The Haunting Legend of the Oswego Lighthouse
Thirteen Brave Men Tried and Six Brave Men Died
Referenced: the Oswego Palladium Times
Author: Michael J Colasurdo
On November 30th, 1942, a blizzard possessing hurricane strength winds came roaring across the Great Lake Ontario. The powerful winds of sixty- five miles per hour sent the unnerving dark gray and black clouds swiftly across the doomsday sky.
This deadly storm came roaring down from the arctic cold of Canada’s great northern territory, racing over the fridge forty degrees water of the now violent Lake Ontario. The huge, powerful fifteen to twenty-foot waves were smashing violently into the West Pier breakwater wall, exploding on contact, sending a brilliant silver spray into the air as the powerful winds then carried the icy spray horizontally across the inner harbor of Oswego, New York.
The sturdy pier and lighthouse stood defiantly against the awesome power of the raging storm that protected the Harbor of the Port City. The dynamic force of the powerful waves had shifted several of the megaton boulders of the breakwater wall out of their cradled positions. For several days the violent storm continued to maintain its powerful intensity with no signs of weakening.
The supplies of oil that gave life to the lighthouse beacon and the food supplies that nourished the guardian of the light had long since been exhausted.
In 1942, the Oswego Lighthouse was manned by the seamen of the Oswego Coast Guard. Under normal conditions, the keepers of the lighthouse were relieved every three days. However, this was no normal situation, the powerful hurricane conditions had made the exchange of lighthouse personal and food supplies an impossible task to even consider attempting for what was now the fifth day of the raging storm.
On December 4, 1942, the Coast Guardsman on duty at the lighthouse was Karl H Jackson, Boatswain’s Mate First Class. The young sailor was becoming weak from a lack of nourishment, this only added to his fears with each passing hour of his storm induced incarceration. The Lighthouse had been and was under a life-threatening assault by an intense and very deadly storm.
Suddenly, and without notice, the powerful winds that had not allowed Boatswain’s Mate Jackson’s fellow seaman to make the dangerous voyage to liberate him, started to subside. The elated Jackson then blew the lighthouse foghorn five times, a distress signal for him to be picked up immediately.
At the Coast Guard Station, the sound of the emergency alarm was blaring, it was the unmistakable signal that alerted all hands on deck. This was their window of opportunity and no one could predict how long it might last. The strong leadership voice of the Commander, Lt. J.G. Altson J Wilson, age fifty-four, in his thirty-sixth year of service, was firing off orders at his men preparing for the long overdue lighthouse transfer of personnel and supplies. The crew reacted with the precision and speed that they had long since been trained for.
Although the great storm’s deadly winds had reduced to near half of what they had been, the storm was still extremely dangerous. However, the Commander knew the exchange had to be attempted and it had to be done now and without reservation or hesitation.
Each and every man at the Coast Guard Station was fully aware of his duties and the immediate danger that lies before them. The storm on Lake Ontario could quickly become once again as violent as it was just moments earlier.
With the speed and precision of a well-rehearsed act, the Coast Guardsmen loaded their thirty foot Pickett with the much-needed supplies. Among the seamen were, the long overdue Lighthouse Guardian replacements Seaman Second Class Bert E. Egleston and Carl Sprague Seaman First Class.
The powerful winds of the storm had slowed from sixty-five miles per hour to about thirty-five, however; the brutally cold and harsh winds could still cut like a knife on the seamen’s faces if it were not for the protection of the black felt mask each man wore to protect his face from the storm.
The terrifying winds, that sounded much like the roaring of several train locomotives screaming closely by, as they pounded the outside walls of the lighthouse. The powerful winds brought with them a constant reminder of the grave dangers that confronted the brave but without question, scared seamen. Although they would never show their fear, the courageous men would and without hesitation faithfully face the immediate life-threatening dangers to their own lives. They would not hesitate to do whatever they must do to help their brother in need escape from the grips of the great storms imprisoned outpost. The reduction in the powerful winds had led the commander to believe that the dangerous voyage was at long last possible.
In just minutes the Pickett’s powerful engine was propelling the craft and its crew through the subsided but still powerful storm. The Pickett and its brave crew were being protected from the massive waves of the storm by the west pier breakwater wall; however, they did have to endure the painful stinging of the relentless freezing over-spray from the waves as they exploded when they crashed violently into the boulders of the breakwater wall.
