Shown here are scarce photos of the Lightship LV99/WAL522 being brought into the Curtis Bay, Maryland Coast Guard Station on March 29, 1943 with the help of an armed tugboat. This was the height of World War II, and if you look closely you will also see armament on the aft deck of the lightship.
The Lightship LV99/WAL522, which was built in Boothbay Harbor, Maine in 1920, had an illustrious career, some of it being mysterious. Prior to World War II, the vessel served as the Poe Reef Lightship in Michigan from 1921 to 1929, then the Grays Reef Lightship in Michigan from 1929 to 1935, and then the Overfalls Lightship in Delaware from 1937-1942. In 1942 the vessel was armed with one three-inch fifty-caliber cannon and two 20mm anti-aircraft machine guns, and was sent to be an Examination Vessel at Port Everglades, Florida. (During WWII a number of lightships, but not all, were armed.)
In 1943 the vessel was reassigned to the Curtis Bay Coast Guard Yard in Maryland reportedly to be refitted and modified to serve as an experimental unattended lightship controlled by radio from shore. The original propulsion and auxiliary machinery were removed, as was the shaft and propeller. The stern tube was welded shut and the original smokestack was removed and all kinds of other new experimental gear were installed. It was stated at the time that this type of unmanned lightship would save the government $59,000 a year over a manned lightship. Also, because lightship duty was considered so dangerous, the risk of the loss of human lives on board a manned lightship would now be eliminated. The LV99/WAL522 was then given the lettering of EXP for experimental.
In January of 1950 the EXP was sent to, and positioned in, the waters off Sandy Hook, New Jersey near the Scotland Lightship for trial operations where it remained for two months. Reportedly, the vessel was operated by remote control from the Sandy Hook Lighthouse. After only two months at its newly assigned location, the vessel was removed and sent back to the Curtis Bay Coast Guard Yard and later to the Staten Island Lighthouse Depot in New York.
In the 1990s when an apparent researcher discovered that the vessel had disappeared from the logs of the Coast Guard, and the files of the vessel also seemingly mysteriously disappeared, it was widely speculated that the Lightship EXP (Light Vessel EXP) had actually been refitted for some type of highly secret Cold War activity. Some believed that Soviet spies had found out about the supposed secret operation of the vessel, and that the vessel had been subsequently sunk by the Soviets, perhaps by a Soviet sub. The conspiracy theorists then speculated that the United States military and the CIA had concocted an elaborate secret cover-up to keep that information from the American public.
However, modern investigations ruined what could have been a good Cold War mystery thriller. The files of the lightship were found and it was learned that the LV99/WAL522 had actually been sitting around somewhere, not being used until 1956. But why had it sat around for six years not being used? The located files of the vessel apparently gave no indication. However it could be that it was found that a remotely controlled lightship was too expensive to operate. More plausible is the theory that Lighted Navigational Buoys (LBNs) were coming into existence, which many at the time believed would replace all lightships. Whatever the case, the LV99/WAL522 was officially decommissioned on May 4, 1956 and sold on November 5 of that same year, probably for scrap, and the vessel disappeared into the pages of time.
But the story could have had a different ending that would thrill the conspiracy theorists, especially if it were made into a movie. The last scene could go to a secret CIA meeting where made-up documents were approved and covertly slipped into the Coast Guard files to hide the real facts about why the EXP disappeared.
Whatever the case, as far as we are concerned, the photos of the armed lightship that served in World War II are almost a worthy match to the Cold War era mystery thriller that this could have been.
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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