Digest>Archives> Sep/Oct 2011

The Lighthouse and the Great War

By Rebecca Lawrence-Weden


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Ohio’s Marblehead Lighthouse, with its white ...

“And then, on Saturday afternoon, the keenest eyes sighted a lighthouse.  Everyone was on deck and there were endless arguments until eventually we could all see it.  Words cannot describe our delight.  We stood as though rooted on the spot, and gradually the low-lying land of Fire Island rose from the sea.  A little later we passed a lightship.” Gas and Flame in World War I, History of Company E, 1st Gas Regiment, William L. Langer (Recollections of a soldier returning home to America after WWI).

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The sinking of RMS Lusitania was a contributing ...

The wind is light and fresh with only a slight hint of the fall weather in the air. It is November and the lighthouse beckons visitors by mimicking the colors of the flag that gently unfolds at the entrance to the park. The white tower with its vivid red top points to a brilliant blue sky devoid of any clouds. In the distance, as if on cue, a boat slithers past the light, a reminder of what the Lake Erie, Ohio, Marblehead Lighthouse has done for almost two hundred years: guided sailing vessels and saved lives. There are no longer keepers to greet the last few visitors of the season. The only sounds to greet people on this day are hidden in a grove of walnut trees. It is a haunting symphony of low pitched quacks, as though flocks of Mallard ducks were nestled in the branches above. However, the sounds are not being produced by ducks. The orchestra is the squirrels and the instruments are the tough outer husks of the walnuts. Gnawing through them creates this unearthly sound. The same melodies, played every year, have been performed for almost one hundred years, and they tell a story. The history of the story, like the walnut trees, has deep roots, and both are firmly embedded in the rocky soil of this Marblehead peninsula.

However, I did not travel all the way from Texas to listen to the squirrels’ eerie melodies. Instead, I am here to document the story of the last United States Lighthouse Service Keeper at the Marblehead Lighthouse: Captain Edward Martin Herman. And although I am connected to this musical performance by its history and a lighthouse keeper, it is not my story. This story begins some 3,000 nautical miles away, off the coast of Ireland at the dawn of another new century. It involves a ship, a lighthouse and a war that forever changed the lines of nations and the landscape that defined their populations.

On September 7, 1907 a new passenger ship began her maiden voyage when her bow first touched the waves to cross the Atlantic Ocean. On this date the RMS Lusitania was launched to sail from Liverpool, England to New York City, arriving at her destination without incident. Less than ten years later, the same ship would be remembered not for her first journey, but a role she was thought to have played in helping to sway a nation into a declaration of war.

By the time Edward Herman arrived at the Marblehead Light on October 12, 1913 as the first assistant to Charles Hunter, Europe was already on a self-destructive collision course toward war. A powder keg of national politics and imperialistic ideologies waiting for the fuse, Europe was finally ignited when, on June 28, 1914, the Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria was assassinated by a Serbian National. Franz Ferdinand was the heir to the throne of Austria-Hungry.

One month later, on July 28, 1914, keeper Charles Hunter recorded in the lighthouse log book, “Austria declares war against Serbia, backed up by Germany.” Then in the first week of August on the fourth of the month, another log book entry was written: “War started in Austria, Belgium, England, France and Germany.” The Great War had begun. Soon its trenches would dig deep into the rolling farmlands. And what the scars of the trenches did not alter, the chemical gasses would destroy. It would also create new technologies of war, leaving behind an entire denuded landscape filled with rotting corpses, human and animal, a pockmarked earth of no man’s land. The sickly acrid scent of the Great War’s aftermath marked by rows of white stone crosses left an entire generation of people without land to live on or farm. And the political face of the world would be equally altered when a new nation, the United States, emerged from its cocoon of self-imposed isolation. A rich river of blood to coat the young sons and daughters of this land flowed across an ocean on a soil most had never walked, yet on which they would soon find eternal rest. But for now, America simply watched, debated, and waited unprepared for a war of the modern world.

It was a calm, clear day 3,000 nautical miles distance from the Marblehead Lighthouse. Just as their counterparts were doing all over the world on May 4, 1915, the Irish Light keepers at the Fastnet Rock Light began their morning duties. In the early light of the day, the keepers, peering out from the balcony, saw a German submarine surface. They watched as the crew approached a local Irish fishing boat and witnessed the Germans buying the morning’s catch. Without further incident, the submarine slid silently back down into the ocean. The keepers, alarmed at the sight warned the Royal Navy. But the Navy took no further action.