The sturdy, thirty foot Pickett fought against the powerful winds of the mighty storm on its mission to reach the lighthouse. The Pickett and its crew would eventually, after great struggles, manage to safely moor thevessel alongside the building entrance on the leeward side of the lighthouse that now protected them from the storms powerful winds and waves. The life-threatening conditions filled every man with fear, however; their many long hours of training had taught them to focus on the task at hand in hazardous conditions, and not one man ever hesitated or shirked a task.
The seamen, through their exhaustive efforts managed to deliver all the supplies and make the exchange of the two new relief guardians to the West Pier Lighthouse.
Seaman Boatswain’s Mate First Class Karl A. Jackson was elated to get safely down the icy ladder and onto the Pickett. He was now free from his storm imprisoned outpost.
As the craft was prepared to disembark, after successfully completing the first half of its dangerous mission, a sudden powerful gust of wind smashed the back of the Pickett against the corner wall of the lighthouse with tremendous force, violently sending all eight seamen to the deck of the craft. The Pickett’s engine stalled, the boat was now powerless and at the mercy of the violent storm, in just the matter of a few moments, the storm had carried the Pickett away from the shelter of the lighthouse. The rescue craft was soon out into the open waters between the west and east break walls of the harbor, the craft was no longer sheltered and the winds and waves were violent.
The huge waves and the powerful winds were now pushing the helpless craft across the harbors unprotected opening. The ship was on a deadly collision course with the jagged rocks of the east break wall and the unthinkable. Machinist’s Mate First Class Fred Ruff scrambled below as he desperately attempted to start the engine; however, each time the engine started, it coughed, sputtered and failed again and again.
Lt. Wilson then ordered the one hundred and twenty-five-pound anchor pitched overboard to stop the craft from drifting. Second Class Seaman Irving Ginsburg and Second Class Boatswain’s Mate Eugene C. Sisson crawled out on the dangerous ice covered bow that was rolling from side to side in the storm. The two brave crewmen managed to send the heavy anchor over the side of the ship, it fell quickly to bottom where it stuck fast in the mud. The bow of the Pickett swung sharply into the wind and stopped the course of the ship towards the jagged rocks and potential disaster.
Now, the mechanics would have time to get the engine started or for another rescue boat to come and tow them safely back to port.
The inch and half Manila line attached to the anchor then snapped under the great force and strain of the craft in the strength of the powerful storm. It had held for less than two minutes. The Pickett was again back on course for the jagged rocks at the north end of the east wall that surrounded the light. The crewmen were becoming desperately engulfed in fear of what would happen should the Pickett crash on those large jagged rocks of the east break wall.
The unthinkable possibility now exists, that they could soon suffer and die. The craft continued being powered by the wind and huge waves on its track toward the jagged rocks of the east wall. There were now two possibilities; if the craft would hit the jagged rocks, the ship would surely capsize. However, there was also a possibility that the craft might be pushed north by the current of the Oswego River, it might carry the craft out past the east break wall and into the calmer waters on the east side of the break wall, where they could be rescued and towed back to the Coast Guard Station.
Lt. Wilson and Mixon were in the small Pilothouse of the Pickett; Ginsberg and Sisson would soon be joined by Lt. Wilson on the outside deck while Mixon remained at the controls in the Pilothouse in case Machinist Mate Fred L. Ruff were able to bring the engine back to life. The bow of the ship now faced the shore, and the craft was pushed closer and closer to the east wall with each new wave.
These courageous men would probably survive if they could only clear the north end of the wall and the jagged rocks.
As the craft got closer to the wall, suddenly, a huge wave surged under the boat, lifting it high in the air and sending it swiftly towards the jagged rocks. Lt. Wilson had been in complete control and calm. When he realized what was now happening, the Lt. yelled: “Look out she’s going to hit the rocks!”
It was a terrifying thought for the crewmen who now braced for the inevitable and deadly impact. The crewmen held onto the safety lines of the Pickett with white-knuckled death grips.
The Picket surfed high in the air on top of the huge wave and then came crashing down with the force of a fifty mile an hour head-on collision, smashing down on the jagged rocks. The tremendous force of the impact sent the seamen flying through the air in all directions and the ship was smashed and capsized. Any who might have survived the devastating crash would surely succumb to hypothermia and parish in the freezing waters in just a matter of minutes.
