My Coast Guard
Commentary | Oct. 8, 2021

The Long Blue Line: GITMO Lighthouse standing the watch for 120 years, still Semper Paratus!

By J. Edwin Nieves, Coast Guard Auxiliary History Division Acting Branch Chief and Petty Officer 1st Class Sean C. Kinane, Port Security Unit 301

For some years before the 1898 Spanish-American War, U.S. naval forces had an interest in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Author of the famed book, “The Influence of Sea Power upon History,” U.S. Navy Captain Alfred Mahan, looked at naval bases in the Caribbean as a way to secure access to the region’s raw materials and markets. In 1890, the large natural bay leading to the town of Guantanamo caught his eye as an all-weather location for a coaling station and naval base near the strategic Windward Passage, which connects the Atlantic Ocean and Caribbean Sea.

During the war, to flank Spanish military forces in nearby Santiago de Cuba, the USS Marblehead arrived off Guantanamo Bay under Commander Bowman McCalla. McCalla disembarked a battalion of marines to the east of Guantanamo Bay and established a camp on the highest point overlooking the bay. The marines reinforced the camp on what is now called McCalla Hill. After a series of engagements, Spanish forces retreated from the town of Guantanamo and U.S. naval vessels entered Guantanamo Bay for the first time. 

After the brief war, U.S. Army general and Cuba’s new military governor, John Brooke, ordered a report on existing lighthouses in Cuba and the need for additional ones. In 1900, Brooke named Cuban engineer José del Castillo y Zarate, inspector overseeing the construction of new lighthouses and repair of existing ones. The first one built was located at Guantanamo Bay, south of McCalla Hill, on Windward Point.

The building of metal lighthouses was popular at the time. Metal was thought to be more durable than the brick used in the shifting sandy terrain where lighthouses were frequently situated. We do not know where the Guantanamo Bay Lighthouse was pre-fabricated or when exactly it was erected at Guantanamo. Since it was reported standing in a 1901 report by the Captain of the Port of Havana, it was likely shipped and assembled in 1900. The Captain of the Port wrote: “Guantanamo light-house is situated on Punta de Barlovento, the western point of the entrance, with a tower 23.1 meters above the sea [with a]  fourth order fixed red light, visible 14 miles and is in good condition.”

In 1903, the Secretary of the Navy ordered the acquisition of 20 miles of land on either side of Guantanamo Bay’s entrance and the establishment of a permanent coaling depot and naval station. That same year, the day-to-day operation of the lighthouse was transferred from the Navy to the United States Lighthouse Service’s Third District. The following year, $30,000 was requested for improvements, including “any additional aids to navigation, a lighthouse depot, keeper’s quarters, a dock, oil depot and buoy shed.”

The Guantanamo Naval Station, as it was now called, was developed into a military anchorage and coaling facility. During the early 1900s, improved quarters for the lighthouse keeper and his family were built. Like most lighthouses under Lighthouse Service jurisdiction, the fuel-powered lighting mechanism was electrified, but it remained a fixed red light beacon.

During the early years, most of Guantanamo’s naval traffic arrived in the winter months for target practice at Puerto Rico’s Culebra Island gunnery range. In addition to military traffic, Guantanamo Light marked the entrance for commercial traffic. Located within the bay, but outside the Guantanamo Naval Base perimeter, the Cuban town of Caimanera hosted two important industries that relied on commercial shipping. It had a sugar refinery and salt harvesting areas requiring merchant vessel access.

In 1939, the U.S. Lighthouse Service became part of the U.S. Coast Guard, which took responsibility for maintaining all lighthouses. At the same time, World War II began in Europe prompting an assessment of U.S. Naval stations in the Caribbean. In preparation for war, many additions were made to Guantanamo Naval Station, which assumed its current configuration. It is unknown whether there were changes to the lighthouse at this time, but it is likely that the lighthouse and keepers quarters were included in these improvements.

World War II proved a period of critical importance for the Guantanamo Lighthouse. The light served as a beacon to vital naval and commercial shipping. In 1942, after U.S. entry into the war, Operation “Neuland” brought German U-boats into the Caribbean. Soon, a convoy system was created to protect shipping from British Guiana and Trinidad to Guantanamo designated TAG (Trinidad-Aruba-Guantanamo) and GAT (Guantanamo-Aruba-Trinidad). These convoys brought the precious war material of bauxite (used to make aluminum) and oil to Guantanamo on their way to the U.S. In return, they shipped personnel and supplies for Allied military bases throughout the Caribbean. Between 1942 and 1945, there were over 200 TAG-GAT convoys with a total of 4,000 vessels escorted. 

After the war, both naval and commercial traffic declined. The Sugar Quota Laws of the 1940s had decreased the importance of Caimanera as a commercial port and U.S. Naval traffic decreased as well. Guantanamo Lighthouse’s lighting mechanism was replaced in the early 1950s with a light placed on a metal skeletal tower at a higher elevation on Beacon Hill, northwest of the existing lighthouse. This new aid-to-navigation made the lighthouse and keeper obsolete and, by 1955, Guantanamo Lighthouse was inactivated.

After the light was decommissioned, the lighthouse and outbuildings became known as Post #831 and the structures became Coast Guard housing. In 1995, they were turned into a welcome center, including a small museum-like space. However, exposure to the elements took their toll on the metal lighthouse and wooden outbuildings and demolition seemed imminent.

In 2012, the Coast Guard’s Maritime Safety and Security Team (MSST) San Diego deployed to Guantanamo and its members took an interest in preserving the lighthouse and surrounding buildings. During their off-duty hours, they made repairs and improvements to the compound. These efforts guaranteed the structure’s continued survival. A few years later, salt air and tropical weather continued to take a toll on the buildings and an outside firm was hired for further restoration.

Since 2012, other Coast Guard units and personnel have invested time and money in the lighthouse grounds and buildings. In 2019, while deployed Guantanamo Bay, Port Security Unit 301 members Petty Officers 1st Class Sean Kinane and John Flores, both port security specialists,  restored and painted the structure and re-framed and added pictures to the museum. These improvements greatly enhanced the appearance of the compound.

It has been 121 years since the Guantanamo Lighthouse was built. Today, it remains Semper Paratus thanks to numerous Coast Guard members who have preserved this unique piece of Coast Guard history.