The straits of Florida that stretch between Key West and Cuba were a treacherous place to be in April 1980, but for Cuban refugees brave enough to attempt the crossing from one island to another, fear had become an old friend.
Cubans were long terrorized under a regime that — under the guise of restoring freedom — turned neighbors against neighbors, banned Christmas, emptied its citizens’ bank accounts, destroyed countless works of art, jailed journalists and barred its people from leaving the country. So the Cuban people sought asylum at the only foreign places to which they could travel: the various South American embassies spread throughout Havana. They arrived in droves, those turned away or threatened with prison simply returned with their families and neighbors, demanding sanctuary. Embassy security forces — employed by the Cuban government — were no match for the sheer mass of Cuban citizens determined to escape their oppressive homeland.
One particularly desperate group broke through the barricades of the Peruvian embassy with a bus and swarmed inside. The Cuban government withdrew its security forces after embassy officials announced they did not intend to turn asylum seekers over to local police for prosecution, and in only a few short days, 2,000 Cuban citizens had assembled inside the Peruvian embassy grounds, packed tightly into a space roughly the size of a football field. It was chaos.
Their hand forced, and in an unprecedented move, Cuban authorities allowed those seeking asylum to leave, provided they had been offered refuge by another country. You are free to leave, they told the huddled masses barricaded inside the embassy grounds, so long as you can prove that someone else wants you.
Diplomats from neighboring embassies converged, bringing with them a specific number of refugees their respective home countries had agreed to receive. The president of Peru announced his intention to offer asylum to as many refugees as his country could afford. Bolivia and Ecuador signed on to assist with resettlement, as did Venezuela and Colombia. Spain would offer a place for 500 refugees, while America would take political prisoners first, then process up to 400 additional visas a month. On April 11, the Cuban government began disseminating permanent safe conduct passes and passports to asylum seekers.
Fidel Castro named the port of Mariel Harbor as the official departure point for Cuban citizens granted legal transport paperwork. Twenty-five miles west of Havana, it was the closest deep water port to the United States.
Some 90 miles across the sea, hundreds of Cuban-American families set out for Miami and Key West to prepare for the arrival of their U.S.-bound relatives. And at Mariel Harbor, the first crowded boats of hopeful refugees set off into the surf.
Meanwhile, the most decorated vessel in the Coast Guard fleet was patrolling the open ocean, sent to guard the waters between her homeland and Cuba. The USCGC Samuel D. Ingham, whose history includes two Presidential Unit Citations, two Coast Guard Meritorious Unit Commendations, a National Defense Medal and American Campaign Medal, had begun her career supporting the U.S. Coast Guard throughout multiple wars and life-saving missions from the moment of her 1936 official commission. The ship was built for less than $2.5 million by the Philadelphia Navy Yard. The various crews of the USCGC Samuel D. Ingham performed neutrality patrols on behalf of the Navy, sunk a German submarine during World War II, provided an open-ocean weather station, conducted dozens of gunfire support missions, provided coastal surveillance and humanitarian aid in Vietnam, fought fires off the coast of Virginia, sailed dozens of cadet cruises, seized more than 50 tons of marijuana from drug runners and rescued hundreds at sea. At 327 feet in length and weighing 2,656 tons, the Ingham — shortened from her original commissioned name of USCGC Samuel D. Ingham — was known as a particularly formidable gal. She could house 100-300 people at a time, haul across the ocean at 21 knots and had been through multiple recommissions, first as a war ship, then back to a peace-time vessel, cycling through various armaments and even, at one point, a seaplane.
In 1980, at the ripe age of 44 and towing a record that included the last active warship in the fleet with a U-ship kill under her belt, the Ingham should have been destined for quiet retirement in Florida, but Castro’s Mariel Harbor proclamation called her back to action. In April 1980, a series of merciless squalls beat down upon the many thousands attempting to make the trek from Cuba to Key West, resulting in countless wrecks. In late April alone, Ingham towed five vessels and rescued 14 Cuban refugees from swamped boats in the Florida Straits. By August, she had helped escort more than 100 more to safety.
Eight years later, she was finally decommissioned, and at her retirement had the honor of being the second oldest commissioned U.S. warship afloat, with only the U.S.S. Constitution docked in Boston ahead of her.
Acquired by the Patriot’s Point Naval & Maritime Museum in Mount Pleasant, S.C., the USCGC Ingham was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1992. Alongside the destroyer Laffey, the aircraft carrier Yorktown and the submarine Clamagore, the Ingham was displayed as a part of the museum’s collection until 2009, when she was finally granted the sun-soaked retirement she deserved. After a brief dry docking in North Charleston, Ingham traveled south to Key West, arriving to fanfare on Nov. 24, where the Commandant of the Coast Guard declared her a National Memorial to Coast Guardsmen Killed in Action in World War II and Vietnam, the 912 names of which are displayed on a memorial plaque on the vessel’s quarter deck.
The vessel is now the gem of the Key West Maritime Memorial Museum, magnificently maintained and open to the public from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays, and for a special happy hour starting at 5 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays. Admission is from $5-$10, and includes access to a self-guided tour that weaves throughout the ship, stopping at points of interest and displays of original paperwork and signage. Locals know the ship’s deck-top happy hour is the best place to view one of Key West’s famous sunsets while avoiding the shoulder-to-shoulder crowds usually found at Mallory Square. (Your Friday and Saturday $5 happy hour ticket buys the first round.)
For more information about the USCGC Ingham or to donate to her ongoing restoration process, visit www.uscgcingham.org. ¦