LEGACIES OF WWII: Bernard James Havens – Coast Guard radio man/ Atlantic

Bernard James Havens, former Coast Guard radio man during WWII. (Photo by Kayleen Reusser for The News-Sentinel)

By the time Bernard ‘Bernie’ Havens of Adams County in Iowa graduated from high school in 1944, America’s war with the Axis powers was in its third year. Havens was anxious to join the Navy. Unfortunately, he received disappointing news. “Their quotas of personnel were full,” he said. Instead, in March 1945 he joined the Coast Guard.

Havens was sent to Manhattan Beach in New York for basic training. Three months later, he was prepared for battle, but Germany had surrendered and the war in Europe was over.

“The military didn’t know what to do with its new recruits,” said Havens. “They assigned us picking up cigarette butts.” Havens was rescued from such menial duties by using typing skills learned in high school for preparing discharge papers for soldiers.

Then, in September 1945, Havens was sent to Groton, CT, to radio school for three months. He learned a new set of talents for his next assignment–working on lighthouses and lightships off the coast of Cape Cod.

Havens was first assigned to the Northwind, an ‘ice breaker’ boat. Contrary to its name, the Northwind didn’t break ice, as ice cannot form in the salty Atlantic.

Wearing plenty of cold weather gear, Havens traveled along the coast via the Northwind, maintaining and running radios in lighthouses.

Some of the lighthouses Havens worked in were at the village of Woods Hole by Martha’s Vineyard and Block Island at Providence, RI.

During each visit, Havens was required to climb dozens of steps to the top. Today, he believes a different method is used for maintaining the lighthouses. “I think they do it by remote control today if they still use lighthouses,” he said.

As he checked on the radios in the lighthouses, Havens visited with the half dozen or so families who lived in or near them and maintained them. “The kids who lived there took a boat to the mainland to attend school each day,” he said. In addition to radios, Havens also used Morse code to communicate.

In areas where it was too impractical to build lighthouses, sea vessels assumed their places as a means to warn passing ships of treacherous waters. The vessels were referred to as ‘lightships’.

“They carried lanterns and patrolled certain sections where the ground was shallow and a ship might run aground,” said Havens. The coast’s tendency to quickly produce dense fog in spring and summer months prompted the need for lightships.

Havens worked on two lightships — the Pollock Rip and Nantucket. The crew of a vessel sailing down the Atlantic side of the Cape would depend on spotting the signal of the lightships for safe passage.

The boats would have listened, too, for the bells buoys set in the water by the Coast Guard. “We had to maintain those bells because they gave warnings to ships and boats about shallow water or rocks,” said Havens. Fog horns were used as well by merchant and commercial ships to keep crews alert.

One subject, especially during the winter, that came up often in discussions were ‘Nor’easters – storms so called because winds along the New England coast are typically from the northeast. “I saw a storm in February 1946 with 40 foot waves,” said Havens.

On each ship Havens worked four hours on and four hours off. “I only got three hours of sleep by the time I got to bed and had to be up again for my next shift,” he said. Canvas bunks were held up with chains and Havens often had to hang on to keep from falling out as he slept.

The crew were forced to hold on to food as it slid from side to side during meals. Havens didn’t mind the challenges of life at sea. “It was different and fun because I was young,” he said. “Everything was a new experience.”

Electronics Mate 3rd Class Havens was discharged in May 1946. After using the GI bill to attend Indiana Tech in Fort Wayne for a degree in engineering, he graduated in 1952 and worked for the Farnsworth Television and Radio Corporation. Havens retired in 1989. He and his wife, Mae Belle, are parents to four children. Havens participated with Honor Flight of Northeast Indiana in 2014. “I was my privilege to serve my country,” he said. “I was patriotic and enjoyed the experiences.”