Sean Kirst: Remembering men lost in Oswego lighthouse tragedy - The Buffalo News

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Sean Kirst: Remembering men lost in Oswego lighthouse tragedy

For Andrew Cisternino, you could take it as a sad moment, a passage just too soon.

A bell will toll at exactly 10:25 a.m. Monday in Oswego Harbor, the exact instant of a tragedy in 1942. The names of six lost rescuers will be read aloud, and then a Coast Guard vessel will leave the Lake Ontario shoreline.

Capt. Joseph Dufresne, commander of the Coast Guard sector in Buffalo, will lead a contingent of dignitaries to the spot where a picket boat overturned 75 years ago on Monday morning.

They'll throw a wreath onto the water, in the shadow of the Oswego lighthouse.

Cisternino, the last eyewitness, won't be there. Today would have been his 96th birthday.

He died in August from leukemia, barely three months before the ceremony.

The Oswego lighthouse, amid a storm. (Courtesy DiscoverUpstateNYTourism)

Cisternino was nearly killed that morning in 1942, in what Mercedes Niess, director of the H. Lee White Maritime Museum in Oswego, described as one of the worst Coast Guard tragedies in history involving the Great Lakes.

Still, he lived long enough to bring voice and memory to an event that became intertwined with legend. For years, stories about a haunting at the lighthouse overwhelmed the account of loss and heroism.

Cisternino was not concerned with ghosts.

His priority was making sure the six men killed were recalled for what they did, for all they risked.

After leaving Oswego, he went on to serve in World War II, then graduated from the Syracuse University College of Law. He had a successful career on Long Island before returning to King Ferry, in Cayuga County, in retirement.

"His mind was still alert," said Teri Barbato of Florida, one of his five children. "He never got over what happened at the lighthouse."

Andrew Cisternino: Tragedy seared into memory. (Courtesy Mike Roy)

She remembered how he kept detailed scrapbooks about everything that happened, how his children grew up knowing the story. Until the end of his long life, he'd weep when he thought about that December morning at the lighthouse, and one wish was always close to his mind:

One of the men that died that day was Cisternino's close friend, Irving Ginsburg. They used to travel to Syracuse together for quick visits home on weekends. On quiet days, they'd toss a football back and forth, along the shoreline.

Cisternino did not want Ginsburg, and others lost at the lighthouse, to be forgotten.

"They're always in my mind," he said a year ago, in an emotional interview with the Syracuse University News Service.

Certainly, Barbato said, Cisternino would be glad to know Coast Guard officials from Buffalo are taking steps to enshrine an even greater sense of remembrance. Cisternino was on watch at the Coast Guard station 75 years ago, amid one of the worst storms in decades on Lake Ontario. The wind was driving waves into the lighthouse and the breakwater with terrific force; witnesses said breakers sent foam cascading over the top of the structure.

In that era, the lighthouse was still manned around the clock. For days, the Coast Guard was unable to reach Karl Jackson, the lighthouse keeper, who was cut off from the shoreline by the storm. Lt. Alton Wilson, commanding officer at the station, finally came to a decision:

He would send a picket boat – a small boat used for harbor and inshore patrols –through the harbor, to the lighthouse, to rescue Jackson and drop off two men to serve as his replacements.

Cisternino typically would have gone along. The lighthouse wasn't far away. It did not seem like a high-risk journey. But he was on watch in the tower, and Ginsburg – a good friend and companion who'd also grown up in Syracuse – abruptly called to him from far below:

"Andy," he shouted, "can I use your boots?"

Andrew Cisternino's video account at 94, courtesy of Mike Roy, of what happened at the lighthouse.

So Ginsburg was wearing Cisternino's boots when he joined eight others on a picket boat that plowed through the turbulent waters in the harbor. He was wearing those boots as they tied up the boat and made the exchange at the lighthouse, as the weary Jackson jumped on board and two men climbed the ladder to relieve him in the lighthouse.

He was wearing the boots as they untied, as they prepared to return to the warmth and safety of the station.

Not far from the lighthouse, the engine died.

Suddenly, there was no protection from the storm.

The churning water hurled the boat against the breakwall. Two men – Fred Ruff and John Mixon – managed to dive into the freezing lake and drag themselves onto the breakwall, where they survived, soaked and freezing, until they were rescued.

Six others – Ginsburg, Wilson, Eugene Sisson, Ralph Sprau, Leslie Holdsworth and Jackson, the lighthouse keeper – were thrown into the lake.

They had no chance. Ruff and Mixon watched from the breakwall as their friends disappeared into the storm.

Six lost. At the Coast Guard station, a second picket boat went on a desperate rescue and recovery attempt. Cisternino, wearing no protective gear, was part of the crew. He spotted the body of Wilson, their commander, being tossed by the waves. Cisternino, without a wet suit, tied a rope around his waist, then went into the lake to try and reach Wilson.

It was incredibly brave, and almost impossible. Cisternino swam far enough to get his arm around the body, but his limbs went numb. He could no longer swim. He feared that he would drown. His friends pulled him back to the boat and managed to drag him on board.

Cisternino would be hospitalized for hypothermia, but those images – of Ginsburg calling for his boots, of Wilson's body in the water – were seared in his memory.

A year ago, sitting at his kitchen table, he told the tale and was overcome with grief.

From columnist Sean Kirst: A TedX account of the tragedy at the lighthouse.

For much of his life, the pain was intensified by the way the disaster was forgotten. The tale of six men dying at a lighthouse was overwhelmed by millions dead, by global suffering during World War II. For more than 50 years, there was no memorial at Oswego to the disaster. Finally, in 1996, David Feigin – then second-in-command at the Coast Guard station in Buffalo – coordinated an effort to pay tribute to those lost.

Cisternino was there. He stood with David Ginsburg, Irving's 98-year-old father, and Cisternino dropped a wreath onto the spot where the men died.

Yet he did not live quite long enough to see Monday's ceremony. He will not be part of the unveiling of a permanent tribute at the station: According to Boatswain's Mate Jason Gwiazdzinski, the elderly daughter of John Mixon gave the Coast Guard the ship's wheel from the helm of the damaged picket boat. It was recovered after the storm, a keepsake that Mixon - who crawled to safety on the breakwall - saved until his death as a means of recalling his friends.

It will become a permanent reminder, at the Oswego Coast Guard station, of bravery and sacrifice.

"We understand the meaning of the story," said Niess, of the nearby Maritime Museum. "We will always be honored to remember it and tell it."

In that sense, wish granted: Cisternino will be there.

Sean Kirst is a columnist with The Buffalo News. Email him at skirst@buffnews.com or read more of his work in this archive

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