On March 18, 1939 large crowds had gathered at the Moore Dry Dock Company shipyard in Oakland, California to watch history in the making as two brand new United States Lighthouse Service Lighthouse Tenders, the Walnut and the Fir were scheduled to be launched on the same day.
The christening and launching of two brand new lighthouse tenders in a single day was a big event in those days. A special review stand was built and decked out with patriotic red, white, and blue banners, and as shown in the image above, a special sound truck was brought in with gigantic speakers mounted from its roof, and a large band was assembled to play a variety of patriotic tunes. Dignitaries were on hand from the United States Lighthouse Service, United States Coast Guard, the United States Navy, the United States Department of Commerce, and of course, the Moore Dry Dock Company, the firm that built the tenders.
Then the final moment came. Miss Virginia Gordon Hughes, standing next to Joseph Moore, President of Moore Dry Dock Co., shattered the bottle of California Champagne against the steel bow of the Walnut and the vessel slid down the greased timbers. The Oakland Tribune reported, “The boat took the waves with only a quick dash of foam and then as if sharing the excitement moved into the stream stern first as the crowd and whistles broke into a roar. Radio announcers carrying a description of the ceremonies to all parts of the country on a nationwide network were drowned out by the cacophony. Then, slowly, the tender floating high and without a list was, grabbed by workmen holding a long hawser, and with Mickey Dolan, the head riveter of the Moore Dry Dock Co., waving from bow; she was drawn back to the dock.”
However, the planned launching of the Lighthouse Tender Fir on the same day did not happen because the repair to a cable which would retrieve the marine railway car had broken and could not be repaired in time. Not to be daunted by this, Mr. Moore ordered an Open House for the rest of the day, declaring it a holiday and allowing the crowds full access to the tour the shipyard. However, four days later, on March 22, 1939, the lighthouse Tender Fir did get its launch day and went on to an illustrious career and still survives today as a United States National Landmark.
But on that day in 1939 during the launching of the Walnut, little could those in attendance and the new crew of the Walnut, have realized that in a relatively short span of time they would be a part of, and witness to, two major events that would change the course of history.
The first happened just a few months later, when in July of that year, Congress dissolved the United States Lighthouse Service and its duties were taken over by the Coast Guard. It was the first time in American history that a military branch of the government took over a civilian branch of the government. The crew members of the Walnut were suddenly no longer civilians; they were now in the military. And on July 8, 1939 the vessel was commissioned as a Coast Guard ship.
The Walnut went from one coast to another and by mid-1941, while she was serving on the Great Lakes out of Detroit, she was reassigned to be home-ported out of Honolulu, Hawaii. While on duty in Honolulu, she was sent to service the aids to navigation at Midway Island, which were over 1,300 miles away from Hawaii. With abundant rumors of possible enemy hostilities, the U.S. Navy was expanding its seaplane and naval base at Midway Island, which was considered second only to its base at Pearl Harbor. Because of this, the Walnut was also assigned to possible search and rescue missions.
After fulfilling its assigned duties at Midway Island, the Walnut received new orders to return to Honolulu. However, there was a shortage of fuel for the lengthy voyage to Hawaii and the ship was forced to remain moored at Long Dock at Midway Island. On Sunday morning, December 7, 1941, while the crew was onboard doing normal duties, the ship came alive as the radio crackled with the news that Pearl Harbor was under a surprise Japanese attack. Within minutes of the news, in preparation for a total black-out, the Walnut was ordered to immediately extinguish every aid to navigation around Midway Island.
Once that was accomplished, the vessel was ordered to Midway Lagoon to act as a decoy ship to attract enemy planes away from the warships in the harbor. With no armament on board, the Walnut and its crew were sitting ducks, ready to sacrifice themselves to save others, something none of the crew had ever expected when they were assigned to the lighthouse tender Walnut. With no armament and no way to defend themselves, one can only wonder what must have been going through the minds of the crew as they sat on the deck of the ship watching the sky for enemy aircraft. They would soon find out how real that threat was.
The day after the attack on Pearl Harbor, which awakened the Sleeping Giant on that fateful Sunday of December 7, 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, in addressing the nation from a joint session of Congress, said that the unwarranted and unprovoked attack would be “A date which will live in infamy.”
During his address to Congress on December 8, 1941, in asking for a Declaration of War against the Empire of Japan, President Roosevelt told the nation that as well as attacking Pearl Harbor “last night” (Dec. 7, 1941), the Japanese forces had also attacked Hong Kong, Guam, the Philippine Islands, and Wake Island. “And this morning the Japanese attacked Midway Island.” But, what the president did not know at the time was that Midway Island had actually first been attacked on December 7, 1941, an event that was recorded in the log book of the Lighthouse Tender Walnut.
At about 9:30 in the evening, two Japanese cruisers and one destroyer appeared in the waters off Midway and began shelling the island. During the attack, a U.S. PBY Flying Boat, which later became the most widely used multi-role plane during World War II, crashed into Midway Lagoon. In an amazing act of bravery, as enemy shells dropped within 100 feet of the Walnut, the crew launched a small boat and rescued the airmen of the flying boat, two of whom were seriously injured. World War II had begun.
Several weeks later, when the Navy felt it was safe, the Walnut departed Midway to return to Honolulu. It would make the trip alone and unescorted in the wide open sea, which was a frightful voyage that kept the crew unable to get any restful sleep. Their fears were warranted. On the 1300 mile voyage, the crew spotted an enemy submarine, but they managed to slip past it unnoticed. Since they had spotted the sub, but the sub had not seen them, the crew believed they had been saved by a miracle from God who had been watching over them.
By the spring of 1942, the Walnut was armed with two 3-inch guns, four 20-millimeter Oerlikon machine guns, and two depth charge tracks. During the remaining time of the Second World War, while servicing lighthouses and other aids to navigation, the vessel also patrolled the waters around Hawaii, but saw no further action during the duration of the war.
In the 1950s, the Walnut was reassigned to be home-ported out of Miami where she served until 1967 when she was again reassigned, this time to the waters off San Pedro, California. By the 1980s, the faithful and ever steady Walnut had outlived its usefulness and she was decommissioned in July of 1982. The Walnut was subsequently sold to the nation of Honduras.
Unfortunately, the Walnut never gained the impressive National Landmark status that its sister ship the Fir received. And sadly, the Walnut, a lighthouse tender that witnessed and was a participant in the events of that fateful Sunday of December 7, 1941, “a date which will live in infamy” slipped away into the pages of time. However it is still remembered in stories such as this one that appears in the pages of Lighthouse Digest, where history is being recounted and saved for future generations.
This story appeared in the
May/Jun 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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