Naval History – Annapolis
Thanks to the tenacity of her last surviving crewman, the story of the Vineyard Sound lightship (LS-73) has not been lost forever. Retired Senior Chief Boatswain’s Mate Harold Flagg spent several years fighting Coast Guard bureaucracy to ensure that his 12 shipmates who were lost off Cuttyhunk, Massachusetts, in the Great Atlantic Hurricane were honored. Fifty-five years to the day after the 15 September 1944 sinking of the Vineyard he finally was able to fulfill his promise to keep their memory alive, during a ceremony dedicating the nation’s first lightship memorial in New Bedford, Massachusetts.
The life of the Vineyard, as told by Senior Chief Flagg, and the story of her demise, as seen through the eyes of the Cuttyhunk Lighthouse keeper’s daughter, are part of our Coast Guard’s proud heritage.
Life on a World War II Lightship
On a typical day, the off-watch men of the Vineyard were up at 0700, and washed, dressed, and at breakfast by 0730. Work began at 0800 and consisted of the usual endless cycle of scraping, scrubbing, and painting familiar to all seamen. In the warm summer months, the men worked over the side or up in the riggings-labor they found more enjoyable because it required greater seamanship and agility.
Above all the clatter and chatter often was heard the jazz of the 1940s, playing from a large radio that, because of their particular function, lightships were allowed to have. The Saturday night hit parade was a unanimous favorite.
Young Seamond Ponsart and her “Uncle” Sacco, a sailor on board the Vineyard.
During inclement weather, the men worked inside, scrubbing, chipping, scraping, and painting. Occasionally, the seas and winds would be so rough as to force all work to be suspended, and then the men stayed in their bunks, simply hanging on.
The workday ended at 1200, and with the exception of the watch, each man did as he pleased for the rest of the day. Some sunbathed, many played cribbage and told sea stories, while others spoke of their next leave at home with family and friends. After the energy of the noon meal wore off, men slowly would begin to disappear. Before long, the ship would be silent, with only the watchstanders left moving about; the rest of the crew having turned in for an afternoon nap. The only occasional interruption was local lobstermen, who came by to barter their crustaceans for butter and sugar, which were subject to rationing at the time.
The watch on World War 11-vintage lightships was stood in the wheelhouse. The watch kept an eye on the weather and listened for radio messages. If the visibility dropped to less than one and one-half miles, the foghorn was put into operation. It was not uncommon for the fog signal to be activated four or five times a day or even to be left in continuous operation during summer months. To be out on the spar deck when the horn was in use was a nerveshattering experience that stopped all unnecessary topside activity.
Occasionally, when the horn compressors would not start, a man would be brought on deck to ring the ship’s large bell. The men worked in relays, relieving each other every 15 minutes. There were more than a few days in winter, with stormy, subzero temperatures and decks made slick by frozen spray, when the bell had to be rung by hand. It did not take long under these circumstances for a man to take on the appearance of an ice statue. 1
Despite its sometime monotony, life on board the lightships was hazardous. Official records note 237 instances of lightships being blown adrift in severe weather or dragged off station by moving ice. Five were lost under such conditions, but the majority, despite heavy damage to hull and superstructure on many of these occasions, remained on station unassisted. “This attests to a high order of seamanship, and commendations for bravery and outstanding ship handling often resulted.” 2
The Loss of the Vineyard
Built by the Spedden Ship Building Company of Baltimore, Maryland, in 1901, the 129-foot Vineyard originally was designated “No. 73.” From 1902 to 1924, she was positioned near Pollock Rip, Cape Cod, Massachusetts. Later, renamed Vineyard, the ship was transferred to the Sow and Pig’s Reef at the western end of Cuttyhunk Island to warn ships entering Vineyard Sound and nearby Narragansett Bay of the reefs rocks and shoals. Many ships have come to grief in this area, including the New Bedford whaler Wanderer in 1924 and, more recently, the passenger ferry Pilgrim Belle in 1985 and the Queen Elizabeth 2 in 1992. 3
There were 17 men assigned to the Vineyard, with a crew of 12 on the boat at all times. The other five crewmen were rotated off on compensatory leave for a period of two weeks. The men on ship normally stood four weeks on, two weeks off, a cycle that continued unabated during the war.
