One of the greatest experiences I ever had in my life occurred late in WWII. The Coast Guard was directed by the Navy to send a “mission” to the British Isles under the direction of Admiral Chalker. As Chief of the Aids to Navigation Division, I was in the group which received formal orders in a “Restricted” communication dated March 9, 1943. My assignment included conferences with British Aids to Navigation authorities to note wartime operations of aids to navigation including landfall lights, harbor lights and buoys, LORAN, radiobeacons, etc.
I had been previously connected with studies and extensive experiments on the Jersey Coast and off the mouth of the St. John’s River, Florida coast with reference to the illumination and identification of cities and towns along the coast due to “sky glow.” In wartime, such marks from seaward of this “sky glow” had to be suppressed to the limit. Many lights of lighthouses that could possibly be dispensed with were temporarily dimmed or extinguished. Buoy lights were dimmed to the point of minimal distinction.
What was Great Britain doing in these respects, in a country so exposed to enemy attack, bombing and invasion? That was my job to find out.
I discussed “dim-outs” and “black-outs” of Aids with Engineer-in-Chief, J.P. Bowen. He showed me the dimming of the incandescent oil vapor lights of the lighthouses by using a colloidal mantle with an intensity of about one-half of an oil wick burner. As to minor lights, the Admiralty directed lights to show certain distances, 1, 3, or 5 miles as required, accomplished by putting metal screens with slits around the lights or glass cylinders with low transmission, etc., all tested out experimentally. The illuminant was always acetylene gas for these minor lights.
Obviously, the defensive position of the British Isles, so close to Germany, and that of the United States was entirely different. Cities and industries of the former were exposed to surprise attacks of enemy planes with their incendiary bombs which were not overcome by the stubborn defense for a long time. Nothing exceeded the heroism of the people in defense measures.
The United States was practically immune from this kind of attack in its isolation and great distance from Germany. The German submarine menace, only endangered the United States. To counteract this, all shipping had to enter every harbor through buoyed channels sometimes as long as 50 miles out to sea. These channels had thick mine fields on either side and to prevent submarines from entering, nets were raised and lowered at the entrances. This defense against German submarines was effective.
I called on Mr. Allen Stevenson of the Clyde Lighthouse Trust. The Stevenson family were world famous in lighthouse work. Everywhere I was most hospitably received and secured far more information than I really needed.
There were a few sporadic bombing raids by the Germans, but except for the excitement of seeing the defense in action, little damage was done. The noise of the sirens and firing was terrific for short periods.
The one regret I had was the inability to see the famous Chance Brothers manufacturing plant which was intensely engaged on top secret war work outside of the manufacturing of large lenses for lighthouses. This company had their lenses in lighthouses throughout the world including the United States.
On my return to my duty as Chief of the Aids of Navigation Division, I submitted a voluminous report on Aids to Navigation during wartime. The trip, though strenuous, was a great opportunity to see the country incidental to my work and to meet so many fine people who went out of their way to show me everything I wanted to see.
Editor’s Note: This excerpt is taken from "The Making of a Lighthouse Engineer," the unpublished memoirs of Commodore Frederick P. Dillon.
This story appeared in the
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