THE LITTLE RED SHIP
by Jim Gill
Twixt sand and sea lay the little red ship, a world unknown to many of us. The author has done a marvelous job describing life aboard a light ship
Twenty years into my Coast Guard career I fancied myself as being somewhat of an "old salt." Looking back now, I realize that I was neither old nor a salt. In perspective, I was just getting started. Nevertheless, as a Chief Warrant Officer, my professional life then was very good. Although the term "Red Cutter" was not known to me, I never once entertained a thought that such a vessel might appear in my future. So it was much to my surprise when I received a set of orders that read, "Proceed and report to CO Lightship 612 as his relief."
Now, here was a mandate that could send some people running full tilt for the Marine Hospital, permanent disability, or retirement--perhaps all three. In other words, lightship duty was not exactly a Coast Guardsman's all-time popular choice. Still, I had never tried to sidestep orders in the past and wasn't about to then. There were also several factors that made this assignment not all that unattractive. Lightship 612 was then only ten years old, brand spanking new for a lightship. She was well maintained and enjoyed a reputation as a happy ship. Her assignment was San Francisco Bar Station, certainly a storm and fog ridden location, but a piece of cake compared to Blunts Reef off Cape Mendocino, or Swiftsure off Cape Flattery.
I was transported from the Coast Guard Base at Yerba Buena Island by the buoy tender MAGNOLIA. We sailed about 0800 and headed for the bar, eleven miles off the Golden Gate, and arrived in good time. I had a strange feeling as we drew near in the motor launch, for I had passed lightships scores of times but never gave much thought as to what made them tick--now I was about to be responsible for one. After a wet and rough ride across a hundred yards of angry water, up the ladder I went. It was 25 May 1960.
After a few days of learning the ropes from CHBOSN Blaylock, the outgoing Commanding Officer, we assembled the ship's company at "division parade" and read our orders. We each directed a few personal comments to the crew, the offered relief was accepted and I was officially in command.
The Last Contruction of the Little Red Ships
In 1950 the Coast Guard built four lightships. They were the last such vessels built in the United States and possibly in the world. Lightships 604 and 605 were built by Rice Brothers Corp. in Boothbay Harbor, Maine. Two others, 612 and 613, were built by the Coast Guard Yard in Curtis Bay, Maryland. All four were identical, except 604 and 605 were powered by a direct reversible Atlas Imperial 8-cylinder engine of about 800HP. 612 and 613 used a General Motors 6-71 quad of about the same power but with the extreme advantage of having a reverse/reduction gear.
These small ships were gems, modern in every respect and incorporating all the lessons learned in the previous 120 years of building lightships. Their principal dimensions were: length, 128 feet; beam, 30 feet; and a draft of 11 feet. They carried 49,000 gallons of diesel fuel and over 13,000 gallons of fresh water. At nine knots they could cruise 22,000 miles, and at full power could maintain a respectable 11 knots. The displacement varied between 600 and 800 tons.
The ground tackle (anchor and chain) was massive, as might be expected. The main anchor was the "mushroom" type and weighed 8,000 pounds. Unlike most ships, the hawsepipe was fitted on the centerline. The chain was 1-1/8 inch stock and was controlled by a powerful windlass. We generally rode to a length of chain six to eight times the depth of water below us, depending on the time of year--more for winter storms, less for summer fair weather. A second anchor, a 5,000 lb. "Navy" type was housed in a conventional hawsepipe on the starboard bow.
For small boats, 612 carried a motor launch and a pulling boat. both were usually kept rigged out and ready to lower away quickly should the need arise, such as a hasty abandon ship or a man overboard. As the name suggests, the pulling boat was propelled by oars, pulled by four men seated in single file (called single-banked). A fifth man stood in the stern with a steering oar or "sweep." The motor launch was equipped with a four-cylinder gasoline engine and could be handled by a crew of three. Both boats were twenty feet in length and specially fitted for hoisting and lowering from davits aboard the ship.
