“Yesterday was the 3rd and the next day the 5th, a bit confusing to landlubbers, but we took it in stride by just forgetting it. We had crossed the International Date Line. Our deck crews were busy getting ready to enter port and to unload our cargo. The Marines packed their gear to be ready to go ashore.
“It was getting cooler now and on the 6th ran into a nice stiff wind. The deep fuel tanks were getting low and the Tryon really rolled. General quarters came fast and furious as planes, ships and unidentified targets were sighted. Jap subs were reported in this section in numbers and the navigator’s chart had many position marks.
“About noon on the 7th, sighted New Caledonia, first a blur on the horizon and then a land mass with low hanging clouds above. Soon we were able to make out Amedee Lighthouse, sticking up like a long, white finger. Almost immediately blinkers from atop Signal Hill Station challenged us and within a few minutes we could see the purple-hued mountains with cotton-soft clouds hanging low.
“Off Amedee Light, a pilot came aboard to take the Tryon through the reefs and into the harbor. We were destined to make this passage many times in the months to come, but this was the only time we ever used a pilot here, a tribute to the shiphandling ability of the Captain and the excellent work of the navigator, Jerry King.” (1)
Amedee Lighthouse – a gleaming white torch suspended between azure sky and crystal sea; a welcoming beacon to weary sailors glad to be returning to their home port; a silent sentinel, receiving friends, warning enemies; a marker, guiding ships to the safety of Noumea Harbor.
Though the sailors aboard Tryon would no doubt come to view Amedee Lighthouse in these and other ways, the fact was that it had similarly greeted generations of sailors. Even at the outbreak of the war Amedee Lighthouse was a venerable old structure.
The island of New Caledonia was first sighted by the British on September 4, 1774, during the exploration voyages of Captain James Cook. He named the newly located island New Caledonia, because it reminded him of Scotland. (2)
Captain James Cook (1728-1779) was the first European to discover New Caledonia.
In 1792, a French expedition extensively explored the island. Others visited the island in the following years, but no claims were made. The then-estimated 70,000 natives were aggressive and cannibalistic, Melanesians derived from the Papuans. Languages were often dissimilar between even neighboring tribes. In 1840. British missionaries arrived and the Crown planned to claim New Caledonia. A French survey ship crew was murdered by cannibals in 1850 and the French seized the opportunity to land in numbers. They claimed the island in September 1853. The colony was administered by an admiral until 1885 when a governor and local parliament (conseil-general) were appointed. (3)
When Napoleon III ordered the annexation of New Caledonia, France was looking for a strategic military location in the south Pacific, as well as an alternative location for a penal settlement to French Guyana’s Devil’s Island, where poor sanitation and mosquito infestation caused high rates of malaria and other endemic tropical diseases.
From the time of New Caledonia’s discovery by Europeans it was known that approach to the island was difficult due to the coral reefs that surrounded it. In 1859 the new commander of the colony, Captain Jean-Marie Saisset, requested construction of a lighthouse to help guide ships through the treacherous waters. This was particularly important as by then the colony was indeed being used as an alternative destination for French convicts. (4) In 1861 construction of a lighthouse was approved. Since few laborers skilled in masonry and other specialties needed for constructing a large lighthouse were available in New Caledonia, a relatively new technology would be chosen for it’s construction.
Leonce Reynaud, head of France’s Lighthouses and Beacons Service and designer of Amedee Lighthouse
Design of the lighthouse was assigned to Léonce Reynaud, head of France’s Lighthouses and Beacons Service. In over thirty years of service in this position Reynaud would oversee construction of 131 lighthouses. Recognizing the construction challenges that would be faced in New Caledonia, Reynaud chose to improve upon a method used by the British in construction of lighthouses in Newfoundland, Jamaica, and elsewhere – using wrought iron. The lighthuse would be built using an internal supportive framework protected from weather and corrosion by an outer metal casing. A bulge was placed at the base to serve as housing for the lighthouse-keeper. (5)
The lighthouse was constructed in pieces by Mr. Rigolet, with the size of each piece being determined with consideration to the lack of scafolding and a limited number of workers in New Caledonia. It took four months for the individual components to be fabricated. The contract required that the pieces be assembled prior to shipment to New Caledonia to ensure stability and structural integrety, so Rigolet assembled the lighthouse near his shop in Paris – as the structure rose it became the talk of the town!
Preliminary construction of the lighthouse was completed in July, 1862 and it was left in place until June, 1864, when it was disassembled and packed into crates. Components of the lighthouse weighed 427 tons, and required 1265 crates for transport. The crates were loaded onto a barge and transported down the Seine River to the port of Le Harve, where they were transferred to the ship Emile Pereire, bound for New Caledonia. The ship and her cargo arrived at Port-de-France (now Noumea) on November 15, 1864. (6)
A young engineer, Louis-Emile Bertin, just 24 years old, was place in charge of construction of the new lighthouse, using both military personnel and local labor. (7)
Amedee Island, which lies about fifteen miles from Noumea, was chosen as the site for the lighthouse because it sits near Boulari Passage, one of just three natural passages through the coral reefs surrounding New Caledonia – Boulari Passage, Dumbea Passage (located to the north of Amedee Island, and most commonly used by large ships today), and Havannah Passage (near the southeastern tip of New Caledonia). (8)
Map showing proximity of Boulari Passage and Dumbea Passage to Noumea.
