A Shipmate Survives the Sinking of the USS Yorktown: Part 3
By Keith Kaider
June 4, 1942. Duane recounts his experience in the Battle of Midway: “…I was a Seaman 2C (Radio Striker). My battle station was in Radio Central and generally I manned the 500KCS circuit. From my perspective, being closed up inside, the Battle of Midway mirrored the Battle of the Coral Sea. That was, up to the point that the torpedoes struck. Each hit caused a sudden lurch of the ship and soon we had a large list to the port side. We had also lost power, which had us depending on emergency lighting for what light we had. No communications were available at this time that I am aware of. Being cooped up made the battle seem much longer than it actually was. Most were saying silent prayers that it would soon be over. The bomb that hit the gun mount just aft of the superstructure gave us quite a jolt. When the word was given to abandon ship we found that the main hatch to Radio Central was jammed and could not be opened as hard as we tried. In single file we made our way from Radio Central through the Communications Office and into the Crypto Room. In the overhead of the Crypto Room was a scuttle. We crawled up on a desk and were able to pull ourselves up through the scuttle. I can’t remember if we went up another deck or not but we ended up on the Bridge. From the Bridge we had no trouble getting back to the flight deck. It was a sickening sight to see all the dead shipmates from the gun mount and all of the destruction that had been done to our beloved ship. Everyone I saw had a life preserver. When the order was given to abandon ship there was no panic or fighting for lines. Several lines had been lowered over the starboard side, mostly aft of the superstructure, to the water. I don’t think that a conscious effort was made by anyone to line their shoes up. I took mine off and set them together with those already there. It seems to me that sailors of that time were neat by nature. I experienced no problem in going down the line. The water had quite a bit of debris and a lot of oil. The life preservers were large and made of kapok. They tended to ride up and choke you in the water. I took mine off, rolled it up and put my arm across it. This way I had good flotation and had an arm free to paddle about. I had no idea of whether the ship was sinking or not. I had always been told that, if something happened like this to get as far away as possible so that you wouldn’t get sucked under in the event it did sink. This is what I did to the best of my ability. Going was very slow and tiring. At one point I was ready to be picked up by a destroyer when I heard General Quarters sounded. The destroyer immediately pulled away and one sailor yelled, ‘Don’t worry, we will be back.’” One might, at this point think that Duane would be concerned for his safety, but he relates, “There was no panic and you had time to look around and take stock of your situation. I concluded that it wasn’t good but could be worse. The thought of a shark did not enter my mind. My thoughts were mainly of my family. I knew that they would soon learn that the ship had been sunk and be worried sick.”
True to its word, the USS Benham (DD-397) returned to pick up several hundred survivors of the Yorktown. Duane estimates he was in the water 45 minutes to an hour. After being picked up he says, “If you have never tried to get fuel oil off your body with saltwater soap, in a salt water shower, you haven’t lived.”
Duane was assigned to CINCPACFLT, advancing rapidly up the ranks. Duane E. Robertson, now affectionately known as “Robbie”, was advanced to Chief Radioman (AA) in September 1945, two months after reporting to Main Navy Communications, Washington, D.C. for duty. After his retirement from the Navy in 1960, Robbie was a NASA Communication Specialist at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. He is a 57-year member of the Fleet Reserve Association, and served as president of the East Coast Region from July 1981 to June 1982.
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Guardians of the Coast
American lighthouses are probably the most romantic and picturesque of all navigational aids. These beacons of light have welcomed seafarers home from their voyages for more than 235 years and have become icons of safety, strength and stability. Both the structures and the men and women who operated them have become part of our national fabric.
Virtually all of today’s lighthouses are automated, requiring a minimum of maintenance and upkeep, but that wasn’t always the case. Up until 1998, the Coast Guard still had billets for lighthouse keepers, who maintained the properties and ensured the lights were operating properly. And long before that, lighthouse keepers led a solitary life in some of the most picturesque, but remote, locations. Their day-to-day regimen of lighting and extinguishing the beacon required absolute devotion.
Keepers of Old
The life of yesterday’s lighthouse keepers required physical strength and endurance, a keen wit, courage, the ability to maintain a constant and unbending routine, and the willingness to spend a great deal of time alone.