The principal concern of those aboard the lightship was to keep her precisely on the charted position. There were many other functions and duties, but they were all predicated on the ship being "on station." Once ever so slightly removed from this exact location, all the other services halted and all effort was made to regain the charted position. The correct position was determined by use of horizontal sextant angles taken on well-established objects ashore and carefully plotted using a high quality 3-arm protractor. The same method is used by buoy tenders in their precise placement of buoys. (The "Big White Cutter" folks were fond of saying that buoy tender and lightship people were completely ignorant of the fact that a sextant could be used other than in the horizontal plane.)
Once established, these angles were checked and logged daily. Once the ship was unquestionably "on station," the other services could begin. The three main concerns were the radio beacon, the light, and the fog signal. The order of importance would depend on the time of day and weather. The radio beacon signal were transmitted to provide mariners a means to take direction finder bearings on one or more transmitting stations. Several bearings might result in a "fix," or one bearing would at least give the heading to the signal source. Although officially called "bad practice," vessels could (and did) home straight in on the lightships until they were in imminent danger of collision. There were many close calls and several terrible tragedies. The most famous of these was in 1934 when the RMS OLYMPIC (sister ship of the TITANIC) performed such a remarkable job of "homing in," she cut the NANTUCKET (LV-117) in half with the loss of seven of her crew of eleven.
Lightship daily routine was very much like most Coast Guard ships at sea. Watches, bridge and engine room, were usually the old time-worn four hours on, eight hours off. Dayworkers turned to at 0800 and knocked off at 1600. Meals were served at precise times to accommodate the watchstanders. Each turned in all storeroom keys, reported "secure" or problems that existed.
The bridge watchstanders performed numerous duties and, in fact, were the backbone of the whole operation. They were for the most part non-rated men with no special training other than their "break-in" period when they would be called upon to be a radio communicator, radar observer, lookout, logkeeper, and a weather recorder. Once each hour they would go to the beacon room, check the timers against the WWV time signal, and monitor the transmitter as it started its program. Once per watch they would complete a lengthy and complicated weather recording form and transmit it to Coast Guard Radio Station San Francisco for relay to the weather bureau. A half dozen logs were kept such as the deck log, radio traffic, vessels sighted, etc. If visibility closed to five miles, they switched on our dear friend the F-2-T and the main light. The radio beacon would be switched from "program" to continuous. It was a busy watch and required a lot of attention.
The engineer watchstanders were equally busy. The on-line generator required hourly readings and the steam-heat boiler had to be watched closely. If the fog signal was operating, the huge high-recovery air compressor needed tending. There were tank soundings to take, bilges to check, small repairs to be made, and always, cleaning and polishing. A major machinery overhaul could be in progress.
Our living spaces were excellent. The crew berthed forward in one large compartment that spanned the full width of the hull. Rows of open portlights on both sides kept this space bright and well vented. Aft, I enjoyed my own wardroom, office, and quarters. The Executive Officer and the Chief Engineer, both chief petty officers, were also quartered aft. The crew's mess was spacious in a long for'n'aft rectangular shape with rows of tables arranged thwartship and of course welded to the deck. The individual seats were integral with the tables and could be swung under to get them out of the way. Just aft of the mess deck was a small recreation room with library, game-top tables, and a large TV set.
The engine spaces were the Chief Engineer's pride and joy and the gang kept everything spotless and gleaming. Unlike a conventional ship, the principal machinery space was not devoted to propulsion but to the various functions pertinent to on-station operations. The propulsion machinery was fitted into a smaller space aft of the main engine room and consisted of four General Motors 6-71 diesels arranged in a quad around a central reverse/reduction gear and the propeller shaft. Here also was the third of three generator sets driven by a GM 4-71. All engines being in the "71" series made for easy parts-swapping and spares inventory. One generator was always on the line month in, month out, 24 hours a day. We rotated the duty generator among the three so that they accumulated equal operating time. When one reached the number of hours indicated for overhaul, it came out of rotation and the work was performed right then and there by our own engineers. It is interesting to note that the four main engines had not yet in the 10-year lifetime of the ship accumulated enough hours to require overhaul. They ran only to carry the ship to port for the normal once-a-year overhaul and then back out to station. In an extremely severe storm we would sometimes run at slow or even half ahead to ease some of the terrible strain on the mooring system--chain, anchor, chain stoppers, etc.