With some fanfare the foundation stone was laid on 18 January 1865. Governor Guillain and a group of local dignitaries traveled to the island for a ceremony and placement of a commemorative lead box under that first stone. It took laborers ten months of intense work to complete the structure. Amedee Lighthouse was first illuminated on November 15, 1865, the Saint’s Day of the Empress Eugenie, Napoleon III’s wife. At 180 feet tall it is among the tallest cast iron lighthouses in the world – some argue it is the tallest. (9)
And so it was, on November 7, 1942 and on many later visits, that Amedee Lighthouse greeted the officers and crew of Tryon. Tryon couldn’t claim the landmark as her own, however; many naval ships called Noumea home. Admiral Robert L. Ghormley, after being named Commander, South Pacific Area (COMSOPAC), on 13 April, 1942, arrived at his new headquarters in Auckland, NZ on May 21; however, by July Ghormley moved his headquarters to Noumea to facilitate coordination between Army and Navy commands. (10) Due to the proximity of the harbor to the South Pacific operations, Nouméa provided not only a home port, but a well equipped and supplied repair base for damaged Allied ships. Nouméa declined in importance as a naval base as the Allied offensive moved inexorably northward toward Japan.
Alexander Vandegrift and William Halsey at Noumea, New Caledonia, January, 1943. By this time Halsey had replaced Ghormley as COMSOPAC. Vandegrift would receive a Medal of Honor for heroism in leading the Marines against the Japanese on Guadalcanal.
World War II would eventually end, but the need for Amedee Lighthouse to warn ships of the nearby hazardous coral reef and to guide the way to Noumea Harbor continued. Originally lighted using lamp oil made from rape seed (equivalent to our modern day canola oil), in 1952 a mantle system using vaporized kerosene was put in place. The lighthouse was electrified in 1985 using a wind turbine; in 1994 the wind turbine was replaced by solar panels. Amedee Lighthouse produces a light beam of 30,000 candlepower, and can be seen 24.5 miles out to sea. (11)
Today, GPS has largely eliminated the need for lighthouses to guide ships through treacherous waters and foul weather, but they continue to be popular with visitors due to their striking beauty, interesting architecture and historic significance. Amedee Lighthouse remains a favorite stop for those visiting New Caledonia. In fact, among visitors to Noumea the day trip to Amedee Island is one of the most popular. The island sits in the protected Amedee Island Marine Reserve, which is part of the New Caledonia Barrier Reef, the second largest barrier reef in the world. The crystalline waters and white sandy beaches make for a perfect place to spend a day. Snorkeling and a glass bottom boat provide opportunity to get up close and personal with the incredible variety of marine life that inhabits the reef. A buffet lunch gives visitors a chance to relax while watching traditional island music and dancing.
Amedee Island has a large population of striped sea snakes. There are two varieties – the banded, or yellow-lipped, sea krait (Laticauda colubrine) and the blue-lipped sea krait (Laticauda laticaudata) – and they are found everywhere – including, some say, on the steps leading to the top of the lighthouse! The snakes are quite timid and slow on land, and they are easily assumed to be harmless. Not so! Their venom is said to be more potent than a cobra’s! There is no known antidote, and death, if bitten, occurs within minutes. Thankfully, their mouths are extremely small, making it nearly impossible for them to close on human body parts, and their docile nature means that they rarely strike at humans anyway. Be that as it may, surely a misunderstanding about the potential danger of these creatures has led visitors to sometimes handle them with a perceived immunity to danger and to treat them in a more carefree manner than the snakes deserve! (12)
Playing on the beach with a striped sea snake.
Handling a highly poisonous blue lipped krait.
A climb up 247 steps, which narrow appreciably near the top, will lead an adventurous visitor to the upper platform of the lighthouse, 170 feet above the sea. Corbels support the cast iron deck, which is used for maintenance of the light and as a promenade for visitors. The deck is surrounded by a decorative railing adorned with ten-point stars. The panoramic view beyond the rail is nothing short of spectacular. It is a sight that makes the arduous climb to the promenade well worth while. (13)
Star-studded railing of Amedee Lighthouse’s promenade.
Amedee Lighthouse – friendly greeter of war-weary sailors looking forward to the safe confines of their home port; vacation destination for those seeking the pristine beauty of an unspoiled tropical isle. To the men of Tryon it surely must have been a welcome sight. Given it’s history and tradition, Amedee Lighthouse will likely be both welcomed and welcoming for generations of future sailors and visitors – but hopefully never again for the reasons it was on November 7, 1942.
