Digest>Archives> May 2005

An Infamous Day In History

By Linda L. Anderson


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From the northeast corner of the island of Trinidad beams the faithful signal light of the Point Galera Lighthouse.

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Built in 1897, this lighthouse station at Toco has guided many a passing ship and bore witness to the evolution of technology and the secrets of war. Some of these events are recorded in the annals of history, while others remain shrouded in the cover of international security, or silenced for all time at the bottom of the sea.

One such event came on a day that has lived in infamy.

Sunday morning dawned a clear and typical Caribbean day on the island of Trinidad. Four friends prepared to embark on an enjoyable excursion across the island. Americans all, the quartet included Vernon Merrill, a civilian on assignment with the U.S. War Department, an enlisted Army man and two women, the Danforth sisters, who were with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

The leisurely drive across the island from Port au Spain took nearly four hours. The roads wound through the farmlands of the island, first heading south away from the mountain range and then turning northeast toward the coast. Many of the roads were narrow and unpaved. The four friends enjoyed the scenery and local color of the villages and towns along the route. They arrived at Toco at about eleven o’clock in the morning, with a clear and sunny day to enjoy a spectacular view from the Galera Lighthouse.

The lighthouse at Toco is a white cylinder and, this day, the sightseers climbed the spiral steps to the observation deck. From there the four were treated to the magnificent view across the place where the Atlantic meets the Caribbean to the island of Tobago. Entering their view as well were two merchant ships en route from Dutch Guyana (Suriname) to the United States with their cargo of bauxite, which was turned into aluminum that was used in the making of many things from airplanes to frying pans. In the other direction they could look west along the lovely beach and off into the ocean, knowing that it was the route to Venezuela.

Suddenly, a loud booming sound caught their attention. The tourists turned their attention back toward Tobago as a second explosion was heard. Their eyes were met by the horrific plumes of smoke and the two merchant ships sinking quickly beneath the surface. The ships had been hit by torpedoes from German submarines on a mission to prevent the cargo of bauxite from reaching U.S. ports.

This was not the first attack by German U-boats in 1941. Many merchant ships have fallen prey to enemy torpedoes seeking to stop the flow of raw materials to the American factories. Over the remainder of WW II, many merchant ships carrying bauxite and bundles of rubber were sent to the ocean floor. Unfortunately, it was not uncommon for reports of sunken ships to be delayed and later recorded on the wrong dates.

Descending the steps of the lighthouse, the friends were still stunned by what they had seen. As they headed for their vehicle, Vernon looked off toward the beach. Many people were enjoying the weather, the beach and the warm waters of the Caribbean. If they had been aware what had just taken place around the bend of the island, it did not show as they continued to play. Vernon’s attention was drawn to the water and the flailing arms of a young girl. “Hey, that girl is in trouble,” he declared, already moving quickly toward the beach. “Why isn’t someone helping her?”

Vernon left a trail of his clothing across the sand as he ran toward the waves. As he drew closer, he could see that the girl of about twelve years of age was frantically fighting the undertow that threatened to carry her out to sea. Vernon dove into the waves and was soon near enough to begin giving her instructions. “Stop fighting and float!” he yelled. “We’re going to swim across the current. Swim with me” The frightened and nearly exhausted girl began to relax and follow the instructions. Together they swam and floated across the current, until it carried them some distance and eventually in toward the beach.

When the girl was safely in the arms of her family, the American hero and his friends returned to their vehicle and headed back toward Port au Spain to report the sinking of the ships to the authorities. However, their news was not to be met with the same enthusiasm with which it was delivered.

Animated by what they had experienced that day, the tourists returned to their residence at Port au Spain to learn that far more had happened that day. In the parlor of the rooming house Vernon found 18 British residents huddled around his radio (which they had retrieved from his room). The four were quite eager to share the news of what they had seen off Toco that day, but they were met with a more dramatic report from the Brits, “You think that was something. Pearl Harbor has been destroyed by Japanese bombs.”

It was December 7, 1941.

Many thousands of people died that day in 1941. However, one young girl had her life delivered from the waves.

Today, the manned lighthouse at Toco still signals ships passing through the waters it has been charged

with guarding.

Vernon Merrill, now 89, shown above, is retired after giving many years of service to his country. He lives with his wife in western Washington State and recalls many such days as the world plunged into war.

This story appeared in the May 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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