Digest>Archives> May 2010

Navy Fighters Attack Lighthouse – By Mistake - Twice!

By Tom Serres


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World War II ended about six years before I was assigned to Holland Island Bar Light Station in the middle of Maryland’s Chesapeake Bay. I was a young whippersnapper during those war years, going without the necessities that we took for granted: sugar, meat, shoes, gasoline and rubber tires. The gasoline and tires weren’t important in our family. We didn’t have an automobile nor the money to buy gasoline. We always had the subways, elevateds and street cars in Brooklyn where I grew up. But it was senseless to hop on a train to visit relatives because they were broke too. And the nickel fare we saved would almost buy a loaf of bread.

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Today, as I approach less than a year and a half until my 80th birthday, I look back at the two years I spent on that semi-isolated lighthouse and try to recall the good times -- and bad -- before my memory fades entirely.

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A young Tom Serres busy at work in his Coast ...

At this writing, I look more like one of the old geezers who kept the lighthouse who were attired in oil slicks, had a scraggy beard and who, more often than not, were typecast sporting a peg leg. These appearances were only depicted by devout readers of stories about lighthouses and their keepers at the turn of the century. Then they were called wickies and were without the technology of today’s navigational systems. I, too, was a wickie, so to speak, even though we had generated power to keep the light burning, not whale oil. And, never once, did I wear oil slicks or trim a wick.

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The rusted out hulk of the 441-foot American ...

I was 19 when the dummy bombs from the Douglas AD4 Skyraiders struck the water near the lighthouse. That day I didn’t think I would make it to my 20th birthday. My co-keeper, who was also 19, and I had just finished painting the regulation spar trim on the gunwales and deck of the 25-foot lighthouse boat. There was a swoosh, then a kerplunk, sending sand and mud from the bottom and depositing it on the fresh paint. That was enough to tick off a couple of youngsters who took pride in keeping the boat, er, shipshape.

Recent research told me that the planes were from the Patuxent River Naval Air Station on Maryland’s western shore. I realize now that they were Skyraiders, and the aviators (the Navy called their pilots aviators), thank Heaven, were not the best marksmen, even though the U.S. Navy spent a lot of money to train them and to hone their skills in combat situations.

Before writing this war story, I contacted a couple of former Air Force Thunderbird pilots, Colonel Doyle Ruff and Colonel Mike Miller, with whom I served in the mid sixties. Both were captains at the time and had flown Skyraiders in Viet Nam, and both served, for a few months, together at Bien Hoa. Colonel Miller flew the A1H as an advisor to the Vietnamese Air Force, and Colonel Ruff flew the A1E with the 1st Air Commando Squadron (U.S.). Another Spad flyer, Colonel Bernard Fisher, won the Medal of Honor for his heroics in rescuing a downed fellow airman while flying a Skyraider in Vietnam. Colonel Ruff said, in part, “The ‘Spad,’ as it was affectionately called, was an extraordinary aircraft, especially for flying close-air support and air-rescue missions. It could carry more ordinance and a wider variety of it than anything else in the theater. The ‘gunsight’ was a mechanically adjusted (easy to do by the pilot) glass with a reticle projected from within its base for strafing and dive bombing, etc.” He added, “I can’t crawl into the cockpit of those Navy guys but I’ll say this: If you can’t deliver air-to-ground accurately with the Spad, then you can’t deliver air-to-ground accurately - period. Of course, it seems they were accurate as far as hitting, but, then there’s such a thing as accurate target assessment/ID!!”

The other keeper, Bill Smelser, and I ran into the kitchen (only ships have galleys) and cranked up our antiquated radiotelephone, trying frantically to raise anyone who may have had their radios turned on. “Nan Mike Nan 18, Mike Nan 18 to anyone listening. We are being attacked by low flying aircraft and they are dropping bombs all around us!” All the time we were hoping that our relay station at Point Lookout had their radiotelephone on. Meanwhile, the bombing stopped as fast as it started. One of the Skyraider pilots made a low pass over the lighthouse and dipped his wings as if to say, “Holy cripes, we made a mistake. Sorry ‘bout that.”

A mistake? Their primary target was a sunken relic, the USS Hannibal, which was to our southwest and about 15 miles away. The Hannibal, located approximately 7 miles east of Point Lookout light in central Chesapeake Bay, was originally built in Sunderland, Great Britain and named Joseph Holland. Holland Island and its lighthouse had no connection with the name whatsoever. The ship was acquired by the U.S. Navy and commissioned Hannibal on June 7, 1898. June 7, incidentally, is my birthday. Incredibly, she was decommissioned August 15, 1911, my son Michael’s birthday, only to be re-commissioned again a couple of months later. Finally, Hannibal was decommissioned in 1944 and struck from the naval inventory. She was sunk as a bombing target in March of 1945. The Hannibal was 274 feet long and her beam was nearly 40 feet. Our lighthouse, in comparison, was about 40 feet and had six sides. Our size and shape hardly resembled that of the Hannibal’s massive hulk.

More misfortune fell on the lighthouse on the night of February 19, 1957. That night three pilots, this time from the Naval Air Station at Atlantic City, New Jersey, again mistook the lighthouse for the hulk. They dropped flares above the “target” site and three ADSN Skyraiders, the same type aircraft that struck just five or six years earlier, fired seven five-inch rockets, three of which hit the lighthouse. Now these jocks weren’t sharpshooters; they were expert marksmen and they managed to tear holes in the walls and cut into several screw-piles that supported the structure. Thankfully, the rockets contained no explosives. The keepers radioed the Coast Guard and the lighthouse was evacuated. Some stories gave an account that none of the keepers were injured, but other accounts said that one was hit in the arm. The next day the four shaken Coastguardsmen, with fresh sets of skivvies, returned to the station to begin repairs.

My experience was entered into the lighthouse log in 1952 and nothing more was reported. The incident in 1957 made the front pages.

After taking all the punishment that the fierce and mighty Chesapeake doled out, plus the bombings in 1951 and the subsequent rocket attacks, Holland Island Bar Light Station finally met its demise in 1960. She was cut up by the Coast Guard and replaced with an automatic beacon on the very same screw-pile foundation.

This story appeared in the May 2010 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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