Story by Brent Tompkins
Reporting for duty
The tender swayed gently along the wharf in Round Lake as a rotund man in his late forties stepped off the dock into the small twenty-foot long wooden craft. Dale G. Petrov had been recently reassigned from his station at Bald Head Lighthouse (also known as “Old Baldy”) in North Carolina to a much more isolated post in Lake Michigan. Dale dreaded the new assignment but was not surprised by it. It had only been two months prior that a young man under Dale’s command had fallen into some machinery in the fog signal building at Bald Head Light and lost his arm. The boat drifted away from the dock as the small engine came to life and began belching out black smoke. After passing through the narrow channel connecting Round Lake to Lake Michigan, the boat veered north and set a course for White Shoal Lighthouse. Dale stood near the stern of the boat and watched as the small town of Charlevoix slowly disappeared in the distance. It was a fine spring day in April 1935 with a light southwest breeze creating a gentle one-foot swell.
The tender chugged along for nearly three hours before White Shoal Light appeared faintly on the horizon. Dale was apprehensive. He was aware of the twenty-two foot vertical climb up the crib ladder to the lighthouse deck and didn’t know quite how he would deal with it upon arrival. Dale was terrified of heights…quite a quandary for a lighthouse keeper. While stationed at Old Baldy, Dale rarely climbed the light tower and instead focused on his duties in the fog signal building and power house. He was a well-respected engineer and was able to perform his duties satisfactorily and remain grounded…though he often received teasing from the other keepers.
Old Baldy was a fitting description for Dale himself. Having lost most of his hair by age twenty-five, the only thing remaining were a few random hairs that stuck straight out of the top of his head. Dale’s face was round and his head seemed to disappear into his shoulders with no obvious connection between the two. Standing 5’ 1” tall and weighing 225 pounds, Dale often had difficulty working on machinery in cramped spaces. Still, his reputation as a talented mechanic preceded him. Dale was convinced if it hadn’t been for the mishap two months earlier, he would have been reassigned somewhere closer to his family in North Carolina or allowed to stay at Bald Head Light. Instead, he was sent to the frozen northern Great Lakes to serve as 2nd Assistant Keeper at White Shoal Lighthouse…a move he regarded as a punishment. He was hopeful that his tenure at White Shoal would be brief and that he would soon have enough money saved up to retire from the United States Lighthouse Service and return to his family and the warmth of North Carolina. White Shoal Light is the third most remote lighthouse on the Great Lakes and is located twenty miles due west of Mackinaw City. The closest land (a deserted island) is seven miles distant. Lightkeepers on the Great Lakes often complained of the isolation…especially at the offshore crib lights and other stations located on remote islands.
Upon arrival at the light station, the boat slowed and circled the crib several times as the tender captain surveyed the calmest side to tie the boat off. Dale seemed relieved at first, but as the boat came alongside the massive concrete crib, the ladder seemed to grow taller and taller. When it came time for Dale to disembark, he lurched toward the cold cast iron ladder rungs and gripped them so tightly it was surprising his imprint wasn’t instantly left behind. Slowly, he stretched his short wide legs one at a time as he struggled to make his way aloft. By the time Dale had reached the upper ladder rung, he was out of breath and nearly motionless with fear…his prominent nose hanging slightly over the top rung with his hands clutching close by. Third Assistant Keeper Ralph LeStone, hand outstretched, attempted to aid Dale up onto the crib deck. By this time, Dale was shaking and paralyzed with fear. Ralph whistled down to the Captain of the tender to lend a hand. After placing a line around Dale’s waist, the two men were able to get him safely up over the edge.
“Welcome to White Shoal,” Ralph hollered over the sound of the engines running just a few feet away.
After regaining his composure, Dale simply walked past Ralph without saying a word and began looking over the machinery clanking loudly inside the boathouse.
“Bearing about ready to go out,” he yelled toward Ralph while pointing at one of three oil engines on the boathouse floor. At this point, Head Keeper Frederick Thill had made his way down the spiral steps into the boathouse and welcomed Dale aboard the station.
