CHATHAM — Later this month, Steven and Nancy Finch of Brewster will visit Coast Guard Station Chatham for a special remembrance of Steven’s great uncle, Norman. They’ll look out over the wide Atlantic, the final resting place for Norman and 129 of his shipmates who were lost on the Coast Guard Cutter Tampa nearly 101 years ago. And they’ll receive a Purple Heart on his behalf, honoring the ultimate sacrifice he made.
His story might still be lost if not for the efforts of the Coast Guard to track down the family of Tampa’s crew members. The Finch family never spoke about Norman’s service, Steven said. One might understand if the story was too painful to recall.
Norman Finch grew up in Springfield and enlisted in the Coast Guard in 1917, a couple of months after the United States entered World War I. It as a time of upheaval for the world, but also a time of change for the Coast Guard, which had only recently come into existence after the merger of the U.S. Lifesaving Service and the Revenue Cutter Service. And when the U.S. declared war on Germany, the Coast Guard dispatched six cutters to European waters to protect key shipping routes. Finch’s ship, the Tampa, was among them.
The Tampa had been commissioned just five years earlier, and one of its initial assignments was to patrol for icebergs in the North Atlantic in the wake of the Titanic disaster. At 190 feet long with a displacement of more than 1,100 tons, the Tampa was a sleek, modern warship designed to patrol at speeds up to 13 knots.
During the war, the Tampa was under the command of the U.S. Navy, but its crew was mostly Coast Guardsmen. The cutter served effectively, escorting 19 convoys through waters patrolled by the new German U-boats, losing only two ships and earning a special commendation for its exemplary work.
Certainly Norman knew he was in harm’s way, but at age 23, he didn’t share any such concerns with family. Nancy showed a dog-eared letter postmarked “USS Tampa” written in July 1918, and read through some of the contents. The conversation was matter-of-fact, and Norman tells his family there’s nothing he needs. But as photos show, Norman and his shipmates relished mail call, and loved hearing from sweethearts and family members on the other side of the ocean.
Another letter written in August was just as unconcerned, though its words sound tragic in retrospect. Norman acknowledges the news that his kid brother had just enlisted in the Navy, but—perhaps for his family’s benefit—said he expects the young man will be alright. In any case, Norman writes, he’ll be home in a few months.
On Sept. 26, 1918, the Tampa had just finished escorting its final convoy from Gibraltar to the Irish Sea and was crossing the Bristol Channel while en route to Milford Haven, Wales, when it was rocked by a massive explosion amidships, near its engine room. The explosion was the result of a single torpedo filed by the German submarine UB-91 at 8:15 p.m. The Tampa sank rapidly with all hands aboard: four U.S. Navy personnel, 15 passengers and 111 Coast Guardsmen. Only a small amount of wreckage was recovered, along with the unidentified remains of four people.
The sinking of the Tampa was the single largest loss of life for the Coast Guard during World War I. In 1921, a memorial was erected in Arlington National Cemetery, and the Tampa was relegated to the pages of history.
As an honor given to servicemen who were killed or injured in the line of duty, the Purple Heart was not in use during World War I, and those who served in the Great War were not eligible to receive it retroactively until 1952.
“But the Tampa got lost in the shuffle,” Steven said. The lost crew was overlooked until 1999, when then-Commandant Admiral James Loy authorized the honor. In a ceremony at Arlington, the 111 crewmen were posthumously presented with their Purple Hearts.
But given the passage of time, it was no simple matter to track down the families of the lost shipmates. Since 1999, the Coast Guard’s archivist has reached 36 families, presenting them with the medals earned by their ancestors. About six months ago, word got to Nancy that the Coast Guard was seeking information about Norman Finch for some kind of posthumous honor, and the family wondered at first whether it was a hoax. But it was soon clear that the honor was real, and Nancy provided the necessary documentation to prove a link with her husband’s great uncle.
The Coast Guard invited the Finches to a Memorial Day ceremony in Washington, D.C., but they were unable to attend because of logistical challenges. Instead, Nancy and Steven asked to have a ceremony at Station Chatham on Aug. 26, the 70th birthday of Steven and his twin brother, Brad. A large contingent of friends and family had already planned to visit the Cape for that event, and will now be able to attend the Purple Heart ceremony.
“We’re so honored,” Nancy said. “It never really occurred to us that it happened in our own family, because it wasn’t talked about.”
Among those expected to attend the invitation-only Purple Heart ceremony is Admiral Andrew Tiongson, First Coast Guard District Commander. Helping work out the details have been staff from Woods Hole, as well as Station Chatham’s commanding officer, Senior Chief Carlos Hessler. The ceremony promises to be meaningful not only for the Finch family, but for local Coasties who appreciate the connection to their past.
“We hope the honor can also honor those serving now,” Nancy said. “Their service is so important to us. They put their lives on the line.”