As a Coast Guard archivist, Nora Chidlow often feels like a time traveler when she catalogs letters, photos and files about lighthouses from long ago, marine disasters of the past or early methods of breaking ice in frigid waters.
An assignment she's had for the last eight months has required her to put on her detective hat as well. Chidlow has become an amateur history sleuth as she's searched for descendants of ship crew members who died during World War I.
Chidlow is leading the USS Tampa Purple Heart Project, a Coast Guard effort to award medals to the family members of the 130 men who died when the Tampa was sunk by the Germans in September 1918. She and about a dozen volunteers daily search genealogy sites, phone listings and newspaper obituaries to find living connections to the deceased crew.
Given the number of veterans who live in Virginia, and especially the Fredericksburg region, Coast Guard Public Affairs Officer Lisa Novak hopes newspaper stories and online posts will aid in finding family members.
"After 101 years, it's definitely a challenge," said Chidlow, who works in the Coast Guard Historian's Office in Washington. "But whenever a family member reaches out to us--sometimes we find a cousin or someone else that is close to them--I'm always thrilled to make that final connection."
The Coast Guard plans to recognize the crew of the Tampa by awarding as many Purple Hearts as possible to survivors during a Memorial Day ceremony at Coast Guard headquarters in Washington. The Tampa marked the single largest loss of life for the Coast Guard, but the branch of service wasn't eligible for the awards until 1942.
Even after that, the Tampa's crew was overlooked until 1999, according to the Coast Guard, when then-Commandant Admiral James Loy approved the posthumous medals.
Chidlow eventually started gathering stories of the crew members, who hailed from New England to Florida, Michigan to Colorado and Norway, Sweden and Greece, just because she was interested in what happened. She was asked to lead the Purple Heart effort eight months ago.
The project seems a natural fit for the woman who's been chronicling history for three decades. She's been interested in archives since the fifth grade, when she researched the history of her school, and she particularly enjoys maritime matters. Her father told her about his service as a member of the Merchant Marine and Coast Guard during World War II--when the first ship he went out on, in 1942, was torpedoed. A week passed before he was found.
The Tampa's record was much different.
Armed with four 3-inch guns, the Tampa was one of six Coast Guard cutters assigned to convoy duty in Europe during the First World War. During 18 convoys, the Tampa lost only two ships and earned a special commendation for exemplary service.
But on Sept. 26, 1918, the ship needed more coal and asked to detach from its 19th convoy. Permission was denied initially, then granted on the second request, Chidlow said. The ship, which was originally known as the Miami and built by the Newport News Shipbuilding and Drydock Corp., sailed away from the others, alone in the British Channel toward the Welsh port of Milford Haven.
A German submarine spotted the vessel. Torpedoes aimed at the Tampa hit their mark.
"She sank in just under 3 minutes," the Coast Guard reported. "One hundred and thirty men lost their lives, including 111 Coast Guardsmen."
Many were teenagers, such as Irving Slicklen, 15, from New York City or Charles Walter Parkin, 17, of Greystone, R.I. There were more crew members from Florida--places such as Dover and Davenport, Key West and Quay, Lauderdale and Tampa--than anywhere else in America. But young men from far-flung regions, such as Libau, Russia; Bohuslan, Sweden; and Kristiansand, Norway, also were aboard.
A list of the crew of the Tampa, which included four Navy sailors, is available online at history.uscg.mil/tampa/.
Of the 130 who died, Chidlow has located survivors of all but 59 of them. Some already have received their Purple Hearts and others are being processed. Descendants can have the awards presented in Washington or in their local area.
Family members must provide documentation showing their relationship to the Tampa crew member, such as family trees, pages from family Bibles, birth and death certificates or pages from Ancestry.com or other genealogical applications. It takes four to six weeks to process the paperwork.
Those submitting applications can contact Nora Chidlow at 202/559-5142 or Nora.L.Chidlow@uscg.mil.
Coast Guard members also are encouraged to share details of the Purple Heart project with as many service members as possible.
"We owe it to our shipmates on [the] USS Tampa and their descendants to ensure their heroism and sacrifice are recognized and remembered," stated Melissa Bert, director of governmental and public affairs, in a memo about the project.
This article is written by Cathy Dyson from The Free Lance-Star, Fredericksburg, Va. and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to email@example.com.