By Josh Liller
Although some people don’t view Coast Guard lighthouse keepers with the same romantic notions as their civilian predecessors, many of them have a fascinating story to tell. Charles Uriah Gardner is one such example. He stared his career as a surfman, but when the Coast Guard took over the Lighthouse Service, he became a lighthouse keeper, and during World War II served on beach patrol duty.
Charles Uriah Gardner was the youngest of eight children of Uriah Gardner and Adelaide Lydia “Addie” Marstin. Born on August 12, 1899 in Whiting, Maine, Charles grew up in the family home on what is still called Gardner Lake Road. Uriah died of heart disease when Charles was only three-years old. Addie never remarried, and her unmarried half-brother, Winslow Jacob Foss, moved in to help. Addie worked in a local sardine factory to support her family.
Charles Gardner only completed school through the 4th grade due to his family situation. He worked as a lumber mill laborer, drove a tractor, did carpentry work building houses and dams, and was a timekeeper at a sardine packing factory.
On June 12, 1928, Charles Gardner enlisted as a Surfman in the U.S. Coast Guard at Quoddy Head Life Boat Station (LBS) near Lubec. His original enlistment describes him as 5’6” tall weighing 122 pounds with brown eyes, dark brown hair, and a dark complexion. He was at Quoddy Head for only a week before he transferred to his permanent assignment at Portsmouth Harbor LBS at the other end of the state where he would serve until World War II.
Charles’ first two years in the Coast Guard did not seem promising. His Efficiency Marks were perfect for Sobriety and Obedience, but his averaged Proficiency and Leadership scores were barely passing. He also repeatedly failed to qualify as a good swimmer, although he was not considered a hopeless cause. The station’s commander was confident that he could qualify with further practice and described him as a “desirable surfman.” The Coast Guard Commandant agreed that Gardner could reenlist for one year with the understanding that he must qualify during that time. Gardner successfully qualified as a good swimmer in 1930 and his Efficiency Marks improved. Over the course of the 1930s, Gardner qualified as a Marksman with both rifle and pistol (and won an Expert Pistol Medal in 1941), but suffered from various health issues, including several cases of bronchitis. The US entering World War II resulted in Gardner’s promotion to BM2 on Christmas Eve of 1941, then to BM1 a few months later.
Charles first served as a lighthouse keeper at Cape Neddick Lighthouse. The station had only one keeper assigned in 1940-1941: Eugene L. Coleman. Gardner served as Relief Keeper on five separate occasions while Coleman took leave. Gardner also temporarily served as keeper of Portsmouth Harbor Lighthouse, near the Portsmouth Harbor Life Boat Station. Henry M. Cuskley retired after 26 years as Portsmouth’s lone lighthouse keeper, and Gardner filled in from his retirement on November 11, 1941 until the arrival of permanent keeper Arnold White on January 10, 1942. He also served as keeper for a week at Whaleback Lighthouse, located out in the water, one third of a mile south of Portsmouth Harbor Life Boat Station.
Between 1942 and 1944, Gardner was assigned to the Portsmouth Harbor Patrol, then he served as Officer-in-Charge of three consecutive beach patrol stations: Rye Beach, NH; York Harbor, Mine; and Cape Neddick, Maine. On Christmas Eve of 1942, he was promoted to CBM. Although not reflected in his personnel file, Gardner’s grandson believes there was service as a Relief Keeper at Boon Island Lighthouse, Maine and Isles of Shoals Lighthouse, New Hampshire sometime between 1942 and 1944. During late 1944 and most of 1945, Charles served at the Coast Guard Barracks in Belfast, Maine.
In September of 1945, Gardner went to Fox Island Light Station, aka Coast Guard Unit 70, to serve as Officer-in-Charge. Reportedly, Fox Island, Newfoundland had a Canadian light station, but the U.S. Coast Guard established a radio beacon and lookout station there on September 1, 1942. Joe Barnell, who also served at the station in 1945, described the island as “nothing but a rock one-half mile long by one quarter mile wide, rising 300 feet at its highest point out of the North Atlantic.” The station had a crew of 12 men and a dog named Boats who would bark incessantly whenever a vessel came within sight of the island. The lone keeper’s house wasn’t enough to accommodate all the men, so Quonset huts were erected on the island to hold the radio equipment and adding barracks facilities. The house had the only bathing facilities, which Barnell describes as “an old-fashioned wash tub and an oil stove with a 30-gallon drum on top.” He notes that, due to the limited space, “it wasn’t unusual for several men to be playing cards in the room while someone was taking a bath in the tub.”
