Coast Guard District narrative histories 1945
"Blackout" entered the universal vocabulary with the advent of World War II, although, it had, in some degree, been used in all previous wars. The blacking out of municipal lights became the activity of the Civilian Defense Organization, but the problem of extinguishing lights on river and railroad bridges and the blacking out and silencing of navigational aids fell to the Coast Guard. Accordingly, The Commandant advised all Districts in October, 1940, that plans for the extinguishment of lighted aids and the silencing of sound signals were to be prepared in the event of a serious national emergency. In the 13th Naval District, a Board was immediately organized for the purpose of making a study of meeting any emergency which called for the purpose of interruption of the operation of navigational aids in the Seattle District, including all Canadian aids in the Strait of Juan de Fuca. The District Coast Guard Officer ordered this Board to study the Strategic areas of the Columbia River entrance, to study several bar harbor entrances, San Juan Islands and the Puget Sound Area, and to formulate a Blackout Plan. The Plan was submitted to the Commandant, 13th Naval District for approval, as the Coast Guard operated its blackout through the Senior Naval Officer of the District.
This Blackout Plan, as approved in September, 1941, divided the District into seven areas, designated as Blacks One to Seven, and each Black was further subdivided into seven sections indicated by letter so that any part of any area could be blacked out separately. The "S" Code, developed previously by Communications for exclusive use in this District, was enlarged to accommodate blackout activities in all communication between Coast Guard units. For example, if all aids in the District were to be blacked out, the "S" signal was "Signal 26"; if the lights were to be blacked out and the sound signals silenced, the "S" signal was "Signal 138". If a blackout was designated in Black One Area, the signal was "Signal 26-1A", etc. An "S" Code Signal Book was published for issuance to all units. Appropriate "S" signals were also prepared for the relighting of all aids.
Radiobeacons were not silenced under the general blackout but were covered by individual instructions to the Commanding Officers as required. Although an effort was made to cover all aids, it was understood that aids omitted or aids established after the Plan was distributed were to
be blacked out by the unit having charge of that area. Commanding Officers were instructed to exercise their best judgement in the assignment of trucks, tenders, or small boats and these assignments were determined in advance.
Commanding Officers were further directed to familiarize themselves with the aids in their area, securing keys necessary for entrance to equipment and to properly instruct personnel under their command, in order that the blackout could be carried out smoothly and expeditiously. Sound buoys were silenced by securely lashing bell clappers or air intakes and whistles were wrapped with canvas and securely lashed. The District Coast Guard Office was to be notified by dispatch when the blackout had been effected or aids had been relighted, in accordance with District orders.
In October, 1941, a conference was held at Tongue Point Depot, Astoria, Oregon, to instruct personnel from that area in the operations required of the various types of aids to navigation to effect the Blackout Plan. A blackout drill of all units under command of the Astoria Base was held on October 22, 1941. Each aid was visited and examined by the personnel assigned thereto to ascertain type of equipment, the correct way to make the aid inoperative and the tools and materials required. During the practice, only an examination was made and the operation of the aids was not stopped. This was the only test of its kind in the 13th Naval District prior to the outbreak of the war.
On 9 December, 1941, a blackout was effected in the entire District on instructions from the District Commandant. Three officers, together with a small staff of enlisted personnel, issued instructions to the various Commands from the Aids to Navigation Office. Orders for the blackout were received at 1400 and, by 2200, the blackout was completely effected. Tremendous obstacles were encountered, there having been no previous test of the Plan as set by the Board in September. Bridges throughout the District were blacked out, although no plan had incorporated such procedure and railroad officials as well as highway superintendents offered little cooperation. No word was received from the blacked areas as to the time their aids were extinguished nor was word received that they had been relighted following the blackout. This was due to the inability of telephone and radio facilities to handle such heavy traffic. No report was required concerning the results of the operation and a general blackout, other than tests in various areas, was every made in the District.