“Your quarters will be on deck three across from the kitchen and adjacent to the dining/radio room,” Thill said as he chomped on his cigar. Dale grabbed hold to one end of the large wooden chest full of his belongings as Ralph grasped the other and helped guide him to the stairwell.
“I’m sure you’ll find the accommodations to your liking Mr. Petrov,” Thill suggested as the three men made their way up the steps to deck three.
“Still mighty cold in here,” Thill uttered as he opened the door to Dale’s room and led him inside. It had only been a week earlier that the keepers had opened the station for the season and the coal furnace was working overtime boiling water to fill the steam radiators located on decks two through five. Condensation dripped from the ceiling as Dale surveyed his room.
“It’ll only take another few days for the heat to warm this brick up and the dripping will stop,” insisted Thill. Dale walked around the single bed, past the rocking chair and small rickety wood desk against the wall and opened the door to his closet. After peering his head inside for an awkwardly long pause, he looked back toward Head Keeper Thill
“This will do just fine, sir.” Thill took the cigar from his mouth,
“You have the eight to four watch…Ralph will help bring your remaining personal items aboard and up to your room. Please stop by my quarters on deck four once you are settled in so we can go over your duties. Dinner is served at 6pm sharp.”
Ralph LeStone was the lowest in command at the station. The twenty-five-year-old Third Assistant Keeper had already spent the 1933 and 1934 seasons at White Shoal and was well-liked by the other keepers. He was tall, lanky, with bright blue eyes and a full head of red hair…and much stronger than he appeared. Ralph had been stationed at Concord Point Lighthouse (near his home in Maryland) from the beginning of his tenure with the Lighthouse Service. He had been reassigned to White Shoal half way through the 1933 season to replace another young keeper who was having a very rough time adjusting to the isolation. Isolation didn’t bother Ralph. He liked to spend his free time daydreaming and doodling on a notepad that he always kept in his pants pocket.
At dinner that evening, Dale was introduced to the only other soul at White Shoal Light…First Assistant Keeper Tom Jorne. Tom was a tall, dark-haired gentleman who appeared more like a professional businessman than a light keeper. He was confident, loud, and liked to talk endlessly. He also had a penchant for poking his nose into everyone else’s business. As Dale leaned back in his chair at the dinner table that evening, he couldn’t help but think of the warm sand beach he had left behind only days before at Old Baldy. This new gig was going to take some getting used to, he thought while staring blankly across the room. Staying busy and absorbing himself into his duties was key, Dale had decided, to help pass the time. With any luck, he would be back in North Carolina in as little as twenty-four months.
It didn’t take long for Dale to settle into a routine at White Shoal. As Second Assistant Keeper, he was in charge of all the mechanical systems at the light station. There was an electric water pump in the basement that pumped water from the forty-eight inch diameter well leading up from the lakebed, through a chlorinator, and into a holding tank. This was the source of the keepers fresh drinking water. In the boathouse was a coal-fired boiler that provided steam to the radiators that heated the living spaces. Also in the boathouse was a small oil-powered generator that supplied the station’s minimal electrical needs. Placed next to the generator were three large oil engines that struggled to produce enough compressed air to keep up with White Shoal's massive three-trumpet foghorn. These engines were primitive to today’s standards. Belts and pulleys hung from the boathouse ceiling as the engines sputtered away, turning all matter of gears and flywheels. It was a dangerous place to work. More than one keeper had been mauled by machinery over the course of the years serving at various lighthouses across the country.
Dale was good at his trade. He had spent his early years working his Uncle's farm just outside his hometown of Bolton, North Carolina. It was there where Dale spent hours tearing apart and reassembling various farm machinery. He had become a well-respected mechanic locally and was often called upon to fix neighboring farm tractors. However, it was his interest in the mechanical foghorn he could hear in the distance during late Fall trips to Bald Head Island (where his uncle had a primitive cabin on the beach), that led him to join the Lighthouse Service in 1922.
