Digest>Archives> March 2006

The Lighthouse at Guantanamo Bay

By Timothy Harrison


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This image shows the white cliffs by the Windward ...

For the baby boomers, the name Guantanamo Bay will bring back memories of the Cuban Revolution that brought Fidel Castro to power and then to the Cuban missile crisis that brought the world to the brink of nuclear war. In 1991, Guantanamo Bay was again in the news as tens of thousands of Haitian refugees sought refuge there after a violent coup that overthrew the government of Haiti. Guantanamo Bay is in the news again as the site of detainee camp for enemy combatants in the War on Terrorism.

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Dated December 3, 1903, this photograph was taken ...

Most people, however, do not know about the historic Windward Point Lighthouse that is located within the grounds of the U.S. Naval Station at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. In fact, it is the only United States lighthouse located in a country that does not maintain political relations with the United States.

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Located about 400 air miles from Miami, Florida, the United States has had a presence at Guantanamo Bay since 1903, and the Navy base there is the oldest operating U.S. base outside the United States.

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Guantanamo Bay is on the southeast coast of Cuba and is approached via the Windward Passage from the north or the Caribbean Sea from the south. Because it is the largest bay in the extreme south coast and it affords anchorage for deep-water craft, it was the perfect selection for a Navy base and the obvious location for a lighthouse.

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The United States Lighthouse Service manufactured the iron lighthouse in the United States and shipped the pieces to Cuba for assembly. The top of the lantern room is made of copper and the interior of the lighthouse is walled with mahogany. It has the typical spiral staircase with 120 steps to the top.

Like all early lighthouses, its beacon was originally lit with whale oil, but was converted to electricity in the 1920s.

The Windward Point Lighthouse was deactivated in 1955 and replaced by a light on a skeletal tower and the actual lighthouse was then reduced to serve as a backup light for the next ten years. However, in 1964 when the Coast Guard turned the property over to the U.S. Navy, the lens was removed from the tower and sent to the Coast Guard Academy in New London, CT where it is now on display. In 1988, a modern optic was placed in the lighthouse.

Even though the Coast Guard turned the lighthouse over to the Navy, Coast Guard personnel continued to live in the keeper’s quarters, which had been designated as official housing for the Senior Coast Guard officer stationed at Guantanamo Bay. Captain Mark J. Campbell, who was the Coast Guard Officer/Liaison Officer (CGLO) to the Navy Fleet Training Group at Guantanamo from 1993–1995, was the last Coast Guard person to live there with his family. After he left, the house was converted to a museum, which now houses many rare photographs from the Spanish American War through the Vietnam era as well as a large collection of Marine Corp memorabilia.

Capt. Campbell, who currently serves as Chief of Staff in the First Coast Guard District in Boston, recalled that he and his family have many fond memories of living at the lighthouse, especially since they literally had the Caribbean Sea out their back door. Although the old keeper’s house was small for his family of a wife and three children, the location made up for any shortcomings. Unlike his counterparts, who lived in a dense-packed housing complex, he and his family were all by themselves at the lighthouse location. They loved the seclusion and privacy that they were afforded by this arrangement, since the 17 square miles of the base could be very “close.”

All along the shore and around the lighthouse quarters, many iguanas live in the nooks and crannies. Campbell recalled, “One time, we had a 3-foot iguana inside our fence line. Our dog went crazy and chased after it. The poor iguana tried to leap through the chain-link fence and managed to get its head through, but of course the rest of its body wouldn’t fit — he was permanently stuck. On advice of the Base Veterinarian,

I donned some thick leather gloves, pulled its head back into the yard and then chucked him over the fence — never to be seen again!”

Campbell told one of the more exciting events that happened in the dead of night. He had been forewarned by Base Security and by his predecessor that the light served as a beacon for Cuban refugees, (in the days before heightened security), who would wait until dark and enter the water several miles down the coast in communist Cuba, then swim for the light (and freedom). “So we were not surprised when three Cuban gents, soaking wet in their underwear, began pounding on our door at 2 am. They obviously had been fully briefed on what to say if they made it to the lighthouse. They asked for two things — ‘aqua frea’ (cold water) and ‘call security.’ Within minutes the security force arrived and took them to temporary housing for just such an event and within days, they were off to a new life in the U.S.”

Although it was next to impossible to grow anything in the rocky coral soil at that time, the lighthouse had three trees — one massive banyan tree and two 49-foot palm trees, which gave it quite a tropical look. “The heat was incredible,” said Campbell, who went on to say, “We were fortunate enough to have air conditioners — I can’t imagine how the old-time lighthouse keepers dealt with the heat.”

This story appeared in the March 2006 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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