The Long Blue Line: Happy Thanksgiving! — The Tampa Trunk artifacts and legacy of the lost World War I cutter

By Nora L. Chidlow, archivist, U.S. Coast Guard


The Long Blue Line blog series has been publishing Coast Guard history essays for over 15 years. To access hundreds of these service stories, visit the Coast Guard Historian’s Office’s Long Blue Line online archives, located here: THE LONG BLUE LINE (

In 1918, World War I was coming to an end. Coast Guard Cutter Tampa was one of six cutters on convoy duty in European waters. The cutters were part of Squadron 2, Division 6, of the Atlantic Fleet Patrol Forces, and served as danger zone escorts, protecting merchant convoys that were approaching or leaving Gibraltar. Tampa escorted 18 convoys without incident. 

On Sept. 26, 1918, low on coal, Tampa was sailing alone toward Milford Haven, Wales, with its lights doused as a security measure. At 8:15 pm, the German submarine UB-91 launched a torpedo, which blasted a hole in Tampa’s hull amidship. Tampa sank in less than three minutes, taking with it 130 souls, including 111 Coast Guardsmen, four Navy men, and 15 British Royal Navy men and dockworkers. 

The Purple Heart Medal originated from an honor George Washington bestowed on a handful of men during the American Revolution. It was called the Badge of Merit and was made of a purplish cloth in the shape of a heart with the word merit sewn across the center. At the time of Tampa’s loss, the Purple Heart was not in use. As Army Chief of Staff, General Douglas MacArthur had the award restored as an Army medal on Feb. 22, 1932. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9277 on Dec. 3, 1942, extending eligibility to the Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard. Finally, on Nov. 12, 1952, President Harry S. Truman signed Executive Order 10409, allowing for the awarding of the Purple Heart to be retroactive for actions after April 5, 1917. Recipients had to be killed or wounded as a result of direct enemy action. 

Although the crew of Tampa became eligible for the Purple Heart, the vessel remained overlooked until 1999, when James Bunch, a retired Coast Guardsman, proposed to Commandant Adm. James Loy that the Purple Heart be awarded to its crew. On Nov. 11, 1999, 82 years after Tampa sank, the cutter’s crew was posthumously awarded the Purple Heart in a ceremony at the Coast Guard Memorial at Arlington National Cemetery. Tampa’s crew had become the earliest Coast Guard recipients of the Purple Heart, and the cutter’s 11 Black crewmen were the first uniformed minority Coast Guardsmen to die in combat and the first minority members to receive the Purple Heart. 

Among Tampa’s officers was 1st Lieutenant James Alexander Frost, Jr., whose Purple Heart was posthumously awarded on March 16, 2023, in Tampa, Florida. Following the ceremony, the family donated Lt. Frost’s steamer trunk with its contents, which dated to his service prior to going overseas, to the Coast Guard Historian’s Office. 

When Tampa was lost, Lt. Frost was just weeks away from turning 32 years old. He was the oldest of eight children and an only son. His father was the chief clerk in the Army’s Quartermaster’s Department at Fort Totten, Brooklyn, New York. In 1911, Frost graduated from the Revenue Cutter Service School of Instruction (predecessor of present-day Coast Guard Academy) and was assigned to the cutter Windom. He was recognized for gallantry in leading a rescue party during a flood rescue in Galveston, Texas. Frost was assigned to Tampa as a watch officer on Aug. 8, 1917, while the cutter was undergoing a wartime refit in Brooklyn, New York. 

Lt. Frost’s sister, Lillian, was just 15 years old when she lost her brother. Lilian’s grandson Scott Irwin reached out to me in March 2022 with an interest in accepting Lt. Frost’s Purple Heart. Paperwork was submitted to our Medals & Awards Office in May. Within a few weeks, the family offered to donate to the Coast Guard Lieutenant Frost’s World War I steamer trunk. Our office was ecstatic about this donation, given we have very few items from World War I. 

