During WWI, from April 11, 1917 until after the Armistice and in some cases into mid 1919, US Navy sailors manned lighthouses on the east coast of the US and sailors and Naval officers formed the crews of 4 lightships and over 40 lighthouse tenders. The story of how and why this came about is an interesting insight into “homeland security” almost 100 years ago.
The Naval Appropriations Act of August 29, 1916, anticipating possible US involvement in WWI, addressed the utilization of maritime organizations, including the Lighthouse Service, in support of the Navy in time of war. Prior to the legislation, the Department of Commerce (then responsible for lighthouses) and the Navy Department had consulted on the details of that utilization. A June 22, 1916 letter from the Secretary of the Navy to the Chairman of the Senate Committee on Naval Affairs outlined the agreement. This formed the basis for the section in the subsequent legislation that pertained to the Lighthouse Service. The Act stated that:
“The President is hereby authorized, whenever in his judgment a sufficient national emergency exists, to transfer to the service and jurisdiction of the Navy Department, or of the War Department such vessels, equipment, stations and personnel of the Lighthouse Service as he may deem to the best interest of the country, and after such transfer all expenses connected therewith shall be defrayed out of the appropriations for the department to which transfer is made.”
The legislation specified that everything was to be returned, “when such national emergency ceases” and that nothing was to be construed as permanently transferring any functions from the Lighthouse Service. In addition and very important, the personnel transferred were to fall under the jurisdiction of the Navy Department so they would have the right of combatants under the laws of war. The practical result was the induction of the transferred Lighthouse Service personnel into the newly created US Naval Reserve Force (USNRF).
Acting as specified in the legislation, the Secretaries of the Navy and War and the Secretary of Commerce spelled out the details of the “Regulations governing the duties to be performed by the Lighthouse Service in time of war.” This included a list of the 30 lighthouse tenders to be transferred to the War Department and the 15 tenders, 4 lightships and 21 light stations to be transferred to the Navy Department. The War Department tenders were to supplement Army Coast Artillery Corps mine planters for the establishment of minefields outside US ports. The Navy Department planned to arm the lighthouse tenders it was to receive with guns of up to 6-pound (about 57 mm) size.
The United States declared war on April 6, 1917 and on April 11, 1917; President Wilson signed Executive Order #2588 activating the provisions of the August 1916 legislation and the subsequent planning.
On April 18, the keeper at Heron Neck Light Station, Maine received this Western Union Telegram from his boss, the Inspector of the First Lighthouse District in Portland, ME:
“KEEPER HERRONNECK(sic) LIGHT STATION VINALHAVEN ME
YOU ARE TRANSFERRED BY PRESIDENT TO NAVY DEPARTMENT TOGETHER WITH LIGHT STATION AND ALL EQUIPMENT REPORT IMMEDIATELY FOR DUTY BY TELEGRAPH TO COMMANDANT FIRST NAVAL DISTRICT NAVY YARD BOSTON MASS YOU WILL SERVE UNDER HIM UNTIL FURTHER NOTICE AND AT SAME TIME PERFORM ALL LIGHTHOUSE DUTIES REQUIRED BY REGULATION AS WELL AS DUTIES WHICH NAVAL OFFICER WILL REQUIRE IN ADDITION
One wonders what Keeper Fred Robbins at Heron Neck Light thought about “joining” the Navy so suddenly. In the 1st Lighthouse District, these five light stations were transferred; West Quoddy Head, Bass Harbor Head, Heron Neck, Pemaquid Point and Cape Neddick Lights. On April 18, the Navy Department informed the Naval Districts by dispatch of the light stations now under their jurisdiction.
In keeping with the adage that war plans rarely survive the first shot, things began to change from the start. On April 12th the Secretary of Commerce informed the Navy Department that some tenders had relocated their home ports, one, the LILAC, to Puerto Rico, so some Naval District tender assignments needed to change. The War Department quickly said “no thanks” and recommended “their” tenders be transferred to the Navy Department instead. It may have taken until April 26 for the cost of these transfers to hit home, at least to the Commandant of the First Naval District. In response to the Chief of Naval Operations, he declined to assume jurisdiction of any additional light stations citing that “the total cost of operations of the lighthouses would come under the Navy Department” as the reason adding, “that it would be preferable to take over as few as possible.”
The operational control of the “Navy” light stations was under the Naval District Section Bases. Naval Districts were divided into Sections, each with a Section Base responsible for coastal patrol, observation and signaling in its area. Using the First Naval District and light stations in Maine as an example, one can form a picture of how the system operated from reading the various logs. Two things become evident; the number of light stations that were part of the “system” went far beyond the original five listed in the Executive Order and the “system” took about six months to get up and running.
The Navy called the installations “Signal Stations” and assigned about six personnel to each light station. These were relatively junior personnel with sometimes a Seaman 2/c in charge. The Signal Station kept its own log, separate from the Light Station log kept by the lighthouse keeper. Based on the surviving logs in the National Archives from the First Naval District, some Section Bases and their subordinate Signal Stations can be identified: Rockland, ME Section Base; Two Bush Island Signal Station, Saddle Back Ledge Signal Station and Monhegan Island Signal Station; Boothbay Harbor, ME Section Base; Seguin Light Signal Station.
