U.S. Coast Guard Lightships

& Those of the U.S. Lighthouse Service


Collision at Sea
The Sinking of U.S.C.G. Lightship RELIEF LV 78 / WAL 505

 

A photo of the Light Vessel 78

Survivor Bobbie R. Pierce, Boatswain's Mate 3rd. Class, recalls the collision in his own words.  As told to J. F. "Jay" McCarthy with excerpts from the Official U.S.C.G. Joint Marine Board of Investigation into the sinking.


Lightships ... The little Red Lightships were often called floating lighthouses.  They were stationed where it would not be practicable to place a lighthouse.  Most were stationed in exposed and dangerous locations, such as, far out to sea in deep water; close in to shore with soft sandy bottoms or treacherous / shifting shoals, in busy shipping channels or wherever maritime needs dictated.  Fog, ice floes, collisions and severe violent storms were some of the dangers Lightships and their crews faced.  When the weather deteriorated and nature's fury erupted into mountainous seas with raging winds that drove other ships to seek safe harbor and refuge out of harms way, duty demanded lightships to remain at anchor on their dangerous designated stations.  For you see, as an aid to navigation, other maritime forces depended on the fixed position of the lightships fog horn, flashing light beacon and radio beacon to help them find their way. Lightships served in the days before satellites and GPS.  Quite often, ships would home in on the lightship's radio beacon (sometimes steering directly at the lightship) to get a "final true bearing" before heading out on their trans-oceanic voyage, or used it as a landfall on their way back to port.  Often, the defenseless lightship, anchored and incapable of avoiding a collision, paid the ultimate price for remaining in this hazardous and vulnerable position.
The following is a true story of one such collision.  We will tell the whole story ... pre-collision, collision and post-collision ... we will draw mostly from excerpts of the Official U.S.C.G. Joint Marine Board of Investigation into the collision between the SS Green Bay and the USCG Lightship RELIEF 78 / WAL 505, and the survivors story, as told largely in the words and memories of RELIEF LV 78/505 survivor Bobbie R. Pierce, BM3.  We will attempt to tell this story in chronological order, with a view into what was occurring on both ships during this timeframe ...

Date: 24 June 1960.
Location: AMBROSE Channel Lightship Station ...

The station was located in the Atlantic Ocean at the extreme eastern edge of Lower New York Bay at the head of Ambrose Channel, approximately 19-20 miles from the tip of Manhattan, New York City, and positioned nine miles southeast of Rockaway Point, New York, and 10 miles east of Sandy Hook, New Jersey .... at 40º-27.1' north latitude and 73º-49.4' west longitude.
Weather: Dense fog / zero visibility
Vessel: SS Green Bay                     Vessel: USCG Relief LV 78 / WAL 505
Type: Freighter-single screw             Type: Lightship - single screw
Built: 1943; Oakland, California         Built: 1904; Camden, New Jersey
Length: 438' 9"                                Length: 129' 0"
Tonnage: 6,125 gross                      Tonnage: 566.0 gross

In the early morning hours of 24 June 1960 the United States cargo vessel Green Bay was outbound from Port Newark, New Jersey to Bombay, India and the Middle East with 8,100 tons of general cargo.  After clearing the Narrows and entering Lower New York Bay and Ambrose Channel, visibility decreased to zero in fog and remained so up until the time of collision.
During this same time period, the U.S. Coast Guard Lightship Relief LV 78 / WAL 505, was anchored on AMBROSE Channel Lightship Station.  She was relieving Ambrose Lightship WLV 613 which was in USCG Base St. George, Staten Island, New York for overhaul.  The vessel was anchored with a 7,500 lb. mushroom anchor and 600 feet of chain out.  The fog horn and mast light were ON.  The radio beacon was operating properly.

