Five Finger Islands Lighthouse was built 115 years ago and became a part of the Coast Guard in 1939. The light once guided prospectors into southeast Alaska during the Klondike Gold Rush and currently serves as a weather outpost for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Data Buoy Center, and remains a marine safety sight for the Alaska Marine Exchange. Hank O’Sullivan provides a first-person recounting of life as a member of the four-person crew stationed at the light in 1977.
Written by Hank O’Sullivan
Upon graduating from U.S. Coast Guard basic training in Cape May, New Jersey, I was assigned to the public works department at Coast Guard Base Ketchikan, Alaska, in April 1977, where I spent several months scraping and painting buildings.
In early August of that same year, I volunteered to fill an urgent last-minute vacancy as a fireman at Coast Guard Light Station Five Finger. Any open billet at Five Finger was an urgent fill as it had a crew of only four persons: a boatswain’s mate chief, a machinery technician, a fireman, and a seaman.
All four of us stood a daily six-hour radio watch. As the most junior crew member, I was slotted to stand watch from midnight to 6 a.m. The watch routine included sending and receiving routine message traffic, listening for distress calls from mariners, and sending weather observations for Frederick Sound. The watchstander also bore the responsibility of turning on “the light” at sundown and off again at first daylight.
When visibility was diminished by fog and heavy rain, the watchstander would unleash an unholy sonic beast; the fog signal. You have not truly lived a fulfilled life unless you have spent a southeastern Alaskan winter living (and trying to sleep) in the same building as a fog signal. With a bad winter weather system, that fog signal could remain booming for three to four days. We all became accustomed to speaking in intervals, stopping in mid-sentences when the horn bellowed.
We all took part in sharing household chores including cooking meals and washing dishes. The food was plentiful, I will say that. We even made ordering food a means of entertaining ourselves by dictating over the radio to the Coast Guard radio station in Ketchikan who would relay the order to the commissary in Sitka. The commissary staff would do their best to fulfill all of our food requests exactly as called for. For fun, we would come up with order line items that both challenged the commissary and tested the giggle-retention fortitude of the receiving radioman on watch. The funniest and most challenging order I recall was when we ordered a case of frog legs. The commissary successfully fulfilled that order but alas, we learned frog legs taste nothing like chicken.
As the fireman, I assisted the machinery technician with general maintenance and operation of the engineering plant.
We had a mascot dog, a yellow lab named “Reefer.” We also had an unofficial mascot, an unnamed orange cat, who lived in our two detached buildings. I do not know how or when the cat got there but that poor creature spent its entire Five Finger life being chased by Reefer and a pair of peregrine falcons that called “Five Finger Forest” their home. I took on the task of looking after the cat during my stay.
Entertainment was very limited for the four of us. Every two weeks, we received up to 14 motion pictures via the Navy’s motion picture library system. There was no ordering titles or genres; we watched whatever movies the Navy sent us. I do remember one movie delivery consisted of only Disney films. We did not watch too many movies in that two week period.
We had an A.M. radio that could only pick up one station broadcasted from Juneau. It was mostly talk radio that played two programs every day. One was a local call-in community swap shop which was painfully uninteresting but we listened to it as it was “other voices” to listen to. We also enjoyed Paul Harvey’s broadcast and his “Rest of the Story.”
We had a pool table which took up most of the living room where I mostly enjoyed watching the chief whoop the seaman with friendly low-dollar wagers on the line.
Though all four of us came from completely different backgrounds, we got along quite well. We all had very different tastes in music and that did not cause any friction because we all listened privately in each of our quarters. Well, three of us did. The chief had a campaign going in which he tried to “convert” our musical tastes by playing his favorite music in the community spaces. Loretta Lynn. George Jones. And Tom T. Hall….to this very day, fragments of Hall’s hit song “Sneaky Snake” haunt the recesses of consciousness.
We all had our hobbies to pass away the endless days on the island. I took up painting bear bread shingles I would collect in the forest. I cannot say I was very good at it, but my demonstrated abilities resulted in the chief selecting me to graphically create the official 1977 official Light Station Five Finger Christmas card for passing along our holiday cheer to the District 17 (D17) admiral. While the concept was dictated by the chief, I firmly believe that it was my artistic interpretation that caught the D17 staff’s attention. I was told that it stayed posted in plain view well into January.
On rare occasions, you could be excused for a watch so you could take part in morale activities. We had a morale boat that we would use to visit our adopted get-away abandoned cabin tucked in behind Whitney Island, named Hooligan’s Hollow by Coasties long before my time. Based upon the magazines left behind by occupants long ago, the cabin was there as far back as WWII. We could go there on fair days to get away from our small rocky island and stretch our legs.
The chief had purchased an old mail boat delivery map while in Ketchikan, we also found numerous old mining cabins, and fur farms (mink and fox).
One of my favorite past times was watching the humpback whales play in Frederick Sound all around the island. Watching these massive creatures leap out above the water’s surface only to crash back in it with a thundering boom never got old. One day, while watching whales and taking in sights while standing at the water’s edge in front of the lighthouse, I saw a lone whale coming down from the north out of Stephens Passage. I stood there in awe as he slowed down and coasted as close as it could to the water’s edge and me. As he just started passing in front of me, he rolled his body to better its view and looked back at me with that big softball size eyeball of his. In that moment, the whale watcher became the whale watched. As he glided away from me, he righted himself and slowly submerged out of sight.
After a much anticipated wait to attend machinery technician A-school, O’Sullivan departed the island in April 1978 after just under a year as a member of the light station.
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