By Neil E. Hurley, Commander, USCG Retired
Illustrations by Darrel W. Orwig
It was Tuesday, September 13, 1966. Storm warnings were posted all along the Southern California coast. The wind was blowing briskly and heavy swells were forecast.
At San Pedro, Los Angeles’ seaport, the crashing waves were already spilling over the two-and-a-half-mile breakwater that led to the famous Los Angeles Harbor Lighthouse.
Past storms had often flooded the paint and storage building farther out on the breakwater. If they felt it was necessary, the routine procedure was for the three-man Coast Guard crew to move most everything off the floor onto shelves or tables to prevent water damage. However, on this particular day, the three Coasties assigned to the lighthouse: Engineman Third Class Kent Knierim, Seaman David Aikens, and Seaman Apprentice Richard “Mike” Miles, were more interested in going outside to view the wave action being churned up by Mother Nature.
David Aikens recalled putting on some waders to keep his feet and legs dry. Unbeknownst to him at the time, those waders would soon almost cost him his life. All the men donned rain gear. The three men went outside and were accompanied by the station’s mascot, a German Shepard dog named King, and they headed toward the paint locker storage building, which was about 75 feet from the lighthouse.
It was pitch dark out and about 9 p.m. After checking things out, Kent Knierim and David Aikens headed back toward the lighthouse. Mike Miles decided he was going to go for a smoke and use the storage building as a wind breaker to light up.
Kent and David had almost reached the lighthouse when Kent suddenly screamed “Look at this wave coming!” As he turned around, David recalled seeing what he estimated was a 16 to 18-foot-high wall of water that sounded like a roaring freight train headed directly toward them over the top of the breakwater. All that the three of them could see was water.
In that split second, Kent and David started to run for the lighthouse, but there was really no time to react. The boots David was wearing slowed him down. With the dog running right beside him, the fast-moving wave struck David with such a tremendous force that he was thrown head over heels into one of the three steel cable lifelines on the breakwater. Momentarily, but with great force, the cable rubbed up his chest to his throat, and then the wave tossed him like a rock into the harbor.
In that split second or seconds, Seaman David Aikens was completely knocked unconscious. As his limp body sank in the water about 20 feet from the breakwater, he recalled that in those few seconds he saw his life flash before him and he saw his parents in that flash of light, all while in a state of unconsciousness.
He recalled that he felt like he was floating on a cloud. He thought he was dead when he heard a voice, perhaps the voice of an angel, coming from the end of a ray of light. The voice told him that it was not his time and that he should go back. At that point, for some unknown reason, as he was again being sucked down under the water, he slipped out of unconsciousness and, even though he was completely and totally exhausted and in shock, he was somehow able to remove his rubber boots and rain gear, and his body miraculously shot to the surface.
While all of this was happening, Engineman Third Class Kent Knierim had lunged for the lifelines and had almost made it before the wave hit. He was slammed head first into a steel lifeline post, but, fortunately, he was wearing a steel hardhat as a rain cover. Although he was swept through the lifelines, he was able to hold onto one of the posts dangling just above the rocks 10 feet below.
Seaman Apprentice Richard “Mike” Miles, who had been in the lee side of the paint locker, had been somewhat shielded from the force of the wave. After the wave passed, his first thought was that everyone else had been washed over, but as the water receded, he saw Kent’s hand clutching the post. After desperately helping him back onto the breakwater, Mike told Kent that David and King were gone; they had been washed overboard.
It took just a moment for the two men to spring into action. They briefly saw David struggling in the water, but then they lost sight of him. Mike ran for a flashlight and two life jackets. Kent then grabbed one of the life jackets and threw it into the water. He had no idea where David was, but he believed that he was throwing the life jacket in the right direction. All that David could recall later was that when he surfaced he saw the life jacket floating directly in front of him and grabbed it. In a state of near unconsciousness, he held onto the life preserver for dear life as the waves tossed him about.
