An article in Friday's Metro section incorrectly identified the U.S. Coast Guard commandant. He is Adm. James M. Loy. (Published 11/14/99)
Mildred McGourty Blair never knew her father. Eighty-one years ago, Coast Guard 2nd Lt. John F. McGourty and 129 others died when the cutter Tampa was torpedoed off the coast of Wales in the closing days of World War I.
Blair, just 1 1/2 when her father died, has only one picture and his letters from the war. Yesterday, she got something else.
In a special Veterans Day ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery, the Coast Guard posthumously awarded Purple Hearts to the Tampa's crew members in honor of their sacrifice. Blair and survivors of two other crew members attended the service, held at the Coast Guard Memorial that bears the names of the Tampa's crew, among others.
"Those men now have the recognition they deserve," said Blair, 82, of Harrington Park, N.J. The ceremony "is bringing back so many memories, [I'm] remembering what it was like to live without a father."
The Tampa ceremony came on a day filled with events honoring American veterans. Two hours earlier, President Clinton had laid a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknowns and addressed a gathering of 5,000 veterans, family members and officials.
"Hundreds of millions of people . . . sleep in peace because more than a million Americans rest in peace," Clinton said. "Today we come again to say we owe them a debt we can never repay."
Plugging his efforts to negotiate a budget deal that will include money for foreign aid and peacekeeping, Clinton told the assembled veterans: "Every veteran who gave his life was a victim of a peace that faltered and diplomacy that failed. . . . All of you know better than most that the costliest peace is still less expensive than the cheapest war."
Clinton also saluted the last World War II veteran on active duty, Coast Guard Capt. Earl R. Fox, and announced that the remains of three soldiers missing in action from the Korean War have been recovered. "They are coming home tonight," the president told the cheering crowd.
Although honoring soldiers wounded or killed by enemy action is a tradition that dates to the Revolutionary War, the Tampa's crew had been overlooked when officials passed out Purple Hearts. The award was dormant between the Revolutionary War and 1932. Although eligibility was retroactively extended to World War I, the crew continued to be left out.
During the war, the Tampa protected 18 convoys carrying Allied war materiel from German U-boats prowling European waters, said Adm. James M. Long, Coast Guard commandant. Its crew won a commendation just weeks before its sinking because the crew had lost only two of the more than 350 ships it had protected.
On Sept. 26, 1918, after escorting a convoy from Gibraltar to the United Kingdom, the Tampa broke off from the convoy to go to a different port. The cutter was torpedoed and everyone aboard, including 111 Coast Guard sailors, was lost.
"The enormity of that calamity still echoes," Long told the 250 people who gathered for the ceremony. "It was the greatest loss of Coast Guard life during that war."
For Ralph Poppell, 58, of Vero Beach, Fla., whose cousin Felix George Poppell was a 19-year-old seaman on the Tampa, the Purple Heart ceremony "is an extreme honor. It gives you a chance to reflect back on what the servicemen and women have done. Our freedoms didn't come exactly free."
Blair's son, Christopher Blair, 50, said, "If my grandfather were looking down on us, he would be very proud that his country still remembers and honors him 81 years later."