Lightship Down

by Tom Dunlop

ęCopyright 2003 - Martha's Vineyard Magazine

Harold W. Flagg should be long dead now, twice. Maybe three times, depending on how you count. The first time was in the spring of 1942, when he was nineteen. He was an ordinary seaman aboard an Esso tanker, the Chester O. Swain. The Swain had steamed past a buoy off the Virginia Capes; the buoy was a mile or so astern when a Coast Guard patrol boat appeared off to one side and began to signal. "I knew Morse code pretty good, but there was one word I couldn't make out," he says. The Coast Guard came closer. The word was "minefield." The Swain was carrying ninety-three thousand barrels of kerosene. She turned around and felt her way back, prayerfully. On a later voyage, blacked out, she hit some sort of coal carrier, also blacked out. The force of the collision crumpled her bow and sent rivet heads flying through the forecastle like machine gun bullets, embedding themselves in the steel plating on the opposite side of the hull. Trying to finish that voyage to Boston, she then ran aground in the East River. Took six tugs to pull her off. Manhattan residents were waving from one bank of the river, Brooklynites from the other. "We felt foolish," says Flagg. The world was at war, but he decided he might be safer in the military. He had friends in the Coast Guard and enlisted. Went through four days of boot camp, got fingered as someone with credible seagoing experience and was pulled out for boatswain's mate school. He spent four months in Manhattan Beach, learning more deck work and rigging. On a cold and gray day in late October 1942, he and two other seamen got their orders: Report to New Bedford for transport to a lightship anchored seven miles west-northwest of Gay Head (Aquinnah), at the western approach to the great watery highways of Vineyard Sound and Buzzards Bay.

Twenty-three months later Harold Flagg would come within nine hours of losing his life yet again. But bad weather at the end of August 1944 saved him from dying in much worse weather two weeks after that. Flagg would go on to serve thirty-eight years in the Coast Guard and Naval Reserve, running a carpentry shop and inspecting ships. In those years he never thought much about what it means to live on double- or triple-borrowed time. But he is eighty years old now, the last man on earth to have served on the Vineyard Lightship, and though his shirt is crisp and his trousers sharply pressed, his health is not as good as it was. He shuffles a bit and his voice is raspy. With Ethel, his wife of fifty-three years, he sits in his living room looking down to Cape Cod Bay from a hilltop in Sandwich. He wants the memory of his ship and the twelve men who died aboard her to be remembered. "It's only now that it's beginning to get close to the end of the line that I find I'm more interested in it," he says. One point that should be kept in mind: From weather reports, the men must have known for at least two days what was coming, and when the storm hit them in the middle of that frightful September night, the crew of the Vineyard Lightship surely had one last chance to cut her anchor chains and run. It appears they did everything they could to stay.

Lightships were floating lighthouses. On Vineyard and Nantucket Sounds there were, at one time or another, six of them, marking the eastern and western entrances and the most dangerous shoals in between. Hulls were bright red, superstructures white, and down the lengths of the hull the name of the nearest channel or shoal was painted six feet high. They had lights atop their masts, whistles and bells for when the rain, snow and fog set in, and they sent out radio signals for other vessels to reference or home in on. The Vineyard Sound Lightship carried a crew of seventeen men, whose job it was to keep the ship and her equipment operational, day and night. The crew was broken down into two companies of six and one of five, which rotated through a schedule of thirty days aboard and two weeks ashore. But except for maintenance or repair, the lightship herself never moved. She was too important to navigation to do that, even under the most dire circumstances. And this was wartime. Lightships – especially the Vineyard, which was stationed out to sea west of Cuttyhunk – had the additional duty to keep watch for submarines, which even in the latter part of 1944 still menaced the Atlantic coast.

The two men assigned with Harold Flagg to the Vineyard Lightship transferred not long before the end in September 1944. "They didn't like lightship duty," Flagg says. "Most people didn't. Because there was nothing very exciting about lightship duty. I didn't mind it. I like old ships and that sure was one – 1901." The Vineyard was 124 feet long overall and displaced 693 tons; she was crowned by two tall masts and a long, slender stack. She had stood sentry at Pollock Rip at the eastern end of Nantucket Sound during her first 24 years and at the Cuttyhunk end for the last 20. In a memoir, The Wake of the Vineyard Lightship #73, Flagg writes of her large oak china cabinets with spindles and filigreed drawers. He writes of thickly varnished and louvered cabin doors, bulkheads and overheads painted in dazzling white enamel, skylights admitting vast amounts of sunshine through the main deck into an after cabin where "one would see very little evidence of being in an iron ship; rather there was the feeling of being surrounded by the comfortable, warm feeling found only in wooden ships."

