‘The story of 12 lightshipmen: lost in the Great Hurricane of 1944, lost in World War II, and nearly forgotten by the U.S. Coast Guard.’

I. Introduction. On 15 September, 1999, the U. S. Coast Guard and the City of New Bedford, Massachusetts honored 12 crew men lost in the sinking of the Coast Guard’s Vineyard Lightship #73 off Cuttyhunk in a horrific 1944 hurricane. The solemn ceremony ended a 55­year Quixotic journey of the light ship’s sole surviving crew man, Boatswain Mate Senior Chief Harold Flagg, USN (Retired).

As the original light ship’s bell tolled 12 times, once for each lost soul, tears of sadness and satisfaction welled in the aging mariner’s eyes. After years of frustration brought on by a cumbersome Coast Guard artifacts preservation process, a promise to fallen shipmates had finally been kept.

This is the story of the Vineyard Lightship #73’s life as told by the boat’s sole surviving crewman and the story of her demise as seen through the eyes of the then five­year­old Cuttyhunk Lighthouse Keeper’s daughter. It also makes recommendations to help preserve the proud heritage and memory of lightships and their crews within the modern day U.S. Coast Guard.

II. Lightships, Proud Sentinels of the Sea. The US Coast Guard’s last active lightship, the Nantucket I, was decommissioned on March 29, 1985, bringing a close to an era. Lightships were floating lighthouses, day beacons, and sound signal stations in times of reduced visibility, and in later years, transmitters of bearing and distance­finding electronic signals. Their mission was to stand the watch and warn mariners of nearby rocks and shoals, regardless of weather or world war.

Lightships first became a part of maritime commerce in 1731, when Robert Hamblin, an Englishman, obtained permission from King George II to outfit the single­masted Nore, the first modern day lightship. Resembling a small fishing sloop, the Nore carried two ship’s lanterns, hung 12 feet apart from a cross arm high above the deck wherein burned flat wicks in oil. 1

The first contract for a U.S. “light boat” was awarded in 1819 for a ship stationed in 1820 off Willoughby Spit, Virginia, as an aid to Chesapeake Bay commerce. America’s first first true “outside” lightship was anchored in the open sea in 1823 off Sandy Hook, NJ. During the period 1820­1983, 116 lightship stations were established by the United States. The peak for numbers of lightships occurred in 1909 when 56 lightships were active. 2

In 1939, the US Coast Guard assumed the mission of aids to navigation, including the work and equipment of the civilian U.S. Lighthouse Service’s lightships. Lightship officers and crews were offered two choices, either integrate into the Coast Guard’s military ranks or retain their civilian status under Coast Guard command. Many lightships operated initially thereafter with either an all­military or all­civilian complement. Mixed crews were normal until well after World War II and a few civilian
Lighthouse Service employees were still active in the 1970’s, even after the Coast Guard’s 1967 transfer from the Treasury Department to the Transportation Department. 3

III. Life on a lightship during WWII. “Above the clatter and chatter could be heard the jazz of the 40’s from a large radio that, because of our particular type of function, we were allowed to have.” The Saturday night hit­parade was a unanimous favorite of all hands. During a typical day, the off­watch men of the Vineyard Lightship #73 would begin their day at 0700 hours, wash, dress and sit down to breakfast by 0730 hours. Work began at 0800 hours and consisted of the usual scraping, scrubbing and painting in an endless cycle familiar to all seamen. In the warm summer months the men worked over the side or up in the riggings; a more enjoyable type of work, as it required “more seamanship and agility. This gave a man a feeling of accomplishment.”

During inclement weather, the men worked inside scrubbing, chipping, scraping and painting. During severe weather, they would work in areas that were less frequented, such as down in the chain locker, or deep in the inner spaces of the ship. With their pots of red lead paint, they would crawl into “nearly inaccessible corners and dark, damp caverns, where it seemed that no man had ever been before.” Occasionally, the weather would be so rough as to suspend all work and the men stayed in their bunks “simply hanging on.”

Some of the work was monotonous, but mercifully, the work day ended each day at noon. 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 would slowly begin to disappear. Before long, the ship would be silent, with only the watch left moving about; the rest of the crew having turned in for an afternoon nap.”

The watch on World War II 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 fog horn was put into operation. Fog was worst in the summer months, but during severe cold, vapor would settle over the water in layers 20­30 feet in height, leaving only the tops of the mast visible.

It was not uncommon for the fog signal to be activated four or five times a day, or even left in continuous operation during summer months. To be out on the spar deck when the horn was in use was a nerve shattering experience that would stop 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. There were more than a few days in winter with stormy, sub­zero temperatures, and decks made slick by frozen spray, that 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.

