USS Serpens AK 97 Commemorative Website - The Story of the Serpens Page

Late in the evening on January 29th 1945, the USS Serpens AK 97 was anchored off Lunga Beach, Guadalcanal, Solomon Islands. The Commanding Officer, Lieutenant Commander Perry L. Stinson, enlisted men were ashore performing administrative functions. While the remaining compliment was loading depth charges the USS Serpens suddenly exploded, leaving only the bow of the ship visible. USS Serpens AK 97 Only two sailors aboard SN 1/C Kelsie K. Kemp and SN 1/C George S. Kennedy survived by clinging to the bow section of the ship, after escaping from the "bosun's hole" inside the ship. The rest of the crew consisting of 198 Coast Guardsmen, 56 US Army stevedores and Dr. Levin, a U.S. Public Health Service surgeon died, most instantly. 167 of the 198 U.S. Coast Guardsmen were reservists. The explosion was so immense that is damaged nearby ships and killed a US Army soldier on the beach. The loss of the USS Serpens remains the largest single disaster ever suffered by the Coast Guard.

An eyewitness account of the disaster stated that, "As we headed our personnel boat shoreward the sound and concussion of the explosion suddenly reached us, and, as we turned, we witnessed the awe-inspiring death drams unfold before us. As the report of screeching shells filled the air and the flash of tracers continued, the water splashed throughout the harbor as the shells hit. We headed our boat in the direction of the smoke and as we came into closer view of what had once been a ship, the water was filled only with floating debris, dead fish, torn life jackets, lumber and other unidentifiable objects. The smell of death, and fire, and gasoline, and oil was evident and nauseating. This was sudden death, and horror, unwanted and unasked for, but complete."

At the time, and up to July 1947, the Coast Guard still thought an enemy attack had caused the blast. However, by June 10, 1949, it was officially determined not to have been the result of enemy action but never completely determined of the exact nature of the explosion.

The 250 remains were originally buried at the Army, Navy and Marine Cemetery in Guadalcanal with full military honors and religious services. The remains were repatriated under the program for the return of World War II dead in 1949. The mass recommittal of the 250 unidentified dead took place in section 34 at MacArthur Circle, Arlington National Cemetery. The remains were placed in 52 caskets and buried in 28 graves near the intersection of Jesup and Grant Drives.