The screams of the young men were muffled by the roar of the raging winds of the storm, however, it has been said; that those screams can still be heard during fierce Lake Ontario storms.
Mixon had been trapped in the Pilothouse of the overturned ship, however; he managed to escape by kicking out a window and swimming to the break wall. Ruff was in the engine room and he was able to get out and swim to the break wall. How he was able to do this, he could not remember.
Mixon and Ruff were the only two of the eight men that were able to survive the force of the vicious impact of the crash, and now they had climbed the slippery jagged rocks to the top of the boulders to the temporary safety on top of the breakwater wall. Miraculously, the two young men were saved as though some divine intervention had reached down and plucked them from the clutches of the freezing waters and certain death. The two men clung to the large cracks between the boulders of the break wall with all their might, praying for yet another miracle that might somehow save them from a watery grave.
From the top of the ice covered break wall, Mixon looked for his friends and shipmates. They could see the horrifying sight of their shipmates struggling in the freezing water as they were being carried out into the lake and their untimely deaths. Lt. Wilson was only sixty feet from the break wall; his oilskins had caught an air pocket and were keeping him afloat. Mixon, who himself was exhausted and shaking uncontrollably from the freezing cold, started to go down the rocks with the intention of leaping back into the deadly waters to help save him. Lt. Wilson raised his hand in a gesture for the seaman not to try. Then Lt. Wilson stopped struggling and that was his last command. Soon, the other men could no longer be seen as they disappeared in the wind and waves of the storm.
At the Coast Guard Station when it was first realized the Pickett was in serious trouble, the men at the station sounded the alarm and hurried to get a second boat underway.
Second Class Boatswain’s Mate Robert Burnet, who was left in charge of the station yelled, “Get the 36 boat going now!”
The 36 foot craft was already on its cradle in the boathouse secured for the winter. The men at the Coast Guard Station knew their shipmates were in the death grips of the storm and needed to be rescued immediately. With incredible speed, they oiled, fueled and ran the ship down its ramps and into the water. In just minutes the ship was smashing thru the waves, heading to save their fellow crewmen. Burnet was at the controls while six crewmen were preparing for action.
Burnet knew it would be extremely dangerous to try to bring the craft close to the break wall. Burnet sent two men, Coxswain Sanford Gregory and John F. Black, over the side of the craft and into a small skiff with a trailing tag-line back to the larger craft that was manned by the other four sailors. Burnet was in hopes the smaller boat could get close to the wall and rescue the men and then be pulled back to the 36 safely. The fury of the still powerful storm with its dangerous waves and powerful winds was making it impossible for the small craft; it tossed and turned radically in the violent waters of the storm. Then suddenly another huge breaking wave capsized the smaller skiff and the two courageous seamen were now themselves victims of the storm. The two sailors on the wall, Mixon and Ruff, now turned rescuers for their fellow crewmen. Gregory and Black managed with the assistance of Mixon and Ruff to climb to the safety of the top of the break wall.
All four men now lie desperately on the wall, clingingly to each other and the ice covered boulders as the relentless winds continued to terrify them.
During the fury of all this and the high emotions of the moment, Burnet caught sight of the capsized boat as it rose to the top of a wave east of the break wall. Burnet made a decision that the four men on the top of the wall were in less immediate danger than those already further out. Burnet then pulled the ship about and headed towards the a-wash craft. This was a difficult decision for Burnet; however, he was not yet aware of exactly where the other men were.
Burnet and his men headed towards the half-sunken boat, they spotted Lt. Wilson floating on the waves. Burnet asked for a volunteer to go in after the Lt., Seaman Second Class Andrew W. Cisternino volunteered, two crewmen quickly tied a rope securely around his waist and Cistenrino leaped into the freezing water. The courageous seaman grabbed the Lt’s already dead body and held on with all his might. The crewmen aboard the 36 struggled on the ice covered deck of the ship to pull the safety line to retrieve the sailor and the Lt. After just a few minutes Cisternino’s already numb hands and arms could no longer hold on to the Lt. The crew continued to struggle, it was difficult to get a solid foot hold to retrieve the seaman to the craft. When they finally managed to get Cisternino back aboard the ship they rushed him below and wrapped him in blankets.