As my lightship tour of duty began, there were new and wonderful situations to encounter and cope with. The most outstanding without question would be my introduction to a monstrous noise-making machine known as the F-2-T. As a fog signal there is no equal, its B-E-E-E-E-O-O-O-O-H roar clearly audible at five miles or more. A passing mariner trapped in zero visibility will hear the signal and breathe a sigh of relief--his carefully plotted dead reckoning has brought him safely to the harbor entrance, and his position is now firmly established.
But as a shipmate, the F-2-T failed in all respects; to the crews of lightships, the fog signal is an instrument of the devil, a device designed in hell for the specific purpose of torture. As anyone who has been close to one of the bizarre creatures can testify, the effect is shattering. Between blasts the high recovery air compressor scrambles to make up the thousands of cubic feet of air that roared through the diaphone.
It is not just the sound but the overall impact. The whole ship trembles as the decks and bulkheads modulate. The logbook "walks" along the chart table as pencils fly off onto the deck. Dishes and cookware rattle in the galley. Then . . . beautiful, soothing silence for half a minute only to be blasted by the next shuddering bellow.
Certainly this cannot go on for long! Oh, but it can and often does. How long will this fog hang in? An hour? Two days? Sometimes a week, but we survive. The human body is amazing in its ability to cope with, and adjust to such ridiculous environments. Here is an example: I am discussing a logistics problem with the cook and two petty officers. The F-2-T is in operation. As we speak there is an automatic pause mid-sentence a split-second before the blast and the words continue just after the blast as though nothing had happened. Conditioned reflex? You bet!
An amusing lightship yarn has it that this reflex continues even after the fog signal has been switched off. Those subjected for too long a time may be afflicted for life.
The radio beacon is placed in operation continuously in low visibility (less than five miles), but in clear weather transmitted on a program shared with two other stations. Each station transmits its own Morse code identifier one second after its predecessor ends. Coast Guard Radio Station San Francisco monitored all beacon transmission and were quick to report errors in timing, signal strength, and modulation. The radio beacon was our biggest headache, taking more time in adjustment and maintenance than any of the other services.
The light itself was really no trouble at all. It was parked on top of the foremast about 100 feet above the water and was visible for 15 miles. Like most lighted aids, it had its own characteristic--on a few seconds, then off a few--and was displayed one hour before sunset to one hour after sunrise, and in inclement weather.
I was once asked about lightships and, after a long-winded explanation, my patient listener summed it up thus: "Oh, I see. A lightship is sort of a seagoing signpost." That is a simple yet accurate assessment. Lightships were used to mark an exact place on a nautical chart. The place was usually an offshore approach to a major seaport, the juncture of several sealanes or a hazardous reef or shoal. More simply put, some lightships said, "Come this way, this is the entrance," while others said, "Stay away, this area is dangerous." To ensure recognition, the ship's hull was painted a bright red and the location the lightship was marking was painted in huge, six-foot high letters amidships across the ship's hull on both sides. For example: BLUNTS (Reef), SAN FRANCISCO (Entrance), SWIFTSURE (Bank), and FRYING PAN (Shoals) are a few examples.
The Seagoing Lawn Mower
One good thing about lightship duty was the time off-watch when you could pursue whatever hobbies you were into. For instance, we had a engineman who liked to bring small home projects out to the ship for repair . . . or whatever.
On one occasion he brought along a gas engine-powered lawn mower and proceeded over the next few days to completely disassemble the engine and running gear. The engine needed a complete overhaul and required many parts, so the project was stalled for a while. On his next shore leave, he purchased the parts and brought them out to the ship.
Slowly but surely the engine got reassembled and put back together. Now, for the test run. Of course, he could not operate the engine in the confines of the shop, so he dragged the whole thing up on deck where there was plenty of fresh air and room to maneuver.