By September 1935 (five months after having arrived at White Shoal), Dale had mastered all the mechanical systems at the light station and had become well-liked by the other keepers. They all appeared to have a good sense of humor and, though respectful toward each other while on watch, would often resort to practical jokes while off duty. Most had a nickname as well. They called young Ralph “carrot top.” Tom Jorne had been given the nickname “gabby” many years prior…and it stuck with him throughout his entire tenure with the Lighthouse Service. By now, Dale had earned the nickname “the whale” (not only because it rhymed with his first name, but also due to his short, wide stature and penchant for food). Dale could often be found in the galley late in the evening cooking up a full meal before bedtime. Head Keeper Frederick Thill was the only one who didn’t have a nickname (at least not one the other keepers were brave enough to call to his face). Thill had served at White Shoal Light since 1922. He was 5’5” tall with dark brown hair and brown eyes. His thick dark eyebrows, along with a very well-defined jaw line and the stern look on his face gave him a very commanding presence. He was very well-respected by all the keepers that had served under him. He treated his men with respect, but also demanded much from them. No one ever doubted who was in charge while stationed at White Shoal Light during the twenty-four years Frederick Thill served.
During an unseasonably calm and warm Fall day in late October of Dale’s first season at White Shoal, there was an incident on the parapet that gave the other keepers insight into just how severely terrified Dale was of heights. One month prior, Ralph and Tom were doing some exterior paint touchups on the parapet railing when, suddenly, a gust of wind startled Ralph and caused him to overreact as he lurched for the paint can balanced precariously atop the narrow edge of the railing. There was a short rope around the paint can handle, but that didn’t stop it from free falling close to ten feet down the side of the tower while spilling out its contents along the way. A gaudy silvery gray streak could be seen trailing down the tower contrasting sharply to the jet black day-mark that had covered it since 1927. White Shoal Light has gone through a series of day-mark changes since she was constructed in 1910. The entire structure was originally white with a narrow black band at the balcony deck. By 1927, the day mark had been changed to all black with a silver gray top from the parapet upward. It wasn’t until the summer of 1954 that White Shoal Light received its most recognizable red and white barber pole paint job…and remains to this day the only red and white barber striped lighthouse in the United States.
It was on this warm Fall day that Ralph, Tom, and Dale had all been ordered aloft by Head Keeper Thill to fix the damage caused by the spilled paint from a month earlier. Dale ventured up the tower to the lantern once per day for his watch rotation. He never ventured outside onto the parapet however, due to the vertigo he would suffer as a result. Thill had been made aware of Dale’s phobia before he was transferred from Old Baldy to White Shoal and thought that it could possibly present an issue. However, several months into his new assignment, Dale had proven to Thill that he could perform his daily duties regardless of his fear of heights, so the two never spoke about it. Dale spent most of his days in the boathouse maintaining the machinery anyways. This assignment was different however. Ralph had volunteered to go over the edge of the parapet on a bosun’s chair in order to reach the gray paint stain with a brush and some fresh black paint. This was a three-man operation…requiring a line tender on the bosun’s chair and safety line, as well as a third person to lower down the paint can and brush. Tom had volunteered to tend the lines and Dale was given the easiest job of raising and lowering supplies. He stood frozen in the door leading out to the parapet while Ralph was carefully being lowered over the edge by Tom.
“Grab that paint can and brush and get it over the side Dale,” barked Tom. “Who knows how long this weather window will last.”
Dale began to shake as he dropped to his knees and crawled hesitantly out the parapet door, slowly dragging the paint and brush alongside. By this time, Ralph had successfully been lowered roughly ten feet down the tower as he looked aloft and hollered for the supplies. Dale made himself over to the precipice while still on his knees and reached slowly upward for the top rail. Tom looked on in shock. Ralph was looking up and witnessed Dale’s hands slowly grasp the rail and clench it tightly. Then, Dale’s head appeared cautiously over the top of the rail as he slowly opened his eyes to peer down at Ralph. Terror could then be seen on Dale’s face as his eyes focused on the water surrounding the crib in all directions.
