Honoring lives lost

This monument is dedicated to and lists the names of the 23 Coast Guardsmen who lost their lives on January 28, 1980. The monument is located in the Skyway rest area just a few miles from where the accident happened.

I wanted to start off this week by talking about the Valentines for Veterans Breakfast that is scheduled for this upcoming Saturday February 8. I had made of couple of errors last week that I want to correct. I had missed spelled Marjorie Ramsey’s first name using a “y” instead of the “ie”.

I also incorrectly identified the main group that has sponsored this event for over 15 years as the Cocke County Women’s Democratic Club. The event started with sponsorship from the Cocke County Democratic Party and workers from the Cocke County Women’s Democratic Club.

I walk a fence to keep my personal views out of what I write because the focus is on how it will help the veterans. Everyone has a write to vote for who they want, I would hope they would choose the best person for the job but recognize the reality of people following party lines. I know that Cocke County has a strong Republican base, but it also is a community that firmly supports their veterans.

I have found, as Marjorie has faced for years, that there are those out there who profess to be Americans and stand behind the veterans who have given us the freedoms we have today that cannot understand the simple reason behind these breakfasts. There are those in the community that are so wrapped up in their political party they cannot work together for the better cause.

When I interviewed Marjorie for my first column about the breakfast several years ago, she described how this all started. I am going to rerun some of her comments that describe the real story behind how this got started. I have been attending these breakfasts for three years and can attest there are no political discussions, only old war stories. I hope those that missed this before, will read this and see that it is really a non-political event.

Marjorie told me about the veterans in her family. “My great great grandfather was an enlisted soldier in the Civil War on the Union side. My Uncle fought in Korea, his son served in Vietnam, along with three other cousins and two brothers-in-law,” she said.

Then Marjorie, with tears in her eyes, tells me a story about her Vietnam Veteran brother’s, trip home. “He called me from the west coast, he had just returned to the States. The government gave him some money when he came back, but it wasn’t enough to fly home, so he called and asked for help. I offered him money for a ticket, and he said, “if I didn’t mind” there was another soldier in the same shape, and could I help him as well?” Of course, she sent money for two tickets.

Marjorie then said about some of her cousins that are Vietnam Veterans, “Nobody knows they are even veterans and there are other men who served and fought, who live in our area, that don’t get involved with any veteran’s activities. I don’t understand cause, they don’t need to be ashamed, they did an amazing job while facing many hardships.”

Then the plan for the breakfast came to Marjorie who said, “This idea just came to my mind that there must be some way to show people love on Valentine’s Day. Then I thought we should do something to honor the veterans to show them how much we love them and their families for all the sacrifices they have made.

“I thought we could give them breakfast because there were times the veterans didn’t have a hot meal.” She said that was in 2005, “when I took the idea to the ladies at the club, everyone was for it.” With the help of a few of the ladies, this became the first annual Valentines for Veterans and has been held each year at the Newport Community Center.”

“About three years ago the center started providing the space free of charge. We want them to know we support them and give them a compassionate ‘Welcome Home’ and a hot meal.” Marjorie wants everyone to know, “I may be a State Officer with the Democratic Party, but this breakfast is totally non-partisan. When two soldiers were in a foxhole, they had each other’s back. It didn’t matter if you were Republican or Democrat and that is what this Breakfast is all about.”

The breakfast every year is a bag of mixed emotions. There are the new participants who come to share their stories but there are those who have gone to eternal rest. Marjorie, full of emotions said, “When we see the names of those who come to our breakfasts, and others who have served, in the obituaries with the flag, it is difficult to know what to say. It always brings sadness to your heart.” I asked Marjorie what she would like to say to the veterans, and she replied, “We just want to welcome them with love and compassion and thank them for their service and sacrifice.”

So, for those who do not believe in joining any program that does not fit into their perceived viewpoint they should just stay away. They should also keep their opinions within their “tight-minded” group of acquaintances. Spreading hate and discontent, not based on fact, is the way things got started for the Jewish communities I wrote about last week. While we are all different and have the right to voice our opinions it should be remembered they are “our” opinions not everyone else’s.