Gardner came down seriously ill at Fox Island in April 1946, including chest pains. The diagnosis was an abscess and infected cyst in his left lung, and permanent damage to his bronchial tubes. He spent the rest of the year in the hospital or on leave, but avoided surgery. While clearing him to return to full duty, doctors recommended sending Gardner to a warm climate because of his health. He specifically requested service in the 7th Coast Guard District. After a month serving at Cast Guard Station Watch Hill, Rhode Island (a combined lighthouse & lifeboat station), Gardner received a transfer to Florida. As with most U.S. Coast Guard personnel, he was reduced one rank in 1946 as part of post-war demobilization, from CBM to BM1.
BM1 Charles Gardner was assigned to Jupiter Inlet Light Station on March 13, 1947, serving as 1st Assistant Keeper under Officer-in-Charge (OIC) ENC Prentice Yerby. From January 27, 1948 to March 15, 1948, Gardner served as temporary OIC of American Shoal Lighthouse in the Florida Keys. He was also Jupiter’s temporary OIC three times in 1948: twice when Yerby was away on temporary duty, and again when Yerby took his annual leave. Gardner came down sick during Yearby’s leave and was diagnosed with measles, which kept him confined to quarters. Since he was the only petty officer at the station, the District Office had to send another BM1 to serve as temporary OIC. On September 18, 1948, Yerby left for a new permanent duty station and Gardner became OIC. Besides measles, Gardner also came down that same year with pleurisy, an inflammation in the lining in his bad left lung. He also spent three days in the hospital after a fall from a ladder in June 19, 1950. The fall fractured the C5 vertebra in Gardner’s neck, and he spent 13 weeks with his neck in a cast. Gardner remained Jupiter’s OIC until June 14, 1951.
After leaving Jupiter, Gardner served in the Marine Inspection Office (MIO) in Tampa, then Jacksonville where he served as a recruiter. After more than 1½ years of recruiter duty, Gardner was transferred to USCGC Sweetgum, buoy tender. This was the first time in Gardner’s career that he had been assigned to a ship, and shortly thereafter he submitted a request for retirement since he would reach 25 years of service that summer. When the Sweetgum stopped in Maryland a month later, Gardner was sent to the USPHS Hospital in Baltimore.
Gardner had come down with a bad respiratory infection while on the buoy tender. The bronchiectasis in both lower lobes of his lungs were bad enough that doctors proposed surgery to remove them entirely, which Gardner declined. He was advised to permanently reside in a warm climate and was classified as unfit for duty for health reasons. BMC Charles Gardner was officially placed on the temporary disability retired list effective September 1, 1953 due to both his lung and neck problems. Subsequent reexaminations found Gardner’s health was not improving and he was permanently retired in 1958.
Charles moved to Florida after retiring from the U.S. Coast Guard. He moved around the state several times in search of work, finally settling in the Daytona Beach area.
Gardner was married twice. He had two sons with his first wife, Blanch Wright. Charles and Blanch married in 1924, but Blanch divorced Charles in 1944. Their oldest son served in the Navy during the latter part of World War II. Gardner remarried to Olive Myrtle Beerman Hosack in Daytona Beach in 1955.
Charles Gardner died from a heart attack on February 2, 1964 at the Ormond Beach Hospital in Florida at age 64. Although eligible for burial in a national cemetery, he was instead buried locally at Shady Rest Cemetery in nearby Holly Hill.
Editor’s Note: Josh Liller is the Historian and Collections Manager at Jupiter Inlet Lighthouse & Museum in Florida. He is currently writing a book about the lives of the nearly 200 civilian and military keepers of his lighthouse, from which this article has been abridged.
This story appeared in the
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