“Lights must be exhibited punctually at sunset and kept lighted at full intensity until sunrise, when the lights will be extinguished and the apparatus put in order without delay for relighting,” mandated the Instructions to Employees of the United States Lighthouse Service (1927 edition). Compliance was no small matter. Lighthouses of the past were illuminated by oil lanterns, which required the keeper to haul heavy oilcans up to the lantern, sometimes as often as every two to three hours to ensure the flame never went out. Many lighthouses used counterweights and a pulley system, similar to clockworks, to keep the lens revolving. Physical strength was also needed to manually crank these weights back to the top of the tower every few hours. Before the advent of electricity, many lighthouses had manual fog bells that required the keeper to ring the bell in a designated pattern for as long as the fog persisted. Imagine ringing the bell every 15 seconds for days and nights on end!
Keepers were also required to keep meticulous records of daily events, including entries on weather conditions, shipping traffic and maintenance work that was done or needed to be done on the property. The daily logbooks from many keepers included entries about dusting and scrubbing, trimming wicks and keeping the lens and windows free from soot.
When weather conditions were violent, passing ships were in the greatest danger and the need for the keepers to be at the top of their game was even more important. Inclement weather created a hazard to the lighthouses themselves and keepers often had to brave fierce winds and driving rain or hail to protect the structure and the navigational aids they contained. Despite their best efforts to prevent maritime mishaps, sometimes keepers were also called upon to rescue crew and passengers from ships in distress near their lights.
Electricity Changed Some Things
The advent of electric lights in lighthouses changed many of the keeper’s duties, but many of the same challenges remained. Just ask Shipmate Ismael Torres, Jr., (Branch 24, Annapolis, Maryland.), who served as a lighthouse keeper for most of his 20-year Coast Guard career. Born and raised in Puerto Rico, Torres comes from a long line of military servicemembers and understands devotion to duty.
“My grandparents on both sides of my family fought in the Spanish-American War,” says Torres, with a chuckle, “against the enemy … the Americans … who invaded Puerto Rico. They were fighting to protect their tobacco farm and coffee plantation.” But he’s quick to point out that his family’s loyalties have been with the United States ever since. “My grandparents’ sons both fought in World War I, side-by-side with American troops. My brothers and cousins fought for the Allies in World War II and I joined them in the Korean War, as an Army infantryman.”
Torres had five years of Army service under his belt when he voluntarily transferred to the U.S. Coast Guard in August of 1955. When asked why he transferred, he offered another chuckle. “Do you know what it’s like in the Army? You sleep on the ground! I wanted to do something different. I wanted to save lives and protect my country, which is what the Coast Guard is all about.”
After boot camp, he was assigned to a buoy tender for a four year tour and then did his first tour as a lighthouse keeper in 1959. “One month after I got married, I was assigned to Punta Borinquen Light in Puerto Rico. My wife and I spent our honeymoon at the lighthouse, and she is still my lighthouse princess at 56 years! At that time, the lighthouse was located inside Ramey Field Air Force Base. It was a romantic spot, but our windows would rattle when the B-52s and C-130s would take off and land!”
Many of his responsibilities echoed those of his keeper predecessors, including having to maintain the tower and keeper’s quarters. Like the keepers of the past, Torres’ duties also included conducting surveillance of the coastline and monitoring and reporting weather conditions. And even though he didn’t have to lug oil to the top of the tower, he was responsible for ensuring the stand-by generator was in working order for emergencies when the power failed.
Torres experienced his share of excitement during his years as a Coast Guard lighthouse keeper, including strong storms and international incidents.
“During a hurricane in Puerto Rico, we had to tie a line around the lighthouse and into the passageway of our quarters. During the storm, we had to make our way out to the first floor of the lighthouse, where the communications equipment was, so we could transmit the weather status. We had to hold on for dear life due to the strong winds,” recalls Torres. “There was a 200-foot drop about 100 feet from the lighthouse, so we obviously didn’t want to get blown over the edge.”
Another exciting experience involved some Cuban mutineers. “I got a call from Headquarters in Norfolk, saying that crewmembers of a Cuban ship had mutinied and were trying to get to the U.S. The crew all spoke Spanish and they needed me to translate. We told them we’d meet them in U.S. territory, but they never made it. They got close, but none made it to the United States. The mutineers had to jump overboard and many were shot. I felt badly, but there was nothing we could do. We couldn’t interfere because they were in international waters.”