The men worked in relays, relieving each other every fifteen minutes. Each man would take his turn manually ringing the bell in the manner prescribed for a ship at anchor in the fog.

There were 17 men assigned to the Vineyard Lightship #73, with a crew of 12 on the boat at all times. The remaining five crewmen were off on compensatory leave for a period of two weeks. The men on ship normally stood four weeks on, two weeks off.

The cycle of watches and compensatory leave methodically continued unabated during the war, with only the occasional interruption of local lobstermen who came by to barter their crustaceans for butter and sugar, which were subject of rationing at the time. 4

IV. The Sinking of the Vineyard Lightship #73 as viewed by the Keeper’s daughter. Life aboard the lightships, aside from being viewed as monotonous by many, was hazardous. Official records contain 237 instances of lightships being blown adrift or dragged off station in severe weather or moving ice. Five lightships 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.” 5

Built by the Spedden Ship Building Company of Baltimore, Maryland in 1901, the 129 foot long subject of this article was originally designated “No. 73.” From 1902 ­ 1924, No. 73 was positioned near Pollock Rip, Cape Cod, Massachusetts. Later, the ship was transferred to the Sow and Pigs Reef at the Western end of Cuttyhunk Island (see diagram #1), and given the name “Vineyard.” Her charge was to warn ships entering Vineyard Sound and nearby Narragansett Bay of the reef’s rocks and shoals. Many ships have come to grief in this area, including the famous New Bedford whaler Wanderer in 1924, the passenger ferry Pilgrim Belle in 1985 and most recently, the Queen
Elizabeth II in 1992. 6

The September 1944 “Great Atlantic Hurricane,” as termed by the US Weather Bureau, was one of the largest and most powerful storms to savage the east coast. It was also one of the first hurricanes to be flown into and tracked by the then newly formed Army Air Corps Hurricane Weather Reconnaissance Squadron. Perhaps one of the largest Atlantic hurricanes ever recorded, the Great Atlantic Hurricane generated hurricane force winds over an estimated width of 200 miles and spawned gale force winds over a swath of 600 miles.

In terms of destruction, this hurricane sank a total of five ships, claiming 344 lives at sea and 46 lives ashore. Two hundred forty seven officers and men of the USS Warrington died, as well as 97 other sailors from the Coast Guard cutters Jackson, Bedloe, Vineyard Lightship #73 and the Navy minesweeper YMS 409. 7

The loss of all 12 crew men from the Vineyard Lightship #73 would  have profound and lasting effect on Cuttyhunk Lighthouse Keeper Ponsart’s daughter Seamond Roberts. Seamond, then five years old, lived with her parents and pets at the Cuttyhunk Lighthouse at the western end of the Elizabeth Islands, Massachusetts. As a child, she liked to wade out to the furthermost rock and play Bartholomew Gosnold and say “I claim this land for the Queen!”

The Coast Guardsmen from the nearby lightships had a special relationship with Seamond Roberts. When reprovisioning the lightships or transferring crewmen, these men often stayed with Lighthouse Keeper Ponsart’s family, befriending them and affectionately becoming Seamond Roberts’ “uncles.”

The little village on Cuttyunk was about two miles to the east of the lighthouse and Seamond had gone with her father on 14 September 1944 to pick up their weekly groceries from the Alert, the mail boat that brought provisions from the city. It was early morning when they were in town, but one could tell a storm was coming up. Local Coast Guardsmen had told everyone there were weather bulletins and that the hurricane “was really coming and was really, really a bad one.” Seamond and her father hurried to get their groceries and to get back to their end of the island. Townspeople secured their lobster boats, their bass boats, and their cat boats.

Shortly after a brilliant sunset in an ominously green sky, Seamond’s older sister, Betty, expecting her first child, went into false labor. Opening a trunk for such emergencies, Keeper Ponsart read from a dated medical guide which admonished them to “boil water and call for someone.” Turning to Mrs. Ponsart, Keeper Ponsart invoked a higher order and said “Boil water. Call on the Lord!”

Seamond recollected that the winds and water kept coming up as the hours progressed. A single phone line 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.

Saved by a “guardian angel,” Seamond chose to stay downstairs with her sister Betty instead of going to her normal upstairs bed room. As the night progressed, the house’s chimney came crashing down on Seamond’s upstairs bed.

Assisting her father, Seamond made 50 trips up and down the stairs keeping the Cuttyhunk Lighthouse lit, the lamp being continually doused by huge waves. “Above all, we had to keep the lamp burning.”