The trunk had been stored at the Frost family home in Brooklyn from 1917 until 1989, when Frost’s last surviving sister passed away. After that, the trunk was moved several times until 1997, when it was transported to the Florida home of Janet Irwin, Frost’s niece, and Scott’s mother. 

On March 16, 2023, 105 years after Tampa sank, Frost’s Purple Heart was posthumously awarded to Mrs. Irwin at the Tampa Bay History Center, located in Tampa. Another Tampa family received their Purple Heart during the same ceremony, which was hosted by Coast Guard Sector St. Petersburg and officiated by Capt. Michael Kahle. 

The Tampa Bay History Center has a large Tampa mural painted on the outside of the museum, and it is situated in an area where Tampa once docked so many years ago. I had the pleasure of attending the ceremony and meeting the Irwin family, who wanted to accept the Purple Heart and donate the trunk while Mrs. Irwin was still physically able to do so. 

As I unpacked the trunk for display purposes, I could not help feeling that I was touching history, knowing that Frost had worn the dress and summer uniforms, hats, and written in the notebooks that were in the trunk. Contents also included fishing gear, award ribbons, maps, and a 1912 cloth manual for the cutter Itasca (which Lt. Frost did not served on). The most interesting, if not odd item was military-issued underwear, held in place only with buttons! We had never seen anything like it. 

Following the ceremony, the Irwin family formally donated the trunk to the Coast Guard Historian’s Office. It is now at the Exhibit Center in Maryland, where it has been accessioned and processed and will be preserved for future generations for research and museum display. 

Tampa’s brief, but illustrious, story is one of selfless service, valor, and ultimately human tragedy amidst the destruction of war. It was the nation’s single largest naval combat loss of World War I. Because of the Tampa Purple Heart Project, we now know more about its crew than any other cutter’s crew in the history of the United States Coast Guard. Lt. Frost’s service may have been brief, but it is not forgotten thanks to donations such as his World War I steamer trunk. 

In 2014, the Coast Guard Historian’s Office had begun the process of tracking down Tampa descendants. In 2018, a ceremony memorializing the 100th anniversary of Tampa’s loss saw the awarding of ten Purple Hearts at Coast Guard Headquarters in Washington, D.C. After that, the COVID pandemic put all Tampa ceremonies on hold, but now they are beginning to take place once again. Today, more than 60 Tampa Purple Hearts have been awarded. Tampa’s legacy continues to live on through the cutter’s stories and artifacts passed down through generations. 


Image Gallery

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CGD 24 Wainwright Unknown port; photo taken from quarterdeck of unnamed USCG cutter. Boston? Photo...
USCG patrol boats during Prohibition
"Coast Guard Destroyer Downes (From a Painting by the Destroyer Force Bugle Staff Artist, Marius...
"Ensign Roland making end run, Coast Guard-Marine game, Washington, D.C., 1929." Scanned from...
"1929 - Coast Guard Football Team - 1929. Back Row: -Lieut. Baker, Coast and Manager; Wineke,...
A photo of Coast Guard Destroyer CONYNGHAM on patrol during Prohibition.
Coast Guard Destroyer's baseball team (no date).
Hand-written caption on reverse of photo reads: "Officers and crew of CGC Beale (Navy destroyer...
Hand-written caption on reverse of photo reads: "R R Waesche Sr., CGC Snohomish, Port Angeles, or...
"BEALE (CG-9) (Of the old U.S. Coast Guard Destroyer Force - 1924-1930) An early 20th century...
"Engineroom Force of the Coast Guard Cutter PONTCHARTRAIN. 3-5-29 (1)." CCG Scrapbook (CG...
Copy photo found in the CG Historian's Office Special Collections Archive in the "Uniforms" folder....

U.S. Coast Guard Historian's Office
2703 Martin Luther King, Jr., Ave, SE
Washington, DC 20593-7031

U.S. Coast Guard Museum
Coast Guard Academy - Waesche Hall
15 Mohegan Ave
New London, CT 06320-8100

Contacting us:  U.S.C.G. Historian's Office