During the period 1820 – 1983, more than 120 lightships have guarded our country’s coastline, serving at up to 56 of the 116 lightship stations established over the years. In 1939 when the Coast Guard assumed responsibility for aids to navigation, the number of lightship stations had been reduced to 30. The number of stations continued to decline steadily until by 1983 there was only one remaining lightship on station – the Nantucket, and today there are none. During the heyday of maritime travel, twelve lightships stood guard over the waters around Nantucket, Martha’s Vineyard and Cape Cod alone– more than any other location in the world.
In 1939 lightship officers and crews, as well as the other civilian employees of the Lighthouse Service, were offered the choice of integrating into the Coast Guard with military rank commensurate with existing salary, or retention of civilian status but under Coast Guard command. Willard Flint in his book Lightships of the U.S. Government – Reference Notes (GPO. 1989.) notes that the exercise of these options resulted in about a 50-50 split, and a few of the Lighthouse Service civilian employees were still in evidence as late as 1972.
According to Bryan Penberthy at us-lighthouses.com, after the United States Coast Guard took over for the Lighthouse Service in 1939, each lightship was given a new hull designation that started with WAL. “W” was the code used for the U.S. Coast Guard, “A” stood for anchored, and “L” stood for light, which meant Coast Guard Anchored Light. Lightships that were built before 1939 retained their “LV” designation, but obtained an additional WAL designation. Lightships built after 1939 were given only a WAL designation. Although the “WAL” designation and numbers were approved and adopted in February 1942, apparently there were not disseminated until later in the War.
Likewise, with the merger in 1939, all sixty four of the Lighthouse Service tenders became Coast Guard cutters as they continued to perform their duties. With the onset of World War II, they too became a working part of the Navy. Naval type hull classifications were assigned on January 1942, thus the designation “WAGL” that all “Coasties” recognize. The “W” indicated that it was a Coast Guard cutter, and the “AG” indicated a “Miscellaneous Auxiliary.” The “L” indicated Lighthouse Tender. By 1943 the WAGL “Lighthouse Tenders” were renamed “Buoy Tenders.”
During times of war or conflict, the President of the United States can transfer any or all assets of the Coast Guard to the Department of the Navy and, in fact, this has been done in most conflicts that the United States has been involved in. Many shore light stations were darkened for a period to avoid providing navigational assistance to enemy vessels, and lightships, particularly those on “outside” stations were often withdrawn. Such was the case during World War II.
Some lightships were removed from their stations and marked by buoys (1942-1945) including Portland, Pollock Rip, Nantucket Shoals, Scotland (NJ), Barnegat, Five Fathom Bank, etc.
As the German submarine menace was reduced by 1943, some lightships resumed their stations, such as Boston lightship station - marked by a buoy from 1942-1943 and then the lightship resumed station.
Other stations were left unmarked such as Fire Island, withdrawn in 1942 with no buoy to mark the station.
The lightships that were withdrawn were used for port security and other duties for the duration. Called Examination Vessels, the ships were utilized to maintain a constant watch for incoming vessels in the area and to investigate all ships entering the bay. “Woe to the ship that doesn’t heave to when ordered!” the Coast Guard announced. It was the duty of the Coast Guard crew to board incoming vessels and determine their origin and destination, cargo, crew and purpose.
The Examination Vessels, as well as some lightships remaining on station and some lighthouse or buoy tenders, were converted during the War by adding 3-inch and/or 22 mm deck guns and painting the vessel in wartime gray colors. In the case of some of the lightships withdrawn from station, their beacons were removed to lower the center of gravity and make the vessel more seaworthy.
The Umatilla Lightship No. 88 was withdrawn from station in1942 to serve as examination vessel, assigned to NOWESTSEAFRON and stationed at Seattle, WA. She was classed as a “YN” net tender for the period. She had armament added for service during the War including a 3” - 23 caliber main battery forward, a “Y” gun depth charge projector on her stern, and three anti-aircraft weapons under tarps, one on the flying bridge and two on the raised stern deckhouse. The Navy eventually added an SO-1 radar as well.
