Editor’s Note: Although this story includes fictional characters, the events actually took place. Lighthouses were very much a part of the lives of the people who lived on the Outer Banks of North Carolina during the Second World War.
Artwork by Virginia Souza
With the cold winds of January 1942, sands from the giant dunes were drifting across the only road the island had, but the old Buick kept pushing forward. The Motorola radio on its wide chromed dash was humming with the sweet tones of Tommy Dorsey. For a fleeting moment, she saw herself dancing a boardwalk pier in summer with husband John – a string of outdoor lights dangling in the breeze.
So much had changed. After Pearl Harbor and the ensuing declaration of war from FDR, none of it seemed real. At a time when most would be toasting to a New Year and prosperity, the lights of Paris, and many distant lands, had dimmed. Champaign bottles were left hidden in dark corners.
The transmission ground into another gear as Chelsea tried to shift and turn the steering wheel. Sand piled across the road like winter snow. The journey across two miles from the small village of Rodanthe to the Yellow House – a tin-roofed cottage that got its name from when it was said to have had a painted yellow door fifty years before – seemed an eternity.
Dorsey transcended to the sounds of shore waves pounding their own rhythm. The northeast winds had been blowing and catches often brought empty nets this time of year. Today would only find captains, who hadn’t gone to war, drinking whiskey – their boats rising and falling and bumping hard against wooden docks.
She wiped a circle in the fogged window with her knitted glove and could again see the occasional weather-beaten house scattered across the familiar landscape and a hammock of trees permanently bent from hard winds. On a sandy knoll just over the horizon, Chelsea’s Yellow House finally came into view. Just beyond it, on the highest dune, a new radar and sonar tower appeared. All locals knew was that the Navy had placed it there – a stark reminder that these were different times.
Some would say the Yellow House had aged gracefully, but like many places on this island, it was a desolate outpost. From its grassy hillside, you could see the open Atlantic and feel the sting of salted air. There was a lighthouse down the shore – flashing a distant beacon to ships at sea. It was the same iridescent glow that drifted across her attic room at night as a little girl and made her feel safe.
With the Buick parked alongside a dune, ghost crabs scurried across the sand. The places’ cedar shake siding had already withstood generations. Like so many shore cottages, simple one stories that blended into sand and sea oats and windswept shoreline as if they’d always been there.
Giving a hard shoulder to its front door – which was always jammed tight – she was not surprised that the power was still out. It was a common occurrence with one set of wires stretched north to south facing an ocean of wind. She lit a series of Kerosene lamps and removed the layers of heavy woolen coats and scarves.
Inside were a few lamps and chairs, laced curtains and a small vase on a hand-built table. A black and white framed photograph showed her, John, and Sweet Lady – the old fishing boat they owned. Also, a faded image of her stone-faced father; a man who never smiled, but lived a good life.
She started a kettle for tea and returned her gaze to the distant surf and sky now painted with darkening hues. Despite its oncoming whistle of steam, she could only hear the rattle of the east windows as she watched the building waves.
Chelsea slept little the night before, choosing to lay blankets on the wood floor next to a wood-fired stove. The warmth felt comforting, but the nights often left her with gut-wrenching nightmares, whenever she did fall asleep. The morning light was gray and cold. The stove still hissed with hot coals. She could see her breath like tiny puffs of smoke.
On the rugged beach that she walked most mornings, Chelsea often looked for small treasures washed in on the night tide. In recent days, she had seen more frequent Coast Guard patrols on horseback and large ships running closer to shore – sometimes seeing crewmen walking the decks.
Her neighbor, Annie – kindly, but eccentric with seven stray cats and a dog – just down shore, offered a wave. “Don’t know how long this war will last,” she shouted over the wind. “Seems there’s a lot to undo over there.”
“Could say that, Annie,” Chelsea shouted back over the seagrass that waved between them.
“I see your light on at night. Can’t sleep, come over. I’ll grind coffee. Don’t mind a few cats to join you,” smiled Annie.
They each gave a nod as Chelsea tightened the hood of her slicker against the gusting wind. Buster, Annie’s dog came running in and out of the surf’s white foam. A life jacket had floated in with the tide. She pulled it to dry sand and saw the sun-washed stamp that read New Orleans.
