Experimental machine guns, fighter planes, spent shell casings, a secret mine, a secluded island, an abandoned lighthouse, clandestine operations, and the making of the atomic bomb; all are associated in some way or another with the history and the ruins of the Green Island Lighthouse that sits on a 17-acre island in western Lake Erie near Put-In-Bay, Ohio.
All of the stories associated with Green Island Lighthouse may be true, may be partially true, or may be fiction rooted in fact. Whatever the case, they are now all part of the folklore and legend that surrounds what was once an historic outpost on Lake Erie.
We’ve written about Green Island Lighthouse in the past, but that story centered on the fire that destroyed the first lighthouse in 1863. But perhaps there is a much bigger story to be told, one that could take years of research. Tid-bits of legend and stories about Green Island Lighthouse in the pre-war and World War II era are scattered throughout Internet web sites and journals, but they all appear to be based in one way or another on speculation. Or are they?
The last lighthouse keeper to serve at Green Island Lighthouse was William L. Gordon, who joined the United States Lighthouse Service in 1917, and served at Green Island until 1926 when the government ordered the lighthouse closed and transferred Gordon to nearby South Bass Island Lighthouse.
In October of 1933 the government leased the lighthouse to James A.H. Magoun of Toledo, Ohio under a five year lease that in 1938 was extended to October 1, of 1943. It is unclear if Magoun ever actually used the lighthouse during that time.
However, the government continued to keep a beacon at Green Island Lighthouse, and its maintenance was assigned to Bass Island keeper Gordon, who made regular visits from South Bass Island to Green Island, until his death in 1939, which was the same year that U.S. Army fighter planes, from what is now Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, reportedly started to strafe the island with machine gun fire from experimental machine guns mounted on fighter planes. Also, in 1939, the Coast Guard removed the beacon from the lighthouse to a 65-foot steel skeletal tower 330 feet from the lighthouse. 1939 was also the same year that the U.S. Government apparently started plans for the building of an atomic bomb and Green Island played an integral role in its development.
Interestingly, 1939 was also the year that Congress abolished the United States Lighthouse Service and ordered the Coast Guard to take over our nation’s lighthouses. It was called “reorganization for cost efficiency,” but a lot of it had to do with the anticipation of war. President Roosevelt knew that by increasing the size of the Coast Guard, the Coast Guard would now have many remote outposts under its control to guard our shores as well as many other additional resources, such as additional vessels of all sizes and shapes, depots, and many additional resources that could be used to defend our shores.
Upon William Gordon’s death in 1939, he was replaced by Frank LaRosie who served as the lighthouse keeper for South Bass Island and Green Island until sometime in 1941 when he was replaced by Coast Guard keeper Robert E. Jones, who also served at South Bass Island Lighthouse while maintaining the beacon at Green Island from 1941 to May 15, 1945 during World War II.
In an article written in 1993 by Kenneth R. Dickson that appeared in Inland Seas magazine, the author stated that between 1942 and 1944, “Miners were recruited from gypsum mines that lined the Port Clinton area, sworn to secrecy, and delivered to Green Island under guard.” He continued by writing that the miners were to mine the germanium salts that could be found in the strontium on Green Island that was needed for early transistor research for the timing mechanism to trigger or denote the atomic bomb. Apparently, at the time, the only other known source for this was in Africa, in areas that was controlled by Nazi Germany.
Interestingly, in 1944, on orders from General Henry H. “Hap” Arnold, commander of the Army Air Forces, a B-29 bomber from Smoky Hill Army Air Field in Kansas arrived at what is now Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio to be secretly modified for the atomic bomb - the first of a limited number of B-29s to be modified to carry and drop a nuclear bomb. It was also at this same base where the fighter planes were stationed that reportedly blitzed Green Island with machine gun fire from the experimental machine guns.
Reportedly, after the fighter planes strafed Green Island and its lighthouse with the experimental machine gun fire, the Coast Guard was sent in to retrieve the spent shell casings from the 17-acre island. But speculation abounds. Why would the Coast Guard be ordered to retrieve spent machine gun shell casings from a 17-acre wooded island? How difficult and time-consuming would that be? And for what purpose? To reuse the casings? To use them for scrap metal? Another theory is that the Coast Guard was sent there to retrieve a dummy Atomic bomb or bombs that had been dropped on Green Island. Or, were the strafing runs by the fighter planes just a ruse to keep people off and away from the island while the government conducted its secret mining operation? Perhaps there is some truth to all of this.
Now, let’s take a moment to navigate away from Green Island Lighthouse and devote our attention to West Sister Island Lighthouse, also on Lake Erie, but in Maumee Bay, where research tells us of similar activities taking place there.
In 1937, President Franklin Roosevelt declared West Sister Island a wildlife refuge to protect migratory birds and other wildlife. Strangely, after being established as a wildlife refuge, Army bombers and/or fighter planes used the island for target practice and literally destroyed the keeper’s house. Reportedly the wildlife was not disturbed during these military activities. Huh? What did the government do, drop leaflets to the birds and other wildlife to inform them to stay away while the Army planes bombed and shot up the island?
What kind of secret tests really transpired at Green Island and West Sister Island? All written reports about Green Island Lighthouse state that even though the lighthouse was abandoned, the light remained in the tower until 1939, when it was removed from the tower and placed on a skeletal tower. And, 1939 seems to be the same year that all the mysterious and secret activities started on the island. All reports indicate that, at some point, the lighthouse was burned by vandals, leaving nothing but the walls of the structure. But was the lighthouse really destroyed by vandals? Or was the demise of the lighthouse the result of something else? Was it part of some cover-up?
We may never know all the answers to all the mysterious and secret happenings at Green Island and its lighthouse. But speculation by conspiracy theorists, historians, researchers, and others can make a mighty good case for a certain amount of truth that some secret government activities took place there.
In a report written by Michael Gora, titled Green Island and Its Lighthouses, originally published in 2006, it is stated that Kenneth R. Dickson interviewed Dr. Ed Foster, emeritus chairman of the University of Toledo’s Engineering Department, who worked on the project for the development of the atomic bomb. When Dickson asked Dr. Foster if the military had removed enough material from Green Island for the Atomic bomb’s denotation device to make early transistors, he replied, “The bomb went off, didn’t it.”
This story appeared in the
Jan/Feb 2013 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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