By Petty Officer 3rd Class Eric D. Woodall, Coast Guard 7th District Public Affairs Office
It was a quiet Sunday afternoon in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, on May 21, 1944, when an explosion on a Landing Ship Tank that was loading ammunition set off a chain reaction that would continue to burn and cause subsequent explosions into the next day. Most of the crews in port were enjoying some well-earned Hawaii liberty; enjoying a break from the perils and deployments involved with the battle in the Pacific. Joseph Tezanos, a Coast Guard second class petty officer at the time, was standing duty on LST 20. On that day, without regard for his own personal safety or well being, Tezanos leapt into action to save lives.
Tezanos and three of his shipmates lowered a small boat from LST 20 and made two trips into the affected area, as the follow-on explosions occurred, saving approximately 42 injured men. While on the third run their small boat was swamped and sank. Tezanos' three shipmates managed to return to LST 20. Tezanos suffered multiple burns which kept him hospitalized for almost a week after the incident.
For his distinguished heroism, Tezanos received the Navy and Marine Corps Medal, accompanied by a citation signed for the President by James Forrestal, Secretary of the Navy, and a Coast Guard commendation letter from Commandant Russell Waesche.
Following the incident, Tezanos received orders to undertake reserve officer training at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy. Upon earning his commission as an ensign in 1945, he became one of the first known Hispanic-American officers in the Coast Guard. Tezanos died in 1985 and is buried at Arlington National Cemetery alongside other Coast Guard heroes.
This incident was later called the West Loch Disaster, which claimed the lives of approximately 163 people and wounded at least 396. It is often referred to as the second Pearl Harbor. Tezanos' legacy continues to inspire others to step up in the face of danger. More than seven decades later, the crew of a Coast Guard cutter bearing the Joseph Tezanos name pulled off a remarkably similar feat in one of the service's largest at-sea rescues just days before the ship was officially commissioned.
The Coast Guard Cutter Joseph Tezanos is the latest sentinel-class fast response cutter to honor the service's enlisted heroes the cutters are named after.
“We will continually strive to emulate our namesake's legacy,” said Lt. Nicholas Herndon, Cutter Joseph Tezanos' first commanding officer.
Following a 250-mile transit from Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, Aug. 17 the passenger ferry vessel Caribbean Fantasy experienced an engine fire. The ferry was roughly a mile off shore of San Juan Harbor in Puerto Rico when the engine room fire grew out of control and the captain of the vessel made the decision for all 511 passengers and crew to abandon ship. The Cutter Joseph Tezanos crew was leaving the harbor to conduct training when the call for assistance came in. Harnessing the spirit of their namesake, the crew leapt into action assuming the position of on-scene commander for the rescue efforts. A small boat was launched from the cutter which made multiple runs, rescuing and taking passengers safely to shore in San Juan. The Cutter Joseph Tezanos crew personally evacuated more than 100 of the 511 passengers from the burning passenger ferry.
“Everyone on the ferry was scared,” said Petty Officer 2nd Class Justin Evans, the Cutter Joseph Tezanos' small boat coxswain during evacuation efforts from the Caribbean Fantasy. “We’re all just glad we were there to assist.”
All 511 people that were on the ferry that day made it safely to shore. It was a day that began in tragedy, but thanks to the actions of the Cutter Joseph Tezanos crew and other first responders in Puerto Rico it ended as one of the largest at-sea rescues in U.S. waters in 60 years.
The Cutter Joseph Tezanos is the sixth fast response cutter to be homeported in San Juan, Puerto Rico, and the 19th to be commissioned in the Coast Guard fleet. The 154-foot cutter has a max speed of more than 28 knots and a beam of 25 feet. It is armed with a stabilized 25mm machine-gun mount and four crew-served .50-caliber machine guns. Fast response cutters are designed to conduct maritime drug interdiction, alien migrant interdiction, search and rescue, national defense, homeland security, living marine resource protection and other Coast Guard missions.
“The spirit of Joseph Tezanos is alive and well in that cutter,” said Rear Adm. Scott A. Buschman, commander of the Coast Guard 7th District. “The cutter Tezanos will undoubtedly be a vital instrument in supporting critical Coast Guard missions.