In the fall of 1941, Japan drew the United States into World War II by a treacherous and disastrous attack of Pearl Harbor in Honolulu, Hawaii. This put the Coast Guard in the Navy, no longer going through the peacetime motions of a military organization. The maintenance of Aids to Navigation became important to the war effort. The coasts were mined and the entrances to important harbors like Boston, New York, Chesapeake Bay, Los Angeles and San Francisco had swept buoyed channels extending about 50 miles out to sea with mines on either side as a safeguard against submarine attack.
The only safe entrance was through these long, buoyed channels which could be easily guarded. The maintenance of these and other aids for war purposes was a task for experts trained in the former Lighthouse Service. New systems of Long Range Aids to Navigation (LORAN) were devised by the Coast Guard in the Navy and were operated by the Coast Guard Aids to Navigation in Washington. The Cutters, which included Lighthouse Tenders, were all equipped with electronic equipment such as radar, fathometers and radio compasses (direction finders). They were also armed and furnished with depth bombing equipment. The pilot houses were jammed full of electronic navigation equipment.
I made a trip out of Boston on a Cutter (Lighthouse Tender) to Newfoundland under war conditions. This experience I will never forget. The Cutter, a comparatively small vessel was most thoroughly equipped with navigating, defense and offense equipment: the marine compass, gyro compass and repeaters, radio compass, radar, LORAN wings, depth bombs and racks for launching same.
The layman must know this equipment is useless without men to operate it who have had long training in the use of the same. The “blobs” on the radar screen need interpretation by an experienced operator. The “pips” on the LORAN receiver are puzzles that must be matched and interpreted on the special LORAN charts published by the Hydrographic Office of the Navy. When echo sounding is used to detect the presence of an enemy submarine, the operator must be able to discount the confusion from a school of large fish.
When there is a collision between two vessels equally equipped with all these instruments including radar, as sometimes occurs, and when they do not even observe the international “rules of the road”, the layman has a right to think that the cause is lack of training aboard. At any rate, the Cutter had a lot of equipment for so small a vessel.
It was foggy as usual approaching Placentia Bay, Newfoundland. A submarine alarm tensed the crew of the Cutter. A suspicious “blob” appeared on the radar screen. “Man the guns,” “Make ready the depth bombs,” came the sharp commands. Approaching the object cautiously, the fog lifted a little. There, dead ahead was a Newfoundland fishing sloop. The Cutter dropped a depth bomb just for the practice and I thought the Cutter itself had been bombed. The whole ship shook and electric light fixtures broke.
Editor’s Note: This excerpt is taken from "The Making of a Lighthouse Engineer," the unpublished memoirs of Commodore Frederick P. Dillon.
This story appeared in the
Mar/Apr 2018 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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