Most times, life aboard the Vineyard was good. "We only worked a couple of hours a day. We'd get up in the morning – if you wanted to have breakfast, you had to get up at 7:30; if you didn't want breakfast, you had to be up and go to work at 8 o'clock anyway. Work until noontime." This meant scraping, painting, tending to the rigging and every once in awhile hauling up ash from the boiler in five-gallon buckets and dumping it overboard. "Have dinner, have the rest of the day off. Except for one man on watch, that's all there was. There was nothing doing. Very monotonous work." The men read books, listened to jazz on the radio, played cribbage below decks or catch above. They used a ball made of a monkey's fist knot, well-loaded with a piece of lead or a large machine nut. Also ring toss, which was forbidden when the chief warrant officer and captain, J. Edgar Sevigny of New Bedford, was trying to nap in his stateroom below the wooden deck.

Pleasant enough, but those two-week shore leaves were looked forward to, even by crewmen such as Flagg who liked the life. And when on August 29, 1944, the tender from New Bedford approached the lightship to take them ashore, Harold Flagg and his leave party of four other men were all dressed up, sea bags in hand, ready to go. But the tender, carrying Captain Sevigny and his company of six back to the ship from their own leave, could not come alongside; the seas were too rough. The tender headed back to the city. Flagg and his crew were hopping mad. "Come on, we want to get off!" they cried as she turned away. It would be two days before the tender came back and made the transfer. This delayed the start and finish of Flagg's leave by forty-eight hours, pushing his return to the lightship to noon on September 15, 1944. "Well, that two days pushed us ahead and killed somebody else. I've still got the papers. I don't know why I saved them," he says. " ‘On or before noontime on the 15th.' "

According to a commemorative booklet published by the Blue Hills Meteorological Observatory in 1994, the Great North Atlantic Hurricane was born in a confusion of zephyrs and a lowering of barometric pressure east of the Windward Islands on September 8, 1944. For four days it drifted northwest, growing in size and strength. At Cape Hatteras, the pressure dropped to 27.97 inches at 8:20 a.m. on the 14th; four hours later a gust of 134 miles an hour was recorded at Cape Henry, Virginia. The storm was huge. Gale force winds extended 520 miles from one side of the whirlwind to the other. That day, the 14th, it turned north, then north-northeast, and headed for New England at something approaching highway speed. It took less than ten hours to move from Cape Henry to the southern New England shoreline. Along the way it sank the destroyer Warrington, killing 247 sailors, then the Coast Guard patrol boats Bedloe and Jackson and the Navy minesweeper YMS 409, killing 85 more. The eye crossed the Connecticut-Rhode Island border before midnight on September 14. This is when the death throes of the Vineyard Lightship began.

At that hour in Woods Hole, Captain Albert H. Hauser of the Coast Guard patrol boat Phlox had his vessel tied up to a flooded pier, her engines running full ahead to hold her in the oceanic seas of Little Harbor. He and his crew had seen empty fifty-gallon drums go sailing by in winds that had touched one hundred and twenty miles an hour. Concerned about the lightships fighting the storm in Vineyard and Nantucket Sounds, he had called before the tempest hit, and had heard from all of them but the Vineyard, which was anchored in the most perilous place. She stood where the storm surge, building all the way up the Atlantic coast, would crest on the rocks of Sow and Pigs Reef at Cuttyhunk, barely a mile to her east. Finally, sometime after 9 p.m., through hurricane atmospherics that permitted them to hear vessels on the Great Lakes clearly but those on Buzzards Bay only through static, the Vineyard Lightship called in a cryptic report. In a summer 1990 edition of The Keeper's Log, a periodical of the United States Lighthouse Service, Hauser wrote that his crew tried to work out the language and meaning of the call and decided that what the Vineyard Lightship had said was: "Our anchor is holding us."