About this time the buoy tender WILLOW passed by about a quarter mile or so on her way to the Farallons. The bridge watch, observing us through binoculars, were somewhat amazed to see our man vigorously engaged in "mowing the lawn." It didn't take long for the word to get around. Lightship sailors were thought to be a little crazy.
Various talents are always to be found in a ship's crew. One such talent led to an interesting result. Several times I had attempted to design an appropriate insignia or crest for the ship. One day I was doodling away when SN Busby happened by. Busby just happened to be a commercial artist by trade and before long we had a great theme going. Soon most of the crew became interested and we had a full panel of advisors. After many changes and alterations, the finished product was nothing short of spectacular. The final version was painted in oil by Busby.
The crest was circular in shape and about 18 inches in diameter. Within the circle was a seascape with a raging storm in progress. A sinewy arm was thrust up through the surface holding a burning torch. Around the perimeter in bold letters were the words LIGHTSHIP 612 and LUX PERPETUA, our attempt at Latin for "everlasting light." We mounted the crest in a high visibility location in the wardroom where it became the centerpiece for official functions.
My Daily Routine
My own workday was mostly devoted to paperwork, spending at least four hours each day completing reports, filing, reading directives, and hammering out official correspondence on the typewriter, starting at 0800 until usually noon. The afternoons were spent in crew activities such as drills, exercises, and instructions. I would also inspect various parts of the ship, making notes as to upkeep and repair. At 1600, we held a vigorous calisthenics program. Although voluntary, just about everyone participated. Next came the evening meal, after which I generally took a two-hour siesta and would be alert and ready for "Evening Reports" at 2000.
Then the big event of each day as amateur radio K6IRR went on the air about every night at 2030. I had been a "ham" for about ten years, and brought my equipment with me when assigned to LV-612. A crowd would gather around not only just to listen but some to participate. I ran phone patches to American Samoa, Hawaiian Island, and the east coast. Crew members could talk to their families and sweethearts anywhere that radio propagation conditions would permit. Local Bay Area and west coast calls were always easy. I participated in several net operations and once-in-awhile would conduct urgent ship's business with the District Office. All these telephone-type communications of course required the cooperation of some helpful ham operator ashore equipped with a phone patch. It was sometimes midnight before I switched off the rig. After this I would make a round of the ship, spend some time with the mid-watchstander, then turn in around 0200 to read for awhile, then sleep until about 0700, then start the same routine again.
Of historical interest is the fact that the first wireless message ever sent from a ship at sea was sent in 1899, when SAN FRANCISCO LIGHTSHIP (LV-70) transmitted the message, "Sherman sighted." The troop transport SHERMAN was returning from the Philippine Islands.
The earth revolved on every other Wednesday. If it was your turn to go ashore, that's when it happened. It was for others the day to return aboard, although met with considerably less enthusiasm. Personnel rotated in a system called "compensatory leave," and for every two days on the ship at sea, you earned one day off. You could draw on your annual leave if you came up short. The rotation periods were 29 days aboard and 13 days ashore, which kept two thirds of the crew aboard. Since there were 19 of us, we averaged an on board force of 12.
A few of the gang called home a good many miles away, some as far as the east coast. The compensatory leave routine allowed them enough time to go home. For the local people, there was ample time off to enjoy life ashore. There are always "loners" in the crowd and ours called the ship home and stayed aboard. Ship's routine and watches kept everybody occupied most of the time, but there was still many hours for hobbies, reading, and other forms of recreation. We converted the main hold into a gymnasium and just about everybody worked out. Fishing was a popular sport, not just from the ship--the motor launch was also used for trolling. Those intent on advancement took out courses from the Armed Forces Institute or other correspondence schools. One of our engineers held classes in the operation of the machinist's lathe and other machine tools. Television, card games, and just plain doing nothing at all had their place.