The War years were anxious times for lightship crewmen. Bound by duty to maintain their station, they were “sitting ducks” for the enemy. According to Frederic L. Thompson in The Lightships of Cape Cod. (Northborough: Kenrick A. Claflin & Son, 1996), an incident involving a submarine occurred to the Blunt’s Reef Lightship No. 83 off San Francisco early in 1942 before the lightship was removed from the station. A Japanese submarine torpedoed a freighter within sight of the lightship and the lightship crew awaited their fate as well, but the lightship was allowed to remain. The Japanese apparently felt that the lightship was of little value. The crewmen of the freighter were rescued by the lightship’s crewmen and taken safely to port. LV 83 was soon withdrawn and based in San Francisco as an Examination Vessel. She was classed as “YN” Net Tender with no armament provided. She returned to lightship duty at the end of the war and remained in service until 1960.
In addition to the War, the weather and the sea continued to remain closely tied to the lightship sailors’ lives and comfort, as related in Fred Thompson’s book. In February of 1942 the crew of Stonehorse Lightship No. 53 felt reasonably safe from German submarines as the lightship began their trip to Boston for needed repairs. She was rounding Race Point on Cape Cod when a gale set in. She soon lost power and was unable to anchor. She fought the storm to stay afloat through five days and nights. As the storm subsided and the crew began to breathe easy, a German U-boat surfaced just 100 yards from their bow. The lightship’s only armament was two 45-caliber pistols, and with the radio disabled and unable to summon aid, the crew waited to be sunk. The submarine turned and moved slowly toward the lightship. Then the captain called over in perfect English, “Aren’t you somewhat off station?” To the amazement of the lightship’s crew, the U-boat soon submerged and was not seen again. A few days later a patrol plane spotted the disabled lightship and a cutter was dispatched to tow her in to Boston.
The weather too could be disastrous for the Coast Guard crews. In September 1944, a strong hurricane worked her way up the Atlantic, smashing the east coast along the way. Termed the “Great Atlantic Hurricane” by the US Weather Bureau, this storm would become one of the largest and most powerful ever to savage the east coast.
Huge waves and powerful gales battered the area as Coast Guard crews fought to affect rescues, and to simply stay afloat. Vineyard Sound Lightship No. 73, moored off the Sow and Pigs Reef to mark the western entrance to Vineyard Sound, fought the towering seas as well, but when the storm cleared on the 15th, the lightship had foundered, and vanished from its station. Today the lightship’s bell is on display in New Bedford, a tribute to the ship’s crew of 12, who remained at their posts until the end.
To the south, the Coast Guard cutters Bedloe and Jackson had responded, through the same hurricane, to the assistance of a Liberty Ship which had been torpedoed off the North Carolina coast, and then almost driven ashore by the gales in the hurricane. Although the Liberty Ship had weathered both blows and was later towed to Norfolk with no casualties, the two cutters were not as lucky.
“Struck four times by the towering waves, the CGC Bedloe tossed like a matchstick in the ocean before going down…. Borne to the top of a huge swell, the CGC Jackson was struck by two swells and rolled over until the mast dipped water. As the swells subsided, the ship righted and was hit by another high sea and turned on her side a second time. Struggling out of that, the vessel was carried high by a third sea. It seemed then, survivors said, that she hung in mid-air for seconds; then the wind seized her, turned her on her side and completely over. She disappeared under a huge wave.” (courtesy US Coast Guard). In all, 47 of the 79 men aboard the two cutters would not survive the ordeal.
In terms of destruction, this hurricane sank a total of five ships, claiming 344 lives at sea and 46 lives ashore. Two hundred forty seven officers and men of the USS Warrington died, as well as 97 other sailors from the Coast Guard cutters Jackson, Bedloe, Vineyard Lightship #73 and the Navy minesweeper YMS 409. (Webster, Captain Russell Webster. Lightship Crew Remembered. June 2000.)
Wartime duty aboard the vessels did have its perks, however. Fred Thompson relates the story of the Handkerchief Shoal Lightship No. 98. The lightship “…became one of the favorite haunts for Coast Guardsmen running supplies to the various lightships and lighthouses in Nantucket Sound. On board at the time was a cook named Gus who was reputed to serve the most delicious hot twisted rolls in the area. At 0600 hours most mornings there could be found at least one Coast Guard patrol boat moored to the lightship as the boat’s crew sampled the chef’s delicacies.
