On Monday, Feb. 8, the U.S. Coast Guard will cease transmission of the United States Loran-C signal and will commence a phased decommissioning of the Loran-C infrastructure. To read more about the termination of Loran-C, click here to read a Compass blog post.
In this post, a Coast Guard Historian talks about the legacy of Loran ….
Post Written by Scott Price, Coast Guard Historian
“Hours of boredom punctuated by moments of sheer panic” is how more than one Coast Guard LORAN veteran described their tour of duty at one of the dozens of stations based around the world. Others noted that their detailers always called duty at a LORAN station “the best kept secret in the Coast Guard!”
Operating LORAN was one of the more obscure missions ever undertaken by the Coast Guard. It was a radio-based navigation system first established during World War II under a secret program to provide the Allies with a reliable and accurate means of navigation at sea in any weather. Once a small enough receiver was developed, aircraft also got in on the action and LORAN expanded to all aspects of the military. Stations were first established in the Atlantic beginning in 1942 and then in the Pacific, most built by Coast Guard construction detachments (similar to the Navy Seabees) on islands almost as soon as they had been taken back from the Japanese. The LORAN system was then used by invasion and by the Army Air Force in the bombing campaign against the Japanese homeland.
At the end of the war, the Coast Guard recognized the value of LORAN for merchant as well as military use and it was decided to keep and expand the system (with Congressional approval of course). As such, more stations were built literally to the corners of the globe. Many of these distant stations were extremely isolated, such as Maulo Point LTS (Loran Transmitting Station), built in a former coconut grove 180 miles north of Manila on the west coast of Luzon, Philippines, the Shetlands Island station in Scotland, or “Murder Point” on Attu Island, Alaska.
Other LORAN units were built in idyllic locales throughout the Pacific, including Hawaii, Japan, Mediterranean and Caribbean. Some could be dangerous, such as the Maulo Point station where they were ever vigilant against a “Huk uprising” in the 1950s while Station Con Son, South Vietnam might have to fend off a Viet Cong attack. Other stations did come under direct enemy attack—Libya fired missiles at LORAN Station Lampedusa, Italy, in 1986 but fortunately they were way off the mark and the missiles splashed harmlessly into the Mediterranean (see the photo of the crew on the right). Other stations were nearly wiped out by typhoons or hurricanes but their signals were never off the air for very long.
The early stations usually consisted of a series Quonsets huts and a small airstrip set up on a few acres of cleared land while later stations had more permanent facilities constructed. Those not near a major population center had to have all of their supplies brought in by ship or aircraft, with most of the Pacific chain stations relying on the latter for all the necessities of life – and such deliveries were the highlight of their lonely life.
Crew size varied but usually never more than around 8 to 25. The stations were typically commanded by a junior officer fresh off cutter duty and thrust for the first time into the vagaries of running a shore station far away from any higher command. There they had to deal with all manners of problems—with the equipment or with their personnel—and also act as an ambassador of sorts to the native population as he/she was typically the highest ranking U. S. official in the area.
Communication with the outside world early on was by radio only and the transmitters had to be “on” 24/7. The LORAN personnel’s job was to make sure the transmitters were functioning around-the-clock. With the advent of LORAN-C, which began entering service in the 1970s, operations were more advanced and became more automated. Crews turned from primarily standing watches to making sure the equipment was maintained and operating properly. LORAN was a significant operation for the Coast Guard, by 1974 the service ran 45 stations around the globe and supported those stations with a significant logistical “tail”.
In the 1990s the foreign-based LORAN stations were turned over to their host governments, bringing an end to the era where Coast Guardsmen served on lonely stations in far-away lands. The Coast Guard continued to man and operate stations based in North America—many of these isolated as well—Dana, Indiana, Havre, Montana, Searchlight, Nevada, Baudette, Minnesota , and Attu, Alaska to name a few.
Now, on Feb. 8, these 23 stations are scheduled to close (with some remaining operational for a few months due to some international agreements) along with their support unit at Wildwood, New Jersey.
As this chapter closes on a historic mission of the service, we should recall that the Coast Guard’s LORAN history was instrumental…supporting America’s military operations since World War II… the growth of the world’s maritime commerce… assisting countless hundreds of thousands of mariners, their ships, and their operations… and gave the Coast Guard exposure the world over, even in those areas of the globe where the locals had never even heard of the United States Coast Guard.
For more information, see the great website developed by ETCM Bill Dietz, USCG (Ret.). Additionally there are some wonderfully written LORAN stories at Jack’s Joint. We’ve posted more photos and other information on our website too.