By contrast, he also experienced many serene years in a variety of picturesque waterfront locations. A romantic at heart, Torres speaks wistfully about the peace and tranquility of his keeper assignments, recalling beautiful sunsets and quiet evenings.
“Our quarters at Punta Borinquen Light had two bedrooms, which was fine for a family with one child,” remembers Torres, who just celebrated his 83rd birthday. “I made an innocent mistake and had three! It was beautiful there, with the most beautiful sunsets … which explains the three kids! When my daughter was born, I got transferred.”
He served three sea duty tours before being stationed at Cape Henry Light in Virginia Beach, Virginia. “I was the Officer in Charge there from 1968 to 1971 and I loved it. We were a weather station and we were also responsible for keeping the lighthouse in top shape – light and bright all the time. We did weekly cleanings of the lenses and checked the bulbs. We lived right on the beach and my whole family loved it there, too. Virginia Beach was a very beautiful place. I wanted to stay there for the rest of my life, even though I was only a young petty officer.”
Lighthouses predate our nation and their construction has evolved over the centuries, taking into account the construction and lighting technology of the day. No two lighthouses were built from the same set of plans and all incorporated local materials in their construction, so it’s not surprising that each one is unique. But each was designed and built for a similar purpose and, therefore, share commonalities.
Early lighthouse towers were made of indigenous wood or stone. Fire was a constant threat to lighthouses and many of the wooden ones were consumed by flames, but remnants of the stone ones provide clues to their construction. The earliest were built by simply piling one course of stone on top of another, starting at a wide base and tapering in toward the top. This technique required that the thickness of the base be proportional to the height of towers and limited the overall height to about 90 feet in the late 1700s.
As our nation grew, there was a flurry of lighthouse construction. Between 1801 and 1814, one or two lighthouses were funded almost every year. Cut stones began to be used for construction, allowing the weight to be more uniformly distributed, and taller, stronger towers emerged. Despite this progress, few of the 40 light towers built between 1789 and 1820 remained standing at the end of the Civil War.
Stephen Pleasonton became the Fifth Auditor of the Treasury in 1820 and was charged with oversight of operating the Treasury’s Lighthouse Establishment. His tight hold on federal purse strings during his 32-year tenure in the post had a significant impact on the nation’s lighthouses. He knew little about them and made little effort to learn about the evolving technologies of the day. Further, he was the ultimate fiscal conservative and consistently approved the purchase of substandard, but less expensive, lighting and construction systems. His lowest-bidder philosophy led him to appropriate funds for the construction of inferior structures that were in constant need of maintenance and replacement. To demonstrate, of the 40 or so brick towers built in the South during Pleasonton’s time as Auditor, at least 25 sunk into the soft, sandy ground on which they were built or simply blew over in strong winds. Not surprisingly, few lighthouses built between 1820 and 1852 remain.
One positive development during this period was the use of cast iron in building lighthouses. It was lighter and less expensive than brick and stone, and it was strong, watertight and was slow to deteriorate. Some cast iron towers were lined with brick for additional stability. The tallest cast iron tower was Cape Henry Light – 165 feet tall – and remains standing after 134 years! (See sidebar on page 24 for more information on this historic lighthouse.)
A new era of lighthouse construction began in 1852, when a special committee was appointed by Congress to address the nation’s inadequate lighthouse situation. This Lighthouse Board established 12 districts and provided for the administration and inspection of the country’s lighthouses. The Board also instituted improvements in equipment and fostered experimentation with new devices that would aid mariners in navigating the coast. By 1959 brick towers of more than 160 feet were dotting the eastern seaboard, increasing the height of former towers by more than 60 feet.
The development of the Fresnel lens was a breakthrough in lighthouse illumination and were considered state-of-the-art in the late 1800s through the middle of the 1900s. Named for French physicist Augustin-Jean Fresnel, the lenses were a collection of multiple prismatic elements arranged in faceted domes in order to capture more oblique light from a light source. This allowed the light to be visible over a greater distance. The design also allowed for much thinner materials, which reduced the volume and weight of the lens. Even though first order (the largest) Fresnel lenses used in lighthouse are large enough for a man to stand inside, this new technology made such lenses smaller and more manageable than conventional lenses.