“You ok, Dale?” Ralph inquired.
“He’s just fine,” chimed Tom as he reached out to slap Dale on the shoulder (only further upsetting his sense of balance).
But Dale wasn’t fine. He was motionless and speechless as he gripped the upper rail. Ralph could see the terror in Dale’s eyes as he peered frozen over the edge. Tom attempted to defuse the situation by making some wise cracks, but soon realized he was only making matters worse. Finally, Tom was forced to tie off the bosun’s chair and safety line that Ralph was dangling from so he could grab the line that Dale was supposed to be manning and sent the supplies down to Ralph. Ralph made short work of the paint job and was back on the parapet within minutes of going over. It was all Ralph and Tom could do to get Dale to release his steel grip on the railing as they dragged him back inside on his belly. Dale sat silent near the base of the two-ton rotating clamshell Fresnel lens while he slowly regained his composure. Once securely inside with the parapet door latched tight, Ralph and Tom made their way down to deck three for lunch. Dale stumbled into to dining room thirty minutes later, grabbed a sandwich, and sat silently at the galley table, slowly rocking in his chair with a glazed-over expression on his face. The issue was never spoken of after that day and Dale was never again asked to work on the parapet.
The 1935 season came to a close on December 13th when the Lighthouse Service tender arrived from Charlevoix to pick the men and their gear up and take them ashore for the balance of the brutal Lake Michigan winter. With any luck, the guys would be back on station early the next Spring to continue their duties as lightkeepers in the Straits of Mackinac. After helping lower Dale into the tender via a fifty-five gallon metal drum with the lid removed (he had refused to climb down the ladder), Ralph climbed aloft for the very last job of the season…lighting the acetylene torch located at the very top of the tower. The torch would burn well into January before running out of fuel. By that time, the Straits were normally in the grip of winter ice and shipping would ground to a halt, so there was no further need for a light at White Shoal. Dale stared up from the tender as Ralph hopped around effortlessly atop the tower. He was glad to have made it through his first season off shore and was excited to catch the train back home to North Carolina for the winter. Once offloaded at the dock back on Round Lake, the men shook each other’s hands and vowed to see each other again in three short months. Tom was headed back to see his family in Detroit. Ralph was anxious to return to his hometown of Dundalk, Maryland (an original inner-ring suburb of Baltimore) to see his mother who had taken ill back in July. Frederick Thill resided in Chelsea, Michigan and would be home by evening. It was a bitter, snowy December day as the men disappeared one-by-one into the white wind as they departed the dock on foot.
Spring 1936 came early to the Great Lakes Basin and shipping companies were anxious to start moving goods by early March. Letters were sent to White Shoal’s keepers requesting they report for duty two weeks earlier than in years past. The light station was officially re-opened on March 10, 1936. Morale was a bit low at the season opener due to the fact the men had to give up two weeks of their coveted time off from the isolation of White Shoal. After a week on station however, the crew was operating like a well-oiled machine as everyone fell back into their daily routine as an offshore light keeper. One noteworthy change for the 1936 season became evident when Dale returned to the dock in Charlevoix to catch the tender out to the lighthouse. His right hand was wrapped in a handkerchief as he outstretched his left hand to greet his fellow keepers.
“What’s up with the hand, Dale?” asked Ralph. With a sheepish grin, Dale slowly removed the hanky covering his hand only to reveal that his ring and pinky fingers were both missing. A scar had already formed over his knuckles and it appeared like the wound had always been there.
“Looks like it healed up nice,” Tom observed as the four men stood examining Dale’s misfortune. Head Keeper Thill was taken aback by Dale’s missing fingers as he pondered the affect it would likely have on his ability to perform his duties at the light station.
“What happened?” asked Ralph as he closely examined Dale’s hand. Dale quickly wrapped his hand again and shoved it back into his coat pocket.
