The Long Blue Line: Buoy Tender Blackthorn—lost nearly 40 years but not forgotten

This blog is part of a series honoring the long blue line of Coast Guard men and women who served before us. Stay tuned as we highlight the customs, traditions, history and heritage of the Coast Guard.

Written by William Thiesen
Coast Guard Atlantic Area Historian

Black and white photo of Buoy Tender Blackthorn. At the time of its sinking the tender was homeported at Galveston, Texas. U.S. Coast Guard photo.

Black and white photo of Buoy Tender Blackthorn. At the time of its sinking the tender was homeported at Galveston, Texas. U.S. Coast Guard photo.

One of 40 180-foot buoy tenders built during World War II, the Coast Guard commissioned Blackthorn (WLB-391), March 27, 1944.

The principal job of a buoy tender is to service aids to navigation. However, as with all Coast Guard craft, buoy tenders are often diverted to other missions like the Blackthorn early in its career. During its first few months in service, Blackthorn broke ice on the Great Lakes to keep open wartime shipping lanes. In mid-1944, the buoy tender received assignment to San Pedro, California, transiting the St. Lawrence River, East Coast, Gulf of Mexico and Panama Canal. For the next five years, Blackthorn operated out of San Pedro, servicing aids to navigation and carrying out other Coast Guard missions.

In early 1950, Blackthorn was reassigned to Mobile, Alabama, transiting the Panama Canal once again. While assigned to Mobile, the crews of Blackthorn assisted numerous vessels in distress. In April 1951, the buoy tender searched for survivors of Esso Greensboro, which had collided with tanker Esso Suez. Blackthorn assisted distressed merchantmen Ocean Pride in July 1951, Kerry Mac in October 1951, Mission Carmel in June 1952, and Beatrice in April 1954. Blackthorn also assisted Miss Cain Joy in July 1959.

During its time in Mobile, Blackthorn assisted in several airplane crash response efforts. In August 1952, the Blackthorn crew helped search for survivors of a B-17 bomber crash and, in February 1953, it searched for survivors of National Airlines Flight 470. Between May and June 1953, Blackthorn recovered the wreckage of the National Airlines aircraft. In April 1954, it salvaged a U.S. Air Force aircraft and, in May 1956, Blackthorn searched for two missing naval aircraft. In October 1957, Blackthorn salvaged sister buoy tender Iris, which had beached after suffering a hole in its hull.

Blackthorn was modernized throughout its 35-year career. In 1968, it received improvements in its heating and ventilation systems, and a new generator. In 1972, the buoy tender underwent another overhaul renovating the berthing, heads, and dispensary and adding a new lounge and pollution abatement system. A few years later, in 1976, Blackthorn was reassigned to Galveston, Texas. From late 1979 through early 1980, Blackthorn received yet another overhaul—this time in Tampa, Florida.

1980 photograph of Blackthorn after raising for inspection and subsequent sinking as a reef. U.S. Coast Guard photo.

1980 photograph of Blackthorn after raising for inspection and subsequent sinking as a reef. U.S. Coast Guard photo.

On the evening of Monday, Jan. 28, 1980, having just completed its overhaul, Blackthorn began its return to Galveston outward bound from Tampa Bay. While the buoy tender was outbound in the shipping channel, the 600-foot tanker S.S. Capricorn was steaming into the bay. Having been overtaken by the Russian passenger ship Kazakhstan, Blackthorn proceeded in mid-channel. Glare from the brightly-lit passenger vessel prevented the bridge watches of Blackthorn and Capricorn from seeing each other. After regaining its bearings, Capricorn began to turn left, but this prevented the two ships from passing port-side to port-side. Unable to make radio contact with Blackthorn, Capricorn’s pilot blew two whistle blasts to signal that the ships pass starboard-to-starboard.

With Blackthorn’s officer-on-deck (OOD) confused about standard operating procedure, the buoy tender’s captain ordered evasive action. However, the order came too late and the ships collided. The damage to Blackthorn seemed minimal, but Capricorn’s anchor was ready to deploy. The anchor embedded in the tender’s hull and, as the ships began separating, slack in the anchor chain tightened. The anchor ripped open the tender’s port side and filled Blackthorn’s exposed compartments with water. The buoy tender capsized and sank. Twenty-three of Blackthorn’s 50 crew members perished in the accident.

Prior to the Blackthorn accident, the Coast Guard had suffered the loss of the buoy tender White Alder in 1968, and Cutter Cuyahoga in 1978. Soon after the loss of Blackthorn, the service made sweeping improvements to cutter policy, doctrine, training and standardization. It created the Prospective Commanding Officer (CO)/Executive Officer (XO) Afloat Course, mandated that all COs, XOs and OODs pass the Deck Watch Officer Examination, required prospective COs and officers-in-charge to conduct underway familiarization rides, and promulgated Commandant Cutter Navigation Standards. All of these steps improved the proficiency and safety of afloat operations, and resulted in superior levels of cutter and crew readiness.

After the accident, Blackthorn was re-floated for an investigation and board of inquiry. The tender was then sunk as an artificial reef in the Gulf of Mexico. Now, nearly 40 years after the buoy tender’s sinking, we pause to remember Blackthorn and its lost crew members:

SS1 Subrino Avila
SNGM Randolph B. Barnaby
MK2 Richard D. Boone
SA Warren R. Brewer
QM2 Gary W. Crumly
DC2 Daniel M. Estrada
EM2 Thomas R. Faulkner
SA William R. Flores
SS3 Donald R. Frank
DC3 Lawrence D. Frye
QM3 Richard W. Gauld
SA Charles D. Hall
SA Glen E. Harrison
MK1 Bruce Lafond
FA Michael K. Luke
MK1 Danny R. Maxcy
SA John E. Prosko
ET1 Jerome F. Ressler
CWO Jack J. Roberts
SA George Rovolis, Jr.
ENS Frank J. Sarna
EM3 Edward F. Sindelar
MKC Luther D. Stidhem

Memorial service for Blackthorn held in 2015 at the Blackthorn Memorial in St. Petersburg, Fla. U.S. Coast Guard photo.

Memorial service for Blackthorn held in 2015 at the Blackthorn Memorial in St. Petersburg, Fla. U.S. Coast Guard photo.

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