All Times are Approximate:
0345 ... aboard Relief LV 78/505 ... I, Bobbie R. Pierce, entered the wheelhouse to relieve the mid-watch from Seaman Blaine Kuhn.  I discussed the events of the previous watch with Kuhn and reviewed / made log book entries.  A dense fog covered the area, there was a light wind, and the sea was calm with a slight swell.  Visibility was zero.  The fog horn was on; the mast light beacon and radio beacon were all working properly.  I then relieved Kuhn and assumed the deck watch.
0400 ... aboard Green Bay... the Green Bay was drifting on a heading of 035º True with engines stopped, when the Pilot Boat Launch pulled alongside.  Before the Pilot departed, the Master took a radio direction finder bearing on Ambrose Lightship and a radar bearing was taken by the Pilot.  Both bearings were determined to be 070º True.  The Pilot estimated that at the time he took the radar bearing the range was 3/4 of a mile.  The Master, on the other hand, estimated the lightship to be 1 1/2 miles distant, but this was not verified by any means.
0403 ... aboard Green Bay ... The pilot disembarked.
0404 ... aboard Green Bay ... The engines were ordered to slow ahead (3.75 knots).
0405 ... aboard Green Bay ... The engines were ordered to half ahead (7.5 knots), and the helmsman was told to come right to 070º True, in order to "head the vessel directly towards the LIGHTSHIP".
0406 ... aboard Relief LV 78/505 ...  I went aft on the weather deck, to the radio beacon shack to monitor the radio beacon. On the way I heard a distant fog horn on the starboard side.  I couldn't see a thing.
0408 ... aboard Green Bay ... The bow lookout heard the lightship's foghorn.
0408 ... aboard Relief LV 78/505... As I was returning to the wheelhouse, I saw a big black outline with a dim white light heading straight for us on the starboard side.  I ran back to the wheelhouse and yelled down the ladder for the duty engineman, Edward J. Rothaug EN3, to come up on deck.
At this time, Rothaug was just below the wheelhouse on the Mess (second) deck, had a cup of coffee in his hand, and was on his way up the ladder to the wheelhouse to check on the weather.  Rothaug quickly agreed with me, "a ship was headed directly at us and we were going to be hit".
0409 ... aboard Relief LV 78/505... As I went forward to sound the General Alarm (siren).  Rothaug ran down below to wake up Joseph E. Tamalonis, Boatswain's Mate Chief.  BMC Tamalonis was Officer in Charge at the time, as the Commanding Officer, Boatswain Warrant-1, Joseph Young, was ashore on leave.
0409 ... aboard Green Bay... The loom of the lightship's light was sighted dead ahead by the lookout and Chief Mate who was also on the forecastle head.  The Chief Mate relayed this information to the bridge by telephone.  The Master upon receiving the report of the loom dead ahead went to the wing of the bridge but could see nothing.  Moments later the thin loom of the light was visible ahead whereupon he ordered the rudder hard right to 090º True to clear the lightship and the engines FULL AHEAD (11.25 knots), to increase the swing.  According to the helmsman the vessel had not yet been steadied on 070º True when this order was received.
Within seconds the light ahead became intense and realizing the lightship was closer than he had originally thought the Master rang up "FULL ASTERN" ...
By then it was too late!!
0410 ... aboard Relief LV 78/505...Of the nine crewmen aboard, seven had been sound asleep.  After I sounded the general alarm, within what I feel, was no more than a minute, all hands mustered on the weather deck (a few arrived wearing only their skivvies) ... The exception was Tamalonis, BMC and Rothaug, EN3, who were still below deck.
As we could see the impending disaster emerge before us, each man was fully awake, alert and ready to spring into whatever action was necessary to save both ship and shipmates.  The discipline was excellent.  There was no panic.  Survival instincts kicked in!
0411 ... COLLISION

Aboard Relief LV 78/505 ... Topside, on the weather deck: We all braced ourselves, as we watched in horror, the much taller bow of the freighter first strike and "splinter" the motor life boat, then strike our starboard side, just aft of amidships between the letters "R" and "E".  We were struck on almost a 90º angle and rolled about 15º to port as a result of the impact.  Directly afterwards, I did a quick head count of all hands on deck; all were OK, with no injuries.
Below, on the second deck starboard passageway: Rothaug was on his way to wake the Chief when the impact occurred.  He witnessed the "bow of the Green Bay penetrate inside the hull of the Relief," then as the Green Bay backed out, large volumes of water poured in.

Chief Tamalonis awakened by the general alarm, was making his way from his bunk in the stern when the collision occurred.  After the impact, he went forward to determine whether all hands had been awakened or if anyone else had been injured.  Chief Tamalonis had received minor injuries to his knee and hip. ... All hands had been accounted for and there had been no other injuries.
Aboard Green Bay ... Shortly after impact, the Green Bay picked up sternway and backed clear of the Relief into the fog. Visual contact with the Relief was lost.

Aboard Relief LV 78/505 ... Chief Tamalonis then checked to ascertain the extent of damage.  He determined the impact on the starboard side resulted in a jagged hole, at least 12 feet long and at least 2 feet wide, from what was visible to him.  Also, the engine room was rapidly flooding and the ship was sinking! S hortly thereafter, the generator ceased operation.  Almost at once, "all the lights went out, the radio died" and the ship changed from a "live vibrant active ship" with the fog horn braying and all the associated normal sounds, to a "dark, strange eerie silence".
The only sound now was the sea rushing in through the gash in her side.

