Almost 101 years later, Justin P. Wiley receives Purple Heart

Torpedoed ship sank in less than three minutes
Mon, 08/05/2019 - 8:45am

On the night of Sept. 26, 1918, six weeks before World War I ended, USCG Petty Officer First Class Justin Plummer Wiley was aboard the USCGC TAMPA on duty in the North Atlantic. At 23, Wiley was acting wheelman.

The Dorchester, Massachusetts resident came from a family with a tradition of military service dating to the Revolutionary War. His father Samuel P. Wiley died while serving during the Spanish and American War. Justin’s older brother George Percy Wiley enlisted in the Canadian Expeditionary Force at the start of World War I and was killed in France  at the Battle of Vimy Ridge in 1917.

The night of Sept. 26, 1918 was reported to be dark and cloudy with no moon. The TAMPA was part of a 32-ship convoy bound for Liverpool from Gibraltar. Just north of Wales in the Bristol Channel she separated from the other ships and headed toward Milford Haven for coal.

A German submarine was patrolling the area. It spotted the TAMPA and at 8:15 p.m. it fired a torpedo from 550 meters away, striking its target amidships.

Within three minutes, explosions from pressure fuses on depth charges aboard the TAMPA detonated, signaling that the ship had gone under.

According to the submarine captain’s report, 10 minutes after firing the torpedo he surfaced to look for debris or survivors. Nothing was left. Wiley was gone, as were his 130 shipmates – Coast Guard officers and men, Navy sailors and British passengers.

As one of the largest U.S. Naval losses of World War I, the sinking of the TAMPA is so significant in Coast Guard history, the ship is still remembered in the words of “Semper Paratus,” the Coast Guard March.

On Sunday, Aug. 4, in a meeting room at the Boothbay Harbor Coast Guard Station, more than a dozen members of Wiley’s family assembled for a ceremony remembering his sacrifice, almost 101 years after his death. They traveled from Alaska, Washington, New York City, Connecticut, Massachusetts and Texas and Midcoast Maine to receive the Purple Heart.

The significance placed on the sinking of the TAMPA by the Coast Guard was evident from attendees. 

The Coast Guard’s Northern New England Sector Command Master Chief Christopher H. James presented the award to the family. The ceremony lasted about 15 minutes and ended with “Taps.”

Also present were Chuck Mahalis, representing U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, R - Maine; Sarah Graettinger, representing U.S. Sen. Angus King, I - Maine; and members of the Boothbay Harbor American Legion Charles E. Sherman Jr. post.

According to Alna resident Fred Bowers, the family was contacted last March by Coast Guard archivist Nora Chidlow. She explained she was looking for the family of Justin Plummer Wiley for the TAMPA Purple Heart Project. Fred and his brother Peter, of Alaska, are the grandsons of Wiley’s first cousin, Ralph Bowers. 

The family was asked to provide the Coast Guard with substantiating documents – birth certificates, a family Bible and others – in a process that took several months.

The family picked the day (Aug. 4 is the Coast Guard’s birthday) and the location for the ceremony. Fred Bowers explained, the family home is in Woolwich, which “has always been the center of the family’s universe despite living around the country.”

Speaking on behalf of his family, Fred Bowers thanked the station’s crew, representatives of Maine’s Senators and members of the American Legion for attending. He also mentioned Wiley’s mother who “saw her young family destroyed by war.”

Bowers spoke of appreciation for military service. “The TAMPA safely convoyed more than 300 ships,” he reminded attendees. “If they had made it another six weeks, we wouldn’t be here today.”

George Washington established the original Purple Heart in 1782.

Until 1942, Coast Guardsmen were not eligible. In 1999, efforts were started to posthumously award the medal to those who lost their lives serving on the TAMPA. With the help of the Coast Guard Auxiliary, Chidlow and her colleagues are working diligently to find TAMPA families.

About 34 Purple Hearts have been awarded of the 84 unclaimed when the project started in 1999.