Since 1872, many tales have been told about Pigeon Point, its historic lighthouse, and its tragic shipwrecks. Recently, an unusual story surfaced from a man who was a Coast Guard keeper there during the Korean War.
Born in San Francisco in 1928, Reece Harris was always fascinated with ships. One ship, the Ohioan, is etched in his memory. During World War I, the vessel carried cargo, animals, and passengers to France. After the Armistice, she returned over 8,000 American troops, including the highly decorated soldier Sergeant Alvin York.
“It was foggy, and the Ohioan ran aground in 1936 near Seal Rock at the entrance to San Francisco Bay. Huge crowds of people went to see her,” he recalled. “My dad had been in the Navy, so he was very excited. He went down to retrieve some of the wreckage and came back with a life preserver.”
Harris joined the Coast Guard just before the outbreak of the Korean War on June 25, 1950. The Coast Guard’s duties included port security, maritime inspection and safety, search and rescue, and patrolling ocean stations. According to the Chief of Naval Operations, “Coast Guard personnel, ships, aircraft and facilities should be utilized as organized Coast Guard units rather than by indiscriminately integrating them into the naval establishment.”
For a time, Harris was assigned to a buoy tender on Monterey Bay. A buoy tender is a vessel used to maintain and replace navigational buoys. “It was rather dull,” he shrugged. “Not too much happened.”
In October of 1951, Harris was stationed at Pigeon Point Lighthouse as an assistant keeper. The original keepers’ dwelling, which was demolished in 1960 to make way for bungalow structures, still stood. “Four of us lived there – Seaman Fred Lehman, Seaman Bill Wheeler, Chief Paul Fielding, and me,” he said. “I was on the lower floor. The apartments were quite comfortable.”
Some of the duty was a little risky. Using only a boatswain’s chair (or bosun’s chair), Lehman painted Pigeon Point’s tower. A bosun’s chair is a short board secured by ropes and used as a seat by sailors when working aloft or over a ship’s side. Harris chuckled, “He really had to hang over the side of that tower. He was almost upside down.”
Other duties proved more stressful. “If there was less than five miles visibility, you had to run the radio so ships could pinpoint their location,” Harris stated. “We used a radio-beacon to triangulate with Point Bonita and the lightship San Francisco.” First put into service in 1951, the San Francisco was stationed three miles off the Golden Gate Bridge. The lightship served there for the next eighteen years.
“Every thirty minutes, there was a precise sequence that had to happen. First, Pigeon Point would broadcast its ‘P.’ Next, Point Bonita would broadcast its letter. Then, the San Francisco would broadcast its signal,” Harris explained. “If you didn’t broadcast at your exact time, you ran the risk of broadcasting over the next station’s signal, making triangulation impossible.”
The most stressful times occurred when there were power outages. “If power was lost, the generator kicked in, but it messed up the clocks. We’d have to take the radio off line then readjust the clocks manually,” Harris noted. “If you missed your transmission, you’d be disciplined. I always wanted to keep my keeper happy.”
According to Harris, that was the “most adventure” the crew experienced until one night when he thought Pigeon Point was being invaded. He was on watch in the radio room when he heard voices along the walkway surrounding the fog signal building. “It sounded like a strange language, so I kept an eye out. I wondered if I should report it to the keeper then decided to investigate,” Harris declared. “I was shocked when I discovered it was seals making noises out there. I sure would have felt silly reporting that!”
Harris has other fond recollections. On another evening, two young women ran out of gas while driving home to Santa Cruz. Using Pigeon Point’s beacon as a guide, they made their way to the lighthouse to request help. The station crew obliged and sent them safely on their way. In a few days, the women returned with cookies to show their appreciation. “I started dating one of them,” Harris smiled, “and eventually we were married.”
After departing Pigeon Point in October of 1952, Harris was transferred to the Coast Guard base at Alameda. While there, he served as a relief keeper at several northern California lighthouses, including Yerba Buena near Treasure Island, Lime Point near the Golden Gate Bridge, and Bodega Bay serving Mile Rock and East Brother. He was also assigned to the eighty-three foot patrol boat CG-83391 on which he participated in search and rescue missions. Three boats rotated out of Fisherman’s Wharf, servicing the Farallon Islands and Mile Rock stations.
About a year later, the Korean War ended and Harris left the Coast Guard. Although he has no photographs of his time at Pigeon Point Lighthouse, Reece Harris still carries with him the memory of the night Pigeon Point was invaded.
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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