When the big day arrived, we would closely observe the weather and sea conditions starting at 0400. Coasties can handle just about anything in the way of violent weather, but safety remains foremost. A daring surf rescue is one thing, but a routine lightship logistics mission is another. However, when it is your day to go ashore, this argument is unconvincing. The main concern is the condition of the sea. Can the tender's workboat get alongside with the stores? Can the tender, rolling heavily in the big swells even get the ponderous workboat lowered away safely? Is passing the hawser and water hose too dangerous? And, of course, by far the major question, can we safely transfer our returning and departing personnel? These questions and others sometimes take a bit of soul-searching. When its my time to go ashore, please Lord, let me assess the conditions without prejudice.
In a typical "marginal" condition, we might see a northwesterly swell of 15 to 20 feet. We note that the crests are about a quarter of a mile apart. The wind is strong, perhaps 30 knots, and its kicking up a fuss in the swell system, piling up a ragged three foot "sea" on top. If we keep both ships headed directly into the swells we can avoid much of the rolling. We'll use our own engine and rudder to help. It'll be wet and nasty but we've done it before. So, at 0600 our first "landing conditions" report would go out as "marginal." This would tip off the Captain of the tender that it wasn't exactly like a lake out here. The next hour was horrible. If there was the slightest change for the worse, the 0700 report would have to be "unfavorable." Sailing time for the tender from Yerba Buena Island is 0800, so there was still another hour for the tender Captain to analyze the situation. The final decision is his. The buoy tender crews were not all that keen on taking a pounding working their way out over the bar just to bring us our ice cream.
Two tenders alternated this duty, the MAGNOLIA and the WILLOW. Both were ex-U.S. Army mine layers, steam driven and 189 feet in length. They made excellent buoy tenders.
Once favorable landing conditions were reported, the tender would depart YBI about 0800 arriving at the bar station around 1000. Things got pretty busy right away. The tender made a close approach, passed a hawser, and then fell back 75 to 100 yards. The water hose was passed next to replenish our tanks. If we were to fuel, another hose would be passed, but we usually fueled in the winter months only to keep the ship heavy and more comfortable in the seasonal storms and gales.
During all this activity the tender's workboat would arrive alongside with mail, stores (including the ice cream) and our returning crew members. The official mail had to be opened immediately and scanned for "surprise packages," letters, documents, and reports that required instant reply; some of which had been sitting around for over two weeks before delivery to us. It was not uncommon to receive a document and a "take action" notice in the same mail. The typewriter would smoke as I ripped off urgent correspondence in time to make the last boat. Sometimes we would lower our own motor launch to help expedite the transfer of stores. If we worked hard, we could get it all done in just over an hour. The last departing boat took our shore party and the outgoing mail. The tender meanwhile had recovered the water hose and the hawser, picked up their workboat and steamed off, usually bound for the Farallon Island Light Station and another logistical nightmare.
Within minutes solitude had closed in around us and our little world became peaceful and orderly. After the tender left it was usually about mail time, and the cook had something special going to celebrate the big day. The newly-returned crewmembers entertained us with wild tales of their adventures ashore. The afternoon was usually quiet. There was lots of personal mail and new magazines to read. The fresh stores had to be put away (we didn't want the ice cream to melt!), loose gear stowed and the motor launch secured. When everything was back in order, it was time to think about relaxation. Most of us had been up at 0400 and what with all the frenzy of the morning's activities, we were just plain tired. More often than not, we would declare the rest of the afternoon as holiday routine and most of those not on watch would "sack out." No such luck for me as I had to log in all the incoming mail. Every piece had to be entered into the mail log, as had each piece of outgoing mail.
During a resupply and personnel change functions were executed in marginal conditions, it was helpful sometimes to maneuver the ship in conjunction with the tender to keep both vessels headed into the sea. We could also head off slightly to provide a lee when lowering or picking up our motor launch. In the summer months there were long periods when this type of maneuvering was not required.
