We have spent four of the last five winters in Key West. As fulltime RVers, my wife and I can choose to stay in a warm, sunny place while our friends deal with the snow back in Michigan. There is a lot to enjoy in Key West, but I also found there are many opportunities to serve in volunteer roles in the area. My most rewarding was as a volunteer docent on the US Coast Guard Cutter Ingham, permanently moored in Key West as a floating museum.
The Ingham was built in 1936 in the Philadelphia shipyard. She began her World War II career escorting 31 convoys across the North Atlantic, protecting them from German U-Boat attacks. As a High Endurance Cutter (that’s what the HEC in her number means) she could remain at sea for extended periods without replenishment. While escorting a convoy in the North Atlantic she sunk the German U-Boat, U- 626. Today the Ingham is the only warship still afloat with a confirmed U-Boat kill. From the North Atlantic she went to the Mediterranean, continuing to escort convoys.
From Mediterranean the Ingham was brought back to the US for refitting and was ungraded with a new communications package. She was then sent to the South Pacific to serve as a flagship for amphibious operations. During the invasion of Corregidor and the Philippine Islands, General MacArthur made the Ingham his flagship.
After WW II the Ingham performed peacetime Coast Guard duties of anti-smuggling, counter-drug operations, search and rescue, and oceanographic survey.
She again served under control of the Navy for both Korea and Vietnam, providing off-shore patrolling and naval gunfire support of ground forces. It was during Vietnam that she was awarded two Presidential Unit Commendations for her naval gunfire support.
The Ingham was retired in 1988 after 52 years of continuous service and was (and still is) the most decorated cutter in the Coast Guard with 21 ribbons, 27 medals, 14 battle stars and 2 Presidential Unit Commendations.
The Ingham was initially on display at Patriots Point in Charleston, SC until 2009 when South Carolina decided they did not want to continue to maintain her. There was talk about sinking her as an artificial reef or scrapping her. Bill Verge, a native of Key West and a former Coast Guard officer, essentially said, “You can’t do that! The Ingham is the most decorated cutter in the service!.” So, he purchased the Ingham, raised the money to put her in dry dock to make her seaworthy and had her towed to Key West, where she is proudly on display as the official U.S. Coast Guard Memorial, honoring all Coast Guardsmen killed in action from WW II through the Vietnam Conflict.
Five days a week the Ingham is open for self-guided tours. As a special treat on Friday and Saturday evenings, the Ingham is open for a Sunset “happy hour” when you can sit along the port side to have the best view of the sunset in Key West.
During the tours you can see the engine room, crews quarters, mess deck, officers wardroom, combat information center, the bridge and the Captain’s cabin. Everything you see on the tour are original items, including magazines, playing cards left by the crew in 1988, and the china in the wardroom and Captain’s quarters. The museum in mess deck shows the history of the Ingham and her sister ships from WW II through the Mariel Boat Lift from Cuba in the late 1980s. There is even a memorial to the crewmen of the U-626 who died when they were sunk in the North Atlantic.
The Ingham is a true time capsule. One day I witnessed Bill escorting a young lady through the ship. I didn’t know why she was getting so much attention until I found out that her grandfather had been one of the Ingham’s commanding officers, and his ashes are actually interred on board. It was an emotional moment for her to visit her grandfather’s remains on board a ship that he had commanded. The ashes of three other Ingham crewmen are also interred on board.
As I manned the gangway I had the opportunity to tell the story of the Ingham to our visitors. It was always a pleasure to take a few minutes and talk to them after they have toured the ship. The vast majority are truly amazed at what these “coasties” did over the years, the risks they took to save the lives of others, both during times of war and of peace. We get visitors who have served in the Coast Guard, and even some who have served on the Ingham, and the stories they told after they return to the gangway after the tour just made my day.
It has been a pleasure and a privilege to serve as a “crewman” aboard the Ingham, even though I am an Army veteran. It gave me an opportunity to highlight some history that some people have never heard and certainly have never experienced. Over her 52 years of service the Ingham demonstrated the Coast Guard’s motto, “Semper Paratus,” or Always Ready and the unofficial motto of “You have to go out, but you don’t have to come back.” Today the Ingham’s mission is to “Honor, Educate, and Inspire.” As in her past, she performs this mission faithfully. My hat is off to Bill Verge and his staff, as well as the untold number of volunteers who continue to give up their time (often while on vacation) to man the gangway and assist in the maintenance of this fine, fighting ship.