The 75th Anniversary of the start of World War II is a time to remember those who served our country. During the war, many lighthouses became Coast Guard posts, including Año Nuevo, Pigeon Point, and Point Montara.
Everyone was Scared
Only eighteen years old, Seaman Arthur H. Smith arrived at California’s Año Nuevo Light Station in April 1942 as a member of a Coast Guard lookout crew. Smith declared, “Everyone was scared stiff.”
Located at the tip of Año Nuevo Island, the lookout post was manned twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. The crew watched for enemy vessels and airplanes, transmitted data on any craft to command headquarters, and reported attempts of enemy landings. “Using binoculars, we scanned the horizon for any lights, ships, or planes,” Smith explained. “It all had to be reported by crank telephone to San Francisco.”
Once, some local fishermen thought they spotted a submarine periscope south of Año Nuevo. They reported it, and supposedly, the area was bombed. Rumors persisted for years that a German or Japanese sub lay in the water near shore.
There was ample cause for concern. Shortly after the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, Japanese submarines were dispatched to shell selected U.S. coastal towns and lighthouses. Several ships were torpedoed within sight of California cities, including the 8,000 ton tanker Montebello off the coast of Cambria. The crew was unarmed, yet as the men jumped into lifeboats, a submarine surfaced, firing with its deck gun. The Montebello sank beneath the sea.
Supplies for Año Nuevo Lighthouse Station were delivered by the tender USS Lupine. Built as a mine planter for the Army in 1918, the vessel was converted to a U.S. Lighthouse Service tender and commissioned on April 14, 1927. Smith noted, “She operated out of San Francisco all along the California coast.”
Smith also brought groceries and mail, and supplies from nearby Pescadero. Mrs. Bernice Steele Taylor graciously offered the use of her horse and buggy. “I’d harness up old Dolly, drive her down to the beach, and unload the boxes into a dory to row out to the island,” Smith recalled. “Then, I patted her on the bottom and she trotted back to the barn on her own.”
In August 1942, Smith volunteered to serve as a Gunner’s Mate aboard LST-202. The vessel, which carried 12 tanks and 600 troops, was designed to support amphibious operations by carrying huge loads of military vehicles, cargo, and troops. LST-202 earned five battle stars for her wartime service. Smith remarked, “We made all the Pacific invasions that General MacArthur did.”
A Vigilant Force
California’s Pigeon Point Light Station had a coastal lookout unit, too. From 1944 to 1945, Seaman Herbert Teel served there. “Usually, four or five Coast Guard personnel stood watches at the lookout station,” Teel noted. “Facing the possibility of an enemy landing, we logged all boats, ships, and planes that went past Pigeon Point.”
The Coast Guard also established a beach patrol unit of 20 men at Pigeon Point. The usual patrol consisted of two men armed with rifles, pistols, and flares. Accompanied by dogs and horses, each patrol covered two miles of shoreline, regardless of unruly weather or tough terrain. One Coast Guard report noted, “The beach patrols provided a presence that reassured the home front that they were being protected by a vigilant armed force.”
In December of 1944, Herb Teel was transferred to Point Montara Lighthouse for a few months until a new keeper was appointed. “The area was used to house military units, including a K-9 Corps,” he said. “The Navy also operated a mobile anti-aircraft training center which was one of five along the Pacific Coast.”
A firing line with anti-aircraft guns and machine guns faced the ocean, allowing an unobstructed field of fire. Thousands of recruits trained, shot live rounds at targets, and practiced beach landings. A Coast Guard seaman named Potter was a gunnery instructor at the school. He revealed, “Sometimes, the trainees got bored and tried to hit the planes pulling their targets. Later, radio-controlled miniature planes were used.”
Members of the Women’s Airforce Service Pilots flew the planes which towed targets, and later, the “mother ships” that radio-controlled target drones. Their assignments were “hush-hush,” and few knew that WASPs were flying from the nearby Half Moon Bay Flight Strip. Shirley Thackara was one of the pilots. “The assignments were extremely dangerous,” she pointed out. “If the gunners missed the target, stray bullets could do damage to both civilians and pilots.”
The end of the war in Europe was celebrated on May 8, 1945 and the surrender of Japan came on August 15, 1945. Although Art Smith and Herb Teel never met, they were in San Francisco as the war closed. By then, Smith was stationed at Alameda, California. “I represented the Coast Guard by carrying the American flag in a parade in San Francisco,” he beamed. “It was a proud moment.”
Teel journeyed often to San Francisco, later establishing a jewelry store south of the city. He returned to Pigeon Point Lighthouse shortly before his death in 2002. After a nostalgic visit to the tower he wrote, “It was a pleasure to have served at the Pigeon Point station.”
Along with other WASP pilots, Shirley Thackara was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal in 1992. She declared, “We had to prove ourselves everywhere we went. I think we did a damn good job.”
(Editor’s Note: JoAnn Semones is a maritime author and historian. Visit her website at www.GullCottageBooks.com for books and stories about Coastside history.)
This story appeared in the
Nov/Dec 2016 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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