard officers and enlisted personal placed four wreaths around the monument: one for the Army soldiers, one for the public health service physician, one for the seventeen regular Coast Guardsmen lost and one for Coast Guard Reservists.
The event concluded with a benediction by Chaplain (Cmdr.) Ken Espinosa, who prayed that those in attendance would remember “our brothers who paid the ultimate price for our freedoms, values and happiness.”