Something had to be done to keep the mains in shape and to hold down the build-up of growth on the propeller; so, about every week or two we would light off the main plant and go to dead slow astern. This would back the ship away from the anchor and stretch out the chain. Quickly then, full ahead, gathering way until directly over the anchor. At this point, full astern until all way was off. Then again, dead slow astern and repeat the maneuver. This generally got rid of most of the crud on the prop. It may begin to sound like we put a lot of time on the mains, but when you stop to consider that most marine diesels run for thousands of hours between overhauls, it was hardly anything at all.
Lightships generally stayed on station for about a year and were then relieved by another lightship called RELIEF, and this was the name painted in huge white letters on their hull. We would then head for homeport and the annual overhaul and drydocking. Major equipment changes and repair took place during this period, taking anywhere from four to eight weeks, and on completion the ship would return to her regular station. The RELIEF would either return to port or steam off to relieve another station. In our own particular area, the 12th Coast Guard District, three lightships operated out of San Francisco: SAN FRANCISCO (WLV-612), BLUNTS REEF (WLV-523) and RELIEF (WLV-503). RELIEF was a true museum piece, built around the turn of the century. The ship deserves her own place in the Lightship Hall of Fame with a history too long and colorful to attempt here.
Suffice it to say, she was a throwback to the days of coal-fired boilers and steam propulsion. Although converted to burn oil, the original little triple expansion steam engine throbbed and hissed away in her engine room. At about 500 HP, this wonderful little machine turned the shaft with enough energy to push the ship along at about six knots. In 1959 she had beaten her way north to Blunts Reef and relieved Lightship 523. There were some severe storms that winter and the old ship took a pounding. When 523 returned to resume station, 503 could not gather enough steam power to raise her anchor. Buoy tender MAGNOLIA, working in the vicinity, came to her rescue; the anchor was raised and the little red ship began her journey home at the end of a towing hawser. It was to be her last sortie for, alas, repairs were no longer possible. The boiler was in ruins and the engine a shambles. Replacement parts were no longer to be found. The expense to convert the ancient hull to diesel power could not be justified. It was the end for her.
This left the 12th Coast Guard District without a relief lightship. More to the point, it left Lightship 612 overdue for relief on the San Francisco Bar Station. As time went on, this became an increasingly difficult situation--our own needs kept being deferred, but we had no other choice than to bear with it and carry on.
The urgent need for a relief lightship was finally resolved when Lightship 605 was dispatched from the east coast where she had occupied the OVERFALLS station. This station had been discontinued, which was a harbinger of things to come. We didn't realize it then, but lightships were already a thing of the past. However, at the time, we all waited with great interest as LV-605 steamed through the Panama Canal bound for San Francisco. She would soon be assigned to Blunt's Reef, relieving LV-523, which would then become RELIEF. The plan required an incredible amount of time, and when it finally fell into place, LV-612 had performed a tour of duty of some 785 continuous days on station.
The big day finally arrived and our relief was on the way. LV-523 approached slowly to give us time to heave up the anchor and clear the station area. We had already placed the usual marker buoy for them to home in on and let go their anchor. We were already at "short stay" (anchor still dug in but no slack on the chain) and the moment was at hand. I called down to the foredeck, "Break 'er out!" The powerful electric windlass started dragging the chain up the hawsepipe. Suddenly the windlass took a terrible strain and almost came to a stop. There was a bump, the chain went slack and the windlass began recovering chain rapidly.
I sensed that something was amiss and, sure enough, in a few minutes the remains of the anchor came into sight. All that was left was the shank. It had broken cleanly away from the dish, or mushroom, part. Apparently in the two years the anchor had been on the bottom, it had bored its way down into the sand so deeply it was beyond recovery. The tremendous power applied by the windlass dictated that something give way, and it did. At any rate, we were freed from our tether and underway at last. I rang down full ahead and we came around to the inbound channel course and headed for San Francisco. It was a strange feeling after so long at anchor.
