SEATTLE — The icebreaker Polar Star was 1,000 miles out of its home port of Seattle last December, three days into its yearly voyage to resupply scientific bases in Antarctica, when a powerful swell hit its bow and flooded the deck.
The ship shuddered.
The roar of the ventilators in the galley quit as Joseph Sellar, a stocky 25-year-old Coast Guard culinary specialist from New Hampshire, watched seawater explode from the ceiling.
He lunged toward a switch to close the overhead vents. With a loud pop, an outlet ejected a purple spark.
"Are we sinking?" asked a petty officer on temp duty from Virginia.
Sellar knew better.
"Calm down," he said, whipping out his cellphone to record the gusher.
The United States spends $2 billion a day on the most advanced military ever assembled, with more aircraft carriers, fighter planes and nuclear submarines than any other nation. The Pentagon intends to develop a space fleet of orbiting lasers, missile sensors and satellites.
In July, yet-to-be-commissioned Coast Guard cutter Midgett passed through the Panama Canal and started a roughly 5,000-mile trip to Honolulu.
The Coast Guard accepted the Midgett in April, and it didn't leave the Mississippi shipyard where it was built until June 11. But the newest national-security cutter was ready as it transited the eastern Pacific, and with good reason — the ship helped intercept more than 2,100 pounds of cocaine before it even made it to its home port.
It was no surprise the dramatic Coast Guard video quickly went viral.
Shot on a coast guardsman's helmet camera, the one-minute clip posted to the Department of Defense's imagery website captured the remarkable end of a June 18 high seas pursuit that ended with one team member leaping aboard a moving submersible and pounding on the hatch until suspected drug runners opened up.
But the story of how Coasties took down the so-called "narco sub" began about 12 hours before the video took place, according to Capt. James Estramonte, the commanding officer of U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Munro, the high endurance vessel credited with its seizure.
VENICE — Packed with 600 tons of ammo and explosives, the USS Serpens died in a flash beneath a full moon at 11:18 p.m. on Jan. 29, 1945.
The blast was so violent it rained shrapnel and debris on the island of Guadalcanal a mile away, killed a soldier onshore, knocked everyone standing within that radius off their feet, and flung one sailor into another vessel moored 650 yards away. That ship, the USS YP 514, had its bow and crow's nest demolished, and counted 14 injuries as "missiles" and "screeching shells" continued to explode and turn night into day.
Witnesses said the calamity generated an 8-foot tidal wave, and that the ground shock rippled five miles out. Some said the sky drizzled oil for up to two hours. When bystanders regained their senses, the 100-ton barge that had been transferring bombs onto the Serpens had vanished, and all that was left of the 441-foot cargo ship was its sinking bow, keel up.
Miraculously, two sailors who had been asleep in a forward hold survived. Few other bodies were recovered intact. When the counting was done, 193 Coast Guard crewmen, who had been manning the Navy ship, were gone — along with 56 Army stevedores and an onboard civilian doctor. It was, in short, the most catastrophic single-event loss of life in the history of the U.S. Coast Guard.
Four years later, in what Arlington National Cemetery describes as "the largest group burial" ever hosted, the remains of the 250 casualties from that disaster were retrieved from Guadalcanal, placed in 52 flag-draped coffins, and laid to rest in 28 graves.
According to the Navy, which conducted the investigation, the Serpens blew up during the accidental mishandling of bombs, torpedoes and depth charges. But the son of a crew member isn't buying it.
After pressing Florida politicians and pursuing government records with Freedom of Information Act requests, Robert Breen of Venice has discovered curious gaps in the Serpens' obituary. And at 76, the retired Central Intelligence Agency senior finance officer and certified fraud investigator wonders if he's onto one of the last coverups of World War II.
That Coast Guardsman who banged on the hatch of a semi-submersible to catch a couple of alleged cartel drug runners in a viral video is now up for an award, the top enlisted Coast Guardsman said Wednesday.
"We will definitely recognize that person" with an appropriate award, said Master Chief Petty Officer of the Coast Guard Jason Vanderhaven.