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In the Shadow of the Lighthouse: Lighthouses of the South Atlantic

World War II and the U-Boats in the Outer Banks

The Outer Banks changed nicknames from "The Graveyard of the Atlantic" to "Torpedo Junction" as German U-Boats sank countless U.S. tankers in the early months of 1942. According to Roberts (Lighthouse News, Vol. 1, Number 4, p. 1-2) there were more ships downed off Cape Hatteras in 1942 than at Pearl Harbor in 1941. Many of these were oil tankers that brought much needed oil to the northeast to supply industries vital to the war effort. Researchers say that 60-80 is a modest estimate of the American ships sunk off the immediate Outer Banks in 1942. Writer Homer Hickam, Jr., documents the German Operation Paukenschlag (Drumroll) and the naval battles in the area in his tale "TORPEDO JUNCTION".

In the Insider’s Guide to North Carolina’s Outer Banks (p. 168-180), there is a dramatic story of the sinking of the German U-85 by the U.S.S. Roper off Bodie Island. (The author reports that as of 1991, Captain Hamilton Howe lived in Winston-Salem, North Carolina and Captain Kenneth Tebo lived in Falls Church, Virginia.)

World War II Terrorism in Ponte Vedra, Florida (near St. Augustine Light)

On June 17, 1942, four German saboteurs landed from a submarine in Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida, reportedly with the intention of demolishing U.S. ammunition plants and other acts of terrorism. (This was coupled with a landing in Long Island.) The four were executed for espionage in Washington, D.C. just two months later.

Heroism at the African-American Life Saving Station at Pea Island

The Pea Island Light Station, about 40 miles from Cape Hatteras, was manned in the late 19th Century by the only all African-American crew in the service. On October 11, 1896, the schooner E.S. Newman grounded two miles from the life station during a massive hurricane. Surfman Theodore Meekins was on duty, spotted the distress signal, and trudged through two miles of quicksand conditions, after warning his keeper, Richard Etheridge. The nine passengers on board the stranded ship, included six crewmen, the captain, his wife and three-year old son. Meekins tied a strong rope around himself and a fellow lifesaver to lead the human safety line to the stranded crew and passengers. The Keeper and the rest of the crew joined Meekins to battle the raging waves and chilling waters to rescue all the passengers. The crew was recognized for its bravery in the post Civil War south. However, in the spring of 1995, Kate Burkhart, a young student from North Carolina, wrote to Senator Jesse Helms to request that they be honored and she started a process that culminated in a March 1996 Awards Ceremony in Washington.

Family members of the crew received certificates at the ceremony. The last surviving surfman of the Pea Island crew, eighty-two year old William Bowser was present, in addition to Commander Stephen Rochon of the Coast Guard, researchers David Wright and David Zoby, and Kate Burkhart.

The Civil War -- Destruction and Rebuilding of Southern Lighthouses

Many of the Southern lights were destroyed by Confederate troops who were afraid they would offer aid to Federal troops. As a result many were rebuilt after the Civil War and are in excellent condition. Some of these lights include:

  • Cape Hatteras -- lens and lighting apparatus damaged by Confederates; rebuilt in 1873
  • Ocracoke Light - lens destroyed by Confederates in 1861
  • Jupiter Inlet -- lens put out by Confederates in 1860
  • Tybee Island -- partially destroyed by Confederates in 1862; rebuilt in 1867 with 54’ added to tower
  • St. Simons -- tower and keeper’s house destroyed in 1862 by departing Confederate troops. New tower completed in 1872, thirty feet away from original site.
  • Cockspur Island was darkened by the War, but escaped damage.

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Key Largo’s 7,000 Crocodile Lake National Wildlife Refuge boasts America’s only crocodile. In 1994, a new habitat or "crocominium," was developed along an elevated Card Sound Road, with a series of 14 shallow ponds stocked with fish and crabs and connecting 4’ deep sections dotted with peat and sand mounds for basking and eggs. There’s a host of other protected animals there as well.


Ernest Hemingway House Museum

At 907 Whitehead Street, is a stone’s throw away from the Lighthouse. It was the author’s home from 1931 to 1961, and wrote For Whom the Bell Tolls, A Farewell to Arms and several other books while there. The house and gardens are open for tours. The pool, which cost $20,000 to build, still has a penny stuck in it, which Hemingway threw when he learned the cost, saying "Here, take the last penny I’ve got."

Sunset Celebration at Mallory Dock

A daily colorful "happening" every evening as locals and tourists gather to watch the spectacular sunset -- the sun is a fiery orange ball that disappears into the blue-green waters of the Gulf. Jugglers, musicians, fortune tellers, mimes and other street entertainers add to the street ambience, while food and other vendors hawk wares.

Key West Cemetery

Filling 21 acres in the heart of the historic district, this picturesque and unique cemetery has stone-encased caskets resting on top of the earth due to the rocky, geological makeup of the island. It houses a special memorial to those who perished on the U.S. Maine, as well as quirky gravestones, with epitaphs such as "I Told You I was Sick " and "At Least I Know Where He’s Sleeping Tonight."

Centennial Commemorative of the explosion and sinking of the U.S. Battleship Maine, (which precipitated the start of the Spanish-American War, 1898) will honor the efforts and sacrifices of the American people and military forces.

Spring 1998 events include:

  • Feb. 14: Community and VIP dinner/entertainment at Fort Taylor
  • Feb. 15: Early morning Memorial Service on a naval vessel; official opening of the "Remember the Maine" exhibition at the East Martello Museum; presidential ceremony and presentation of Maine Memorial Plaque that will be placed at the historic Custom House; community fireworks display and Naval salute to the U.S.S. Maine
  • March 3: Re-enactment of the 1900 U.S.S. Maine Memorial Dedication Ceremony at Key West Cemetary
  • April 18-19: Air show at the Naval Air Station; Boca Chica

Other area attractions include the East Martello Museum and Gallery, Audubon House and Gardens where John Audubon stayed while painting the wildlife of the Florida Keys in 1832, and the Wreckers Museum/Oldest House.

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