Digest>Archives> Jan/Feb 2012

The Last Days of the Last Commissioner of Lighthouses

By Timothy Harrison


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Commissioner of Lighthouses Harold D. King with ...

When Harold Davis King, who was the second and last person to serve as the Commissioner of Lighthouses for the U.S. Bureau of Lighthouses, was removed from his job, it was not totally unexpected. In fact, probably just about everyone in Washington knew it was inevitable and saw it coming, even King himself.

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Ms. Edith Elinor King, daughter of Commissioner ...

Although the Coast Guard did not use the word “fired” in making the September 1939 announcement, it was pretty obvious to everyone what had transpired. But, interestingly, none of the newspapers, the only ones doing investigative reporting in those days, gave it much coverage, if at all, probably because it really wasn’t much of a story considering the much bigger events at that time to report about. Just a few weeks earlier, Germany had invaded Poland, and as a result, England, France, New Zealand, and Australia had declared war on Germany. Word War II had begun.

The events that led up to Harold King’s dismissal all started when Congress, at the request of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, passed the Reorganization Act of 1939, which a part of dissolved the United States Bureau of Lighthouses, known more commonly as the U.S. Lighthouse Service, and its duties were literally taken over by the Coast Guard. It was the first time in American history that a military branch of the government took over a civilian branch of the government. The official date of that event was July 7, 1939.

There were actually several reasons for this action, one of which was more important than the other. Part of the reason was Roosevelt’s long range plans to reorganize government agencies to make them more cost effective and to give the Executive Branch more control. But, in the case of the Lighthouse Service, it was more of a way to prepare our nation for war, which was inevitable, even though we were basically a pacifist nation with a Congress that desperately wanted our nation to remain neutral.

However, an effortless way to increase the size of the military budget was to increase the size of the Coast Guard. The easiest way to do that was to merge the gigantic Lighthouse Service, with all its vessels, depots, equipment, employees, and coastal lighthouse outposts, into the Coast Guard, all of which could be used in the defense of our country against a possible invasion. In an effort to keep the United States a neutral country in the world conflicts, and since support for the Coast Guard in Congress was extremely strong, requesting funds for the Coast Guard would be fairly easy to do at that time. Thereby, more military funds could easily be approved.

A report by the Commandant of the Coast Guard, Rear Admiral Russell R. Waesche, confirms this when he wrote the following:

Upon the issuance of the proclamation of neutrality by the President on September 5, 1939, the Coast Guard, as the law enforcement arm of the Federal Government upon the high seas and navigable waters of the United States, immediately swung into action to enforce the neutrality laws. Due to the confidence placed in the Service by the President when all aids to navigation were placed under its jurisdiction, the Coast Guard was in a position to render a greater service than ever before in time of national emergency. With every mile of shore line under its surveillance, with a loyal personnel of 17,000 officers and men manning cutters, planes, stations, lighthouses and lightships, the country has every reason to be assured that no violation of our neutrality will be permitted to go unobserved. The Coast Guard will demonstrate the meaning of democracy in action-always ready to safeguard shipping regardless of nationality and to keep inviolate the territorial waters of these United States.

Although it was obvious that many of the lower-ranking employees of the Lighthouse Service (Bureau of Lighthouses), such as vessel crews, would be maintained, there would be a problem with the higher ranking employees. This was especially true of men who held esteemed positions of civilian authority who would now have to report to a man in uniform. Some of these Lighthouse Service officials believed it would never work out, and they resigned before the take-over by the Coast Guard took place.

Rear Admiral Waesche wrote in the Coast Guard Bulletin at the time:

In affecting the consolidation of the Lighthouse Service with the Coast Guard, a number of personnel problems have arisen. One is the question of an overabundance of highly paid personnel for whom no work is available under consolidation. Former Commissioner Harold D. King, of the Lighthouse Service, who now acts as an assistant to the Commandant, is obviously too active a person to retain a position in which his activities are limited and it is believed that he may ask for voluntary retirement.

All one needs to do here is read between the lines. This was a much different view than was taken during previous statements before the consolidation took place, when everyone said wonderful things about how they would all solidify together. Harold King, who was the man in charge of all our nation’s lighthouses, including all aids to navigation, all lighthouse depots and their staff, all lighthouse tenders and their crews, all lightships and their crews, and all other employees in all other aspects, had his title of Commissioner taken away and was given a rank, in title only, of Captain, and was made the assistant to the Commandant of the Coast Guard. Although he might have thought beforehand that he would continue to have some authority, he soon realized that he had no real authority at all.

Proving again that the future for other high ranking officials of the Lighthouse Service was doomed, Admiral Waesche also reported at that time:

In the districts there are thirty-four division commanders and assistant commanders who were formerly in the Lighthouse Service and who are now acting as assistants to the commandants of the 13 new Coast Guard Districts. In this instance, it is equally obvious that only about thirteen of these officials will be needed under consolidation. It is believed that this situation will be met by letting time eliminate the excess personnel.

During all this upheaval, the lighthouse keepers were offered the opportunity to stay on as civilian keepers or join the Coast Guard as military keepers and be subject to military rules and possible reassignment at a minute’s notice. The keepers split in their decisions. This worked out well for some of them, but for many others it did not. Some family stations were immediately discontinued and the keeper was ordered to remove their families at once from some lighthouses, while other stations were allowed to remain as family stations. With no set policy in place for those rules, those decisions were made by local Coast Guard officers. While some of these officers had great respect for the civilian keepers, other officers had little regard for the Lighthouse Service keepers or other Lighthouse Service employees and many of the keepers as well as other Lighthouse Service employees were treated very badly.