Take Note: The Relief having been built in 1904 was built without much attention to the subject of watertight compartments. The engine room was mostly one big open space. The (02) deck above the engine room was just iron grating; all open and exposed to the (01) weather deck skylights, from which light filtered down through the open grating into the engine room. It was impossible to make the engine room space water tight!

"The damage was extensive and the flooding so swift, there was no hope to save the ship".
ABANDON SHIP:

Chief Tamalonis then passed the word to abandon ship.  With the motor life boat damaged, it was decided that it would take too long to put the pulling boat over the side.  The Chief ordered me to launch the "self-inflating rubber life raft" over the port side, aft.  Meanwhile, the men who were missing their pants, rushed below deck to retrieve them and their wallets.  Without delay, they returned topside to assist in launching the life raft.

0416 ... aboard Relief LV 78/505...After launching the life raft, I put the Jacobs ladder over the side and promptly climbed down into the raft, followed one at a time down the ladder by the remaining crew.  The Relief by this time had sunk to the point that she was down by the stern, as the last man off the ship; Chief Tamalonis, didn't use the Jacobs ladder.  "He just stepped directly from the deck onto the raft".  We paddled away as fast as was humanly possible with our hands ...
The four raft paddles were fastened down to avoid there being washed away during launching, the skippers idea was to get away quickly without taking time to unfasten them ... The ship was sinking so rapidly, we feared the "undertow / whirlpool" would take us under, or if she rolled over, her masts or rigging might have struck us.

The Relief sank so swiftly, there was "NO TIME TO SEND a MAY DAY", or to save anything.  No Log Books or personal effects were salvaged by the crew.  Only what each man had on him.
0417 ... aboard Green Bay ... Stopped engines.
0421 ... aboard Green Bay ... Let go the port anchor.
0421 ... aboard Relief LV 78/505 survivor's life raft ...

We witnessed "USCG LIGHTSHIP RELIEF LV 78 / WAL 505 SINK" and disappear beneath the waves, approximately 10 minutes after the Green Bay collided with her.  The Relief 78/505, being the gallant lady she was, went quietly to her watery grave.  She did not pull us under, nor roll over as we had feared.  Rather, she remained upright, sank stern first, and went down on a roughly 30-35 degree angle with the bow sinking last.

After the Relief sank, and the adrenaline rush subsided, for a brief time, we felt temporarily paralyzed and just drifted in silence, each of the nine survivors's to his own thoughts.  We were adrift in dense fog in one of the busiest shipping channels in the world, our ship had just been sunk, and we had no idea what ship had just collided with us.

Shortly afterward, we heard the Green Bay drop anchor, but we couldn't see her in the heavy fog.  Her crew was yelling to us and sounding their horn and bell.  We yelled back, blew our hand whistles and Chief Tamalonis, fired flares in an attempt to raise attention to our position.  We kept paddling towards the freighters sounds.  Nevertheless, due to the thick fog, we were unable to locate the Green Bay.

0515 ... aboard Relief LV 78/505 survivor's life raft ... During all this time, I stayed fairly calm ... However, after about an hour of paddling and drifting, a ship appeared out of the dense fog and almost ran us down.  That ship was the "Ocean Liner QUEEN ELIZABETH!"  She towered over us and came so close; I could have spit on her side.  Chief Tamalonis fired off about 30 flares and the crew blew whistles and yelled in earnest after that near miss.  We were able to read her name as she slowly passed by us.  She did not stop!

The consensus among us was, the "Queen Elizabeth's crew" must have all been looking forward and "they never saw us or our flares".  Her wake rocked our life raft back and forth afterwards ... As a result, "I got really scared and life threatening fear settled in among the crew on the raft"!
0530 ... aboard Relief LV 78/505 survivor's life raft...

Around this time, a motor lifeboat from the Green Bay, located us and towed us over to the freighter Green Bay.  Shortly thereafter, the USCG Harbor Entrance Patrol Boat, CG-95308 arrived and took us aboard.  The 95-footer then headed back to USCG Base St. George.