On May 7, 1915, three days later, passengers aboard a ship five miles off shore near Old Head of Kinsale, on the southeastern coast of Ireland, noticed a strange trail of bubbles heading directly toward the vessel. Shortly before two o’clock, the bubbles ended and the ship exploded - twice. A U-20 German submarine had torpedoed the 785 ft. Cunard Liner, the Lusitania. It took less than 35 seconds for the G-6 type torpedo to hit, sinking the ship in about 18 minutes. Approximately 1,200 passengers were killed; 123 of that number where American citizens.

Keeper Charles Hunter did not record the incident in the lighthouse log books.

It was only a few years earlier when keeper Herman’s younger brother Charles had followed in his footsteps, not to a lighthouse, but a lighthouse tender. In 1911, Charles Herman was sailing the Great Lakes on the tender Crocus, detailing in a postcard the saving of five men when their boat stove a hole in the icy blast of a December winter storm on Lake Erie. Now, Charles was going to be wearing a different uniform. It was 1917, two days before Easter Sunday. Keeper Charles Hunter recorded in the log book for the day that the weather was cold and rainy, and the temperature was only 34 degrees. The winds were from the northwest. He wrote, “Received salary for the month of March. United States declared war on Germany,” and the following day, “Substitutes Coast Guards discharged at noon.” Easter Sunday he recorded was 30 degrees. The United States had gone to war on Good Friday, and soon the Marblehead Lighthouse keepers would find the war like so much debris washing ashore to rest on their own light. On the last day of March, 1917, Keeper Hunter recorded, “Put up 4 signs (No admittance to Light House grounds).”

The war began to impact the keepers in ways not previously recorded in the lighthouse log books. By June 8, 1917, Keeper Hunter entered into the station journal, “Keeper and Asst purchased each $100 Liberty Loan Bond.” October 24, 1917 was declared Liberty Bond Day and was dutifully noted as such in the log book. America needed money to fund a war. The public was being asked to support the efforts on the home front by purchasing war bonds. The lighthouse keepers were being encouraged to buy bonds; it was their patriotic duty as employees of the government. Lighthouse Service bulletins began to fill the pages with not only lighthouse news, but admonitions for the keepers to support the war, reminders of how important keepers and lighthouses were to protecting America’s shorelines. Even if a lighthouse didn’t keep watch on an ocean shoreline, there were other important duties essential for the war. On November 7, 1917, Marblehead Lighthouse witnessed the first recording of the new technology of the Great War. Keeper Hunter entered into the station log book, “8 sub marine chasers passed by at noon.” The war was now sailing by on their Great Lake.

The snow began falling on January 1, 1918, the day three young boys, one only twelve years old, began to walk across the ice at the Marblehead peninsula toward Kellys Island on Lake Erie. It was a warm 30 degrees. Perhaps it was an omen of things to come. Quickly, the conditions changed and out on the frozen tundra, a no man’s land of ice and snow, the boys became disoriented and lost. The temperature dropped to 14 degrees, then 12, and by January 4, it was 10 degrees with a raging blizzard. And somewhere between Kellys Island and Marblehead there were three boys. The January entries for the light station reflect the conflicting reports coming in to the keepers. In the middle of gale force winds and a blizzard, they were reported frozen to death. Then it was reported one boy died, one boy alive. The reality was soon clear. One boy was alive, but two were still missing in the vast expanse of ice and snow on Lake Erie. For almost two weeks, snow and freezing temperatures pounded the Marblehead peninsula.

Keeper Edward Herman was supposed to be on leave, heading home to see his brother Charles and his cousin Louis before they left for Spartanburg, South Carolina, the army war training camp. Afterward they would be shipped off to France. Louis Herman’s father was also keeper Edward’s baptismal sponsor. The Herman family ancestors arrived from Prussia in the mid 1800s settling in Martinsville, NY, a small town located on the Eire Canal. Louis Herman’s family remained in Martinsville. Edward’s father moved to Tonawanda shortly after his marriage, and this was now keeper Edward‘s hometown. The families maintained close ties despite the distance that separated the two places.

