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On a pleasant spring day 93 years ago, Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon stood up to speak to a gathering of 2,000 people attending the Coast Guard War Memorial dedication at Arlington National Cemetery. He offered these words:
"We have come today to dedicate a memorial to the men of the Coast Guard who died in the World War. It is erected in gratitude to those who gave their lives for the country. In the hour of her great need, when danger threatened, and civilization itself seemed in the balance, these men laid down their lives in order that you and future generations might find the world a better place to live in..."
Secretary Mellon’s speech was among several high profile and heartfelt tributes spoken that day so long ago. He shared words of gratitude and thanks to the Coast Guard servicemembers who died in the line of duty during World War I. Family, friends and colleagues from near and far attended to pay homage to their lost loved ones and shipmates and share a common sense of grief.
Two tragic naval losses during World War I generated interest in creating a memorial. The first incident involved the loss of 11 crewmembers from the Coast Guard cutter USS Seneca. They died during a harrowing attempt to save the British steamer, SS Wellington, which was torpedoed off the coast of France in September 1918. The heavily damaged Wellington later sank in heavy seas on Sept. 17, taking 11 Coast Guardsmen with it. The second loss involved the Coast Guard cutter, USS Tampa, which was torpedoed by a U-boat on Sept. 26, 1918. Tampa’s entire crew, and all passengers, went down with the cutter - 131 men.
Seneca and Tampa enjoyed a close bond in the years leading up to and including the war. In the wake of the 1912 Titanic sinking, both served in International Ice Patrol between 1913 and 1916, the first years cutters were assigned the mission. In World War I, the cutters’ commanding officers, William Wheeler and Charles Satterlee, were close friends whose relationship dated back 20 years to their cadet days in the Revenue Cutter School of Instruction. During the war, the two men spent time together in port, when their convoy runs between England and Gibraltar overlapped. Because of their close ties, Tampa’s sinking was a devastating personal blow to Wheeler. Considering it his sacred duty, and trying to come to terms with this loss, Wheeler spent the years after the war honoring the memory of his lost shipmate.
With the catastrophic loss of the Tampa and crew loss from Seneca, the idea to establish a Coast Guard memorial was conceived soon after the signing of the Armistice on Nov. 11, 1918. Ideas were put forth over the following years and, by March 1925, an eleven-person Coast Guard Memorial Advisory Committee was formed. Coast Guard Commandant Frederick Billard served as the honorary chair and Cmdr. William Wheeler was appointed chair. Other members of the committee had close ties with the lost cutters or their crewmembers.
From March 1925 to May 1928, the Advisory Committee directed the entire memorial project. It raised awareness, solicited funds, selected a design, obtained a third of an acre at Arlington National Cemetery and planned the dedication ceremony. It was a massive, but solemn undertaking.
Two fundraising drives were initiated with a combined goal of $35,000. The first general solicitation went out in 1925 to Coast Guard servicemembers, outside supporters and friends such as the League of Coast Guard Women and the U.S.S. Tampa American Legion Post in Brooklyn. The suggestion was put forth that each member of the Coast Guard, active duty and retired, donate one day’s pay. This effort only netted $14,000 by mid-March 1927.
With $21,000 left to raise, the Advisory Committee stepped up appeals to all active duty and retired commissioned and warrant officers in a letter dated March 15, 1927. This group was notified that 51 percent of the commissioned officers and 60 percent of the warrant officers had not financially supported the fundraising efforts. The committee requested their support, and reminded everyone to consider the Coast Guard’s proud history and accomplishments. In addition, officers were encouraged to sponsor monthly fundraising drives at their individual units. Payday was suggested as a good day to request contributions and pledge quotas were established for 132 Coast Guard units.
After a month, the strategy began to pay off. A little over $3,000 was collected from a variety of sources such as commissioned and warrant officers, 27 Coast Guard units and maritime-related businesses. Units that contributed were recognized and thanked. Hoping to set an example for others to donate, high-ranking government officials from the Treasury Department, including Secretary Mellon, personally contributed generous monetary donations.
In late 1925, during the fundraising efforts the Advisory Committee and Washington’s Commission of Fine Arts selected the Philadelphia-based architectural firm of Mellor, Meigs, & Howe to design the monument and surrounding landscaping. By December 1926, designs for both the memorial and landscaping plan were approved.
According to the Advisory Committee:
"The Memorial will be both symbolical and historical, consisting of a (12-foot high) pyramid of marble with a granite base, and a 34-foot circle of paving set on a granite foundation. The base of which will be made of blocks of pink Stony Creek granite. To form the background of the memorial, evergreen trees and shrubbery will be planted..."
"A bronze seagull (evoking a graceful symbol of the sea) measuring 5-feet from tip to tip, made by Gaston Lachaise, the well-known sculptor, will be placed at the front of the pyramid."
Chiseled above the seagull is the characteristic emblem of the Coast Guard with its motto “Semper Paratus” and directly below it is inscribed “United States Coast Guard.” Names of the men who died due to combat and those who died in the line of duty during the war were inscribed on the sides.
After obtaining approval of the Fine Arts Commission, construction began in 1927 using contractor J.F. Manning Company, of Washington, D.C. Fundraising and building of the memorial continued through 1927 and into the early months of 1928. The exact completion date is not known, but on March 3, 1928, the Commission of Fine Arts reported being very satisfied with construction progress. Advisory Committee members set the date for the dedication of Wednesday, May 23, 1928.
Elaborate plans were drawn up for the dedication. On the day of the ceremony, four cutters, the new cutter Tampa, and the Seneca, Manning and Apache, were under orders to arrive and stand watch at the Washington Navy Yard. Parading at Arlington that day was a military force consisting of the Coast Guard Academy’s corps of cadets (under arms), a stand of colors, a provisional Coast Guard enlisted battalion consisting of about 100 bluejackets, one boatswain, five chief boatswains mates and 40 surfmen.
Engraved invitations went out and, as people responded, tickets were issued for reserved seating. Attendees consisted of local and national dignitaries, government officials, Coast Guard personnel and, most importantly, 20 family members of the men inscribed on the memorial itself. Of the family members who attended, most represented those lost on the Tampa. A smaller contingent of family members came in support of the Seneca and others lost in the line of duty whose names were inscribed on the Memorial. The presence of family and friends was a potent reminder of the war’s toll on the Coast Guard community and reflected the members’ shared grief, sacrifice and patriotism.
The dedication ceremony began at three o’clock sharp on Wednesday, May 23, 1928. The order of exercises incorporated a military parade from one of the nearby gates to the Memorial, opening and closing prayers, and addresses by Secretary Mellon, Navy Secretary Curtis Wilbur and Coast Guard Commandant Frederick Billard. The ceremony also featured a music ensemble, including the Coast Guard marching song Semper Paratus, the patriotic song America (My Country ‘Tis of Thee), a classical piece by Beethoven and other music. The unveiling was accompanied by a presentation of floral tributes. Somber and patriotic, the ceremony concluded with Taps and the marching song All Hands.
The Coast Guard War Memorial and its dedication were the culmination of time, effort and money by countless supporters. For those closely involved with the project, it was a labor of love and loyalty.