The Section Base at Bar Harbor, ME covered Great Duck Island, Petit Manan, Baker Island, and Mount Desert Rock light stations. The Section Base at Machias, ME covered West Quoddy Head, Nash Island, Libby Island, Moose Peak, Little River and possibly Machias Seal Island light stations. The latter is interesting because the light station is Canadian with Canadian light keepers. The West Quoddy Head Light Station was called a “Patrol Station” in the logs, possibly reflecting its status as one of the original five taken over by the Navy. The Lighthouse Service and Navy logs available in the National Archives are incomplete so it is difficult to develop a complete list of all the additional light stations in the First Naval District that had naval signal personnel as tenants. Some logs exist from transferred light stations in the 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th, and 7th Naval Districts.
The logs for the 1st Naval District give some insight into the operation of the Navy Signal or Patrol Stations. The Navy logs have typical administrative entries; setting up living quarters in the boathouse, assignment and departure of personnel, and inspection visits. In addition, notations were made of lights observed at night and vessels passing the station in daylight. The navy personnel included a cook so they were probably self sufficient. The extra personnel must have made for crowded conditions, especially on off shore light stations. The duties of the naval signal personnel were as lookouts and for maintaining visual signal communication with the Section Base patrol vessels. These probably lacked radio communications equipment. With resident navy personnel at the light station dual logs were kept; the Lighthouse Service log kept by the light keeper and the Navy Signal Station log kept by the Navy person in charge.
In parallel with this activity, the Coast Guard, newly established in January 1915, had started a program to link all light stations to the commercial telephone system. For example, based on the Light Station log for Little River Light, ME, a telephone cable was laid to the island July 10, 1917 and the telephone was installed August 16, 1917. The Navy Signal Station was established at the light station in early October 1917. It is possible that establishment of the Signal Station was tied to establishing the telephone link. Without the telephone, there was no way to contact the Section Base to relay communications to or from the patrol vessels or to report significant observations up the chain of command.
It is clear that the keepers of the lighthouses transferred to Navy jurisdiction were considered Naval Personnel. A letter from Secretary of Commerce, Herbert Hoover, April 28, 1921, contained an enclosure that identified, by Lighthouse District, all Lighthouse Service personnel that were considered entitled to the WW I Victory Medal, and, probably also entitled to the WW I veterans’ bonus. The Lighthouse Service personnel at light stations that had resident Navy personnel but where the station was not transferred to Navy Department jurisdiction remained civilians and were not entitled to the Victory Medal or the bonus.
The Navy Signal Stations were served by Section Base craft such as the USS Kangaroo SP-1284 based at the Rockland Section Base. This 62-foot vessel was commanded by a Chief Quartermaster, had a crew of 11, was armed with a 1 pound gun and was capable of 21 knots. Herreshoff Mfg. Co. of Bristol, RI, built the vessel in 1917 for a private owner, with the provision that the Navy could use it in time of war. It was commissioned Dec. 10, 1917. Kangaroo served on patrol in Penobscot Bay, Maine until Oct 1918.
When Executive Order #2588 was carried out, 4 lightships were planned for transfer to Navy Department jurisdiction. These were: in the 2nd Naval District, LV-85 on the Nantucket Shoals lightship station; in the 3rd Naval District, LV-68 on the Fire Island station; in the 5th Naval District, LV-71 on the Diamond Shoals station and in the 6th Naval District, LV-94 on the Frying Pan Shoals station. All were steam powered and equipped with radios. The Executive Order identified the vessels by their lightship station, not by the hull number. The station location was the important issue and not the specific vessel however; all four light vessels were equipped with radios, which was probably significant. The light vessels’ compliments were either 4 or 5 officers and 10 crewmembers.
The National Archives has logs for two of the four light vessels for the WWI period;
LV-71, Diamond Shoals and LV-94, Frying Pan Shoals. These logs were US Lighthouse Service logs and not US Navy logs. In neither case were any specific naval activities noted. The light vessels’ function, beyond the aid to navigation one, was to maintain a lookout and report by radio. The LV-94 log noted Navy (either USN or USNRF) radio electricians assigned, probably to allow maintaining a 24-hour radio watch, something the Lighthouse Service did not provide for in the crew. These Naval personnel were listed as “officers” in the log along with the Lighthouse Service Master, Mate, Engineer and Assistant Engineer.
The lookout and reporting function resulted in the loss of LV-71 on the Diamond Shoals station to enemy action on August 6, 1918. The lightship had radioed a warning that a U-boat was in the vicinity and had sunk a vessel nearby. The U-104 intercepted the radio message and, after allowing the crew to abandon ship, sank the lightship by gunfire. It is possible that the LV-71 logs subsequent to April 8, 1918, the last one on file, went down with the ship on the 6th of August .
