The largest single disaster suffered by the United States Coast Guard in World War II was the destruction of the USS Serpens (AK-97). The 14,250-ton ammunition ship exploded off Lunga Beach, Guadalcanal, British Solomon Islands on the night of January 29, 1945.
Servicemen were loading depth charges when the USS Serpens exploded. The 250 men who died included 193 U.S. Coast Guard sailors, 56 U.S. Army soldiers, and Dr. Harry M. Levin, a U.S. Public Health Service surgeon. Of the 193 Coast Guardsmen, 17 were regular Coast Guard and 176 were reservists.
There were ten survivors. Lieutenant Commander Perry L. Stinson, commanding officer of the USS Serpens, another officer and six crewmen were ashore on administrative business. Two crewmen who were onboard survived the explosion: SN 1st Class Kelsie K. Kemp of Barron Springs, Virginia, and SN 1st Class George S. Kennedy of San Marcos, Texas. Seaman Kemp and Seaman Kennedy were awarded the Purple Heart by Rear Admiral L.T. Chalker, the Assistant Commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard.
In July 1947, the Coast Guard still thought an enemy attack had caused the blast. However, by June 10, 1949, it was determined not to have been the result of enemy action.
The 250 remains were originally buried at the Army, Navy and Marine Cemetery in Guadalcanal with full military honors and religious services. The remains were repatriated under the program for the return of World War II dead in 1949.
The mass recommittal of the 250 unidentified dead took place in section 34 at MacArthur Circle. The remains were placed in 52 caskets and buried in 28 graves near the intersection of Jesup and Grant Drives. Two gravesites were reserved for the memorial inscribed with their names.
About 1,500 people attended the reinterment service on Wednesday, June 15, 1949 at 1:00 PM. Catholic, Jewish and Protestant chaplains officiated. The U.S. Marine Corps Band played Pasternak's arrangement of Taps. A bugler echoed Taps in the distance. The U.S. Navy also participated. To conclude the service, a Gold Star Mother escorted by an American Legionnaire placed a white carnation on each casket.
A witness described it as 'one of the most elaborate military services accorded our fallen heroes...
Words would have been inadequate to express the deep gratitude and admiration...in the hearts of [all] who witnessed the service.'
The USS Serpens Monument was dedicated on Thursday, November 16, 1950 at 2:00 PM. The octagonal monument occupies two grave spaces in section 34. About 100 relatives and 200 others attended the dedication. Participating units included a color guard from the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter DUANE, a color guard from The Old Guard at Fort Myer, Catholic, Jewish and Protestant chaplains, and The United States Army Band (Pershing's Own). Vice Admiral Merlin O'Neill, Commandant, U.S. Coast Guard gave a brief address.
'We cannot undo the past,... but we can insure... 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.