In September 1944, the “Great Atlantic Hurricane,” as it was termed by the U.S. Weather Bureau, struck the eastern seaboard. One of the largest and most powerful storms ever to savage the East Coast, it generated hurricane-force winds over an estimated 200-mile-wide area and gale-force winds over a swath of 600 miles. The hurricane sank five ships, claiming 344 lives at sea and 46 lives ashore, including 247 sailors from the USS Warrington (DD-383) and 97 from the Coast Guard cutters Jackson (WPC-142) and Bedloe (WSC-128), the lightship Vineyard, and the Navy minesweeper YMS 409. 4
The loss of 12 crewmen from the Vineyard would have a profound and lasting effect on the daughter of Cuttyhunk Lighthouse Keeper Octave Ponsart. In 1944, Seamond Ponsart Roberts was five years old, living with her parents and pets at the Cuttyhunk Lighthouse at the western end of the Elizabeth Islands, Massachusetts. The Coast Guardsmen from the nearby lightships often stayed with the Ponsarts when they were reprovisioning, or when bad weather prevented them from returning to their ship. They developed a special relationship with the family, becoming known affectionately as Seamond’s “uncles.” “They were all so wonderful to me and such a delightful extended family to our little family,” remembers Seamond. “It was war time and we were not supposed to have visitors, so they were even extra welcomed in our home.”
On 14 September 1944, Seamond had gone with her father to pick up their weekly groceries from the Alert, the mail boat that brought provisions from the city. Local Coast Guardsmen were warning everyone that a bad hurricane was coming, and Seamond and her father hurried to get their supplies and return to their end of the island.
The Path of the Great Atlantic Hurricane.One of the first-hurricanes to be flown into and tracked by the then newly formed Army Air Forces. Hurricane Weather Reconnaissance Squadron, the 1944 storm claimed 344 lives at sea and 46 ashore.
That night, shortly after a brilliant sunset in an ominously green sky, Seamond’s older sister, Betty, expecting her first child, began having contractions. Opening a trunk stocked for such emergencies, Keeper Ponsart read from a dated medical guide that admonished them to “boil water and call for someone.” Turning to his wife, Keeper Ponsart said, “Boil water. Call on the Lord!” As it turned out, Betty was experiencing false labor, but the situation outside was worsening quickly.
The phone line that connected to the Army Radar Site and the Coast Guard was soon severed. Normally surrounded by low land, the lighthouse became its own island, with water and ocean debris swirling around the keeper and his family. At one point, the house’s chimney came crashing through the roof, landing on Seamond’s upstairs bed. The little girl was spared injury only because she had chosen that night to stay downstairs with her sister, Betty.
The hurricane battered New England with winds up to 105 mph and a storm surge of 8-10 feet. Assisting her father, Seamond made dozens of trips up and down the lighthouse stairs, bringing coffee, lanterns, and other supplies. The Cuttyhunk Lighthouse lamp was being doused continually by huge waves and high winds, and it was imperative that they keep it burning.
Seamond’s and her father’s thoughts were never far from her offshore uncles on the Vineyard. When the storm abated briefly, they were able to see the lightship clearly, and her father shouted for joy. Then, the tumult was on again, with the heavy rain, lightning, and noise. Citizens of nearby Westport, Massachusetts, saw six red and white distress flares coming from the area of the Vineyard just after midnight on 15 September 1944.
The next time it cleared, the lightship was gone. Keeper Ponsart said, “They are gone to the bottom. The iron ship. The iron men. They are all gone.” Seamond cried, “All my uncles? All the sailors?” Her father wept openly, “Yes, Seamond, they are all gone.” 5
A Proper Honor
Just a few weeks prior to the storm, Coxswain Harold Flagg’s leave had to be put off a few days because of bad weather. The delay also meant that his expiration of liberty changed by a few days, to 1200, 15 September 1944. Coxswain Flagg arrived at Cuttyhunk that morning, along with four other returning shipmates, to find that his ship and friends were gone forever. On a gloomy train ride from New Bedford to Boston, the five survivors of the Vineyard made a pact that they would never forget their 12 shipmates and would someday honor their sacrifices appropriately.
