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New memorial honors crew of Coast Guard cutter Tampa killed in WWI

TAMPA — Nancy Turner talks about U.S. Coast Guard sailors in the mural as if they were old friends.

The man in the middle is Wamboldt Sumner.

"His family is still here,’’ Turner says.

The tall man on the right is Algy Bevins.

"He worked for Ferman Motor Cars.’’

Sumner, Bevins and their compatriots were among the 24 Tampa men who died when the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Tampa was torpedoed by a German submarine during World War I. The ship sank to the bottom of Great Britain’s Bristol Channel in three minutes on the night of Sept. 26, 1918, killing all 131 people aboard.

Once Turner learned of the tragedy, she was consumed by it.

"You kind of hear the story and get sucked in,’’ Turner said, noting that the tale is largely forgotten these days. That’s why she and fellow Tampa native Robin Gonzalez pressed a three-year crusade to create a memorial for the ship and crew.

The result is a 10-by-22-foot stained glass mosaic that will be permanently affixed to the facade of the Tampa Bay History Center. The public is invited to the dedication at 10 a.m. Saturday (Feb. 3) at the center in downtown Tampa.

Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, Hillsborough County Commission Chairwoman Sandy Murman, U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor and C.J. Roberts, history center chuief executive officer, are expected to speak, along with Coast Guard Admiral Karl Schultz, commander of the Atlantic Area.

Memorial wreaths will be tossed into the water to commemorate the 100th anniversary this year of the sinking of the Tampa.

Sailors from the modern U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Tampa, which is expected to be in the area, have been invited to attend.

Following the dedication, visitors can check out a free history center exhibit about the original ship.

It was organized by Gonzalez, who wrote a book on the tragedy, called Tampa’s Own, for distribution in Hillsborough County schools. The key relic is a plate identifying the vessel by its number: U.S. Coast Guard Boat 718. It was found on a beach in England in 1924.

Photographs, letters home, souvenirs and other memorabilia help tell the story. Turner said visitors will feel the presence of the sailors.

The center’s marketing director, Manny Leto, said the exhibit will be free only on the day of the mural dedication.

"We’d love for (visitors) to come down,’’ he said.

Visitors will have to pay the admission price — $12.95 for adults —to see the center’s other exhibits on that day. The cutter Tampa exhibit runs through March.

The ship has a special connection to Tampa beyond its name. The cutter took part in several Gasparilla invasion celebrations in the years before World War I, docking at the site where the history center now stands.

During the war, the ship was transferred to the Navy, though it still was manned by its Coast Guard crew. It had made 18 voyages escorting merchant convoys when it was struck by a single torpedo, which exploded amidships. It was the Navy’s worst combat loss during the war.

The mural quotes a statement from the Coast Guard: "Few words carry as much weight in the annals of Coast Guard history as the word ‘Tampa.’"

Artists Carl and Sandra Bryant of Lynden, Wash., created the mural, made possible by a $75,000 grant from the county to the history center.

Turner is thrilled to see the "those boys’’ of the cutter Tampa get the recognition they’re due.

"Hopefully, the story will never be forgotten again.’’

Contact Philip Morgan at [email protected]

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