Because of the difficulties experienced by Lifeboat Station crews in extinguishing certain buoys in rough seas and strong tidal currents during this blackout, it was decided that if the buoys could be approached against the current at a distance of 10 or 12 feet, and a switch operated with a blow or push of a pole from a small boat, the buoy light could then be extinguished quickly under reasonable sea conditions. (Such a switch was later designed and installed on the lighted buoys on the approach to the Columbia River Bar.) As a further result of this blackout operation, a revision was made of the Blackout Plan, especially in the system of notifying civilian keepers and attendants as difficulty had been encountered in reaching these persons by telephone in their homes.
On December 10, 1941, shortly after the lights in the Columbia River Entrance Area had been blacked out, a distress signal was received from the SS MAUNA ALA which had run aground near the Columbia River Entrance about four miles south of South Jetty on Clatsop Beach. The SS MAUNA ALA, bound for Honolulu, had been out six days, and, at the declaration of war, had started back for Seattle under orders. The Master of the MAUNA ALA was not aware that the blackout of navigational lights was in effect. The million dollar cargo of Christmas effects, as well as the vessel itself, was a total loss. Lifeboat crews from Point Adams Lifeboat Station and Cape Disappointment Lifeboat Station, as well as the CGC ONANDAGA, assisted in the removal of the crew and Master. No lives were lost and no injuries sustained. In the investigation which followed, it was determined that the Master was at fault.
The District Liaison Officer suggested a system for the control of coastal lighthouses as employed by the Canadian Navy to be initiated in a similar way for U. S. Lighthouses. The Canadian Plan consisted of a broadcast three times a day at regular hours to all lighthouse keepers along the Coast. The system was divided into lettered plans; i.e., Plan "A" meant to keep lights burning bright, "B", submarine scare and all lights must be extinguished, etc. The District Coast Guard Officer did not accept this recommendation as the District plan then in use provided for extinguishment or relighting of any or all lights on a few minutes advance notice. The District system had the following advantages:
(a) It provided more positive communication and means of checking receipt of instruction.
(b) It provided greater security and more flexibility of instruction.
(c) It did not depend on any outside agency.
Proposals for dimming coastal lights were di(s)approved because of the unlighted gaps between lights which would have existed when the lights were dimmed.
A test blackout was held in March, 1942, for all Lifeboat and Light Stations. As a result of this test, it was decided that Seattle Radio Station, Westport, would, in the future, broadcast a whistle blast preceding the instructions for blackout. Upon hearing the whistle over the air, all personnel standing radio watches were instructed to copy the message which followed and notify their Commanding Officers. Because of the possibility that telephone communications between Lifeboat and Light Stations might not be available at the time a blackout was ordered, all Light Stations which were radio-equipped were ordered to maintain a radio watch during the entire time the light was burning.
Revisions of the Blackout Plan^1 were made periodically to keep each section of the District cognizant of any changes in that particular area. After each revision, holders of Blackout Plans were ordered to destroy copies of previous Plans by burning. In 1945, a complete coverage of state railroad bridges, covering the area as far east as the Cascades, was completed and included in the Plan. It was advised by the Aids to Navigation Officer that similar blackout regulations be continues during peace time so that any confusion, in the event of a similar emergency, might be eliminated. It was further recommended that tests of the Plan be made occasionally be effecting a total blackout as there was no
assurance that the plan in use was, by actual test, perfected. This recommendation was made to the Navy by the Aids to Navigation Officer in the early period of the war; the recommendation suggested that such a trial be made during the summer and in daylight when weather conditions would not necessitate mariners' dependence on lights or sound aids. This proposal was not approved.
Although at the cessation of hostilities, the Blackout lost its purpose for existence, the Plan was kept current in the even there should again be use for it. A complete revision, however, was necessary as the "S" signal for blacking out and relighting aids was cancelled by the Communications Officer. Without the "S" signal, the Plan in effect at the end of the war was not feasible. The Commandant, 13th Naval District, ordered the Port Townsend and Oak Bay aids relighted, an act which virtually ended the Blackout as these were the last two extinguished aids to return to operation. The Blackout had served well.