A group of people standing on the steps of the Coast Guard station at Stone Harbor, NJ

Coast Guard station at Stone Harbor, NJ as it is today. Note the watch tower with windows looking out to sea as well as both directions up and down the shore. The double garage doors to the right are where the surf boats were housed.

The Twinlights Lighthouse was erected in 1862 on the highest point on the Atlantic Coast for a thousand miles each way. It replaced several earlier structures whose purpose was to guide mariners safely into New York Harbor. Growing up on the Jersey shore in its shadow, I heard a lot of stories about shipwrecks in the area going back hundreds of years. Before modern navigation equipment, ships coming from Europe to New York would have to cross 3,000 miles of open ocean before they caught sight of land. With only a compass and a sextant to tell them where they were – and a lot of times during foul weather or at night – they stood the chance of running aground before they could see the shore. There were lighthouses at various points along the coast, but it was quite possible to mistake one for another and to be many miles off course. In addition, back in the 1700 and 1800s, there were gangs of pirates known as “wreckers” who would deliberately lure ships aground so they could rob passengers and steal cargo. One of their tricks was to hang a lantern on an oxcart and walk it along the beach. A ship out at sea would mistake it for another ship making a safe passage through a channel, and following it, would possibly be wrecked.

The government finally formed the US Life Saving Service, with stations every few miles along the shore. These were manned by hearty seamen and equipped with such lifesaving gear as lifeboats that could be launched through the surf, and canons that could fire a line out to a stranded ship where they would rig a “britches buoy” to take passengers and crew ashore. During the day, a watch was kept on the shore from a tower located atop the station. At night and in foul weather a man would patrol along the shore toward the next station. Halfway there he would meet up with the man coming the other way from the next station. The two would exchange numbered tokens to prove to the watch captain that they had patrolled the entire section of shoreline.

The Life Saving Service worked heroically for many years saving thousands of lives. In the period from 1871 to 1914 alone, they assisted 28,121 vessels and rescued or aided 178,741 people. Their unofficial motto was “You must put out. You don’t necessarily have to come back.”

In 1915, the US Lifesaving Service merged with the US Revenue Cutter Service to become the US Coast Guard. At the Twinlights Museum, in Highlands, NJ there is an excellent exhibit dedicated to the early days of this service. It contains examples of the equipment they used as well as a pictorial history.

Most Americans don’t realize that during World War II, the Coast Guard protected our shores from the threat of German submarines, and also escorted our convoys of Liberty Ships across the Atlantic to supply England, and up into the Arctic Ocean to northern Russia. Though we did lose many of our ships from the convoys, the saying went that “We could build Liberty Ships faster than the Germans could sink them.” Conversely, the US Navy and Coast Guard could sink German submarines faster than they could build them. By the end of the war, the submarine threat had all but disappeared.

I was stationed on a ship out of Boston as a Navy seaman. When we were in port, the most convenient place to go on liberty was the Enlisted Men’s Club at the Boston Army Base, which was adjacent to the South Boston Annex, Boston Naval Shipyard. There would always be a bunch of Army, Navy, Marines and Coast Guardsmen at the bar and the jokes would fly fast and heavy. Two that I remember are as follows:

Why do you have to be over six feet tall to join the Coast Guard? So you can walk ashore if your ship sinks.

The second one is the story of an aircraft carrier heading north that spots a light way off in the distance ahead of them. Then the bridge receives a radio message: “Ship approaching from the south, alter your course 10 degrees to starboard.” The carrier replies “No, you alter your course 10 degrees to starboard.” This went back and forth a few times until the Officer of the Deck gets on the radio and says: “This is John Jones, and I am a Lieutenant Commander in the United States Navy, and this is the USS Ronald Reagan, the most powerful aircraft carrier in the world. Alter your course 10 degrees to starboard.” The reply comes back “This is Harry Smith, and I am a Seaman Apprentice in the United States Coast Guard, and this is a lighthouse. Alter your course 10 degrees to starboard.”

Photo: courtesy American Legion Magazine