Between wind, weather and wildlife, the crew at Cape Sarichef Lighthouse and LORAN station (Long-Range Aids to Navigation) on Alaska’s Unimak Island seldom lacked for excitement. Among the dangers faced were those of bringing supplies ashore.
Just off the Alaska Peninsula, Unimak Island separates
the Pacific Ocean and the Bering Sea. Merging of the warm Pacific currents with the cold waters of the Bering Sea creates weather extremes seldom forgotten by those who have experienced them.
Although green with knee-high grass in the summer, the landscape contains not a single tree. Volcanoes, lava beds, cinder cones, swiftly flowing rivers and a rugged beauty one can appreciate only after leaving, mark the island terrain.
For many years after completion of the original lighthouse in 1904, supply ships appeared infrequently, often only once a year with all goods ferried ashore in small boats. Perishable items remained scarce.
In 1950, the Coast Guard rebuilt Cape Sarichef Light and established a LORAN station. A larger crew and more powerful generators increased the need for fuel and supplies.
When I arrived in 1954, we received fresh food every two weeks, weather permitting, on flights from the Coast Guard Air Station at Kodiak. Reeves Aleutian Airways provided mail service once a week, again depending on weather. Coast Guard cutters stopped by several times a year with fuel, food,
electronics gear, and spare parts.
With no harbor or dock, most supplies came ashore in our two LVTs (landing vehicle tracked). The amphibians were open-topped except for the coxswain’s compartment, with a cargo ramp in the stern. Flat-head Cadillac engines mounted in each sponson provided motive power to the cupped steel tracks. While the LVT’s gross vehicle weight ratings stood at 13 tons on land, we tried to limit our cargo to no more than 5,500 pounds in the water.
Ships often stood offshore for days waiting for weather to subside enough for us to get through the surf. Once we began offloading cargo, work never ceased until we finished the job, it got too dark to see, or the weather soured. Cutters often assisted by using their boats. As soon as an LVT or boat came through the surf, we dumped everything on the black sand beach and headed out for another load. With up to 19 hours of daylight in the summer, our workdays ran long. After the ship left, we took a more leisurely pace in moving cargo to the station.
Our main beach for lightering operations lay two miles east of the cape beneath a 75-foot-high bluff. We confined our operations to a section of smooth sand where the waves often didn’t break until just off shore. Fifty or 60 yards to each side, breakers began a quarter mile out.
Most of our cargo arrived during warmer months, but
one time, a ship delivered electronics gear on a cold February day. When we charged into the surf, frozen water clouded the windshield instantly. As soon as we’d cleared
the heavy waves, one of the crew leaned over the top and scraped off the ice. Upon arrival at the ship, we found crew members on deck with hammers chipping frozen seawater off handrails and rigging.
It wasn’t unusual for spray from several waves to come over the top of an LVT before we got to calmer water offshore. Our main fear was of broaching. An LVT has no sealed compartments for buoyancy so if it rolled far enough to ship water, it would likely sink instantly.
The vehicle/vessel is steered with control sticks similar to
a crawler tractor. On land, it works as advertised; in the water, it’s a slow and iffy process, taking 40 or more yards to complete a180-degree turn.
One day, while coaching a new coxswain, the current turned us almost parallel to the beach soon after clearing the surf. We began taking heavy spray over the side, still churning toward bad water, trying to turn. I figured we’d be swimming if a big breaker hit on our beam.
After my coxswain got the craft pointed out to sea again, a series of waves bore down on us like rolling avalanches of water. The effect felt similar to driving into a snow bank. We rammed through three breakers before reaching calmer seas. I looked back to see our barrel chocks floating atop calf-deep water in the cargo compartment.
On October 18, the Coast Guard Cutter Bittersweet arrived with canned goods, various supplies and 55-gallon drums of fuel. We made two trips with the LVTs before our commanding officer, Lieutenant Junior Grade Lawrence O. Hamilton beached the LVTs due to increasingly hazardous seas.
The next morning, whitecaps extended to the horizon so I figured we’d have no boat operations that day. About
mid- morning Bittersweet called and said they’d found a sheltered cove a couple of miles south of our airstrip at Sennett Point. In minutes, we started overland with a convoy consisting of two LVTs, a six-by-six Diamond T truck, a Dodge Power Wagon pickup and a Jeep towing a small trailer.
The road wound up through a mountain pass between Pogromni volcano and a tall cinder cone. As soon as we started into the foothills, snow began falling. It took a little more than an hour to reach the beach, and sure enough the surf was
only 3 or 4 feet high. However, a half mile offshore where the ship awaited us, Unimak Pass looked wild. Bittersweet tugged at her anchor chain, ocean spray dampening her decks.
The surf wasn’t bad but we had so much water coming over our bow from two hundred yards out that we often couldn’t
see the ship. It felt like transiting class III river rapids in a kayak. As we eased alongside the 180 foot buoy tender, the vessel rolled so wildly that one minute, we looked across the buoy deck, then seconds later, at the red hull beneath the water line. Each LVT had truck tires hanging on the port side for fenders to prevent metal to metal contact as the vessels surged together.
The old saying, “One hand for the ship and one hand
for yourself,” echoed through my head. One could hardly stand without something to hold onto. My greatest fear was
a pair of wildly swinging fuel drums crushing one of
my crew. Thankfully Bittersweet’s boom operator was an experienced pro.
Finally with only one load left, Herb King, coxswain of the other LVT, volunteered to make the last trip. We all felt relieved when the amphibian pulled away from the ship. However, our relief turned to extreme concern moments later when the LVT struck a submerged rock a hundred yards off shore. After a loud crash, one side of the vessel tilted up and the whole thing almost toppled over. Steel tracks chattered against the underwater obstacle then the LVT skewed in a shallow arc, slipped free and churned toward the beach.
By the time we finished loading cargo onto the vehicles, all signs of daylight had faded into a cloud-scudded night sky. Between snow squalls and ocean spray, we were numb with cold, so our commanding officer let us stop at the airstrip and thaw out over coffee.
Hamilton designated me to lead the convoy back over the pass to Cape Sarichef because my LVT had headlights. About the time we started out, the snowfall grew heavier.
Near the top of the pass, grinding along in my lowest gear, I had my face almost against the glass peering into wind-whipped snow slanting through my headlight beams, when suddenly a hand began waving in my windshield. It didn’t take far to stop at two miles per hour.
The Dodge Power Wagon lost traction on the steep grade, so the passenger ran ahead and waved me down. In a few minutes we rigged a chain and I towed the truck to the top of the pass.
It took two-and-a-half hours to cover the 12 miles from Sennett Point to Cape Sarichef. Thankfully, Emmett Thompson, our cook, had a hot meal waiting for us. Good food helped us to warm up after a cold day of bringing supplies ashore for Cape Sarichef.
This story appeared in the
June 2005 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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