In 1910, the Bureau of Lighthouses (or Lighthouse Service) was formed and began operating the country’s lighthouses under the oversight of the Commerce Department. In 1915, the nation’s Life-Saving Service was combined with the Revenue Cutter Service to create the United States Coast Guard (USCG). It wasn’t until 1939 that the Bureau of Lighthouses was transferred to the Coast Guard, bringing the service’s aids-to-navigation mission full circle.
Lighthouses Today … and Tomorrow
With Global Positioning Systems (GPS), are lighthouses even needed anymore?
“The advent of GPS, radar and other modern navigation tools has rendered lighthouses functionally obsolete,” says Shipmate Dave Lewald (Branch 24, Annapolis, Maryland.), a navigation specialist and retired USCG Master Cutterman with Navigation Technologies and Systems Division (CG-NAV-3). “Simply stated, the Seacoast Aids to Navigation (ATON) System was created in the mid-1800s and consisted mainly of lighthouses. The navigational requirements for this system, as designed, have been replaced with modern electronics. It is becoming more difficult for the Coast Guard to justify the operational and maintenance costs when the need for a ‘landfall’ light to guide mariners is no longer there.”
According to Lewald, the U.S. Coast Guard currently operates 361 lights classified as “major lights,” which means their light can be seen under normal atmospheric conditions from distances greater than 10 miles. Many of these major lights “don’t have the traditional ‘lighthouse look’ and are often skeleton towers or other utilitarian structures that lack the romance of a brick and mortar tower with a quaint keeper’s quarters located nearby. There are a handful of ‘traditional lighthouses’ that are used as a range light and therefore aren’t listed as major lights.”
Many lighthouses have been abandoned or divested, and the Coast Guard has been handing over ownership, and in some cases responsibility for running them, to other parties, chief among them is the National Park Service. The National Historic Lighthouse Preservation Act (NHLPA) provides for the disposal of federally owned historic light stations that exceed the needs of the Coast Guard (or other responsible agency). According to the National Park Service website, “The NHLPA recognizes the cultural, recreational and educational value associated with historic light station properties by allowing them to be transferred at no cost to federal agencies, state and local governments, nonprofit corporations, educational agencies and community development organizations.” These entities must be financially able to maintain the lighthouses and make the properties available to the general public for education, park, recreation, cultural or historic preservation purposes. To learn more about the NHLPA and which historic lighthouses are available, visit www.nps.gov/maritime/nhlpa/intro.htm
As a result, many lighthouses are now in the hands of dedicated private or public owners and have been restored to their original glory. Some of these lighthouses remain an active federal Aid to Navigation (ATON), while others have been discontinued and are now operated as a Private ATON (PATON).
“It’s important to understand that turning a lighthouse ‘off’ as an ATON is not necessarily a bad thing,” explains Lewald, “especially if the Coast Guard can turn it over to a person or organization who is in a better position to maintain it. Many of these private groups’ ability to maintain major lights far exceeds that of the Coast Guard, and they’re able to turn the light back on as a cultural/historical exhibit. Everyone benefits!”
A historian and self-proclaimed lover of the lights, Lewald understands the emotional appeal of lighthouses. “We all have an affinity for that beautiful light on the windswept cliff, but the simple truth is that our desire to keep lighthouses lit is less about analysis and more about anecdotes. There’s great lore to these lights,” he muses. “I know my love of lights stems from being on the water with my grandfather, who was an oysterman on the Chesapeake Bay. He’d point to the lights and explain to me how to use them to get home. These lights were incredible engineering achievements in their day. Each one had a unique environment and was a unique engineering solution. They were positioned in prime locations, on unsheltered bluffs, with a picturesque keepers cottage to the side. I’ve heard them called ‘America’s castles,’ and I think that’s a very apt description.”
People get very passionate about these old lights and discussions can generate some real animosity. While attending a community meeting about removing the light from an old tower, Lewald recalls “a surgeon in the crowd who tried to compare removing the light to removing an eye from a patient. He went on to say it was ‘un-American’ to do so. I have to tell you, I’m well-versed in the maintenance of Fresnel lenses, I’m a historian and, at that point, I had 29 years of service in the Coast Guard,” he chuckles, “and I’d certainly never had anyone question my patriotism!”
