The destruction of the USS Serpens (AK-97) is the largest single disaster in the history of the United States Coast Guard.
Named after the Serpens constellation, the USS Serpens was a cargo ship commissioned in May 1943. On the night of January 29, 1945, the 14,250-ton freighter was anchored off Lunga Beach, 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. The explosion destroyed the entire ship, save for its bow, which sank to the bottom of the ocean. Two hundred and fifty men lost their lives: 193 Coast Guard sailors, 56 U.S. Army soldiers and Dr. Harry M. Levin, a U.S. Public Health Service surgeon. Only two bodies could be identified.
Ten members of the Serpens' crew survived. The ship's commanding officer, Lieutenant Commander Perry Stinson, another officer and six crewmen had been ashore on administrative business. Two crewmen who were on board survived the explosion: Seaman 1st Class Kelsie Kemp and Seaman 1st Class George Kennedy, who were both awarded the Purple Heart.
Initially, the Coast Guard believed that a Japanese attack had caused the blast. A court of inquiry, however, found no evidence of enemy action. In 1949, the U.S. Navy closed the case, determining that the disaster had been caused by "an accident intrinsic to the loading process." Speculation about what caused the Serpens' destruction continues to this day.
Remains of the 250 casualties were originally buried at the Army, Navy and Marine Cemetery in Guadalcanal, with a full military honors service. On June 15, 1949, the remains were reinterred in Section 34 at Arlington National Cemetery, in 52 caskets and 28 graves. Some 1,500 people attended the reinterment service, at which Catholic, Protestant and Jewish chaplains officiated. The U.S. Marine Corps Band played Taps, and a Gold Star Mother escorted by an American Legionnaire placed a white carnation on each casket.
The USS Serpens Monument was dedicated on November 16, 1950. Attended by approximately 100 relatives of the victims and several hundred others, the dedication ceremony included the U.S. Army Band ("Pershing's Own") and color guards from the Coast Guard and The Old Guard. Vice Admiral Merlin O'Neill, Commandant of the Coast Guard, gave a brief address, stating, "We cannot undo the past, but we can ensure that these men shall be respected and honored forever."
View a list of names of those who lost their lives in the USS Serpens disaster.