Now a war was bringing the two families even closer together. Charles and his cousin Louis both joined the 27th Infantry Division, 108th Infantry Regiment, Company K. Later, the 27th Division would become one of the most famous fighting units of the Great War: The O’Ryan’s Roughnecks. They were the only American Division to remain fighting with the British throughout the war. The 27th Division was instrumental in helping to break through the Hindenburg Line on the western front. In the official government record of the 27th Division, 108th Regiment, Company K, only one soldier’s photograph stood between the two private first class cousins. (Only those soldiers who held the rank of private first class and higher were allowed to wear the official insignia patch of New York’s 27th Division) A former sailor on a lighthouse tender, and a brother to a lighthouse keeper, Charles was now wearing the uniform of the army. He was going to war to fight alongside his cousin Louis in a landscape carved with trenches and separated from the enemy by a place they called no man‘s land, a place marked by barbed wire, mud, and filled with the stench of death.

Keeper Edward had not given up on the lost boys. With temperatures sliding into the teens, gale force winds blowing, and snow continuing to fall, he stepped into his own no man’s land to search for them. There were two mothers who grieved over the loss of their children, spared from a war in Europe, but not from death. On January 18th, across the great expanse of snow and ice at least ten feet thick on the lake, keeper Edward made his grim discovery. Keeper Charles Hunter recorded in the log book under January 18, 1918, “Asst found two boys frozen at Put-In-Bay.”

The next day, keeper Hunter recorded, “Asst. left at 8 a.m. to Tonawanda, N.Y. 18 days leave of absence granted him.” Three days later the temperatures plummeted to 7 degrees below zero. Keeper Hunter wrote that the conditions on the Marblehead Peninsula were the worst ever recorded. Keeper Edward finally arrived safely at Tonawanda where he bid farewell to his brother and cousin. Soon they would be crossing an ocean to a continent far from the shores of Marblehead, Ohio and Martinsville and Tonawanda, New York.

The bitter cold winter of 1918 slowly passed into a warmer spring and the opening of the new year’s navigational season. Keeper Edward had received one post card from his brother in early May. He was going to be shipped out of the “Good Ole U.S.A.” He didn’t know when he would be back again.

By the summer of 1918, the Great War had taken its toll on men, women, and children, the innocent civilians on passenger ships torpedoed by German submarines. Horrors of the trench warfare that soldiers were fighting had reached the American shores. Edward’s hometown newspaper, The North Tonawanda Evening News continued to report on the “Fighting 27th Division.” The boys over there were making their families proud. The paper neglected to mention they were also making their mother’s grieve and their wives widows. There was no mention of the lice that swarmed across the soldier, the blown apart limbs sticking out of the trenches, useful only for coat hooks, or the constant shelling that caused a war condition called “shell shocked” to bring back soldiers with empty, lifeless gazes. The Germans were using chemical warfare, the gases burning the skin off soldiers and killing those it consumed. For others, when the gas did not kill, they were rendered blind and unable to speak.

By August, Edward’s brother and cousin were entrenched in fields of mud somewhere in France or Belgium. Censors blacked out any reference to positions so it was a guess where loved ones were fighting. Back at Marblehead Lighthouse, the summer was coming to a close. The heat of August was a counter part to the winter months of below zero readings. The thermometer this August never left the 80s. On August 13, 1918 the temperature was the highest recording for the entire month as it reached a sweltering 84 degrees. The day at the light was quiet. So uneventful was this particular day, the head keeper did not make any entrees into the log book.

The same could not be said across the ocean. Charles and Louis were sitting in the trenches. It had also been an uneventful day. Charles was writing a letter home. His cousin was writing an entry in the diary he kept with him. Suddenly, the alarm was sounded: “GAS ATTACK!” Charles dropped his pen and Louis never finished the sentence he was writing in his diary. Each soldier grabbed his gas mask. Louis raised his head slightly above the trench line to get a fix on the position where the enemy was releasing the deadly gas. “Louis get down!” yelled both his cousin and the soldier next to him. The lone sound of a rifle, a single sniper’s bullet made its mark and Louis was dead. He was only 21 years old. There was no other sound to mark the passing of his life except the silence of a horrified cousin sitting next to him in a trench holding onto a diary that was never to be finished.

The family learned of his death when Charles finished the letter he was writing on August 13, 1918. The official notice of Louis’ death would not reach his parents or keeper Edward for many more months. In fact, the local paper, The North Tonawanda Evening News would report that Louis was probably still alive and in a hospital somewhere in France or England since no official word had yet reached his parents.

