In the early morning of September 15, 1944, the Vineyard Lightship disappeared from radar three miles west of Cuttyhunk Island where it marked the entrances of Buzzards Bay and Vineyard Sound.
The Great Atlantic Hurricane of 1944 had been roaring up the coast for days, with winds of greater than 135 mile per hour as it passed Virginia. The Lightship was a sitting duck.
Lightship duty was generally dull. The vessel was moored to remain stationary and coastguardsmen’s main duty was maintenance work and carrying out their watches. The risks came from two places, in 1944. The vessels were unarmed, making them easy targets for any German U-Boat that decided it wanted to sink one. They could be struck by vessels lost in the fog. And, they were at risk during rough weather.
The Vineyard Lightship had seen its share of bad weather, but not like what it was about to experience. As the ship’s commanding officer Warrant Officer Edgar Sevigny monitored the approaching storm; he didn’t like what he saw. The lightship would be the only vessel within miles of its location. In case of trouble, with the ocean cleared of any boats, there would be no assistance available.
Sevigny asked permission to move to a sheltered location for a couple of hours while the storm passed, but was denied. The 12 men aboard the light ship battened down and tried to ride out the storm. In the early hours of the morning of the 15th, people ashore in Westport Harbor reported seeing bright lights in the middle of the night out where the lightship was located.
They weren’t sure what they were seeing. Most likely, the crew had fired off flares to try to signal for help, but ashore some wondered if the vessel had been attacked. In the morning, the Navy kept the story quiet. All they reported was that the lightship was off station. When they finally found her, she was sunk in 80-feet of water nearly a mile and a half away from her last position. The vessel’s masts and funnel were snapped off at the deck, but her moorings were still attached, which suggests the crew attempted to obey orders and keep the vessel at its position right until it was overwhelmed by the waves.
One man would forever remember the storm as the occasion when he nearly lost his life. Harold Flagg, a boatswain’s mate on the vessel, survived because he was on leave. He told the story to Martha’s Vineyard Magazine in 2003. His two-week leave was originally scheduled to start on August 29, which would have put him back on the ship before the hurricane hit.
However, a bit of bad weather saved him. His leave was postponed for two days because rough weather made it impossible to transfer him to shore. On the morning of September 15, when he returned, ready to rejoin the ship, he was sent home and told to wait. The Vineyard Lightship had already gone down by that point, killing all 12 crewmembers aboard. Dead were:
- Constantine, Vangel
- Gordon, Joseph George
- Hammett, Jack M.
- Hull, Allen Leslie
- Kolozsky, John
- Michalak, Peter Paul
- Starratt, Lawrence Roland
- Sevigny, Edgar
- Steckling, Edward Walter
- Stelter, Frederick Julius
- Stimac, John Joseph
- Talbot, Richard
Onshore, the damage from the hurricane was the worst in Connecticut cities of Bridgeport and Hartford and further down the eastern seabord. Overall, damage was estimated at less than a quarter of that caused by the Hurricane of 1938.