“It's a long story I’ll have to tell once we all get settled in at the light station.” The fact was, Dale had no intention of disclosing what actually happened to his hand…he was embarrassed. It was in early January (just three weeks after leaving White Shoal for the winter) that Dale had been working on a tractor for his uncle back on the farm in North Carolina when he accidentally dropped a bolt that landed in a tight spot behind the cooling fan. Instead of shutting down the engine to retrieve the bolt, Dale mindlessly reached into the engine bay and caught his right hand in the metal fan blades. It was a sloppy move for a mechanic. During the four hour boat ride to White Shoal that early spring day, he hoped the subject would not be brought up again. Surprisingly, no one mentioned Dale’s injury after that. After a few weeks back on station, Head Keeper Thill was happy to see that Dale’s ability to perform his duties were not being hindered…so the subject was never spoken of again.
The first three months of the 1936 season at White Shoal Light were uneventful. That was soon to change however…..
The Descent Into Madness
It was on July 12th of that year that things began to change. As noted in the logbooks, Dale had been refusing to eat any meals in the dining room for close to a week. Instead, he preferred to sit in his room with the door closed rocking in his chair. The guys would knock on is door to attempt to coax him out for a meal. There was never any reply from Dale. Tom began to note that, during his nightly 3am bathroom trips down to deck two from his bedroom three decks above, he would pass Dale in the galley making something to eat. Upon hearing Tom descending the stairs, Dale would quickly grab his food and duck into his bedroom slamming the door behind him before Tom had a chance to ask him what was up. Truth is, Dale had not been himself since arriving at White Shoal earlier in the season. He was much more detached. He performed his daily duties flawlessly, but something was affecting his social skills. It was slow at first and barely noticed by the other keepers. By the end of August however, it had become an all out crisis.
Every day after completing his watch, Dale would bee-line straight to his room, close the door, and sit there silently until darkness fell over Lake Michigan. He could then be heard rocking on his chair and having what appeared to be a conversation in a very low muffled voice. Concerned for Dale’s well being, the guys would knock on the bedroom door. Instantly, the conversation and rocking would stop.
“Are you alright in there Dale…can we get you anything,” asked Head Keeper Thill. Upon receiving no response, Thill slowly turned the knob and cautiously opened the door. Dale was seated in his rocking chair staring blankly at his reflection in the window. At this point, both Ralph and Tom had poked their heads into the room out of shear curiosity.
“What is that smell?” quipped Tom. There was a foul odor emanating from Dale’s room that had been slowly drifting across the hall into the galley for the past two weeks. It was now twice as strong beneath the men’s noses as they stood in the doorway of Dale’s bedroom. After a minute of no response and motionless silence from Dale, the three slowly backed out of the room and closed the door. The very second the door latch re-engaged the strike, the rocking began again and Dale renewed his muffled conversation.
It was on July 17th, when first recorded in the log, that a butcher knife from the galley had turned up missing. Tom was the first to notice as he was the unofficial cook at White Shoal. The men enjoyed Tom’s ability to creatively mix foods together that would always unexpectedly produce a tasty dish. This was especially appreciated when food stores were low near the end of every six weeks as the men anxiously awaited the return of the supply tender. It wasn’t unusual for a utensil or tool to occasionally get misplaced at the light station…so after an hour spent digging through the storeroom on deck two, Tom was able to find another box of cutlery and inside were three extra butcher knives.
By July 20th, Dale’s nightly conversations had become louder and more pronounced. Ralph could hear the rocking of Dale’s chair as he pressed his ear against the bedroom door. It was on this night that he also heard Dale repeating the word “Kilroy” as he appeared to be speaking with another gentlemen in the room. It was very unnerving to Ralph when he heard what sounded like a completely different voice responding to Dale’s questions. Who or what was Kilroy? thought Ralph…or was Dale actually saying “kill Roy?” There was no one named Roy at the light station, nor at the dock in Charlevoix. After a few more nights of listening through the door at Dale’s conversations, it became clear that Kilroy was the name of the person that he was speaking to while rocking in his chair and staring at his own reflection in his bedroom window.
