Digest>Archives> March 2005

Rescue at Cape Sarichef

By James Baker


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Cape Sarichef Light overlooks a brooding Bering ...

The United States Lighthouse Service erected Cape Sarichef Light in 1904, one year after completing Scotch Cap Light, some 20 miles to the south. The lighthouses sit on the southwestern and northwestern corners of Unimak Island, Alaska, marking the entrance to the Bering Sea.

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The abandoned keepers’ quarters and support ...

During the predawn darkness of April 1, 1946, a 100-foot-tall tsunami propelled by a seismic disturbance under the North Pacific, roared ashore at Scotch Cap crushing the lighthouse and snuffing out the lives of the five-man crew. The replacement light stands on higher ground.

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Loading the Weasel into an LVT for the trip to ...

In 1950, the Coast Guard established a Long Range Aids to Navigation (LORAN) station at Cape Sarichef and built a new lighthouse on top of the bluff, 177 feet above the Bering Sea. The original keeper’s residence and support buildings for the 1904 light remained on the black sand beach below.

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The snowbound Weasel.

bout mid-morning our cook told me the thermometer in the walk-in freezer showed 20 degrees when it should be at minus four. When you’re over 500 miles from the grocery store, you can’t afford to let your food spoil.

I reported to our senior engineer. He admitted he’d had little training and no experience with refrigeration systems. We consulted our commanding officer, LTJG Lawrence O. Hamilton. He ordered us to call Chief Maddox, the officer in charge at Scotch Cap Lighthouse, our only neighbor, a little more than two hours away.

Maddox, a chief engineman, said he would enjoy getting away for a day or two, so he’d be glad to come over and make repairs and see some different faces. He and our engineer agreed to meet at Sennett Point where he’d leave his Weasel and ride the rest of the way with the Cape Sarichef crewman.

The Weasel is a small tracked vehicle about the size of a Jeep. The driver sits beside the six-cylinder Studebaker engine and steers with control sticks, similar to those in crawler tractors. The back seat is designed for three passengers, although it becomes a bit crowded for men dressed in foul-weather gear. We usually kept a portable two-way radio atop the engine cover.

Sennett Point, site of the island’s airfield, marked the halfway point between the two Coasts Guard stations. It provided a good meeting point due to a building there equipped with a stove, bunks, a generator and an equipment garage.

The road from Cape Sarichef to Sennett Point wound inland and climbed through a mountain pass between Pogromni Volcano and a tall cinder cone before dropping back to the coast. In places the snow almost covered the tops of eight-foot tall 2X4s sunken upright every 100 feet to mark the road.

After the two engineers arranged to meet, Mr. Hamilton decided to make the trip himself. He invited RM 1 Don Nigh to accompany him, as the radioman hadn’t been to Sennett Point since he and

I arrived almost a year earlier.

The pair took off at noon in one of our Weasels. About 30 minutes later, Nigh radioed from the pass and said the wind was over 100 knots and they couldn’t see 10 feet. A few minutes later, he reported that after turning around to come back, the engine quit. He said when they opened the engine cover the compartment was packed with snow and ice. Neither of them knew their exact location and they hadn’t seen any road marker posts since turning around. They weren’t even sure they were still on the road.

Chief Maddox called from Sennett Point and said the wind there was 97 knots, and Scotch Cap reported 100. At Cape Sarichef the anemometer showed 85.

With the temperature somewhere between 10 and 15 degrees Fahrenheit, combined with a 100-knot wind, chances for overnight survival looked slim. If the men tried to walk out they faced a wind chill temperature of minus 25 degrees or less. The foul-weather gear we used wasn’t designed for exposure to such cold. Also with the almost nonexistent visibility and lack of traction on the snow, they stood a strong chance of being blown into a ravine.

Joe Maples, our damage control-man, figured when Hamilton turned around, wind-driven snow blew in the back of the Weasel and up the driveline tunnel into the engine compartment.

He crammed several blankets into the tunnel outlet on our other weasel and tossed survival gear in the back seat.

The station’s second in command, Chief Petty Officer Fred Gallien, assigned “Smitty,” one of his electronics crewmen, to accompany Maples on the rescue attempt.

When the two men started into the pass, blinding snow made it difficult to follow the road markers. With only a few feet visibility, Smith radioed for Nigh to transmit a steady signal. The electronics technician got out and bent the rooftop antenna into a loop and moved it in a circle until he got the strongest reception - a crude but effective radio direction finder. He kept repeating every few minutes until they homed in on the disabled vehicle. Once the commanding officer and Nigh squeezed into the back seat alongside Smith, Maples followed his own rapidly disappearing Weasel tracks out of the snowfield.

When the chilled men got back to Cape Sarichef the celebration was muted. Some of the crew suspected the commanding officer might have shared a bottle with the radioman that evening.

The next morning, Chief Maddox arrived in his Weasel, having spent the night at Sennett Point.

Just before sunup I took a three-man crew in my LVT to retrieve the abandoned Weasel. When we began winding our way through the snow-covered foothills toward the pass, I couldn’t recall a more beautiful day during my tour at Cape Sarichef. The temperature stood in the low 20s, with no wind, which was rare on Unimak Island. The rising sun peeked from behind Shishaldin and Isanotski volcanoes to the east. An almost cloudless pale blue sky began at the horizon over the Bering Sea and darkened to cobalt overhead. Low clouds played around the base of Pogromni Volcano, a few miles to my left.

Shortly after entering the pass, we found the Weasel frozen to the ground, 15 feet from one of the guideposts, its rear plastered with a coating of snow and ice.

We dug around the tracks and tried rocking the vehicle to break it loose from the ground.

Finally we jerked it free with the LVT, then used the Weasel’s starter and a chain hoist to winch it into the amphibian’s cargo compartment.

That evening I marked another day off my wall calendar. After 351 days at Cape Sarichef I was scheduled to leave on the next supply plane in 10 days. Anyway that’s what I thought. But that’s another story.

This story appeared in the March 2005 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.

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