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  USS Serpens AK-97
USN
Crater Class Cargo Ship

14,250 Tons
441' 6" x 56' 11" x 27' 7"
1 x 5"/38 gun
2 x 40mm guns
6 x 20mm guns

Click For Enlargement
USN 1944
Ship History
Built by by California Shipbuilding Corporation, Wilmington, California. Laid down March 10, 1943 as EC2 class Liberty Ship that was initially named SS Benjamin N. Cardozo (MCE hull 739). Launched April 5, 1943. Transferred to the U. S. Navy (USN) on April 19, 1943 and renamed USS Serpens (AK-97) aft the star constellation Serpens. Commissioned May 28, 1943 at San Diego. Assigned to Captain Magnus J. Johnson, USCGR and manned by crew from the U. S. Coast Guard (USCG).

Sinking History
On January 29, 1945 Serpens was anchored off Lunga Point on Guadalcanal and was being loaded with depth charges. Late in the evening, the ship suddenly exploded and sank. Killed in the blast were 193 U. S. Coast Guard (USCG) crewmen, 56 U. S. Army stevedores and a Public Health Service physician. The force of the explosion was so great that it also killed a U. S. Army soldier ashore. The cause of the explosion was never determined and the loss of the Serpens was the largest single disaster ever suffered by the U. S. Coast Guard (USCG).

Robert Brock adds:
"A ship anchored off Lunga Point on Guadalcanal exploded one night and covered the beach area and inland for several meters with debris. An article was in 'Ripleys Believe-it-or not' several years ago in which it stated that one man survived the blast and was blown through a porthole. I helped recover bodies the next day. Many of the casualties were stevedores from Fiji."

Fate of the Crew
Only two of the crew survived the explosion and sinking: Seaman 1st Class Kelsie Kemp and Seaman 1st Class George Kennedy. Both earned the Purple Heart for injuries sustained.

Eight other crew were ashore at the time of the explosion. The ship's commanding officer, Lieutenant Commander Perry Stinson, another officer plus six crewmen were ashore on administrative duty.

Shipwreck
During 1944, this shipwreck was first identified by Ewan Stevenson. The bow is upside down off Lunga Point.

Recovery of Remains
Afterwards, the remains of 250 of the crew were recovered and buried at the Army, Navy and Marine Cemetery on Guadalcanal. Postwar the remains were exhumed and transported to the United States. On

Memorials
On June 15, 1949, the remains were reinterred at Arlington National Cemetery (ANC) in section 34 in 52 caskets and 28 graves. A crowd of 1,500 people attended the reinterment service officiated by Catholic, Protestant and Jewish chaplains.

On November 16, 1950 the USS Serpens Memorial was dedicated with the names of each person killed and the unveiling was attended by roughly 100 relatives and several hundred others with Vice Admiral Merlin O'Neill, Commandant of the U. S. Coast Guard giving a brief address that included the statement: "We cannot undo the past, but we can ensure that these men shall be respected and honored forever."

Kemp passed away on October 1, 2015 at age 90. He is buried at Lawrence Stephens Farm Cemetery in Barren Springs, VA.

References
NavSource - USS Serpens (AK-97)

Liberty Ships built by the United States Maritime Commission in World War II - 0739 - Benjamin N. Cardozo - Completed as AK 97 Serpens
The Coast Guard Manned USS Serpens AK 97 Commemorative Website website down as of July 28, 2011
Arlington National Cemetery (ANC) - USS Serpens Memorial includes the names of the crew lost
FindAGrave - Kelsie Kyle Kemp (grave photos)

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Last Updated
October 11, 2020

 

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