During the daylight hours, Dale was able to keep up with his work duties enough that Head Keeper Thill had not seen the need to request a transfer at this point. In fact, Dale would occasionally crack a joke and get the guys laughing as he worked on the machinery in the boathouse. Other than his strange behavior during the evening hours, Dale seemed to be getting along alright. The guys knew that he was at least eating late at night and was not starving himself to death. Quite the contrary…Dale was eating more and more and gaining more weight as the summer dragged on.
August 3rd is when the second butcher knife came up missing from the galley. Tom tore deck three apart looking for the knife. He peaked his head into Dale’s room while Dale was working in the boathouse. He suspected he might find the missing knives there, but did not rummage through Dale's personal belongings out of respect. He took a quick look under the bed, then closed the door and continued to look in every corner of the dining/radio room, yet never did find the knife.
By mid August, Dale’s nightly conversations became much louder and more agitated. It was obvious to Tom, Ralph, and Head keeper Thill that Dale was arguing with someone he referred to as "Kilroy." The guys would knock on the bedroom door and instantly the voices and the rocking of Dale’s chair would cease. Thill would often knock and then slowly open the door to find Dale sitting motionless in his chair staring blankly into the window. And as always, the second the door latched shut, the conversation between Kilroy and Dale would resume. Sometimes it was an all out screaming match. The manner in which Dale was able to alter his voice to sound like Kilroy and keep a conversation going was shocking to the keepers. There was no other way to explain what they heard coming from Dale’s room during the long summer months of 1936.
It was on August 30th that things took a dark turn. Dale began acting very strange in the boathouse while changing a belt on one of the air compressor engines. Ralph witnessed Dale screaming “Kilroy” at the top of his lungs while staring angrily at the engine. He had a large pipe wrench in his hand and began beating incessantly on the belt pulley. Ralph immediately notified Tom who was up on deck three making lunch at the time. The two men cautiously approached Dale as he beat on the engine, blood now visible on his right hand. Before they were able to announce their presence, Dale turned toward them and collapsed onto the concrete deck, hitting his head on the side of the engine housing as he fell. Ralph immediately ran up the stairs to the watch room on deck eight to notify Head Keeper Thill. It took all the strength the three men could muster to carry Dale up three decks on twisting metal stairs to his bedroom. They placed Dale in his bed and checked his vitals. Heart was beating…breathing seemed normal. It appeared that Dale had simply passed out…perhaps due to the extreme heat in the boathouse that hot August day. Tom placed a cold cloth on the goose egg protruding from the side of Dale's head. Ralph volunteered to sit in the rocking chair and keep an eye on him until he awoke. Meanwhile, Head Keeper Thill radioed five miles south to Grays Reef Light (another isolated offshore lighthouse) and confirmed that the resupply boat out of Charlevoix was due in the early morning of September 2nd at both stations…only two days wait.
Dale awoke that night just before dusk and Tom was able to get him to sip on some warm soup he had prepared earlier. He slowly regained some strength and even managed to carry on a short conversation with Ralph before darkness set in. The men assured Dale they would be close by if he needed anything as they slowly closed the bedroom door behind them and it latched shut. The men waited in anticipation….silence. After an hour, they could hear Dale snoring.
“Finally,” quipped Ralph as the men headed up to their rooms.
At 2am on September 1, 1936, a loud clanking noise echoed through the light tower. Tom sat up startled in his bed from a bad dream. Looking groggily around his room, suddenly it happened again. Bang! Clank! Bang!...this was no dream. Suddenly, a loud blood-curdling scream came howling up the tower from below. Tom jumped out of his bed, grabbed a flashlight, and met Head Keeper Thill in the hall of deck four. Both men rushed down the steps to Dale’s room on deck three. The banging and screaming had ceased by this time. Ralph made is way down from the watch room on deck eight.
