This past August, a group of interested citizens dedicated a plaque to the memory of Coast Guardsman Don Ashley, Jr. who lost his life in March of 1971 while servicing Michigan’s DeTour Reef Lighthouse. The 22 year-old Coast Guardsman is the only person to have lost his life at DeTour Reef Lighthouse.
The event to dedicate the plaque that was placed at the lighthouse was attended by members of the Ashley family, the United States Coast Guard, and the DeTour Reef Light Preservation Society.
According to the web site of the DeTour Reef Light Preservation Society, winter that year was not easily giving up her grip that season. The Great Lakes shipping season was slow to open that year. Large ice floes still bobbed in Lake Huron when the trio of Coast Guardsmen arrived at the lighthouse in their 16-foot boat. They scaled a ladder more than 20 feet to the platform where they chipped away the ice that still encased the tower’s entry door.
The United States Coast Guard commander at that time was anxious to get the system “up and running” as the weather had caused the opening to be delayed twice already. They entered the structure and started the power generator to initiate another season of manning and running the DeTour Reef Light.
A short time later 22 year-old Don Ashley, Jr. volunteered to return to DeTour Harbor for more supplies and another crew member. The small boat became trapped between ice floes; it capsized and Ashley was thrown into the water. His two fellow Coast Guardsmen heard his calls for help, but without another boat available, all they could do was watch as he swam back toward the lighthouse for about 20 minutes. Then a large wave washed over him and he never resurfaced.
Answering the emergency radio call, the Drummond Island Ferry sped to the site and a Coast Guard helicopter was launched, but conditions were too rough to conduct a thorough search for him. His body was never recovered.
At the plaque dedication ceremony, Capt. Marko Broz of the U.S. Coast Guard Sector Sault Ste. Marie said that Don Ashley, Jr. “died in the service of our nation and while doing his best to protect those mariners who ply these beautiful, but unforgiving waters. We are proud to follow in his footsteps and strive to uphold the standards he set for us.”
This story appeared in the
Nov/Dec 2017 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.
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