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U.S. Coast Guard Series: A Fog Shrouded Light-burne

Each month, an interesting aspect of the world’s oldest continuous maritime service will be highlighted. The men and women of the United States Coast Guard follow in the fine tradition of the brave mariners who have served before them. As sentinels and saviors of the seas, the United States Coast Guard proudly continues its commitment to honor, respect & devotion to duty to maintain their vigil – Semper Paratus.

A Fog Shrouded Light-burne
Captain Alexander Wolman took off his cover and wiped the sweat off his brow. The crossed anchors of his captain’s cover weighed heavily for sure on such a stormy night. One of the crewmen entered the bridge wing and set down a cup of hot coffee. Captain Wolman thanked him, and as the steward retreated through the bridge wing door, the whipping wind offered a brief respite of cold air into the stuffy bridge. As the frigid February frost formed along the decks and hull of his charge, the stress of the weather conditions coupled with rough storm conditions were taking their toll. As the master of the tanker Lightburne peered through the ice-covered windows of the bridge into a shroud of dense fog, he found himself silently wishing for the serene waters off of Port Arthur, Texas, his original port of departure eight days earlier on February 2, 1939. He had ordered his lookouts forward, and to report any and all sound signals. He was barely making way with his engines as he continued on his charted course to his destination of Providence, Rhode Island. Responsibility lay heavily on his mind. Not only the responsibility of the safety of his vessel and its cargo of seventy-two thousand barrels of kerosene and gasoline, but also for the safety of his officers and crew. The Lightburne, with Captain Wolman steadily easing his charge forward through the fog, carried on.

The Lightburne had been constructed by the Texas Steamship Company located in Bath, Maine. She had been completed in August of 1919 and immediately joined the United States Shipping Board fleet. Though still a relative infant within the tanker fleet, amidst the off-selling of war shipping assets, she was purchased by Texaco in 1920. The Lightburne was four hundred and sixteen feet, eight inches in length and had a fifty-six foot, one inch beam. She had a single triple-expansion steam engine and three Babcock & Wilcox water-tube boilers that provided her a top speed of eleven knots. Based on her design, she was capable of carrying seventy-six thousand plus barrels of liquid cargo.
Despite the thirty-three mile an hour winds, the area remained blanketed by thick fog. The Lightburne churned through the fog. Suddenly, the horrible sound of steel scraping across rocks was heard throughout the tanker. The Lightburne shuddered as it grounded on a rocky shoal less than a quarter of a mile from the fog-rendered useless light of the Southeast Lighthouse on the southern shore of Block Island. Word was quickly received on the bridge that the grounding had been significant. The craggy bottom had ripped open the steel hull plates. The engine room was flooding. The number four hold was also damaged. The liquid cargo of kerosene and gasoline began to spill into the waters off Block Island. Even if he was able to generate enough power to back off the rocks, the Lightburne had been mortally wounded by the grounding. Captain Wolman passed word to the radio operator. Issue the SOS. The radio operator issued the distress. Thankfully, other radio operators were listening.
Several vessels, including S.S. Thomas Tracy, and five United States Coast Guard cutters acknowledged the message and raced to the scene. Meanwhile, the Coastguardsmen at the Block Island Station realized that they were most likely the best chance the men aboard the stricken tanker had at survival. Launching their small surf boat into the harrowing darkness of crashing waves and foam, the men maneuvered through the breakers with the aid of flashlight signals from the decks of the wave swept tanker. By half-past ten at night, the surfboat pulled seventeen of the thirty-seven men of the crew into their surfboat. Instead of landing them ashore back through the maritime maelstrom which would have most likely capsized the small rescue craft, the Coastguardsmen linked up with the United States Coast Guard Cutter Active. Once the survivors were transferred to the cutter, the surfboat and its band of lifesavers returned to the pitching deck of the Lightburne and repeated their herculean heroics. Fourteen additional men had been saved. Only Captain Wolman and a handful of his officers remained aboard, fearful of giving up the tanker.
As the fearful storm raged in its intensity, the Lightburne began to feel the ill effects of her wounds. At this point, the United States Coast Guard Cutters Active, Campbell, Chelan, General Greene, and Argo, along with the S.S. Thomas Tracey, were on scene. Finally, Captain Wolman and the remaining crew realized that their lives hung in the balance as the tanker’s steel hull creaked with each crashing wave. Utilizing a rescue boat launched from the United States Coast Guard Cutter Cambell, Captain Wolhman and the remaining officers and crew were successfully pulled from the shattered star of Texas tanker. The rescue operation launched from the U.S.C.G.C. Campbell took nearly two hours.
Though the crew had been saved in total, the Lightburne remained a total potential danger to the environment and to the nearby coastline. The ruptured hull had already shipped an unknown amount of her liquid cargo into the water and the ship was a potential fire hazard. In the early morning hours, in a freak accident, the automatic flare lifebuoy was washed overboard by a passing wave. As it landed in the water, it ignited. Thankfully, due to effective firefighting and shifting winds, the fire ignited gasoline in the water posed no harm to the Lightburne.
Efforts to salve the tanker were ultimately dashed. Instead, the tanker’s holds were lightened over the following months. Her steel skeletal remains were then towed into deeper water. With dynamite strategically placed aboard, the Lightburne was demolished as a danger of navigation and sank to the bottom thirty-feet below. The tanker was no more. After a thorough investigation into the grounding, Captain Alexander Wolman was admonished for failing to take soundings in a near coastal navigable waterway in fog-shrouded conditions. Despite his censure for his professional missteps, he did not lose his license and ultimately was placed in command of another Texaco ship.
The Lightburne rescue of February 10th and 11th, 1939 highlighted the very tenets of the heroics and professionalism of the Coastguardsmen that manned the small boat station surf boat and the cutters that responded to the hails of distress. Despite the apparent dangers to their own lives, they rushed through the horrific surf conditions to affect the rescue of thirty-seven souls. Unable to take off the entirety of the crew due to the size of their vessel, the Coastguardsmen braved the torrent and risked their own lives again, to alight those in danger. Working in coordination with their fellow Coastguardsmen aboard the larger assets on scene, the entire complement of the Lightburne, her hull impaled on the craggy shoreline of Block Island, as true sentinels and saviors of the seas.