Back this year will be Gary and Larry Hartsell with the Stone Mountain Band providing the entertainment. Colonel Christopher Smith who is the Commander of the 119th Cyber Operations Squadron, Tennessee National Guard for be the key-note speaker. I invite all Veterans, their caregivers or families to come to the breakfast on Saturday February 8, 9 a.m. in the Newport Community Center, 433 Prospect Street. If you need more information you can contact Marjorie at 423-237-8033.


Last week I wrote about several anniversaries that had just happened and another came to mind. Because there are a lot of “Floridian half-backs” and I have met several ex-Coast Guardsmen in the community I want to share the loss of a ship and many of the sailors aboard.

The United States Coast Guard Cutter (USCGC) Blackthorn was a 180-foot seagoing buoy tender. Built between 1942 and 1944 it served in the Great Lakes, California, Alabama, and Texas before being assigned to Tampa Bay, in 1979. The reassignment began with a major overhaul at the Gulf Tampa Drydock Company that lasted until the following year.

The overhaul included the main propulsion generators. The night of January 28, 1980 was one of the “shake-out” runs out of Tampa Bay into the Gulf of Mexico when tragedy struck. As the Blackthorn approached the entrance to the Gulf, passing under the Skyway Bridge, there was a problem with the generators. The ship’s Commander Lt. Commander Sepel left the bridge to investigate the issue and turned the helm over to an inexperienced Ensign.

Just before the propulsion problem was discovered a Russian passenger shipped passed the Blackthorn heading out of port. At the same time the 605-foot oil tanker Capricorn was approaching from the opposite direction, entering the port.

As they approached each other the Capricorn, who had been traveling in the right-of-way, began a left turn and would not allow the two ships to pass as generally required (port side). (It is reported the Capricorn or Blackthorn had seen each other because of the bright lights of the cruise ship.) That is when multiple issues started that caused the two ships to collide.

When the Capricorn’s Pilot (Entering many ports, including Tampa Bay, a “Pilot” is required to guide the ship. These “pilots” live in the area they work in to be experts of the port and are transported to the ships while they lie off the coast.) first saw the Blackthorn, being unable to make radio contact, he blew two short whistle blasts. This signaled that the two ships would have to pass on the starboard side. The Ensign was confused with the standard operating procedures ordered evasive actions. Despite the evasive actions the two ships collided.

The initial collision did not do extensive damage to the Blackthorn. Because the Capricorn was close to port it had started preparation which, like putting a landing gear down on an airplane, included lowering the anchor to the water level. The lowered anchored became imbedded in the Blackthorn’s hull and ripped it open at the water line. As the ships separated the anchor was still in the Blackthorn and the chain became taunt and caused it to capsize.

Of the 50 men stationed aboard the USCGC Blackthorn, 23 were killed in this accident. The marine board of investigation found numerous issues and people at fault for this collision. The Primary fault was found with Commander of the Blackthorn Lt. Commander Sepel for allowing an inexperienced officer to navigate the ship in unfamiliar waters, in heavy traffic.

They also found fault with the “Pilot” of the Capricorn for his poor attempt to establish clear passage between the ships. The major failure that caused the accident was because both ships failed to keep well to their side of the channel.

Soon after the accident the Blackthorn was raised for the investigation. Today the ship serves as an artificial reef and is used for fishing and recreational diving.


AMVETS Post 75, meets the first Tuesday of each month at the Newport Community Center’s Community Room 433 Prospect Avenue, the next meeting will be tonight, Tuesday February 4 at 7 p.m. Entry will be through the main entrance at 433 Prospect Avenue. You can call the Commander, Richard Holt, at (423) 608-2902 for directions or more information.

American Legion Post 41 meets the second Tuesday of each month at the American Legion’s Cocke County Memorial Building 103 N. Cosby Highway. The next meeting will be Tuesday February 11 at 5 p.m. with a potluck meal, followed by the business meeting at 6 p.m. Entry will be on C Avenue across from the Newport Fire Department. You can call David Mills, Commander at (423) 237-6896 for directions or more information.

Rob Watkins is a totally disabled, Air Force, Vietnam combat veteran. He has worked with Veterans for over 40 years. As a member of local organizations, he continues his path to help others. Please send information, dates for events, two weeks in advance, questions or suggestion; by mail to 565 Caney Creek Road Cosby, TN 37722 or c/o Newport Plain Talk, email; viewfromthebunker@yahoo.com, Facebook/View from the Bunker, or call 423-721-8918.

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