USS Serpens (AK-97)
Unheralded logistical ships like the USCG USS Serpens helped to win the war effort in the Pacific Theater.
Authored By: JR Potts, AUS 173d AB | Last Edited:
USS Serpens was the 18th Crater class freighter cargo ship constructed for use by the United States Navy in World War II by the Maritime Commission. She was classified as EC2-S-C1 (EC2 = Emergency Cargo, type 2 and S = steam propulsion) and fitted with one propeller. As Liberty type ship, she was commissioned in San Diego in May 1943. The class was comprised of 62 total ships and was the largest class of freighters built for the war effort - thought by many to number the very stars in sky - and, as such, were named after either stars or constellations. World War 2 was arguably won by the logistical support as provided for by ships like Serpens. In contrast, the Japanese Army maintained poor logistical support for her soldiers throughout the war where, in places like Guadalcanal, many would starve to death. Empire soldiers would be called upon to combat the American fighting man - a solider his relative equal but one that was provided for far better through regularly shipped military ammunition, medical supplies and food (though sometimes rationed) and even the occasional mail call from home.
Liberty ships were slightly over 441 feet long by 57 feet wide. They used a 2,500 horsepower steam engine to push them through the water at 11 knots, equaling approximately 11.5 miles per hour. The ships maintained a range of about 17,000 miles. Crew quarters were located amidships while cargo was fitted into one of the five available holds - three situated forward of the engine room and two in the aft portion of the vessel. Each ship could carry up to 10,800 deadweight tons of cargo and 4,380 net tons - effectively the amount of space available for cargo and/or passengers.
Many technological advances were made during the Liberty shipbuilding program. A steel cold-rolling process was developed to save steel in the making of lightweight cargo booms. Welding techniques were developed to produce the first all-welded craft. Prefabrication was introduced resulting in complete deckhouses, double-bottom sections, stern-frame assemblies and bow units inevitably increasing production output of whole ships. On average it took 592,000 hours to build the ship and the average time of construction for one ship by 1944 became just 42 days. The ship required 3,425 tons of steel for the hull along with 2,725 tons of steel plate and 700 tons of metal shaped walls and bulk heads needing 50,000 castings. A total of 2,751 Liberties were built between 1941 and 1945.
USS Serpens was a United States Coast Guard-manned cargo ship with the function of transporting war cargo from point A to point B as directed by the Navy department. She was known as a 10,000-ton cargo ship to which the United States War Shipping Administration would plan the load based on the assignment. The loading manifest itself was based on the weight and cube of each item and its associated packaging. Some products, naturally, could not be stored together such as water and fuel. Unloading of her goods occurred based on space and needs critical to the mission. As such, food was unloaded first followed by ammunition and then larger systems like tanks, etc. Cargo information needed to be planned in advanced so facilities were ready to go on the awaiting docks.
After her shakedown cruise in mid 1943, this in the Pacific Ocean off California, USS Serpens was loaded with general cargo and, in June of that year, she sailed west to support operations in the Solomons as a provision ship. By the end of July she was en route from New Caledonia to New Zealand. Taking on more cargo she returned to New Caledonia and began a series of short hauls to supply US Marines on Vitu Levu, Tutuila, Penrhyn, Bora Bora, Aitutaki, and Tongatapu. In November 1943 Serpens returned to New Caledonia and in December she again sailed to the Solomons. She sailed to Lunga Point, Guadalcanal, to load cargo for Bougainville.
During January 1944, USS Serpens completed two runs into Empress Augusta Bay. In February, she was ordered to New Zealand for repairs in dry dock. For the next few months, Serpens delivered freight to beachheads in the Solomon islands and the New Hebrides. She went off to New Zealand to reload in July of 1944 and was at Purvis Bay for a short refit and the installing of SF-1 radar. SF-1 radar systems maintained a wavelength of 10 cm and was intended for use on PT boats but was found to be too heavy and was instead installed on larger ships like Serpens. Serpens then resumed operations throughout October, carrying general cargo and wheeled vehicles between ports and island anchorages in the Solomon's. In November, she loaded vehicles from Guadalcanal for areas around New Zealand. After offloading the goods and vehicles, three of her holds were converted for ammunition stowage.
Late in December 1944, the Serpens started loading at Wellington and finished at Auckland New Zealand. She returned to the Solomons on January 16th, 1945. Late in the evening on January 29th, 1945, the Serpens was anchored off Lunga Beach, Guadalcanal, a port she new well by this time. The commanding officer - Lieutenant Commander Stinson - along with one other officer and six enlisted men, had gone ashore. As standard operating procedure the loading continued late into the evening. This practice was to allow the men to work at night, away from the heat of the daytime sun while still keeping to a war footing schedule. The remaining 198 members of Serpens crew and 57 members of an Army stevedore unit were on board the ship loading such goods as ammunition, depth charges and general cargo supplies into her holds as she had done many times before. It was during this time that the USS Serpens suddenly exploded.
The force of the explosion was so great that it killed an Army soldier situated on the beach and a public health surgeon - Dr. Levin - who was onboard. After the explosion, only the bow of the ship was visible. The rest of the vessel had completely disintegrated and the bow sank soon afterward. Only two sailors aboard survived the incident - SN 1/C Kelsie Kemp and SN 1/C George Kennedy - escaping from the Bosuns hole. Eyewitness reports stated hearing shells exploding and the sky filled with tracers. Parts of the ship landed in waters throughout the harbor. Boats searched for survivors finding only debris, body parts and dead fish. Fire and oil covered the water and all were horrified at the shock and sight of the bow of the Serpens slowly sinking. No one knew if this was an accident or an enemy attack but after a long investigation it was classified as unknown though not sunk by enemy action on June 10th, 1949. The loss of the Serpens remains the largest single disaster ever suffered by the U.S. Coast Guard.
The military buried the remains of the 250 at the Guadalcanal Cemetery of all services. In 1949, under the return program, the remains of the Serpens incident were returned in a mass recommittal as all were unidentified war dead. The chosen place of rest was the Arlington National Cemetery in Washington, D.C., in section 34 at Macarthur Circle. All the remains were placed in 52 caskets and buried in 28 graves.