The Coast Guard’s Best Kept Secret: ATON Island Style

Kukuihaele Lighthouseby PA3 Michael De Nyse

“I don’t remember seeing this on the recruiting poster,” exclaims Petty Officer 2nd Class Jose Gomera, as he reluctantly leaves the tranquil safety of his truck to unlock a rusty gate, allowing access to the lighthouse. Suddenly and with great haste, he slams the gate, locks it and races back to the truck, sweating much more than before.

“Those bulls are not happy to see us.”

For the members of ANT Honolulu dodging massive bulls, herding wild pigs and corralling ill-tempered cows are just a few of the challenges they, face during their annual mission to service aids to navigation on the Big Island. Their most recent trip began Sept. 3, and lasted two weeks. Their mission is to ensure the continued operation of nautical aid to navigation which are specifically intended to assist navigators determine their position, find a safe course, or to warn them of danger. Types of nautical aids include: lighthouses, buoys, fog signals, and day beacons. They are placed in positions to best serve mariners, which oftentimes makes them very difficult to reach by land.

One such aid is positioned on the northeastern side of the island and is named Kukuihaele, which means ‘lighthouse’ in Hawaiian. The present 34-foot concrete tower was built in 1937 and is accessed by a bumpy road and is inadvertently defended by a herd of approximately 150 livestock. The ANT team must open a series of three gates to access the light, leading to interesting encounters along the way.

“Watch out for that one; the one with the horns!” yelled VonSchlegell, alluding to the ill tempered bull glaring at them.

The Kukuihaele is the only remaining concrete light structure in Hawaii which has an interior ladder used for accessing the lamp.

Despite the bulls, the team made it to the structure in one piece, serviced the navigation aid and returned back to town for the day.

Inside Kukuihaele Lighthouse

Petty Officer 2nd Class Jose Gomera, climbs the ladder leading to the top of the Kukuihaele Lighthouse

“Everything on the island that serves as a maritime navigation aid is our responsibility,” said Chief Petty Officer Robert Petrillo, officer-in-charge of ANT Honolulu. Petrillo has 10 enlisted members, and one reservist working for him. “We’re very fortunate to have a great crew here; my team is a group of qualified-hard working guys who are out for a challenge,” said Petrillo.

The team also tackled Hilo Harbor’s rear range light, a 110-foot structure that was built in 1982. The Harbor’s rear range allows mariners to line their vessels like a gunslinger would line up his sights. Once both lights are set in line the mariner knows he’s on the safe path into the channel.

“We service these structures on land, so mariners can remain safe in the water,” said Petty Officer 2nd Class Fritz VonSchlegell, member of ANT Honolulu. “These types of navigation aids give mariners road signs similar to exit signs on the highway.”

If these aids were left unchecked they would eventually fail, most likely resulting in catastrophic measures to the shipping fleets and other maritime travelers.

“These guys are self starters, they know what needs to be done, but most importantly they remain safe while they complete the mission,” said VonSchlegell. “Safety is paramount while working tall structure such as these because one mistake and it could be your last,” VonSchlegell said.

After a finishing at the Hilo Harbor’s rear range, it was off to the next structures. Generally navigational aids are often in remote areas and are difficult to get to. Just getting to the structure often requires off-road driving over rough terrain. The next stop was at Cape Kumukahi, located 25 miles southeast of Hilo on the easternmost point of the Hawaiian Islands.

Originally, this Cape’s light was a 32-foot wooden tower capped with an automatic acetylene gas light. Before arriving at the structure, there is a long bumpy paved road, and lava fields stretch out as far as the eye can see.

“I take a lot of pride in knowing that what we’re doing out here makes a big difference,” said VonSchlegell. “I don’t see it as turning a wrench or changing a light bulb. I see it as keeping people safe and that’s why I joined the Coast Guard in the first place.”

A day in the life of the ANT Honolulu can be difficult, dangerous and exciting; however, it certainly has its perks. This team is living proof that just because the job isn’t glamorous or on the recruiting poster doesn’t mean it’s not a rewarding Coast Guard career field.

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