With reports coming in to former Commissioner King about the reported poor treatment of many lighthouse keepers, grumblings from crew members of the former Lighthouse Service tenders and lightships, coupled with many items at some lighthouses that bore the name or emblem of the old Lighthouse Service being deliberately destroyed, King became immediately agitated. Prior to this he had tried to remain neutral. However, he was also man who respected the law and the rules, a man who had spent most of his adult life serving his country. But, the manner in which many of the people of the former Lighthouse Service were being treated was deeply disturbing to him.

Having been born in Portland, Maine, Harold King would have been familiar with the lighthouses that dot that areas coastline and the important seafaring history of the city to the rest of the nation. It is highly likely that he would have often visited the lighthouses around the Portland area but he could never have imagined when he was a young man that he would someday be in charge of all of our nation’s lighthouses.

King first entered government service in 1902, serving with the Coast and Geodetic Survey where he met George Putnam who was to become the first Commissioner of Lighthouses. In fact King and Putnam served together with the Coast and Geodetic Survey in the Philippines where their job was to locate areas which were in need of aids to navigation after the Philippines had become a U.S. Territory in 1898.

It was in the Philippines where on October 7, 1908, Harold King married Edith Etta Thompson, who had grown up with him in the same town of Farmington, Maine. Edith made the trip from Maine unaccompanied to meet Harold in Manila, where they were married. They were married in the city of Manila and their wedding was presided over by Isaac B. Harper, Minister of the Gospel. The ceremony was attended by George Putnam and United States Brigadier General James Francis Smith, who was Governor General of the Philippines at that time.

In 1911, at the urging of George Putnam, Harold King joined the U.S. Lighthouse Service and over time he was in charge of three lighthouse districts, including a long tour of duty in the Fifth District where his headquarters were in Baltimore, until he was appointed Deputy Commissioner of Lighthouses under his long time friend, George Putnam.

In 1929, by designation of the President, King was sent as the United States delegate to the international committee of the League of Nations in Genoa, Italy to work with other nations to develop a uniform system of buoys and lightings of the coasts of the world. His work in this area elevated his respect among the Washington elite, but he had very little time to cultivate the Congressmen and bureaucrats.

When George Putnam retired in 1935 as the Commissioner of Lighthouses, Harold D. King was the obvious person to serve as his replacement. But Congress makes the laws, and in 1939 the U.S. Bureau of Lighthouses was abolished, as was King’s position of Commissioner.

Now, King was a Captain in the Coast Guard and his only assignment was to be the Assistant to the Commandant of the Coast Guard. We can only wonder what was said in the conversations that took place behind closed doors in the days before his official retirement came on September 22, 1939. In fact, he was in the Coast Guard for less than three months.

His retirement was barely even mentioned in the newspapers of the time, but the official Coast Guard statement read as follows:

Captain Harold D. King, former Commissioner of Lighthouses of the Department of Commerce, and since the consolidation of the Lighthouse Service with the United States Coast Guard, by Executive Order, on July 1, (1939), assistant to Admiral Waesche, Commandant of the Coast Guard, has been retired from active duty. He assumes an inactive status under provisions of the act of August 10, relating to employees of the former Lighthouse Service having 30 years or more of service.

You will notice that the word “fired” was never used. But it is obvious that the Admiral had asked for King’s resignation. The Admiral’s statement printed in the Coast Guard Bulletin, Volume 1, Number 4, which did not even give King’s first name, but rather his initials, as was the custom, reads:

It is indeed fitting at this time to pay tribute to Capt. H.D. King, former Commissioner of Lighthouses, who retired on September 30 after a long and distinguished record of service for the Federal Government. Due largely to his cooperation and advice, the United States Coast Guard has met the present emergency with the integrated Service. The example of initiative, cooperation, and loyalty set by Captain King is one that every officer and man must follow if the Coast Guard, of which we are a part of, is to justify the confidence placed in it by the President and the Congress. Leave nothing undone to raise the Coast Guard to an ever higher plane of efficiency.

Interestingly, the Admiral’s words of praise about King gave the date of King’s resignation as September 30, which is eight days after the resignation was reported on by the New York Times. The Admiral’s statement was brief and to the point, and was also clearly used to send a message out to other disgruntled former employees of the Lighthouse Service, especially in the words of the second to the last sentence of his written statement.

After the announcement, a luncheon was held at the Department of Commerce to honor King and his years of service. It was attended by members of his family, former Lighthouse Service employees, and a number of dignitaries, including Col. J. Monroe Johnson, Assistant Secretary of Commerce and Coast Guard Admirals H.F. Johnson and L.C. Covell. There is no indication that King’s boss of eleven weeks, Commandant of the United States Coast Guard, Rear Admiral R.R. Waesche, attended the event.

And thus ended the career of one of the most important and dedicated men in United States lighthouse history. Little is known of his life after retirement from the government. He eventually moved to Orlando, Florida where he died at the age of 76, on March 6, 1956. He is buried at the Riverside Cemetery Two in Farmington, Maine in the same lot as his father-in-law, Josiah H. Thompson.

This story appeared in the Jan/Feb 2012 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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