The drydock part of it was noisy, dirty, and inconvenient. The ship's bottom was sandblasted and coated with preservatives to protect the metal and inhibitors to discourage barnacles and marine growth. From the waterline down she was beautiful. The rest of the ship was a shambles from various welding jobs, equipment changes, and the usual shipyard grime. We escaped at last and moved her back to the base at YBI. Here we pulled out the anchor chain for a link-by-link inspection. The base electronic shop went through all the communications equipment, installed a new main radio transceiver and new beacon timers. When the work was complete, we spent a few days putting everything in order, scrubbing and painting and getting ready to go back out on station.
Our in-port period came to an end. We took the ship to the Naval Fuel Annex at Point Molate and filled the tanks. Returning to the base, we loaded stores, fresh water, and all kinds of last-minute odds and ends. Early the following morning, I contacted LV-523 by radio to determine weather conditions for relief. A big swell was running, but it was clear and the wind was moderate . . . conditions "favorable." It was necessary to have visibility clear enough for us to take our required visual bearings to establish an accurate "on station" position.
Actually it was usual practice for the ship being relieved to take a series of precise observations the previous day and plant a small marker buoy. We sailed about 0800 and around two hours were close aboard LV-523, offering relief. They indicated the small marker buoy was an improvement on their own position. Relief accepted, they heaved up their anchor and bore off toward San Francisco. We maneuvered into position over the marker and let go. Home again, and soon we were settled down into the old routine.
Days Dwindle Down to a Precious Few
My days as a Lightship skipper seemed to shift into fast forward; I had already experienced a "close approach" by a large vessel (missed us by 50 feet); several severe storms, one with winds gusting over 100 knots; and the worst that could happen, a shore rotation missed due to bad weather. Still, I could count my blessing. Storms came and went, problems were solved, and emergencies dealt with. LV-612 was a fine ship with a great crew. Changes of personnel were frequent and the paperwork was endless. In my two years aboard, I had gone through three Executive Officers, Jones, Workman, and Backlin. Three Chief Engineers, Wendt, O'Connor, and Stretch. On the other hand, some of the petty officers and non-rated men were there when I came aboard and remained after I left.
I took my last shore rotation and headed back to the ship via the regular logistics run. Riding the launch over to the ship, I was feeling a bit down knowing that this phase of my life was about over. Nothing could have prepared me for the surprise that awaited as I climbed up the pilot ladder and stepped onto the deck. I was being piped aboard! The sideboys were in dress blues and Chief Backlin himself manned the pipe. I recovered quickly enough to play the part, rendering snappy salutes to the colors and the honor guard, but I must admit there was a lump in my throat the size of a golf ball.
In December we were relieved by LV-523 and proceeded in for annual overhaul with barely over a year on station. On 31 December 1962 the ship's company lined up in dress blues for the double ceremony--change of command and my retirement. The District Chief of Staff, the Chief of Aids to Navigation, and several other dignitaries attended. I had served in Lightship 612 for two years and four months. My relief, BOSN Sawyer read his orders aloud to the gathering and I read mine, including my retirement orders.
Twenty-two years of my life had somehow slipped away in a heartbeat. What had really taken place was more like a lengthy training period in one of the finest organizations in the world, the U.S. Coast Guard! Now I was ready to put it all behind me and settle down to a quiet, peaceful life ashore. . . . Or so I thought.
In the years following my retirement, lightships became an endangered species without hope of saving. There were better and less costly ways to provide the services rendered by the little red ships, one of which was to construct a huge buoy (40 feet in diameter) packed with electronics, batteries, and small automatic generators. They were called LNBs (Large Navigational Buoys).
In 1971, an LNB was placed on San Francisco Bar Station; without a permanent home, 612 continued on, first as a relief ship in the 14th Coast Guard District (Seattle). As the northern stations were shut down, 612 went in 1974 to the east coast, where she was assigned as NANTUCKET. When that station closed in 1983, 612 was painted white and sent to Florida as a fuel depot vessel for the fast surface effect ships (WSES) who were engaged in the interdiction of drug smuggling vessels.
Finally, the axe fell and 612 was decommissioned and sold on 7 July 1985 to a non-profit organization.
From Coast Guard Stories, an anthology compiled by Don Gardner
Return to Coast Guard Stories