When September, 1918 brought cooler temperatures to the Marblehead shores, it also brought the news of Edward’s cousin and the war became much more personal for both keepers. Between the two keepers, at least $300 dollars and more of Liberty War Bonds and stamps had been purchased. Now, however, it was no longer sufficient to just to buy war bonds. Charles Hunter recorded in the log books for September, “Mrs. E. Herman Asst. wife and Chas Hunter Keeper appointed solicitors for the 4th Liberty Loan.” On September 30th Keeper Hunter recorded, “Bulgeria surrenders.” Yet, the fighting was far from over.

The month of October would once again bring the war close to the shores of Marblehead. Newly promoted Corporal Charles L. Herman was still in the trenches. The 27th Division had been involved in fighting for some time at the western front. The North Tonawanda Evening News was reporting they were steadily advancing during the “Cambral Drive.” The push to break the Hindenburg Line was at the forefront of the battle. The fighting and retreating Germans were now reduced to filling their infantries with conscripts of other countries. Gas warfare was also increasing and pockets of gas lay like deadly traps in the ground. Soldiers crawling through the flat pockmarked terrain would suddenly find themselves belly down on the deadly residue. On October 14, 1918, the day the Argonne Offensive began, Corporal Herman felt the sting of gas in his throat and eyes. The polluted ground had given off its hidden vapors on the unsuspecting group of soldiers crawling through the mud. It was too late for a mask.

The North Tonawanda Evening News reported that Corporal Charles L. Herman had been gassed. He had lain in a hospital in France for several weeks, blinded and unable to speak. He was being transferred to a hospital in England. His present condition was unknown. Less than a month later, on the 11th hour, of the 11th day, of the 11th month, the war was over.

In early December, keeper Edward received a postcard from his sister. “Charlie is coming home! We hope to have him here by Christmas, Love your sis, Viola.”

The war was over, but not the horrors or its memories. For the keepers at the Marblehead Lighthouse, the war changed forever their little piece of the world and the land the light stood on. For keeper Edward, the war changed not only his immediate family, but also the next two generations. His brother Charles would never again sail on a lighthouse tender. The long term effects of the mustard gas would insure this end. Edward’s uncle and aunt were left without their youngest son. The sisters were left without a younger brother. A young woman was left without her fiancé. A grieving Mary Herman was now a Gold Star Mother. And her son was buried a long, long way from the family cemetery in Martinsville, NY. Private 1st Class Louis J. Herman, U.S. Army 108th Infantry Regiment, 27th Infantry Division was buried Belgium at Flanders Fields American Cemetery; Plot C, Row 2, Grave 11, beneath a blanket of red poppy flowers.

On April 8, 1919, keeper Charles Hunter recorded in the Marblehead Lighthouse logbook the following entry: “Asst. planted a walnut tree, A Memorial to cousin killed in the war!” The following month, Edward’s brother Charles was married. His uncle, Louis’ father, attended the wedding. The North Tonawanda Evening News reported that Charles and his bride were traveling to the Marblehead Lighthouse for their honeymoon. On May 28, 1919, keeper Hunter wrote the following entry in the station journal: “Asst. brother and wife arrive for a visit.” What he did not record in the log book was the occasion for the visit. It was Charles’ honeymoon - a honeymoon that also included paying homage to a walnut tree, a tree planted by his brother, the lighthouse keeper, in memory of their cousin, Private First Class Louis J. Herman, eternally at rest in Flanders Fields.

Postscript: Assistant Keeper Edward Herman was appointed the Head Keeper at the Marblehead Lighthouse after Charles Hunter retired. Charles Herman eventually joined the Parks Department of the Interior. He moved to Washington D.C. where he became the Chief Custodian in charge of the Washington National Monument. After the war, Charles returned each summer to visit his brother at the Marblehead Lighthouse and the tree planted in memory of their cousin killed in the Great War and buried in Flanders Fields.

Black walnut trees begin producing ten to fifteen years after planting, and every two years produce a good bumper crop of walnuts. On December 4, 1933, Head Keeper Edward Herman first recorded in the Marblehead log book, “shucking walnuts”. Every two years in the month of November until his retirement, keeper Herman recorded a single line entry in the lighthouse log book, “Shucking walnuts.”

The original walnut tree planted in April, 1919 is still in existence at the Marblehead Lighthouse. It stands as a grove of the many trees that have sprung from the walnuts of that very first tree.

I am keeper Edward’s great niece. It was in the late autumn of 2009 when I first listened to the symphony of the walnuts. On that lovely November fall day, I think I am only there to document the life of the last United States Lighthouse Service Keeper at the Marblehead Lighthouse, Ohio. How little did I know the story I was about to learn was in the music of those walnut trees.

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