Captain Sevigny of the Vineyard Lightship had asked for permission to seek shelter earlier that day. The was good reason to let the ship move; regular bulletins had alerted the whole of the Eastern Seaboard to the scope and strength of this storm, and when it hit that night, the waters around the Vineyard Lightship would plainly have no other vessels on it. But permission was denied. This was a lightship in wartime, and lightships did not move. "They changed that rule quick after that," says Flagg. "He could've ducked up under Menemsha or someplace and gotten out of the way." On Cuttyhunk, six flares were seen rocketing above the lightship at 2 a.m. They were red and white. At this point the storm center had moved northeast of Providence on its way toward Portland, Maine. It was dying for want of the warm ocean water that had fed it for six days. But for more than three hours the winds on Vineyard Sound had surpassed one hundred miles an hour. Seas were topping out at the height of a second-story window.

The ship went off the Cuttyhunk radar screen sometime before 3 a.m. on September 15. Over Edgartown, the stars had been out for an hour. When Harold Flagg reported to New Bedford for transport back to the lightship nine hours later – "on or before noontime on the 15th," his leave papers said – he was told to go away until further notice. The lightship could not be found. The train on which he had rode down from Boston was still in the station. He got back on it and went home to West Roxbury to let his mother know that though the lightship and twelve of his crewmates were gone, he was all right. "Bad weather," he would say much later, "saved my life more than once."

Hardhat divers found the lightship eight days later. According to a section of the official report, located by Arthur Motta, tourism director for the City of New Bedford, they landed on a large mushroom anchor and worked their way back to the hull, which was lying upright in seventy feet of water. But in the murk, they could not be certain it was the Vineyard. Arthur Love, chief mate and executive officer of the Vineyard, was on the dive barge. He told them to look for the thousand-pound fog bell. Harold Flagg had tied an elaborate lanyard to the clapper. It would come off by unshackling a U-bolt. The divers surfaced with the lanyard. The Vineyard Lightship had been found. She had dragged her anchor 1.4 nautical miles north before going under. That day, Flagg and a small company were sent to walk the beaches of Cuttyhunk looking for the bodies of his crewmates. On the way back to New Bedford, a search boat pulled up and gave them the body of Jack M. Hammett, seaman first class, and a good friend of Flagg's. "Not a mark on him. He had a little cut on his forehead. Just small, not bloody or anything. And I figure if anybody came close to surviving it, it was him," says Flagg. At the same hour the next day they were given the body of Richard R. Talbot, another friend and a hotel-trained chef whom Flagg thought might be the best cook in the Coast Guard. "Talbot was in bad shape. He hit the rocks or something. He'd been smashed up." But unlike Hammett, who was discovered on a beach at Gay Head, Talbot had been found at sea, and this suggests how bad things may have gotten aboard ship near the end.

The wreck of the Vineyard Lightship was relocated in 1963 using a primitive side-scan sonar developed by Dr. Harold Edgerton of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Brad Luther, an underwater researcher from Fairhaven, went down and discovered what is generally believed today be the proximate cause of the sinking: The crew tried to lower a spare anchor during the storm, but somehow it jammed and began to strike the hull, opening the bow to the seas. Another possibility is that it simply fell. Either way, Luther could put his arm through the breach. The message from the Vineyard Lightship that Albert Hauser heard in Woods Hole during the crescendo of the hurricane, he realized later, was not "Our anchor is holding us," but "Our anchor has holed us."

Harold Flagg wonders whether that would have been enough to do her in. He thinks bigger, more graphic thoughts.

"Occasionally, the weather would be so rough that all work would be suspended," he writes in his memoir. "These were times that it was impossible to move about the ship, and the time would be spent in our bunks simply hanging on, trying to keep from being bumped about." And this was during a regular winter blow. He imagines a vessel turned broadside to waves breaking twenty feet high against her hull and superstructure, and extrapolates from there:

The two diesel generators in the engine room, which supplied electric power, would have quit when water reached them through scuppers, hawsepipe, ventilators, skylight or some downflooding combination of all of them; after that, there would have been no lights or pumps and no hope of ever turning on either one again. Likewise the boilers, which were fed by hand and shovel; it would have been impossible to stoke them in those seas – indeed, it would have been impossible to stand up in those seas – and at some point the water would have drowned the fires and killed the engine. The broad loading doors on both sides of the ship were hinged in three places – up and to the sides – and a report from the first dive suggests that at least one set of those doors simply caved in to the battering. The twenty-six foot lifeboat was later found swamped in Rhode Island Sound; there would have been no getting away in that. When the vessel was found, it was discovered she was missing masts and stack and that her deckhouses were either utterly wrecked or perhaps even swept clean off the ship. Her uppermost deck, torn up and torn open, was probably completely exposed to the storm. And the Vineyard Lightship had no watertight bulkheads. When the power and pumps quit, she would have filled up as fast and freely as a bathtub. "Sure," says Flagg. "Once they [the storm waves] got up there – the stack gone – she'd fill up with water. There wouldn't be anything to stop it."

