In the years leading up to America's involvement in World War I, the Coast Guard Cutter Tampa — named for the Cigar City — was known as the happiest ship in the fleet.
Chugging through Tampa Bay and along the Gulf Coast, the ship did the usual work of patrolling, looking for wayward mariners and, in January, providing coverage during the city's annual celebration of the faux pirate Jose Gaspar.
"Records indicate it participated in the Gasparilla Festival," said Coast Guard Cmdr. Susan Polizzotto, who runs the latest vessel to take the Tampa name. "There were receptions hosted by the ship, and officers attended social functions. The friendliness of the people of Tampa, combined with the Tampa crew, contributed to the ship having a high morale."
Then the United States entered WWI. The Tampa was assigned to escort convoys running from Gibraltar, a spit of land extending from southern Spain, to the United Kingdom.
On Sept. 26, 1918, as the war was winding down, the Tampa was making its last wartime escort on a moonless night in Bristol Channel, off the coast of Wales. Cutting through moderately heavy seas, the Tampa broke ahead of the other vessels. Coast Guard officials believe it might have been chasing a German submarine. An explosion was heard and the ship disappeared.
"It is presumed the ship was hit by a torpedo," Polizzotto said.
None of the 115 crew members or 16 passengers survived. Up to 28 of the casualties were said to be from the Tampa area.
It was the largest loss of U.S. naval forces during the war.
The wreckage has not been found.
The ship's sinking was big news in its namesake city. Flags were flown at half-staff for 30 days. American Legion USS Tampa Post 5, on Kennedy Boulevard just west of Dale Mabry Highway, was named for the ill-fated vessel. A memorial in the post's cemetery includes the names of those who died.
From the captain's quarters of the latest version of the Tampa, steaming from its home port in Virginia to Cape Canaveral, Polizzotto said it remains a happy ship.
"I am very lucky," she said in a telephone call Saturday afternoon. "I have a wonderful crew."
There are no more German torpedoes to dodge, but the crew still faces challenges.
The Atlantic Ocean can still be a dangerous place, especially during hurricane season, Polizzotto said.
Instead of escorting convoys, the ship now plies the Atlantic looking for illegal fishing, drug runners and marooned migrants.
This is the fourth ship to bear the Tampa moniker. During World War II, the second Tampa also escorted convoys. The most recent Tampa is a 270-foot cutter, commissioned in 1984, with a crew of 100.
Polizzotto, a 16-year Coast Guard veteran, began her two-year command in June.
"This is the best tour of duty I've ever had," she said. "It's hard to top being the CO [commanding officer]."
This month the ship is celebrating the centennial anniversary of the original Tampa, commissioned in 1912. In Cape Canaveral, Polizzotto and her crew will take part in a unique ceremony.
In 1999, the Coast Guard decided to bestow posthumous Purple Heart medals on all those who perished. The medals are given to family members as they come forward.
On Monday, the ship will pay homage to Charles Henry Klingelhoefer, a warrant officer whose family lives near Cape Canaveral.
"It will be a great honor to remember this hero," Polizzotto said.
And maybe one day the Tampa, she said, will cruise into Tampa.
"We hope to visit Tampa directly," she said. "We would like that very much."