For those on shore, the rescue effort was filled with tremendous anxiety as the craft continued to disappear between the huge waves, giving the impression to the onlookers that it too had sunk. Petrified family members were now waiting at the Coast Guard Station, desperately hoping for the rescue boat and the men to return safely. Praying, the men of the Pickett would somehow be miraculously saved from the icy water, and the men of the second rescue boat would return unharmed. Burnet, now without alternatives, knew he must risk the boat and his men to rescue the four men on the wall. Burnet was well aware that the slightest mistake on his part would scuttle the ship and put his entire crew in hopeless life- threatening situation.
Burnet, using all his knowledge and skills, managed to turn the craft into the wind and waves, as the waves continued to toss and turn the craft as Burnet masterfully brought the ship back close enough to the break wall boulders where the four men, one by one, leaped into the rescue ship. The crew was able to get all four men aboard. It was a brilliant maneuver that saved the lives of the stranded four and his-own crew. Burnet received, and justly so, great praise from all the men. Mixon simply stated; Bob did a great job. Ruff, Mixon, Gregory, Black, and Cisternino were immediately hospitalized at the Fort Ontario Hospital and treated for hypothermia and shock.
The battered Pickett would eventually wash ashore; Coast Guardsmen waded out to it in waist-high water to search for the bodies of their fallen shipmates. None had been found in the battered craft. Over the next several days the Coast Guardsmen and soldiers from Fort Ontario searched the storm-battered beach looking for the bodies of the brave seamen. Eventually, all six bodies were recovered.
The great tragedy and the exceptional heroism of that day on December 4, 1942, were sadly overlooked for over fifty years. It is difficult to understand how the heroic acts of these incredibly brave men could have been ignored. Some have said; it was because it was 1942 and America was in the middle of a Great War and there were many other events being reported in the news every day.
In 1996, fifty-four years later to the day, the Coast Guard and the City officials of Oswego, performed a long overdue formal memorial service. The officials and the invited guest boarded a forty-four foot Coast Guard Cutter for the ceremony. The guest were; the survivors, members of the victim’s families and city officials.
The Coast Guard Cutter cruised slowly to the area at the north end of the east break wall where the disastrous event took place. A few words were said, and a memorial wreath was cast into the water. This solemn ceremony took place at ten twenty-five AM, the same time the Pickett crashed on the east break wall on December 4, 1942.
One of the participants in the ceremony was David Ginsburg, the father of Irving Ginsburg who died that fateful day in 1942. Mr. Ginsburg at the time was ninety-eight years old. Mr. Ginsburg was from Syracuse, New York just thirty-five miles from Oswego. He had sworn fifty four years earlier, never to return to Oswego until a memorial had been established in the memory of his son, the brave men of the Coast Guard that perished that day, and the courageous Coast Guardsmen that put their own lives at risk, to save their friends and crewmen in the storm on December 4, 1942.
It was a terrible injustice that it had taken far too many years for those incredibly brave men to be recognized and honored for their unselfish heroism.
The author of this story Michael J Colasurdo grew up just one hundred yards from the Coast Guard Station at 20 West Third Street. During winter Lake Ontario storms while walking back to my home as a youth, I could hear faint, screams off in the distance, I had this experience many times. I had not known this story at the time, however, I am certain they were the timeless screams of the six lost souls that will never rest until they have been honored with a just statue monument to their heroic deeds that led to their untimely demise.
Perhaps; this injustice is why those six brave men’s spirits still walk the floors of the Oswego Lighthouse, where they can still be heard whispering in the isolated building that houses their spirits to this very day, and the source of the unsettling and endless muffled screams in the winds of the Lake Ontario storms… and will forevermore.
The Six men that died are as follows:
Alston J. Wilson; 54, LTJG, Commanding Officer of Oswego, Coast Guard Station – Henderson Harbor, NY
Karl A. Jackson; 42, Boatswain Mate, Lighthouse Keeper, Oswego, NY
Leslie J. Holdsworth; 21, Seaman First Class, Lawrence, MA
Ralph J. Sprau; 27, Machinist Mate Second Class, Sandusky, OH
Irving Ginsburg; 21, Seaman Second Class, Syracuse, NY
Eugene C. Sisson; 29, Boatswain Mate, Binghamton, NY
The survivors were:
Sanford Gregory Coxswain; 21, Tyler, Texas
Fred L. Ruff; 32, Machinist Mate, (address unknown)
John Mixon, 30, Chief Boatswain Mate, Marsis, Michigan
Andrew W. Cisternino, 29, Seaman Second Class, Syracuse, NY