Captain Russell Webster detailed in his writings, the wartime life on the Vineyard Lightship No 73 during the WWII. “…Above the clatter and chatter could be heard the jazz of the 40s from a large radio that, because of our particular type of function, we were allowed to have. The Saturday night hit-parade was a unanimous favorite of all hands. During a typical day, the off-watch men … would begin their day at 0700 hours, wash, dress and sit down to breakfast by 0730 hours. Work began at 0800 hours and consisted of the usual scraping, scrubbing and painting in an endless cycle familiar to all seamen. In the warm summer months the men worked over the side or up in the riggings; a more enjoyable type of work, as it required “more seamanship and agility. This gave a man a feeling of accomplishment…. During inclement weather, the men worked inside scrubbing, chipping, scraping and painting. During severe weather, they would work in areas that were less frequented, such as down in the chain locker, or deep in the inner spaces of the ship. With their pots of red lead paint, they would crawl into “nearly inaccessible corners and dark, damp caverns, where it seemed that no man had ever been before.” Occasionally, the weather would be so rough as to suspend all work and the men stayed in their bunks “simply hanging on.” Some of the work was monotonous, but mercifully, the work day ended each day at noon. With the exception of the watch, each man did as he pleased for the rest of the day. Some sunbathed, many played cribbage and told “sea stories,” while others spoke of their next leave at home with family and friends. “After the energy of the noon meal wore off, men would slowly begin to disappear. Before long, the ship would be silent, with only the watch left moving about; the rest of the crew having turned in for an afternoon nap.” The watch on World War II vintage lightships was stood in the wheelhouse. The watch kept an eye on the weather and listened for radio messages. If the visibility dropped to less than one and one-half miles, the fog horn was put into operation. Fog was worst in the summer months, but during severe cold, vapor would settle over the water in layers 20-30 feet in height, leaving only the tops of the mast visible. It was not uncommon for the fog signal to be activated four or five times a day, or even left in continuous operation during summer months. To be out on the spar deck when the horn was in use was a nerve shattering experience that would stop all unnecessary topside activity. Occasionally, when the horn compressors would not start, a man would be brought on deck to ring the ship’s large bell. There were more than a few days in winter with stormy, sub-zero temperatures, and decks made slick by frozen spray, that the bell had to be rung by hand. It did not take long under these circumstances for a man to take on the appearance of an ice statue. The men worked in relays, relieving each other every fifteen minutes. Each man would take his turn manually ringing the bell in the manner prescribed for a ship at anchor in the fog. (Webster, Captain Russell Webster. Lightship Crew Remembered. June 2000.)
Lightship #53 on Stonehorse Shoal off the southern tip of Monomoy on Cape Cod, was considered the “Siberia” of Coast Guard duty. Often during the era, delinquent Coast Guardsmen were assigned to #53 as a punishment. However, even this remote post was not enough to dissuade the most determined men. One adventurous Coast Guardsman was said to swim the half mile to shore and walked miles north to Chatham to visit his girlfriend. Soon though, the Shore Patrol arrived to retrieve him and returned him to the lightship, ample punishment for the sailor.
For more information and great reading on life aboard this and other New England light-vessels, you will want to read: Thompson, Frederic L. The Lightships of Cape Cod. (Northborough: Kenrick A. Claflin & Son, 1996), and Flint, Willard. LIGHTSHIPS OF THE U. S. GOVERNMENT – Reference Notes. GPO. 1989.
Like our column? Have suggestions for future subjects?
Please send in your suggestions and questions, or a photograph of an object that you need help dating or identifying. We will include the answer to a selected inquiry as a regular feature each month in our column.
Jim Claflin is a recognized authority on antiques of the U.S. Lighthouse Service, Life-Saving Service, Revenue Cutter Service and early Coast Guard. In addition to authoring and publishing a number of books on the subject, Jim is the owner of Kenrick A Claflin & Son Nautical Antiques. In business since 1956, he has specialized in antiques of this type since the early 1990s. He may be contacted by writing to him at 1227 Pleasant Street, Worcester, MA 01602, or by calling 508-792-6627. You may also contact him by email: jclaflin@LighthouseAntiques.net or visit his web site at: www.LighthouseAntiques.net
This story appeared in the
Nov/Dec 2017 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.
All contents copyright © 1995-2018 by Lighthouse Digest®, Inc. No story, photograph, or any other item on this website may be reprinted or reproduced without the express permission of Lighthouse Digest. For contact information, click here.