0615 ... The white hulled CGC Yeaton (WSC-156), equipped with flashing light, radio beacon and fog horn, took up the vigil, and substituted for the lightship until Ambrose Lightship WLV 613 could return to station.  Coast Guard officials expressed concern for the Yeaton, because its 125-foot hull was all white and it might not be seen by moving vessels in fog.
0745 ... USCG Harbor Entrance Patrol Boat, CG-95308 arrived at USCG Base, St. George Staten Island, New York with the survivors from Relief Lightship LV 78 / WAL 505.
... Later that day, CGC Firebush (WAGL-393), a buoy tender, located the sunken Relief LV 78 / WAL 505.  The Relief was located by the sight of the extreme tip of its foremast showing above the water surface.  The sunken vessel was marked by a suitable lighted gong wreck buoy.
1600 ... Under emergency orders, USCG Lightship Ambrose WLV 613, under tow from the CGC Tamaroa (WAT-166) departed USCG Base St. George enroute back out to AMBROSE Lightship Station.

Ambrose Lightship WLV 613, engines were being overhauled in Base St. George when the Relief was sunk; consequently she could not get underway under her own power.  

Note: Yes, that's the same CGC Tamaroa that 31 years later on the night of 28 October 1991, rescued the Air National Guard helicopter crew that crashed into the sea during the height of the infamous "Perfect Storm", off the New England coast.

POST COLLISION INFORMATION:
Survivors: No survivors leave was granted.  Each man was issued a new sea bag, with uniforms, etc.  Compensation for personal items lost, varied by individual.  I don't believe anyone received more than $500.00 in recompense.  Within a week, one at a time, all survivors were reassigned northward to either Massachusetts or Connecticut.  Some went to Boston, and were assigned to weather ships, others went to buoy tenders.  All received ship board duty.  The exception was for myself.  I remained at Base St. George for three months pulling gate guard duty.

After three months lightship Relief LV 84 / WAL 509, was brought up from the Jacksonville, Florida 6th District.  She assumed the duties of Relief LV 78 / WAL 505.  Myself and CW01 (BOSN) Joseph Young, former commanding officer of the Relief 78/505 were re-assigned to this ship.  "We went back out to AMBROSE Lightship station."  I had apprehension and mixed feelings about returning to that station, but stayed on the Relief LV 84/509 until my discharge on 11 August 1961.

Underwater Inspection:
5 July 1960...A U.S. Navy diver made a dive to the Relief.  Without entering the Relief, his underwater inspection indicated a jagged hole in the shell plating just aft of frame 29.  Starting at the weather deck a hole at least 2 feet wide extended downward to the second deck.  Below the second deck, the hole narrowed and ranged in widths from approximately one feet six inches down to approximately five or six inches for a distance downward of approximately 12 feet.  The keel area was not visible.  The rivets holding the frame had let go ...

Commandant's Action on Joint Marine Board of investigation:
"It is considered that this casualty was caused principally by the GREEN BAY being directly headed toward the LIGHTSHIP in zero visibility.  Contributing to the casualty was the failure of the vessel to fix her position either by radar or radio direction finder bearing before setting her course.  It is considered that half speed under the existing visibility was an immoderate speed and that the Master was negligent in permitting his vessel to be navigated at such speed.  This negligence contributed to the collision between the GREEN BAY and the RELIEF and the subsequent sinking of the latter vessel ..."

Relief LV 78 / WAL 505 today:
The Relief is currently sitting upright and is basically intact in about 110 feet of water on the original AMBROSE Channel Lightship station.  Her masts have been knocked down to eliminate a potential hazard to navigation. After over 43 years under water, the ravages of time have taken their toll.  The wooden wheelhouse, wooden radio beacon shack and wooden deck have all deteriorated and just about disappeared.  The wreck is heavily overgrown with marine life.  Salvagers have long since removed anything of value.  The ship's bell and one of her 60-foot masts are but two of the many items salvaged.
She has been picked clean ... 

Some thoughts on LIGHTSHIP RELIEF LV 78 / WAL 505:
During her 56-year life span, she served the U.S. Lighthouse Service (LV 78) till 1939, thereafter the U.S. Coast Guard (WAL 505) and her generations of crews well.  She endured all the hardships lightships faced on a daily basis, weathered storms, two world wars and fulfilled her maritime duties.  She took care of and protected her crews, except, as history tells it, for one sad exception.  That incident occurred when the whaleboat (small boat) was trying to transfer mail to the passing steamer City of Atlanta in July 1913.  The five Lightship crewmen manning the whaleboat were drowned when run down by the steamer.
Relief, in her final night afloat, after suffering a fatal jagged hole in her starboard side, through which the ocean poured in non stop, stayed afloat long enough for her nine man crew to safely disembark.  She is fondly remembered by all that served aboard her.
Jay McCarthy

A photo of the survivors of the sinking of Light Vessel 78

Click here for more photos of life aboard LV-78 / WAL-505 before her tragic end.

