After the shelling of Fort Stevens in 1942, U.S. Army engineers decided to try and hide the Peninsula's most-famous landmark, North Head Lighthouse
Nobody keeps count anymore - except maybe for the summer tours - but more visitors surely visit the North Head Lighthouse than any other landmark or tourist attraction on the Long Beach Peninsula.
It's also the most walked to, ooh'd and aah'd over and easily the most photographed structure in our neck of the woods. A colorful painting of the lighthouse graced the cover of the Discovery Coast Visitors Guide in 2000, and line drawings of it stand sentinel every week in the Chinook Observer, in the upper lefthand corner of both the front page and second section and on the editorial page.
Yes, there's something about lighthouses that stirs one's imagination - thoughts of shipwrecks barely avoided, a welcome beacon for wayward mariners lost in murky darkness. Our lighthouse up on North Head has a little something extra going for it, though - something not many folks know about or, if they're old enough, have forgotten.
In the summer of 1942, at the peak of the Pacific war scare and about the time a Japanese submarine fired 17 shells at Fort Stevens across the river, the North Head Lighthouse was painted in camouflage colors by the Army Corps of Engineers.
That's right - a camouflage paint job for that picturesque lighthouse. Visualize our bright and shining white lighthouse capped with a red top, as we know it today, painted in drab camo colors. A little dark green, light brown, some gray - you know the drill. See it any day at the sporting goods store or out in the duck blind. You probably own some camo outerwear yourself.
It was all for a good cause, of course, but would a camouflage paint job really hide the lighthouse from the enemy? Probably not. Was it in any real danger from enemy shelling? Perhaps.
One unanswered question: Did they turn off the light to complete the illusion? Maybe, maybe not. There's no official word on that, but a professional maritime researcher said there is evidence that the North Head light may have been extinguished from time to time in World War II.
The Cape Disappointment lighthouse probably was camouflaged, too, as part of war preparedness. But we could find no eyewitnesses who were there at Cape D when paint was applied, if it actually was.
North Head witnesses, we've got two of them in fact, both of whom grew up as playmates in Seaview, and as young men fought valiantly for their country in the European theater - one on the ground and one in the air.
They are Warner Williams, 81, and his boyhood chum, Stan Lochrie Jr., who is 80. Back in the 1930s, as youngsters they lived a few houses apart on K Place in Seaview, and remain close friends today. Both men have phenomenal memories for names and incidents in their past. The memories always perk up when someone mentions the North Head Lighthouse paint job.
Lochrie graduated from Ilwaco High School while Williams, whose family had moved from Seaview to South Bend, attended high school there. Both started classes at Whitman College in Walla Walla before enlisting in the service, and both graduated from Whitman after the war.
Williams, who with relatives still owns the old family home in Seaview, now lives in Portland with his wife, Sylvia. A retired history teacher and administrator at Portland State University, he fought with American forces in Europe in World War II as an infantry squad leader and machine gunner in the 99th Infantry Division.
Lochrie joined the Army Air Corps, became a pilot and flew B- 17 heavy bombers from an Allied base in Italy. He and his wife, Marjorie, live in Vancouver, occasionally visiting Mr. and Mrs. Williams and other friends on the Peninsula. Before he retired, Lochrie owned a large nursery stock company in central Washington.
Both men were members of prominent local families. Williams' father, L.D. Williams Jr., owned the water system serving Long Beach and Seaview, selling it to the city in 1952. The elder Williams later became Willapa Harbor port manager in Raymond. Lochrie's father, Stanley C. Lochrie, founded a bank in Ilwaco where his son worked summers.
But as young bucks just out of high school, looking to make a dollar before they enlisted, these teen-aged chums dug in as 18-year-old day laborers in the summer of '42, working for the Army engineers at Fort Canby, Fort Columbia and the North Head Lighthouse.
They started at two-bits an hour and soon were bumped to a dollar, "sweet clover for a youngster in those days," Lochrie recalled. "Eight bucks a day!"
They kept busy doing all kinds of grunt work as carpenters' helpers at the two forts, digging ditches for a new sewer system and building new barracks at Canby to accommodate newly arrived soldiers.
But it's what they saw up on North Head nearly 62 years ago that makes a story. Williams and Lochrie reported at the North Head lighthouse just in time to witness the historic camouflage paint job.
"We saw painters sitting on boson chairs suspended from the lighthouse tower, slapping on the camouflage colors," Williams recalled. "Glad they didn't ask us to paint the high stuff."
He said Gordon Elliott, now deceased but then living in Seaview, did most of the high-altitude painting. Giving his detailed memory a workout, Williams typed up a list of men on the work crews. The boss was William (Bill) Owens, supervising civil engineer for the Corps of Engineers and then a Long Beach resident. A man who still lives in Long Beach, Frank E. Strauhal, was another worker on the fort and lighthouse crews.
Williams said he got to paint some of the lower part of the lighthouse, then they both pitched in to help build a concrete observation post partway down the bluff still visible to visitors at the site.
After the lighthouse work was completed, Williams and Lochrie moved to Fort Canby again, helping clear land for coastal defense gun batteries to be installed high on McKenzie Head. For reasons buried in military records, the big disappearing rifles were never put in, but the concrete emplacements - known to only a few - remain a curiosity today for visitors willing to hike up the hill.
They also worked at Fort Columbia, helping build barracks and a guardhouse. They remember a concrete building on the headland between the fort and the river which was off-limits to civilians. It contained secret electrical gear to set off mines in the Columbia estuary by remote control.
Unexpected excitement jarred young Williams from a sound sleep the night of June 21, 1942. A few days earlier, he was assigned to a crew and sent across the river on a ferry for a job at Fort Stevens. Lochrie was busy on another crew and missed the show.
"The night of the 21st I was asleep on my cot in the barracks," Williams recalled, "when all of a sudden all hell broke loose." He heard the thump of an offshore gun as the Japanese sub I-25 unleashed its 5.5-inch deck gun and lobbed 17 shells harmlessly toward shore. The shelling injured no one and caused little damage "except for the backstop on the baseball field," Williams said.
A granite marker near where a shell landed described the attack as the only hostile shelling of a military base on the U.S. mainland in World War II and the first by a foreign enemy since the War of 1812.
Earlier this spring, Williams and Lochrie, the Seaview buddies and veterans of the Great North Head Lighthouse caper, joined this writer on a drive from Portland to the lighthouse for a photo session. We took the "back way" on U.S. Highway 30 because of a detour on the Sunset Highway. Along the way as their memories kicked in, Williams and Lochrie swapped war stories and reminisced about the camouflaged lighthouse and growing up on the Peninsula in its heyday.
We parked in the lighthouse lot and took the old and less-used lighthouse keeper's trail. Stopping along the trail for pictures as thousands of others had, with the lighthouse silhouetted against the glare, Williams and Lochrie remembered how strange that tall tower had looked so long ago with its new camouflage coating of paint.
"That paint must've worked," one of them said. "The lighthouse is still there."