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The Yankee Clipper: The U.S. Coast Guard's Last Battle Before WWII

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Crew vehicles at the Moriches, Long Island lifeboat station after the storm (U.S. Lifesaving Service Heritage Association)

By William Thiesen 2019-06-21 22:31:50

Hitting the East Coast over 80 years ago, the Great New England Hurricane was one of the most destructive storms to strike anywhere in the United States up to that time. Also known as the “Yankee Clipper” and “Long Island Express,” the 1938 hurricane caused over $41 billion in property damage and the death of approximately 700 men, women and children.

During the storm response, the Coast Guard assisted over 500 vessels and rescued over 1,000 persons. However, the storm damaged or destroyed 30 Coast Guard boat stations, several of them never re-built. It damaged four U.S. Lighthouse Service depots and 25 lighthouses, completely destroying one of them. Moreover, the service lost three Coast Guardsmen washed overboard from a cutter and another seven Lighthouse Service persons perished in the storm.

1.	Global map showing track of the 1938 Great New England Hurricane from the Atlantic up to Canada. (Image courtesy of National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.)

Global map showing track of the 1938 Great New England Hurricane from the Atlantic up to Canada. (Image courtesy of National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.)

In September 1938, a year before World War II started in Europe, a tropical depression emerged off the coast of Saharan Africa. By mid-September, the weather pattern had developed into a full-blown hurricane. Floridians feared the worst having endured violent hurricanes twice in the 1920s and just a few years earlier in 1935. However, by September 20, the hurricane had skipped Florida and swirled north. It blew North Carolina’s Diamond Shoals Lightship off station and grew in strength to a dangerous Category 5 storm. Rolling past New Jersey at over 50 miles per hour, the hurricane heavily damaged the Coast Guard station at Sandy Hook.

On September 21, the storm barreled north toward the heart of New England. Long Island absorbed the initial impact of the hurricane, hence the storm’s nickname of “Long Island Express.” The hurricane came ashore with winds well over 100 miles per hour and a storm surge over 10 feet. Between Long Island’s Fire Island Inlet and Southampton, the barrier islands submerged under heavy seas. The deadly combination of gale force winds, storm surge and breaking waves obliterated shorefront property, coastal towns and the numerous Coast Guard boat stations dotting the Long Island shoreline. Of the 30 Coast Guard stations damaged or destroyed by the hurricane, 22 of them were laid waste in New York—a number of them never re-opened.

With gale force winds of 120 miles per hour driving the storm surge, the hurricane battered Rhode Island. The state suffered the worst damage with over half the hurricane’s fatalities. Coves, bays and inlets that cut into the state’s coastline served as funnels multiplying the 15-foot storm surge already riding a spring tide a foot higher than the normal high tide. Smaller oceanside towns were wiped out and flooding of downtown Providence reached depths between 10 and 20 feet. Coast Guard boat stations in Rhode Island felt the full brunt of the storm with stations at Brenton Point, Point Judith, Quonochontaug and Watch Hill heavily damaged. It took years to re-build these bases and one had to be re-located to a safer location.

Storm damage to Boat Station Brenton Point due to the Great New England Hurricane. (U.S. Lifesaving Service Heritage Association)

In Rhode Island, the U.S. Lighthouse Service also suffered its greatest loss of lighthouses and service members. In Narragansett Bay, tidal waves struck the Prudence Island Light, Beavertail Light, Bullock’s Point Light and Whale Rock Light. Beavertail was severely damaged while the keeper’s wife and son drowned at Prudence Island. Tidal waves stripped the sides off of Bullock’s Point Light, which was later decommissioned and replaced with a skeleton tower lighthouse. Whale Rock Lighthouse was destroyed by a tidal wave, the body of its assistant keeper never found and the lighthouse never re-built.

In Connecticut, the storm cost hundreds of lives and tremendous property damage. The western shoreline of the state sustained storm surges of up to 20 feet. At New London’s large Coast Guard station, numerous boats were lost or damaged beyond repair. The Coast Guard Academy also lost some of its watercraft. Even more amazing was the sight of the 200-foot lighthouse tender Tulip washed-up on the railroad tracks in New London. The tender had burst its moorings and the surge carried it up on shore. Surprisingly, Tulip was later removed and re-floated, and remained in commission until 1945 having served in both world wars.

As the eye of the storm traveled north into the heart of New England, the right side of it hit the coast of Massachusetts from the Rhode Island border to the tip of Cape Cod and up to Boston. Storm surges in the area measured between 18 and 25 feet and the hurricane’s greatest wave height of 50 feet was recorded at Gloucester. The storm devastated Massachusetts’ Coast Guard stations and lighthouses along the coast, including boat stations at Gay Head, Martha’s Vineyard, and Cuttyhunk. Massachusetts’s lighthouses also suffered heavy damage. In New Bedford, the keeper’s wife at the flooded Palmer Island Lighthouse drowned in the storm and, except for the original stone tower, lighthouse structures on Bird Island were swept away. Fortunately, the light was not manned at the time.

Photo showing Whale Rock Lighthouse before the hurricane destroyed it. (Photo courtesy of the National Archives)

Photo showing Whale Rock Lighthouse before the hurricane destroyed it. (Photo courtesy of the National Archives)Photo showing what remained of the lighthouse after the storm. After the storm’s tidal waves struck the light, only the foundation remained. (U.S. Coast Guard)

Photo showing what remained of the lighthouse after the storm. After the storm’s tidal waves struck the light, only the foundation remained. (U.S. Coast Guard)

As the hurricane made its way northwest toward Canada, it cut a swath of destruction. The storm toppled two billion trees and destroyed approximately 20,000 homes, buildings and structures. On eastern Lake Ontario, at the Galloo Island Boat Station, New York, the crew readied their motor lifeboat (MLB) to rescue the one-man crew of a foundering dredge. On board the MLB, Surfman #8 Gerrett Gregory had trouble breathing the water-infused air as rain poured down and the wind swept water into the air from Lake Ontario. Before motoring into the maelstrom, officer-in-charge Warrant Boatswain Alston Wilson told his crew, “I know what you’re thinking. The three of us will probably die trying to save one guy who will die also. Get in the boat—we have a job to do.”

Fighting 100 mile per hour winds and heavy seas breaking over the MLB’s stern, Wilson maneuvered the MLB beside the dredge and saved the man on board. The dredge later washed up on the rocks, but the MLB rescue mission had been accomplished without loss of life.

The Great New England Hurricane of 1938 was the most destructive storm to hit New England devastating the Coast Guard’s boat stations and Lighthouse Service’s lighthouses. In New England, the two services barely survived this battle with one of the worst storms in American history. As one survivor remarked, “I sometimes feel that we have had a preview of the end of the world.”

U.S. Lighthouse Service tender Tulip washed up on shore in New London, Conn. The tender blocked local train traffic in the aftermath of the hurricane....

The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.