“What the heck was that screaming and banging?” Ralph inquired. Tom grabbed the knob of Dale’s bedroom door and cautiously opened it. There, laying on the bed in silence, was Dale. Suddenly, a deep rumble could be heard welling up in Dale’s lungs as he gasped for air. The loudest snore the guys had ever heard then erupted from Dale’s mouth like a volcano. The men were in shock. Everyone had heard the calamitous noise and scream just moments earlier, yet there lie Dale, fast asleep. After inspecting the boathouse and other decks of the light station thoroughly for the source of the noise, the men returned to their posts having found nothing unusual. Dale slept soundly the rest of the night.
The third butcher knife was missing from the galley the next morning when Tom arose to make breakfast. Things were getting strange and Tom confided in Ralph and Head Keeper Thill that he had a very foreboding feeling. Dale could still be heard snoring in his bedroom across the hall and continued sleeping the entire day. It wasn’t until later that evening when darkness set in that the rocking and voices began to emanate again from the crack under to door of Dale’s room. The night of September 1, 1936 was pure hell for the keepers at White Shoal. Dale once again became agitated with the man staring back at him in the window of his bedroom. By midnight, he was pounding on the window and screaming “Kilroy” at the top of his lungs. The rickety wood desk in Dale's room had been pulverized into bits of scrap. The men attempted to calm Dale down to no avail.
By 3am that morning, Dale had become so violent, that Head Keeper Thill reluctantly ordered he be tied to his bed. Ralph recalled many years later that it was an endless night as they struggled to keep Dale subdued. He was foaming at the mouth and attempted to bite anyone who came near him. By dawn, all the men were exhausted. Dale had passed out again. The faint whistle of the lighthouse supply tender could be heard in the distance around 9am and the men were comforted by the sound. The timing of the boat’s arrival was fortunate. Dale was taken off White Shoal Light at noon on September 2, 1936 tied to a rickety stretcher kept aboard the supply tender. Tom and Ralph had gathered up Dale’s personal items, tied them up in several blankets, and dropped them with the davit into the boat twenty feet below. White Shoal Light operated with a skeleton crew for the balance of the 1936 season. Head Keeper Thill was unable to secure a replacement for Dale so late in the season. The Lighthouse Service had been running a lean operation since the early 1930's and the organization was dissolved completely only three years later in 1939 and replaced by the United States Coast Guard.
Things were very quiet at White Shoal for the remainder of the 1936 season. The men barely spoke to each other and were haunted by the events they had lived through. It was on a freezing November day when Ralph noticed that a wood plaque mounted to the wall just outside Dale’s bedroom was loose. The plaque was painted red and had a water-filled fire extinguisher mounted to it. It appeared that all four screws holding the plaque to the wall were loose and had recently been removed and poorly replaced. Ralph removed the fire extinguisher and placed it on the floor next to the galley door. He then reached to tighten the screws of the plaque when it suddenly fell to the floor with a thud. As Ralph leaned over to pick up the plaque, he noticed carved deep into the paint and plaster of the wall the words “Kilroy Was Here.” The very next day, Tom was in Dale’s bedroom sweeping the floor when a nickel fell out of his pocket and rolled into the small closet just left of Dale’s bedroom window. Tom got on his hands and knees and crawled into the closet where he had witnessed his nickel disappear between a crack where the baseboard met the floor. After retrieving his nickel with a bit of struggle, Tom turned around and there, tucked neatly between the baseboard and plaster wall, were three butcher knives….all polished to a high sheen. How did they get missed two months earlier while cleaning out Dale’s room? The foul oder that had plagued the men while Dale was on station had now disappeared without explanation. Tom, Ralph, and Head Keeper Thill were glad to see the 1936 season draw to a close. The station was buttoned up tight on December 19th as the men headed home with the disturbing memories of that year.