Within a week of the sinking, a U.S. Navy vessel had located the Vineyard. After a brief investigation, the wreck was left undisturbed. Nearly two decades later, using information from a prototype sidescan sonar system provided by Dr. Harold Edgerton of MIT, professional diver Brad Luther explored the lightship off Sow and Pig’s Reef. The wreck was more than a mile from its original anchorage. The “upper wooden deck had washed away, exposing the lower deck. The wheelhouse structure and the aft cabin, including the radio shack, had somersaulted over the port rail and were lying in the sand.”‘ On 22 September 1963, a team of seven divers returned to the site and recovered the lightship’s bell.
The bell was first displayed at the Nauset Lifesaving Museum of the Cape Cod National Seashore. Originally intended as a “permanent memorial to the 12 Coast Guardsmen who pledged themselves to the safety of other mariners,”‘ it ended up as a replacement bell for the excessed lightship New Bedford at New Bedford, Massachusetts, in 1975.
Eventually, however, support for the New Bedford dried up, and the lightship fell into a sad state of disrepair. Incensed by the revered bell’s location on the decrepit and inaccessible New Bedford, Harold Flagg began a phone-calling and letter-writing campaign to Coast Guard officials. After more than three years and only with the personal intervention of Rear Admiral Richard M. Larrabee, Commander, First Coast Guard District Boston, a deal was struck to license the bell to the City of New Bedford.
City of New Bedford officials agreed to display the Vineyard’s bell permanently, in a publicly accessible location. They agreed that the proper course of action was to mark the sacrifices of the men of the Vineyard, including her captain, New Bedford native Chief Warrant Officer Edgar Sevigney, in a ceremony at the site of the new memorial. On 15 September 1999, a debt to fallen comrades was finally and fittingly honored.
“When I lost them to the hurricane,” Seamond recalls, “I was really heartbroken, and I would pick wildflowers and go to the furthest edge of the beach and put them in the water to float back to my lost uncles. When I went to New Bedford for the ceremony, I again brought some flowers for them. Before I left for home I went back, and the wind had taken the yellow roses and scattered them. Most poignantly for me, I walked over to the water’s edge near the bell memorial, and there were the yellow rose petals floating on the water-and I cried because for just a moment I was once again five years old and my uncles were gone and flowers were floating on the water.
“So you see, I am ever so grateful for the City, the Coast Guard, and the old faithful salt, Harold Flagg (who never gave up the ship for his shipmates), for making all this possible-for me, now a grown woman, to have a real funeral service for the little girl who lost her uncles on the lightship in a hurricane off Cuttyhunk Island 55 years ago.”
Before It’s Too Late
This is just one example of why the Coast Guard needs to invest in the preservation of its proud heritage and incorporate the testimonials of its retirees into its leadership programs. Without Senior Chief Flagg’s efforts, his story, like his 12 shipmates, would have been lost.
The Coast Guard should capitalize on a recent servicewide audit of property and encourage field commanders to invest in their heritage by picking one artifact and exploring its history, soliciting the testimonials of retirees. There is little time left to capture the memories of some of these aging retirees. Our veterans should be adopted and treasured by Coast Guard units along with the artifacts. Once these people are gone, their stories will be lost forever.
At the dedication of the new Waterfront Park memorial in New Bedford, Senior Chief Boatswain’s Mate Harold Flagg, the sole surviving crewmember of the Vineyard, read the list of his 12 shipmates who lost their lives in the sinking. The Vineyard’s bronze bell is the centerpiece of the monument.
- Information in this section is from Harold Flagg, USNR (Ret.), Life as I Saw It on the Vineyard Lightship, Oct. 1942-Sept. 1944, unpublished manuscript. ↩
- Willard Flint, “A History of U.S. Lightships,” Lightships of the U.S. Government Reference Notes (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Coast Guard, 1989), p. 17. ↩
- Flint, “A History of U.S. Lightships,” p. 12. ↩
- Robert A. Dawes, The Dragon’s Breath (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1996), appendix A. ↩
- Seamond’s story is taken from personal communications from Mrs. Roberts to the author, March and November 1999. ↩