As with the light stations transferred to Navy Department jurisdiction, the crewmembers of the four lightships were on active duty in the Navy. This was confirmed in correspondence between the Navy Department and the Commerce Department with reference to the death of Anthony Passauer, the engineer on LV-71 when it was sunk. After the sinking, he was assigned to another lightship, a lightship not under Navy jurisdiction and then subsequently died of influenza. The correspondence posed the question of whether Mr. Passauer was eligible for compensation and insurance as a member of the armed forces on active duty at the time of his death. The conclusion was that he was not because his naval service ended the day LV-71 sank.
The Navy Department assumed jurisdiction of 46 Lighthouse Service tenders on April 11, 1917. Of these, 30 were originally to be transferred to the War Department but were declined and so went to the Navy instead. The Lighthouse Service tenders’ compliments averaged 5-6 officers and 20-25 crewmembers. Upon transfer, all officers and crewmembers were inducted into the US Naval Reserve Force (USNRF) with the officers receiving commissions with the rank of LTJG or ENS. Counting the tenders, light stations and lightships, there were 1,284 Lighthouse Service personnel transferred to the Navy Department or about ¼ of the Lighthouse Service at the time.
After the transfer, the Lighthouse Service tenders commissioned as U.S. naval vessels with the prefix USS in front of the tender’s name. The Dictionary of American Naval Fighting Ships lists some commissioning dates for the tenders and some are as late as June 1917. The delay between the transfer to the Navy Department and commissioning as a naval vessel may have been due to the assignment of additional Navy personnel and installation of additional equipment and armament. Two tenders, USS Rose and USS Sunflower were known to have been armed; the former with three 6 pound guns. Interestingly, Rose was assigned to the 13th Naval District and stationed at Astoria, Oregon and Sunflower was stationed at New Orleans, hardly locations at risk of attack by German surface vessels or U-boats in 1917.
A lighthouse tender example is the USLHT Azalea based at Woods Hole, MA and scheduled to go to the Army but transferred to the Navy on April 16, 1917. She was commissioned USS Azalea on May 9, 1917 and reported for duty to the Commandant of the 1st Naval District in Boston on May 12th 1917. The 1st Naval District instructed USS Azalea to continue with normal lighthouse related duties but to be available for other “military” duties as the Naval District may assign. The tender deck log holdings of the National Archives were reviewed to shed light on what these “military” duties may have been. An interesting discovery was that, based on the few cases where deck log holdings are listed for both the Naval vessel and the Lighthouse Service tender, dual logs were kept on board the vessels. Entries in the Department of Commerce Form 304, the Lighthouse Service deck logbook, were hand written and the Navy Department Bureau of Navigation logbook sheets were typewritten. The log entries were word for word identical. It is possible the Lighthouse Service log served as a rough log and the Navy Department log was the smooth log. The respective organizations retained their logs, signed by the Commanding Officer, USNRF and Master, USLHS respectively. Although every entry of the available logs was not read it appears that the tender activities were all lighthouse related.
One might expect that the Lighthouse Service tenders would have been returned to the Commerce Department soon after the Armistice took effect; however, that was not the case. On April 16, 1919, the Commissioner of Lighthouses reminded the Chief of Naval Operations that the tender Rose was still armed and requested the guns be removed and the tender “replaced in condition for lighthouse work as early as practicable on account of the great need of the Lighthouse Service for tenders”. After prompting, the Navy Department decommissioned the tenders and returned them to the Lighthouse Service on July 1, 1919, almost eight months after the end of the war. The last entry in the naval log for the USS Sequoia for June 30, 1919, is interesting. The log lists all the personnel on board and their disposition. Of the seven officers, five were released from active duty and returned to the Lighthouse Service. The two other officers were transferred; presumably, they were still on active duty in the Navy. Of the crew, 20 were released from active duty and 9 were transferred. All the latter were identified as USN and were transferred to the Mare Island Naval Station. Although it is risky to generalize from this one example, it appears the Navy assigned other naval personnel, both officer and enlisted, to the tenders while they were under Navy Department control.
In addition, also based on one example, there is evidence that former Lighthouse Service personnel were assigned to Navy ships. In February 1919, Charles A. A. Modeer, formerly the Lighthouse Service captain of the USS Rose and now a LCDR USNRF was assigned as the Commanding Officer of the USS West Compo, a supply ship built in Portland, OR. Under his command, the West Compo sailed to the East Coast and then made one trip to Europe before bring decommissioned in May 1919. LCDR Modeer returned to the West Coast, assumed command of the tender USS Manzanita in June 1919, and remained its captain when the Navy returned it to the Lighthouse Service on July 1, 1919.
Overall, the Navy Department and the Department of Commerce were satisfied with the results of the transfer to the Navy Department of the light stations, lightships and lighthouse tenders.
On July 1, 1919, on the return of the tenders to the Department of Commerce, the Secretary of Commerce wrote to the Secretary of the Navy. He expressed his appreciation for the spirit of cooperation, which existed on the part of the officers of the Navy Department and the Commandants of the Naval Districts with the Lighthouse Service during the period under Navy control.
By the time of WWII, the Lighthouse Service no longer existed and the US Coast Guard was responsible for all light stations, lightships and tenders. The WWI experience undoubtedly provided valuable lessons on the use of these assets for national security during WWII and later.
This story appeared in the
Nov/Dec 2011 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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