The families of two Coast Guardsmen were presented Purple Heart medals this week, more than a century after their relatives were killed when the cutter they were on was sunk by a German U-boat during World War I.
"These men are truly the best of us," Vice Adm. Linda Fagan said Tuesday in Alameda, Calif. as she presented medals to the families of Edward Kelleher and Arthur Deasy, who perished aboard the Coast Guard Cutter Tampa in England's Bristol Channel in September 1918.
Officials have been looking for surviving relatives of the 111 Coast Guard and four Navy crewmembers who perished aboard the Tampa for the past two decades. They've found nearly half of them.
The cutter's sinking represented the single largest loss of life for the Coast Guard during WWI. Including British sailors and civilians, 131 people were aboard the cutter, which was one of six assigned to the Navy during the war and was on convoy duty in the European theater.
The Tampa was previously dubbed the Miami and had patrolled the North Atlantic for ice after the 1912 sinking of the Titanic.
It escorted more than 350 merchant ships between allied ports, the service said in a statement this week.
"Armed with four 3-inch guns, she escorted eighteen convoys, losing only two ships and earning a special commendation for exemplary service," says the website of the Coast Guard historian.
Tampa was sailing alone to the Welsh port of Milford Haven to load up on coal when the German submarine UB-91 torpedoed it. The ship exploded and sank in under three minutes, the historian's office said.
The Purple Heart, given to service members killed or wounded by enemy actions, didn't exist in its modern incarnation until 1932, and Coast Guard members weren't eligible to receive it until 1942.
Ten years after that, the award was made retroactive to actions after April 1917, but the Tampa was overlooked until 1999, when retired Master Chief Petty Officer James Bunch submitted a proposal to award it posthumously to the cutter's crew, the Coast Guard said.
The award was authorized by then-Commandant Adm. James Loy for the crew of 115 Coast Guard and Navy personnel, who hailed from 22 states, the District of Columbia and five foreign countries. Awards have been presented or are in the pipeline for at least 57 of them, the historian's site says.
In Alameda this week, Bob Kelleher accepted the award for his uncle, an oiler on the ship who hailed from Perry, Okla., said Lt. Cmdr. Stephen Brickey, a spokesman for the Coast Guard's Pacific Area. Lisa Rehman received it on behalf of her great-uncle Deasy, the ship's acting quartermaster, who was from Brooklyn, N.Y., he said.
"I ask you to focus not only on their sacrifice, but also their service," Fagan said in remarks at the ceremony. "Their legacy lives on in our memories."
A list of the 115 crewmembers and information on how descendants can apply for the Purple Heart is at history.uscg.mil/tampa.