After Walter Lambeth Barnett retired from the U.S. Lighthouse Service on July 1, 1933, newspaper reporters would often seek him out for a story about that harrowing day on August 6, 1918 when he gave the orders to abandon the Diamond Shoals Lightship LV 71 after it had been attacked by a German U-Boat.
But strangely, over the years some of those who revisited the story of the sinking of the Diamond Shoals Lightship LV 71 actually changed the history, perhaps through misinterpretation, or to give it a different slant. The story that seems to have perpetuated itself is that the captain of the German U-Boat, having a great respect for lightship crews, notified the captain of the Diamond Shoals Lightship LV 71 that he was going to sink the vessel; and he gave the lightship crew the opportunity to abandon ship and to row safely away in a lifeboat.? Nothing could be further from the truth.
It was the Great War, as it was known as then, and later thought to be the war that would end all wars, which sadly it did not do. It later became known as World War 1. The captain of the LV 71, Edwin E. Holm, was ashore on that fateful day, leaving First Officer Walter Lambeth Barnett as the commanding officer, or acting captain, of the vessel. They were stationed offshore from Cape Hatteras, North Carolina.
The crew of the Diamond Shoals Lightship had finished eating their mid-day meal and had taken up their stations for the afternoon watch. The sea was somewhat calm; the sky was clear and blue. First Mate Walter L. Barnett recalled, ?The contrasting colors of the Atlantic where the coastal waters mingle with the Gulf Stream were beautiful to behold. It was a good day with no ill signs pointing on that lonesome station.?
At 2 pm in the afternoon, the ship?s lookout struck the ship?s bell and hollered ?All?s well.? A few minutes later the ships lookout hollered out again,: ?Foreign freighter making for the lightship.? Captain Barnett went forward with his binoculars. As he scanned the sea, he suddenly spotted the dark hull of a German sub, with its ensign of the German Navy raised upon its masthead, as it pushed through the water toward the foreign freighter, later reportedly identified as the Dutch merchant ship SS Merak.
There are various, but similar, accounts of what happened next, and none of them seem to be absolutely substantiated, but they may all be likely in combinations of each other. Reportedly, the captain of the German U-Boat radioed the lightship not to notify any freighters in the area of their presence, and if they did, the lightship would be sunk. Reportedly, First Mate and Acting Captain Walter Lambeth Barnett ignored that demand and ordered the radio operators to send out a warning radio message to all ships in the area.
However, an excellent account is given in an old newspaper story published by the Outer Banks Lighthouse Society in 2009 of a first-hand account of a letter dated August 14, 1918 written by Rozzell Finley to his mother. Finley was one of the two U.S. Navy radio operators assigned to the lightship on that fateful day.
?We were all standing around talking, not thinking of a submarine at all, when out of the water there came a shot. We could not tell where it came from. It dropped about fifty yards from a steamer that was bound south. She was about a mile of our stern. The submarine fired several more shots at her before we saw it; she was about five miles to the south of us. It kept up the firing for about twenty minutes before hitting the steamer. The first shot to hit struck about midships and set her afire and by that time the crew had left her and were headed to us, but no sooner had the submarine seen them headed for us that they fired at them in the small boat and made them take another course.?
The submarine, from its deck gun, then opened fire upon the Diamond Shoals Lightship LV 71.
The crew of Diamond Shoals Lightship was used to the rocking and swaying from the wind and rolling seas in its permanent position, which it was not allowed to move from. But, as the shells exploded around them the sea was rocked from a new and hitherto unexpected enemy.
First Mate Barnett gave the order to abandon ship.
Finley wrote, ?The submarine only took about five minutes to get a range on us and they opened fire, the first shot going high, the next two hit the wireless, but not before I had our distress signal sent and an answer from it.?
The submarine then turned its attention again on the steamer in an attempt to finish her off, but before long it again turned its attention to the wounded lightship, shelling her seven more times. Captain Barnett later said it was hard for the Germans to put that steel shell into a wood casket to finally put it away to join the bones of the other shipwrecks in the Graveyard of the Atlantic.
Finley?s letter also described what happened next. ?We made for shore as hard as we could pull, but it seemed that the submarine was not satisfied with sinking the steamer and the lightship, so she fired on us in the life boats. But, thanks to the sea for being a little rough, she could not hit us for we were going up and down like a cork on a pond. She gave up and went after another steamer.?
Rozzell Finley?s letter described how it took them seven hours in the life boats to go the eighteen miles to shore, and then they had to walk five miles on the beach to the Coast Guard Life Boat Station. Finley wrote that he was glad to have experienced the event, but never wanted to go through something like that again. He admitted that he had been plenty scared, but he quickly got over it. Finley went on to work at the radio station at the Navy Yard. After the Great War was over, Rozzell Finley returned home to Kentucky to honor his promise to marry his sweetheart, only to find out that circumstances were no longer the same and, as recalled by others, he departed with a broken heart ?to go on a world tour.?
First Mate Walter Lambeth Barnett remained in the United States Lighthouse Service and was officially promoted to the rank of Captain. After 33 years of service, he retired on July 1, 1933.
This story appeared in the
Jan/Feb 2017 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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