If you or your family member served aboard Tryon, or if for another reason you’re interested in Tryon, I’d love to hear from you. Please leave a comment so that we can communicate further.
If you have a comment, correction, annecdote or story related to this or any other post, please be sure to leave a comment. I enjoy nothing more than hearing from others that share an interest in this most pivital time in world history.
And thanks for taking time to check out my blog. I sincerely appreciate it.
Looking up the spiraling stairway of Amedee Lighthouse.
Entrance to Amedee Lighthouse. Note bulging base that lends stability and in the early days provided a home for the lighthouse keeper.
This plaque hangs in the entrance to Amedee Lighthouse, and says, “This building was constructed by S.E.M Le Cte PROSPER DE CHASSELOUP-LAUBAT, Minister of the Navy and Colonies, based on the plans drawn up by Mr LEONCE REYNAUD, Director of Lighthouses, under the direction of Mr V. CHEVALLIER and Mr E. ALLARD, Chief Engineers for the Department of Civil Works by Mr RIGOLET, Paris builder 1862”
Amedee Lighthouse has been featured on a number of New Caledonian postage stamps. This stamp, on a first day cover, features fifty years of flight from France to New Caledonia.
This stamp and first day cover celebrate 100 years in service.
This stamp and first day cover announce the electrification of Amedee Lighthouse in 1985.
Another stamp recognizing Amedee Lighthouse, March, 2000.
These 360 degree sphere panoramas are a fun way to “visit” Amedee Lighthouse and Island. Clicking on the links below will take you to the panoramas, which were produced and and are provided by Rocket Guides New Caledonia:
One of the beautiful sandy beaches that ring Amedee Island.
Ground view of Amedee Island.
View from the promenade deck of Amedee Lighthouse
Here are two videos demonstrating the beauty of the Noumea area and Amedee Island. In the second video, which starts off showing the arrival at Noumea, with the coastal hills visible beyond the the pristine waters, I can imagine Tryon arriving back in her home port, sailors not otherwise occupied by their daily duties lining the rails to get a look at the first solid ground they’d seen in days – or weeks! The war ships once filling Great Roads have been replaced by pleasure yachts, and the hills are dotted with more houses than there were in 1942 – but the beautiful coastline remains largely unchanged over the past seventy years.
(1) “The South Pacific Express.” Pg. 10.
(2) Wikipedia – “New Caledonia” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/New_Caledonia
(3) Gor”World War 2 Pacific Island Guide,” pg. 69. http://books.google.com/books?id=ChyilRml0hcC&pg=PA71&lpg=PA71&dq=noumea+new+caledonia+chosen+for+south+pacific+command+ww+II&source=bl&ots=bKnaCTss0c&sig=EGjImhB0OOKpddNCH_wmN-GeCbA&hl=en&sa=X&ei=O3VIUf6bOsiz2gW-9oGoBQ&ved=0CDwQ6AEwAg#v=onepage&q=noumea%20new%20caledonia%20chosen%20for%20south%20pacific%20command%20ww%20II&f=false
(4) Wikipedia – “Amedee Lighthouse” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Am%C3%A9d%C3%A9e_lighthouse
(5) “30,000 candles for the 140th anniversary of the Amedee lighthouse” http://envlit.ifremer.fr/infos/actualite/2005/30_000_bougies_pour_les_140_ans_du_phare_amedee (in French)
(7) “30,000 candles for the 140th anniversary of the Amedee lighthouse” http://envlit.ifremer.fr/infos/actualite/2005/30_000_bougies_pour_les_140_ans_du_phare_amedee (in French)
(8) “Typhoon Havens Handbook for the Western Pacific and Indian Oceans” http://www.nrlmry.navy.mil/port_studies/thh-nc/ncaledon/noumea/text/sect1.htm
(9) “THE AMEDEE LIGHTHOUSE” http://www.docstoc.com/docs/14291196/Nouvelle-Cal%C3%A9donie-Tourisme-Point-Sud-THE-AMEDEE-LIGHTHOUSE-Known-locally-as
(10) “HyperWar: US Army in WWII: Strategy and Command: The First Two Years” Pg. 261. http://www.ibiblio.org/hyperwar/USA/USA-P-Strategy/Strategy-11.html
(11) “THE AMEDEE LIGHTHOUSE” http://www.docstoc.com/docs/14291196/Nouvelle-Cal%C3%A9donie-Tourisme-Point-Sud-THE-AMEDEE-LIGHTHOUSE-Known-locally-as
(13) “THE AMEDEE LIGHTHOUSE” http://www.docstoc.com/docs/14291196/Nouvelle-Cal%C3%A9donie-Tourisme-Point-Sud-THE-AMEDEE-LIGHTHOUSE-Known-locally-as