Status of Survivors:
In January 2003, Doug Bingham, Historian for the USCG Lightship Sailors Association, Inc., through an extensive internet and telephone search, located 7 of the 9 survivors ...
They are pictured below on 24 June 1960, left to right...
Updated as of December 2003, current status and residence locations:
Bobbie R. Pierce, BM3 ... is now retired and residing in Valentines, Virginia.
Blaine I. Kuhn, SN ... residing in Newcastle, Delaware.
Sidney Kyle jr., SN ... residing in San Marcos, Texas.
Robert E. Lawrence, CS3 ... as of the late 1990's, resided with his sister in Norfolk, Virginia.  In 2003, attempts to locate him were unsuccessful.
Eugene Murray EN1 ... residing in Pulaski, New York.
Edward Rothaug, EN3 ... resides in Hillsboro, Oregon.
John L. Uhl, FN ... residing in Walpole, Massachusetts.
Charles D. Sullivan, SN ... unable to locate ... last known residence in 1960, was Brooklyn, New York.
Joseph E. Tamalonis, BMC ... retired after 31 years from USCG as a Commander ... passed away, March 2003, Bandon, OR.

Other Information:
Relief lightship nomenclature provided by Edmund "Lee" Burbage, BMCM USCG (Ret.).
Lee Burbage ............ served aboard Relief, February 1957 - May 1958.
J. F. "Jay" McCarthy ...... served aboard Relief, 24 April 1957 - 23 April 1959.
Bobbie R. Pierce ...... served aboard Relief, 06 Dec. 1957 - 24 June 1960.

INFORMATIVE DATA RELATED TO LIGHTSHIPS:
There is an old saying in the United States Coast Guard:  "The rule book says you've got to go out; it doesn't say anything about coming back!"  In the era from 1820 thru 1983, historical documentation shows ... 10 U.S. Lightships have gone out to sea and have not come back ... They were lost to storms, ice and collisions. Also, one was sunk by a German Submarine in 1918, another by Confederates in 1862 ... Many others "suffered major damage from storms and survived".  There were frequent minor bumps, side swipes and near misses ... Records indicate: "150 serious collisions resulting in major damage occurred where LIGHTSHIPS did not sink".  In the 25 years prior to the sinking of Relief LV 78 / WAL 505 on 24 June 1960 on AMBROSE Station.  Documentation shows:
"AMBROSE Station Lightships had brushes with disasters on 3 notable occasions".
13 September 1935, a lightship was rammed and damaged by the Grace Liner Santa Barbara.  No damage assessment or Lightship # provided. Probably was LV 111, she served from 1932 to 1952 as Ambrose Lightship.  If not LV 111, then it was Relief LV 78, relieved Ambrose during that time period.  
13 January 1950, Lightship 111 was "brushed" in a heavy fog by an unidentified vessel, and lost a spare anchor and suffered damage to her radio antenna in the collision.
28 March 1950 (11 weeks later), Lightship 111 was rammed and her hull punctured by the Grace Line vessel Santa Monica. The collision occurred in a dense fog.
Over 50 LIGHTSHIP SAILORS have been lost at sea.

THE END OF AN ERA:
In 1983 the last U.S. lightship weighed anchor and sailed back into port and into history.
Modern maritime technology through the use of light towers, huge buoys, satellites and GPS are but some of the replacements for these great ships.  Of the over 180 U.S. lightships that sailed the sea's, from 1820 thru 1983, only about 15 or 16 are left.  Of those, about 11 or 12 (mostly in maritime museums) stand the best chance of survival.  The remainder are endangered and are being sold or are in various stages of deterioration.
The USCG Lightship Sailors Association, Inc. ... www.uscglightshipsailors.org ... an association of Lightship Sailors and Lightship buffs, dedicated to keeping the memories of " LIGHTSHIPS and their Crews" history alive, is working diligently to help save these historic ships.

References:
All references regarding the SS Green Bay, the underwater inspection and Commandant's Action, were excerpts from the Official USCG Joint Marine Board of Investigation ... dated 03 August 1960 ... This report can be found at www.webandwire.com/coastguardmaritimecasualties 6/24/60.
The majority of references about the Relief LV 78 / WAL 505 on 24 June 1960 and the survivor's post-collision information were from the words and memories of, Bobbie R. Pierce.
All other references are excerpts from newspaper articles of that time, A History of U.S. Lightships by Willard Flint, U.S. Coast Guard Historians Office, New Jersey Scuba Diving ... and various other sources.
"There are three kinds of people:
 those that are alive,
 those that are dead,
 and those that are at sea."
    Anacharsis, Athens 594


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