It is impossible to know whose ordeal aboard was the worst, but Flagg notes that five of the crew – including his roommate, John Stimac – had only come aboard the vessel a few weeks before. For them, he says, those last few hours must have been particularly fearsome, for the ship was still new to them, and the magnitude of the storm newer still. There was, of course, a plausible final moment while things were still lit, secure, warm and running when ship might have let go of her main anchor and tried to put her bow into the sea and head for deeper, flatter water, or even looked for the lee of a shoreline. But the crew of the Vineyard Lightship appears to have done everything they could to hold their ground, as ordered, on an empty, outraged sea.

On the New Bedford waterfront, at Coast Guard Park, there is a memorial to the Vineyard Lightship, as well as to two others lost early in the twentieth century: the Pollock Rip, carried away by ice with all hands in February 1918, and the Nantucket, cut in half by the RMS Olympic, killing seven crewmen in May 1934. It is largely due to Harold Flagg that the US Lightship Memorial, established on the fifty-fifth anniversary of the loss of the Vineyard Lightship, exists. The ship had the word Vineyard painted on her side, but this last great disaster in Island waters has gone largely unremembered on Martha's Vineyard because wartime censorship prevented the Vineyard Gazette from drawing attention to the fact that the western entrance to Vineyard Sound was suddenly, tragically unguarded. When the war ended, nobody on the Island really picked up the story. There were many losses nearer to Vineyard hearts. And the war was over. It was easier to look ahead.

Harold Flagg and the four men who were on leave with him gathered for the last time in a railroad car on their way up to Boston a few days after the last of five bodies was recovered. On USO postcards, they wrote down their names and addresses and vowed to keep the memories of their crewmates alive. Flagg is the last of them. In the years that followed the Vineyard Lightship disaster, he and Ethel Flagg frequently met and hosted widows, daughters and grandchildren of the lost crew at their Medfield farm, and later at their home in Sagamore. He still sees a couple of them every once in awhile. "They had us classed as survivors," he says of the Coast Guard. "When you go up into Boston, to the receiving station, there's a little red tag under our names as survivors. So we got treated as survivors." That strikes him as all wrong. He was not aboard a ship from which escape was clearly impossible. Ashore at last, he looks down to Cape Cod Bay, turns the idea sideways just a little and says: "We were survivors of that family, let's put it that way."

Sources for this story may be found at the Kendall Institute of the New Bedford Whaling Museum and New Bedford Office of Tourism and Marketing.


The wreck of the Vineyard Lightship lies in about seventy feet of water, roughly two and a half miles west of the western tip of Cuttyhunk, the last island in the Elizabeth Islands chain. She rests on an even keel, her bow pointing east, her stern west, evidence of how the southerly storm blew her broadside to the north before the vessel sank early in the morning of September 15, 1944.

Though the wreck is silting over and her dislocated superstructure has all but collapsed, Arnold Carr of American Underwater Search and Survey in Cataumet says the wreck remains popular with divers, who come privately and on charter boats from as far away as Connecticut to explore the wreck. Visibility at that depth is poor – about fifteen feet – but the current is weak, usually no more than three-quarters of a knot, and allows for fairly long dives, he says.

The position of the wreck is 41'23.856 N, 71'01.115 W, according to John Perry Fish of American Underwater Search and Survey. Divers are reminded that the wreck is the final resting place of seven men who, with five others whose bodies were later recovered, went down with the ship.


The following twelve men were lost in the sinking of the Vineyard Lightship during the Hurricane of 1944:

Vangel Constantine, seaman second class
Joseph George Gordon, seaman first class
Jack M. Hammett, seaman first class
Allen Leslie Hull, seaman second class
John Kolosky, machinist's mate
Peter Paul Michalak, seaman first class
Lawrence Roland Starratt, machinist's mate third class
J. Edgar Sevigny, warrant officer and captain
Edward Walter Steckling, chief machinist's mate
Frederick Julius Stelter, watertender third class
John Joseph Stimac, seaman first class
Richard R. Talbot, ship's cook second class