It was the summer of 1969, eight months after the last Coastguardsmen had finally been removed from living full-time at Anacapa Island Lighthouse in California’s Channel Islands. It had been a long process since the project start date in May of 1966 to make the station fully automated and secured in every detail.
Coast Guard crews were still regularly sent out to the island to do maintenance tasks and various smaller projects. The National Park Service was in negotiations with the Coast Guard during this time to write up a formal “License and Agreement” that would designate custody, tenancy and responsibility for buildings and equipment, use of land, and maintenance. The agreement would be signed in February of 1970, so it is likely that the crew sent out the preceding August was readying the grounds and buildings for the Park Service to take up occupancy within a short time following.
At 1:30 PM on August 20, BM3 Robert R. Horton was on the station’s tractor, hauling debris in an attached utility cart. The official letter from the Coast Guard, written to his parents, recounts what happened next.
“Information available at this time indicates that your son had proceeded to the cliff area to dispose of trash resulting from the maintenance projects. He had taken the trash to the disposal site with the tractor/trailer equipment available on the island. Due to distances involved and the physical configuration of the island, your son was out of sight of the other members of the maintenance party.
“When your son’s absence was felt and his whereabouts investigated, he and the tractor/trailer were found at the bottom of the cliff. Your son suffered no undue pain before he died as the Medical Examining officer at the scene of the accident indicated that death was instantaneous upon impact.
“During the time your son has been assigned to my command, his performance and conduct have always been in keeping with the high traditions of the Coast Guard. Please accept my heartfelt sympathy in your great loss.” The letter was signed by G.H. Brown III, Lieutenant, U.S. Coast Guard Group Commander at Group Santa Barbara.
Memories of the family these 50 years later have not dimmed and still include additional details that were discussed at the time and believed by his parents – that he had a full cart and when he backed up, he likely misjudged the cliff and the cart went over first, pulling the tractor after it on its 250-foot plunge to the bottom. Or, perhaps the edge of the cliff broke away after working the heavy tractor at the same place all day, and that could have started the trailer’s descent. The tractor was still thought to be running when the other crewmen reached it.
Newspaper articles mentioned that Robert’s body was recovered by a Navy helicopter. Another article reported that Robert had been clearing “dirt and refuse to make room for a new beacon,” which seems very unlikely, unless it was a communications tower rather than any type of light.
The family said they had never received the results of any official investigation, even though a third newspaper article at the time stated that “a board of investigation would be appointed to determine cause of death.” With no eye witnesses, it remains supposition as to how exactly the tragic event unfolded.
Robert Ray Horton was born on March 23, 1943, in Los Angeles, California. His obituary stated that, “he had resided in San Mateo County since 1956, was a Capuchino High School graduate and received an industrial arts degree from San Francisco State College. He had joined the Coast Guard in March of 1967.
“While residing here, he was active in Boy Scout activities and was aquatics director at Camp Ed Barrer, the San Mateo County counsel camp, and was skipper of San Bruno Sea Scout Ship Seabee 46.”
When Robert finished Coast Guard boot camp in April of 1967 in Alameda, California, he was stationed in the San Mateo area for a couple of months before being assigned to the LORAN station at Sitkinak Island, Alaska. He served there for a full year before transferring to the Search and Rescue station at Port Hueneme, which maintained the light on Anacapa Island. He was at Port Hueneme for close to a year before his untimely death at age 26. Robert Ray Horton is buried in the Golden Gate National Cemetery section of Skylawn Cemetery in San Mateo, California.
Unfortunately, Robert R. Horton was not the only young coastguardsman to lose his life at Anacapa Island Lighthouse. On June 5, 1948, Donald George Thorne, who was only 17 years old and had arrived at the lighthouse just two weeks earlier, lost his life by falling close to 125 feet from a hoisted cargo net onto the lower landing platform. While there are long sets of stairs coming up the cliff face, The Long Beach Press Telegram noted that the men “often ride the cargo net which is hoisted directly up the cliff wall.” The Anacapa station report said that Fireman Apprentice Thorne had dangled before dropping and his fall was witnessed by the hoist operator, EN Charles T. Collins.
Donald G. Thorne was unconscious and died of his multiple injuries in the Naval crash boat sent from Point Magu to bring him to the Naval hospital onshore. He had enlisted in the Coast Guard only five months before and served briefly on the USCGC Minnetonka prior to coming to Anacapa. The 11th Coast Guard District command said his record was of the “highest order.” He is buried in Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery in San Diego, California.
In a sad twist of fate, Engineman Charles Thomas Collins, who had witnessed FA Thorne’s death, lost his own life, along with Officer-in-Charge, Roger William Douke, almost three years later on March 19, 1951.
The two men had gone out fishing in the station’s 12-foot dinghy that day, and when they did not return by nightfall, a joint Navy-Coast Guard search was launched. Their overturned boat was spotted by a Coast Guard plane only a quarter of a mile from the lighthouse. The following day, the two men’s bodies were found entangled in a bed of kelp nearby. There appeared to be no direct cause for the boat to be overturned as the sea was exceptionally calm when they went out, but the cutter crew who recovered the boat noted that the outboard motor was missing and there was a partly-filled gasoline can close by.
EN Collins, age 25 and BM1 Douke, age 26, both enlisted in the Coast Guard in 1942. Their deaths were considered a mystery and Coast Guard investigations did not yield any further information. Charles Collins left behind a wife and son. He is interred at Inglewood Park Cemetery in Inglewood, California. Roger Douke was also married, though the newspaper articles say he was living with his mother on the island at the time. He is also buried in Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery in San Diego, California.
Anacapa Island Lighthouse has been noted for its idyllic setting and temperate climate, and keepers felt very fortunate to be stationed there. But it can also be remembered as a treacherous and deadly place, as is shown by the deaths of these four young Coastguardsmen who tragically lost their lives there.
This story appeared in the
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