The ship that would eventually become the USS Serpens was built by California Shipbuilding Corporation in Wilmington, California. The ship was laid down March 10, 1943, as EC2 class Liberty Ship that was initially named SS Benjamin N. Cardozo (MCE hull 739). In the course of a little more than a month, SS Cardozo was transferred to the US Navy (USN) on April 19, 1943, and renamed USS Serpens (AK-97) after the star constellation Serpens. USS Serpens was commissioned May 28, 1943, at San Diego, and assigned to Captain Magnus J. Johnson, USCGR and manned by a crew from the US Coast Guard (USCG). From there, the ship led a relatively normal “life” for a ship. At least until the evening of January 29, 1945, when the USS Serpens (AK 97) was anchored off Lunga Beach, Guadalcanal, Solomon Islands. The Commanding Officer, Lieutenant Commander Perry L Stinson, and some of the enlisted men were ashore performing administrative functions.
The remaining 970 crew members were loading depth charges when the USS Serpens suddenly exploded, leaving only the bow of the ship visible. The explosion was devastating, and 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 US Public Health Service surgeon, died…most instantly. Of the 198 US Coast Guardsmen, 167 were reservists. In the immense explosion, nearby ships were damaged, and a US Army soldier on the beach was killed. 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.”
The Coast Guard initially though the explosion was an enemy attack. They actually continued to think that until July 1947. By June 10, 1949, it was officially determined not to have been the result of enemy attack. Unfortunately, there would be no real answers as to what happened. The remains of the 250 men who lost their lives were originally buried at the Army, Navy, and Marine Cemetery in Guadalcanal with full military honors and religious services. Later, however, 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. The two survivors both earned the Purple Heart injuries sustained.