It might be different if the lights had been modernized along the way, but that simply didn’t happen. Lewald was struck by the difference when he visited other historic military sites.
“Fort Moultrie (South Carolina) was an active U.S. fort from the War of 1812 through the end of World War II. The fort had been modernized throughout its history and is now a museum that depicts the weaponry and defensive technologies from the different eras during which the fort served. The USS Missouri is another example. It was launched during World War II, was the historic site of Japan’s surrender and fired missiles during the first Gulf War. It was modernized to continue its productive service for 50 or 60 years. In contrast, the Coast Guard wasn’t allowed to modernize lighthouse lenses,” says Lewald. “We were forced to continue operating the old Fresnel lenses until automated lights were mandated by Congress in the 1970s as a cost-saving measure. Now the skill to maintain them is gone.”
Even efforts to preserve lighthouses and their lights are difficult. “These Fresnel lenses are stunning works of art, but they’re also delicate mechanisms that aren’t meant to be dismantled and reassembled. The old keepers kept the lenses polished and closed drapes around them to protect them from damaging sunlight. This type of meticulous care and upkeep isn’t being done and it’s resulted in what we call ‘consumptive use of artifacts’ – the degrading of historic items that need preservation,” explains Lewald. “Replacement parts are no longer available and the skill sets to work on these gems no longer exist in the Coast Guard. And even if they did, the old lights used to rotate in a bath of mercury. We can’t start reinstalling tubs of hazardous material in these old structures!”
The USCG is currently studying the navigational requirement our Seacoast ATON system and the public is invited to comment through an anonymous survey located at www.NAVCEN.gov. The survey will be posted on or about 15 July. Information collected during this study will help the USCG determine the best course of action to best serve the Marine Transportation System (MTS) and meet the historic preservation needs of these national treasures.
The Coast Guard is equally committed to preserving these treasures, according to Lewald, but there is little money to do it. “It’s important to keep that heritage alive and the Coast Guard doesn’t want to turn the lights off, but it’s our job to efficiently use taxpayer resources. And it’s hard to justify spending money on 1840s technology when there are groups and volunteers who are better suited to manage and maintain these treasures. We’ve got people lining up to take care of them, people who are eager to get the lights back on and keep them on as cultural and historical points of interest.”
Technology evolves and Aids to Navigation systems have changed dramatically, just in Lewald’s lifetime. “During my Coast Guard career, I set buoys by sextant. And that lighthouse beacon was a very reassuring indicator that I’d made landfall after a transoceanic voyage,” he recalls. “But I have to tell you, I’m really glad I’m not relying on that technology anymore.”
Cape Henry was the first lighthouse to be federally funded and has kept watch at the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay since 1792. George Washington authorized its construction and Alexander Hamilton oversaw the building of this historic tower, at a cost of $17,700. It is the only lighthouse of steel-plate construction still standing in the U.S. The old Cape Henry Lighthouse is owned by Preservation Virginia and is open to the public on a seasonal schedule. Visitors are invited to climb to the top of the tower to enjoy spectacular views of the Chesapeake Bay and Atlantic Ocean. For more information days and hours, restrictions to climb the lighthouse and fees, visit www.apva.org/CapeHenryLighthouse or call 757-422-9421.
The original lighthouse was damaged by Confederate forces during the Civil War and repaired by Union troops, and concerns about its stability caused the government to build a second lighthouse in 1881. This second light is made of cast iron, sits approximately 350 feet from the original and is maintained and operated by the U.S. Coast Guard. It is not open to the public.
The two lighthouses have been designated as a National Historic Landmark and are listed on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places. They are located at 583 Atlantic Ave, Fort Story, Virginia 23459. Fort Story, a military base operated by the U.S. Navy, lies within the city of Virginia Beach. Visitors should be aware that you must enter through Fort Story’s security gates. All visitors over the age of 16 will be required to present valid identification and vehicles may be subject to search.
Lauren Armstrong is the Contributing Editor and Member of the FRA Auxiliary. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.