By Betsy Rosenblatt Rosso
More than one hundred Sailors and Marines from the USS Guam had gone ashore in Barcelona, Spain and were enjoying their first night of liberty in their first overseas port, on January 17, 1977. For many, it was their first deployment. At close to 0200, more than 100 Sailors boarded the last available Mike8 boat* of the night to shuttle them back to the Guam. Suddenly, a Spanish ship coming down the channel hit the liberty launch and flipped it over, plunging everyone aboard into the Mediterranean.
“In the back of the lifeboat were a bunch of life vests, but there was a cargo net on top of them because passengers weren’t required to use them,” recalled Harry Lamar Thomas, who was a Marine in the boat that night. “Above that was a canvas, and because it was January and cold, guys wanted to sit under the canvas. When that boat flipped over, the canvas roof became their floor, and the cargo net became their ceiling. Guys were sandwiched between the tarp and the cargo net, which dragged them down. They had no chance of survival.” Forty-Nine Sailors and Marines died. At the time, the accident was the largest military fatality during peace time.
“I lost some good friends that day,” Thomas said. “I’ve never forgotten their faces or names.” That’s why Thomas and his wife decided to organize a reunion in Barcelona for surviving veterans who were involved in the accident, as well as their families, to come together in January 2017 for the 40th anniversary of the crash.
George Kaputsa had joined the Navy right out of high school and the Guam was the first and last ship he ever served on. He’d been at sea for less than a year when the accident happened.
“I was on the port side of the boat,” he recalled. “I went into the water right away. I can still picture it. It’s so fresh in my mind. I thought I was dead. The next second I popped up and looked around. I saw the upside-down boat, swam over and got on top of it. We drifted to the jetty and pretty quickly there were guys who hustled us all into another boat and took us back to our ship, USS Guam. It happened so fast. I was in shock.”
Kaputsa left the Navy at the end of his tour and went on to become an environmental engineer. “After the accident, I developed a real dislike for riding in boats,” he said.
Just before the accident, George Kriner had transferred from the USS El Paso to the Guam, his third ship since he joined the Marines a couple years out of high school. When the Mike boat was hit, Kriner was thrown into the water. “I spun several times in the water, and when I started to swim, I realized I was going down,” he recalled. “I finally got to the surface and made my way over to the liberty launch. I helped pull some fellows up onto the launch and located the other Marine I was with, and once we got to shore we tried to secure the area. Then we began transporting the deceased to shore. It was almost daybreak when they finally got us back to the USS Trenton, and then back to our ship, the Guam.
“It was quite a few days before anyone in my family knew what had happened to me,” Kriner explained. “During World War II, my mother had worked at the Pentagon, so she called there and they said they would take my social security number, but they told her if I wasn’t on a deceased list there wasn’t anything they could tell her. It was three or four days before I could tell them I was ok. I just had some cuts and bruises.”
“Ever since then I don’t care to be in the ocean at night. I don’t like to watch TV shows that have a boat wreck in them. It’s strange, after 40 years, some things that will trigger thoughts. Every year in January I think about what could have happened. I always wanted to go back to Barcelona for closure.”
After leaving the military, Kriner built a career as a monument maker and mortician’s assistant, which helped him gain perspective on taking advantage of opportunities, such as the chance to go to Barcelona for the USS Guam reunion. “I’ve seen a lot of people planning for retirement who never make it. If you see it, it’s time to do it. Don’t wait because the chance might not come back.”
Like his shipmates, Harry Lamar Thomas remembers the accident as if it were yesterday. “I was right in the center of the boat on the starboard side, I felt the first hit on the front nose of the boat, and then it straightened us out and hit us broadside. Everybody was yelling and screaming. I looked up over the side of the boat and saw a massive ship right on top of us. I dropped back down and buried my head, bracing for impact. Next thing I knew I was lifted up. I fell down toward the left side of the boat. As I was falling, I could see the left side of the boat go under water and all the water come rushing over that boat. I fell underwater. The ship was passing right on top of us. I got tossed and flipped around. By the time I got stable and started swimming, I realized I was actually swimming down. It was dark outside the water was filthy and you couldn’t see through it.”
When he finally emerged from the water, Thomas turned around and got hit in the chest by the overturned Mike boat. “I crawled on top of it and started pulling people out of the water. A few times I jumped in the water to pull guys over to the boat and get them on top of the boat. Through the night lights of the harbor you could see the silhouettes of guys who were dead floating face down in the water. Spanish fishermen untied their boats and floated out to help pick up survivors and bodies.”
“The Mike boat finally drifted over to a pier and we were able to climb onto the pier,” Thomas recalled. “Rescue crews started arriving, and it took hours to get the guys out from under the Mike boat. We could hear those guys underneath the Mike boat yelling and screaming and banging on the boat. We were banging back to let them know we were there. Going down underneath to try to retrieve them, trying to bring guys down underwater would have been suicide. They finally got a crane out there and divers lifted up the side of Mike boat.” Because of his life-saving actions that night, Thomas was awarded the Navy-Marine Corps Medal.
Thomas continued his military service on eight other Mediterranean cruises, including another tour on the USS Guam. A year after the accident, the US Consulate in Barcelona, and a group of Americans living in Spain, commissioned a monument dedicated to the Marines and Sailors of the USS Guam and USS Trenton. Thomas flew to Barcelona for the dedication ceremony.
Thomas and his wife, Lisa, have been working to spread the word about the reunion in January 2017 through their Facebook page and local media. They hope other veterans who survived that night, and their families, will be able to join them in January in Barcelona to remember their fallen shipmates.
* An LCM(8), is a welded steel, twin-screw craft powered with four marine diesel engines assembled as tow twin engines. It is designed and constructed for landing heavy equipment, trucks, trailers, and tanks, and can withstand hard service in heavy surf. With a full load of cargo, the craft has a speed of 9 knots. An LCM (8) is 73 feet long and can accommodate 200 personnel for short distances.