Bernie Webber’s celebrity was reignited this year thanks to the movie “The Finest Hours,” which chronicles his role in what has been called the greatest small boat rescue in Coast Guard history. In the winter of 1952, Bernie led a courageous rescue team through 70-foot waves and frigid temperatures to save 32 crew members stranded on a sinking tanker off the coast of Chatham.
But several years prior to to that, he was stationed on Martha’s Vineyard, acting as the assistant keeper of the Gay Head Light. We recently came across a memoir Bernie wrote of the two years he spent on the Island beginning in 1947, simply titled “Gay Head — A Reminiscence.”
The memoir is an interesting companion to “The Finest Hours” in that it provides a deeper look at the character portrayed on the screen. Bernie paints a fascinating picture of Island life — especially up-Island life — nearly 70 years ago. He also foreshadows his “Finest Hours” adventure with a rescue attempt involving a fishing boat off the coast of Nomans Land, which unfortunately didn’t have the same happy ending as his more famous attempt a few years later.
Over the coming weeks, we’ll be bringing you Bernie’s account of his time in Gay Head in installments, but let’s start at the beginning.
Installment 1: The new man
On a November day in 1947 I arrived on Martha’s VIneyard Island for assignment to duty as the assistant keeper at the Gay Head Light Station. I had come from the Highland (Cape Cod) Light Station at North Truro, Massachusetts.
It’s been 50 years, yet I remember the day well, as it was a step back in time for me. Highland was a modern mainland lighthouse with the luxuries of electricity and running water, which Gay Head did not have at the time.
Although an Island light, distanced from the larger Island towns, and somewhat barren compared to the rest of Martha’s Vineyard, in time I would find Gay Head to have unique character, with a beauty all its own.
The day was clear and cold, typical of November in New England, when I boarded the buoy tender Phlox at the Coast Guard Base in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, to be transported out to Martha’s Vineyard.
For Captain George Gove and his crew, there was nothing new or special about the trip; after all, they navigated Cape Cod waters the year round, servicing Coast Guard stations, lighthouses, lightships, buoys, and other types of aids to navigation equipment. I was excited, though; for me the trip marked the beginning of a new adventure that would last the next two years in an environment previously unknown to me.
Martha’s Vineyard experienced an influx of strangers during the days of WW II. Military personnel came to the Island from around the country to serve at several installations, but most left by the end of 1946. Native Islanders were left to face a return to a prewar existence, but by then the word was out about this heavenly island place, and it would never again be the same.
Phlox rounded the Vineyard Haven breakwater, glided into the harbor and up to steamboat wharf. Eager hands ashore reached out to catch mooring lines thrown from the little shop and soon had them made fast to the pier. While the little vessel was being off-loaded, verbal exchanges took place, and news from the Island and mainland was swapped. The Islanders, of course, wanted to know all about the “new man” going out to Gay Head Light, and in about five minutes they knew all there was to know about me.
Leaving the ship I stood out on the pier with my sea bag, which contained all my worldly possessions, by my side and waited for someone to come and pick me up take me out to Gay Head, 20-plus miles away. It wasn’t long before a large 3½-ton red stake-body truck with Coast Guard markings on its doors rumbled down the narrow roadway onto the pier. I assumed it was there for me.
I soon learned that Clarence Allison, a Coast Guard “surfman” stationed at Gay Head Lifeboat Station, was the driver of the truck. Together we loaded the supplies brought over on the Phlox, then departed for East Chop Lighthouse.
Clarence sat proudly behind the big truck’s steering wheel, shifted gears, and off we roared up the pier onto the narrow streets of Vineyard Haven. I sensed Clarence felt great power as he drove the truck, the way he double-clutched, mashing in and grinding the gears, then stepping hard on the gas pedal so as to make the truck surge ahead. I hung on for dear life.
We made it to the West Chop Lighthouse, delivered our packages to the “head keep,” Mr. Ponsart, and his assistant Sam Fuller. Then we departed once again, now headed to Gay Head. Clarence maneuvered the big truck with purpose over the Island roads, shifting often so he could double-clutch the vehicle and maintain speed as the truck roared on through Tisbury, Menemsha, and Chimark.
Arriving at the top of the hill overlooking Gay Head, off in the distance the two most prominent objects to be seen were the lighthouse and Coast Guard lifeboat station. The lighthouse tower with its reddish-brown color seemed in conflict with the Coast Guard buildings painted bright white with red roofs. Sand dunes, tan in color, beach grass with tinges of green, and the black and brown shades of scrubby bushes scattered here and there completed the barren scene.
Halfway down the hill, Clarence brought the truck abruptly to a halt. Opening the door, he jumped out, ran around the vehicle, charged into the bushes and disappeared from sight. I remained where I sat, not having a clue as to what was happening.
After a while Clarence popped up from the bushes holding in his hands bits and pieces of twigs and roots. He waved his arms with apparent glee and came running back to the truck with a root hanging from his mouth. His hands were full of the stuff, and there was dirt all over his face. I didn’t know what to made of it until he got to the truck, grinned at me like a cat, and offered me some of his “sassafras root”!
At the bottom of the hill we turned off the tar road onto a bumpy dirt road full of ruts with twists and turns that led to the Coast Guard station. At a junction, a road led to the little houses of some of the Gay Head Indians. The road ahead went on up a rise that ended at the rear of the station, the front of which was located close to the edge of a cliff embankment dropping off straight down to the waters of Vineyard Sound, 60 feet below.
I had arrived!