It was in August of 2017, during an inspection trip to White Shoal, when we first spotted Dale’s carving on the wall of deck three. It has since been covered in glass to help preserve it. I had heard of the Kilroy phrase while serving in the Merchant Marine during the early 1990's and learned that it was popular with the troops during World War II. But it wasn’t until digging through the recently acquired White Shoal log books that the story of "Dale the Whale" surfaced. You can view Dale’s carving up on deck three to this day…and guests who have stayed in his old room are often awakened in the dead of night by the sounds of whispering voices and the creak of a rocking chair. I even went so far as to place a rocking chair facing the window in Dale’s room this past July while some family and friends were visiting. We captured some unexplained movement on video.
Frederick Thill continued to serve at White Shoal Light for ten additional seasons after the incident of 1936. He retired to his home in Chelsea, Michigan after serving a record twenty-four years at the light station. First Assistant Keeper Tom Jorne left the Lighthouse Service after the 1936 incident at White Shoal. He took a job with the auto industry in Detroit before retiring in 1960. Third Assistant Keeper Ralph LeStone served an additional three seasons at White Shoal after the 1936 incident. He decided to return to civilian life and his family back in Dedalk, Maryland when the Lighthouse Service dissolved at the end of 1939. Just before the outset of America’s involvement in World War II, Ralph took a job only a few miles from his home as a welder and later inspector for the Bethlehem-Fairfield Shipyard in early 1941. The Bethlehem-Fairfield Yard produced the very first Liberty ship for the war effort on September 27, 1941….the SS Patrick Henry. A total of eighteen American shipyards produced a staggering 2,710 Liberty ships between 1941 and 1945…384 of them were produced during Ralph’s tenure at Bethlehem-Fairfield.
Ralph began as a welder and quickly worked his way up to welding inspector. His inspecting job required him to crawl through the belly of the Liberty ships during assembly and mark welds that needed attention. In order to establish where he had already inspected, Ralph would leave his initials R.L. scribed on the metal plates with a white grease pencil. The constant doodler, Ralph soon found himself getting more creative with his inspection marks. In the Fall of 1941, he was cleaning out a bedroom closet when he discovered his old doodling pad from his years at White Shoal. It was filled to overflowing. While flipping through the pages, Ralph came across his doodle of Dale he had scribbled back in 1935…the day Dale had crawled out onto the parapet and peered in terror over the railing. Under the doodle was the inscription “Dale the Whale” that had been crossed out and replaced with the inscription “Kilroy Was Here.” This brought back a flood of memories for Ralph…many of which he had tried to bury over the past few years.
Ralph would go on to use the doodle of Dale and phrase “Kilroy was here” on many of the bulkheads of the 384 Liberty Ships produced at Bethlehem-Fairfield. Normally, inspection marks get painted over before ships are launched. However, interior painting was not a priority during the war as the Liberty ships were only expected to have a 5-10 year life span. Because of this, Ralph’s doodle traveled the world over in the holds of many Liberty ships. Servicemen would often see the doodle and found it odd how they were tucked away in holds of the ship that were nearly impossible to reach. Soon, the doodle began to appear on tanks, warplanes, and barracks all across the European and Pacific theaters as servicemen from all walks of life began copying the artwork. The meme became so famous during World War II, that it can even be seen inscribed in the granite of the National World War II Memorial in Washington D.C.. Ralph’s original doodle pictured Dale peering over the railing of the parapet at White Shoal with only two fingers on his right hand (ring and pinky fingers missing). There are no known original doodles to have survived to the present day. Servicemen often overlooked the missing fingers detail when copying Ralph’s artwork abroad. All examples of the Kilroy doodle that have survived to the present day all represent Dale with four fingers on the right hand.
Dale G. Petrov was admitted to Dorothea Dix Psychiatric Hospital shortly after returning home to Bolton, North Carolina in the Fall of 1936. Dale’s uncle attempted to keep him at his home on the farm but soon realized Dale’s condition was not improving. He was sent north to the hospital in Raleigh where he died in 1958 at the age of seventy.
Kilroy Was Indeed Here…his story began at White Shoal Light.*
And now you know….the rest of the story!**