With the war, those left on the island were mostly women – often described as tough-minded and used to hardscrabble lives. But life had somehow changed. There was now a feeling of no longer being in control of their lives. She and John had done this walk a hundred times. Now she was alone.
Seagulls gathered and flew toward the surf fishing for morning breakfast. She still had Hatteras, she thought. She could walk its wild beaches and climb its dunes and shore paths and feel the sea and sun and wind – knowing it’s the only place she would ever feel at home. Travel its sandy road and you eventually came to several small villages where fishermen and their families lived in cedar shingled cottages hanging nets and wooden crab floats strewn across open flatland. You’d find a small market or a shop for live bait – even a movie theatre. But for miles more, it was just the far-reaching Atlantic Ocean on one side and open marshland on the other.
The wind was always fierce. The island’s spit of sand was ever forming like waves on a sun-bleached landscape.
In the waning days of 1941, she and John sat out on one of the high dunes. She remembered John puffing his pipe – the scent of cherry tobacco rising in the salted breeze. They knew eventually, he’d go to war. While others joined the Merchant Marines, John wanted to join the fight in Europe. He hated to leave. He feared never returning here again. But then, he knew he had too much to live for.
The night before he shipped out, she remembered seeing John down on the dune path. All she could see was a small red glow of that pipe and his shadowed figure looking out beyond the dark sea.
Chelsea reached the lighthouse and looked to see the white flash passing through thickening fog. With rain coming harder, she headed north, passing a Coast Guard patrol on foot waving his oiled lantern.
The heavy rumble of a cutter worked its way along the waves, the low sound of its engine seemed an eerie sentinel of coming days – the unknown.
A year or two before, it was a war they followed on radio from inside Yellow House. A man named Edward Murrow had become the voice describing Hitler’s attacks in Europe. The radio’s polished wood cabinet was centered by a brass needle and a tiny light bulb that backlit frequencies. They would tune-in to distant feeds from New York and on a clear night, KMOX in St. Louis. With the place yet to be wired for telephone, John would sound the Buick’s horn as a signal to those downwind that they had radio.
Hatteras islanders listened from back porches and kitchen tables following the events of war – the broadcasts done live. Murrow was a fledgling American reporter covering bombings from a London rooftop – a broadcast called “London After Dark.”
The high-pitched sirens from air raids were heard around the world. Early attempts to run wires from a broadcast studio, microphone in hand, were at first rejected. But the Hatteras islanders would read later of how Britain wanted Americans, who remained neutral for nearly three years, to hear the war being fought – of how the British Isles were standing brave and alone against the Blitz.
“I was up here this afternoon overlooking these rooftops, looking all the way to the dome of St. Paul’s,” he reported. “I could see Union Jack flags stirring faintly in the breeze. Earlier this evening we could hear the bombs going off several blocks away. Just overhead now, the burst of the anti-aircraft fire.”
On one occasion, Chelsea remembered him placing a microphone on the ground recording the sounds of people walking to bomb shelters “like ghosts with steel shoes,” he reported.
Then the radio would turn to static. They could again here the distant surf pounding like quiet thunder – see the curtains on the windows blowing in. The island off the Carolina coast suddenly seemed less distant from a city gone dark.
Returning from the village market for bread and milk, the wind was again pushing against the driver side door of the Buick. Chelsea could hear the gritty sand, still heavy and wet, hitting the black paint, which had already faded, making the car look ten years older than it was. It shifted to gear again and she said a little prayer to keep the engine running, at least until the war ended.
It was in that winter of 1942, she would later reminisce about how alone she felt. She often found herself looking east. It was a seemingly endless stretch of gray solitude, as if painted by an artist who could see no color.
Stars would rise in the sky at times, but for Chelsea, lighting the wood stove with drift wood collected on the beach only formed long shadows that stretched across Yellow House and felt like ghosts that moved along its walls. Every sound made her stay closer to the fire—the loose corner of tin roof banging in the wind and the howl of gusts growing stronger with each passing hour.