Seamond’s thoughts eventually turned to her 12 offshore uncles in the Vineyard Lightship #73. The storm abated for about 10 minutes or so ­ and they clearly saw the lightship. Her father was so happy he shouted for joy. Then, the tumult was on again, with the heavy rain, clouds, lightning, and the noise. Citizens of nearby Westport, Massachusetts saw six red and white distress flares coming from the area of the Vineyard Lightship #73 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 wept and said, “All my uncles? All the sailors?” Her father wept openly and answered, “Yes, Seamond, they are all gone.” 8

Although the exact cause of the sinking will never be conclusively known, the Coast Guard’s own investigation reported that “as a result of a hurricane, the Vineyard Lightship #73 foundered.” (30 September 1944 ROI COTP New Bedford p. 6) Fatefully, just a few weeks prior to the storm, Coxswain Harold Flagg’s departure on leave had been delayed a few days by weather. The delay changed his expiration of liberty to 1200, 15 September 1944. (See Figure #2) Coxswain Flagg arrived at Cuttyhunk that morning along with four other returning shipmates. Their ship and shipmates were gone forever. On a gloomy train ride from New Bedford to Boston, the five original survivors of the Vineyard Lightship #73 made a pact that they would never forget their 12 friends and would someday honor their sacrifices appropriately.

V. “A Proper Place for The Vineyard Lightship #73’s Bell.” After nearly six years of searching, and almost 19 years to the day after the sinking, professional diver Brad Luther found the wreck of the Vineyard Lightship #73. Using initial promising information from a prototype side scan sonar system provided by Dr. Harold Edgerton of M.I.T., Luther explored the waters off Sow and Pigs reef on 9 September 1963.

Luther found the wreck 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.” 9 On 22 September 1963, a team of seven divers returned to the site of the wreck 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,” 10 it somehow ended up as a replacement bell for the excessed and moth­balled New Bedford Lightship at New Bedford, MA.

Incensed by the incongruity of the revered bell’s location on the decrepit and inaccessible New Bedford lightship, Harold Flagg and friends from the New England Lighthouse Foundation began a letter writing campaign to Coast Guard officials. After more than two years of frustration and only with the personal interventions of RADM Richard M. Larrabee, Commander First Coast Guard Coast Guard District Boston, a deal was struck to license the City of New Bedford officials agreed to permanently display the Vineyard Lightship #73’s bell in a publicly accessible location for generations to come. Officials agreed the proper course of action was to
hallmark the sacrifices of the men of Vineyard Lightship #73 in a commemorative ceremony at the site of the new display. On 15 September, 1999, 55 years to the day of the sinking, a debt to fallen comrades was finally and fittingly honored.

VI. Artifacts and “the process.” Harold Flagg’s friend’s most recent requests for a loan of the Vineyard Lightship #73’s bell came at a time when the service was undergoing a monumental right­sizing to 34,000 personnel, making the service the smallest it has been since the late 1960’s. The Coast Guard’s Streamlining efforts called for centralizing administrative functions for the New England area, including management of artifacts, to its Integrated Support Command (ISC), Chief of the Procurement and Supply Branch in Boston. Previously, artifact management for aids to navigation related artifacts like a lightship bell had been handled by the
same Coast Guard District operational commander who managed the active aids to navigation program. The movement of function and support personnel to the
ISC moved the process one step further away from those with a direct interest in the heritage of the artifacts.

As a direct result of the most recent effort to license the Vineyard Lightship #73’s bell to the City of New Bedford, Coast Guard operational commanders in New England have regained consultation rights to artifacts in their areas of responsibility.

VII. Conclusions. The US 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. Advertisements should be sent through appropriate media, soliciting for the testimonials of retirees with regard to the chosen memorabilia. There is little time left to capitalize on the memories of US Lightshipmen. These retirees should be “adopted” by Coast Guard units with appropriate connectivity to service memorabilia. These retirees should be treasured along with the artifacts and be integrated into unit leadership programs.

And, service policies should be recrafted to formally ensure local field commanders have a say in the disposition of some of our most precious memories. Otherwise, invaluable opportunities to educate new Coast Guardsmen will slip away and faceless, distant bureaucrats will dictate the fate of a proud service’s connections to the past.


  1. Flint, Willard: A History of U. S. Lightships, pps. 2­4
  2. Ibid
  3. Ibid p 12
  4. Life as I saw it on the VLS Oct 1942­Sept 1944, Unpublished Manuscript, 1973, Harold Flagg
  5. Ibid p. 17
  6. Unpublished manuscript Harold Flagg
  7. Appendix A, The Dragon’s Breath
  8. Testimonial Seamond Roberts March, 1999
  9. Bob Cahill, The Bell that Tolls for 12, Yankee Magazine, February 1965 p. 52
  10. Ibid p. 81