(Sarasota Herald-Tribune)

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.

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Lucille Mattis, of Richland, Washington State, was 97.

When her son, a retired Marine Corps general, was defense secretary under President Trump from January 2017 through 2018, he frequently came back to his hometown of Richland to see her.

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(Photo illustration by Task & Purpose)

East Aurora, New York native and World War II veteran Luciano "Louis" C. Graziano is believed to be the last living eyewitness to the formal surrender of Germany at the "Little Red Schoolhouse" in Reims, France.

Of that monumental moment in history on May 7, 1945, Graziano says that at the time he did not realize the gravity of it.

"I just took it as it came. I was 22. I didn't think too much about anything. I just did what I had to do," the now 96-year-old Army veteran said.

But as the years flew by, he came to understand the significance.

"I was honored to be in that room," Graziano wrote in his recently published book, A Patriot's Memoirs of World War II - Through My Eyes, Heart and Soul.

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Carl Lingenfelter remembers sitting on his grandfather's lap as a young boy listening to his stories about fighting for the Confederacy during the Civil War.

His grandfather recounted how his commander, Gen. Sterling Price, refused to surrender after Gen. Robert Lee's capitulation at Appomattox Court House and instead led his remaining troops to Mexico.

"Grandpa would tell these stories to me," Lingenfelter said from the kitchen table of his Barberton home. "And when I went to school, I didn't think much of Abe Lincoln. Neither did grandpa."

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(U.S. Air National Guard/Staff Sgt. Curtis J. Lenz)

Herman "Herk" Streitburger was on his final bombing mission and due to go home when his plane was hit by German fighters over Hungary in 1944. He was captured and held as a prisoner of war, enduring starvation, forced marches and a harrowing escape.

Streitburger just turned 100 years old. That makes him a national treasure as well as a Granite State hero.

Streitburger, who lives in Bedford, gets around using a cane and remains active in POW groups and events. It was he who donated his family Bible to a POW "missing man" display at the VA Medical Center in Manchester, which prompted a federal First Amendment lawsuit.

And every year, he tells his World War II story to Manchester schoolchildren. It's a story worth retelling.

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