In recent days, there had been rumors among islanders that Germans were lurking off the coast. The ongoing beach patrols – with horses galloping along the surf – added an element of wartime mystery to some.
Her neighbor, Annie, heard of a tall man and short, stout woman that looked to be of German descent – although no islanders had likely ever met a person from that country – who were recently seen south of Buxton. Some thought they could, at least in some form, be working for the German government. Few foreigners ever came here. Annie came right out and called them spies.
Chelsea thought of herself as a realist. In her mind, spies were for books of fiction and movies on silver screens, not for baron places like Hatteras and the Yellow House. But then, the war was changing people. Life wasn’t as it was.
By late night, snow flurries began to appear in the light of the back porch. The wood fire had long since lowered to simmering hot coals, sounding a quiet hiss as smoke filtered through its metal pipe rising into the January cold. The lighthouse down the coast – with its bright, Fresnel lamp made in Paris’ in another century, continued its rhythmic sweep of the Hatteras shore. It was a night, like a thousand nights Chelsea had lived on this island, as she slept again on her blanketed wood floor.
It was just after 2am when Yellow House shook hard. Books fell from shelves. Porcelain plates broke across the floor. There was the sound like an explosion from somewhere offshore.
Chelsea ran through the screen door and onto the back porch – the cold wind bringing a frosty air that stung her face. The entire sky lit with fire, glowing red and orange. She could see columns of black smoke rising from a point due south.
She turned and ran back inside tripping over a broken lamp, the sky reflecting off the walls of the cottage. Then Chelsea heard it again; a second explosion, as she looked toward the blinding light from her living room floor.
The next morning, the pounding surf created low clouds of mist along the shore. The night before felt like some strange dream that burned away in firelight.
In the faint light of a new day there were heavy slicks of oil and debris – sheets of steel, torn life jackets and all manner of ropes and unopened rations of food. A lone member of the Coast Guard sat on a horse looking across at the rising sun—his solemn silhouette like a statue in the wind.
Annie, her dog and several from down shore had gathered where the tide was still coming in. It was as if all had come to the scene of some crime, but none were aware what exactly happened.
“Looks like it was one of those big freighters carrying oil,” said Annie.
“Nearly shook Yellow House apart,” responded Chelsea. “Seemed like more than one. Kept hearing those explosions through the night.”
“Lot of shipwrecks around here, but nothing like this. Skies kept lighting up,” said Annie. “My cats are all skittish this morning.”
They asked one of the Coast Guard patrols, but the only answer was that oil tankers were highly flammable and running their ships along the shoals wasn’t always safe.
Chelsea saw others pointing farther south, one man suggesting there was even more debris beyond the lighthouse. As they listened and tried to understand the events of the night before, children ran excitedly around the beach as a larger plate of steel and the remains of a lifeboat came ashore.
The lifeboat had lost its stern and a blackened carbide lantern was attached to a life ring just beyond it. Its splintered appearance offered a grim sight as waves brought it up in wet sand. There had obviously been no survivors. Nearby, two members of the Coast Guard looked to each other, then across the open sea as several shorebirds flew overhead.
Days later, Chelsea would buy fresh fish at the local docks. She often went there just as fishermen were unloading their catches – workers shouting market prices and coolers being dumped on large scales. To her, it felt like a busy street corner in the city. But as old man Wilkerson wrapped her dinner in newsprint, there was talk all around of what happened the night explosions shook their houses.
The ship lost was a fully loaded oil tanker named the Allen Jackson – torpedoed by a German submarine just offshore. Others had found there were two more ships lost that night – the first of what would become many attacks on merchant marine vessels along the Hatteras coast early that year.
History would show how the winds of war in 1942 had transformed into the stark reality of a lethal enemy in 16 sleek machines carrying artillery under water 3,000 miles from Europe – as islanders watched the night skies in horror for weeks to come. They lit with fire night after night; the U.S. government keeping the attacks classified to avoid wartime panic. But for those living in places like the Yellow House, it had suddenly become a life lived in fear.
The lives of Chelsea and others living along the baron stretch of sand washing with the tides were forever changed. The World War had come to Hatteras.
This story appeared in the
May/Jun 2021 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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