Kent knew that David was in trouble and could see that he was struggling. He quickly made the decision to help. He timed his jump into the crest of a wave at a time when the rocks would be briefly covered by water. Then, guided by Mike’s shouts and the beam from the flashlight, he swam over to David, who was on the surface, but David was stunned and unable to maneuver himself. His arms and shoulders wouldn’t move, and he could barely hold onto the lifejacket. Kent tried to help him into the life jacket, a task that proved impossible. Kent then tried to drag him back toward the breakwater, but the current was too strong and the two men were now being swept out toward the open sea.
Back at the lighthouse Mike had telephoned the nearby Coast Guard Station at Terminal Island with the report, “Two men overboard at Los Angeles Light, hurry.” After receiving an acknowledgement, he went back outside with his flashlight to try and track the two men in the water.
The Coast Guard Station’s 40-foot rescue boat had just completed a 20-minute warm up period and was able to leave immediately. It was learned later that the coxswain of the vessel had a “gut feeling” that they were going to be needed for some type of rescue and kept the crew at “ready condition.” Maybe, just maybe, an angel was also sending him a subconscious message that he and his crew needed to be ready to save some lives.
After about a 10-minute high speed trip to the lighthouse, guided first by the light of the lighthouse and then by Mike’s flashlight, the rescue boat spotted the men clinging for life in the roaring seas.
David later recalled seeing the rescue boat approaching them at what looked like a fast rate of speed, and he thought to himself that maybe he had survived so far only to be run over and killed by the boat. But suddenly, thanks to the beam of light from Mike’s flashlight, the crew of the 40-foot rescue boat spotted the men and came to an immediate stop. A lifeline was thrown, and soon the two men were literally hauled up and on board the vessel.
Although David didn’t remember it, both he and Kent reportedly had asked the crew of the rescue boat to search for their mascot. But, with David complaining of chest pains, that was the furthest thing on the mind of the boat’s captain. He headed the vessel directly back to their base.
Both lighthouse keepers were suffering from hypothermia. On board, both men were wrapped in blankets as they were transported to land. Once ashore, they were thrown in the back seat of the Coast Guard base’s station wagon and taken to the Coast Guard base clinic. After drying them off, it was decided, because of their condition, to transport the two men to the Long Beach Naval Base and then to a nearby U.S. Navy hospital ship. David was unconscious during most of that trip. When he woke, he was covered in hot packs and blankets, but he couldn’t move and feared for the worst.
Back at the lighthouse, Mike had witnessed the rescue and watched the boat race towards shore. After an agonizing wait, a report came back that both men were expected to recover.
It would be several days before weather conditions would allow a replacement crew to be sent out to the lighthouse, so Mike was all alone at the station. As Mike recalled some 18-years later, that night, above the pounding of the worsening storm, Mike heard a faint scratching at the lighthouse door. It was King, the station mascot, dripping wet, with his tail tightly between his legs and his body shaking with fright. The dog scooted past Mike and went to the deepest and darkest recess of the nearest closet. He stayed there all the next day, continuing to quiver with fear. At the time, it was unclear what adventures King had experienced, but it was believed that he was washed out to sea, and the storm waves washed him back onto the breakwater. Another later account reported that an 82-foot Coast Guard Cutter had spotted King and plucked him from the water. But if that was the case, how the dog got back on the breakwater and to the lighthouse is unknown.
David was hospitalized for several days. When his chest had hit the cable lifeline and moved up to his throat, it had literally rubbed the skin off his chest and his throat was extremely sore. To this day, David suffers from throat problems. Kent was treated for minor injuries and released. Both men had also been treated for hypothermia.
Kent Knierim later received a Commendation Medal for his heroic rescue, and Richard Miles was awarded a Letter of Commendation for his action in the rescue.
Sometime later, David Aikens was in a restaurant when some other Coasties walked in. One of them said, “Hey, don’t I recognize you?” It turned out that they were on the 40-foot Coast Guard rescue boat that hauled Kent and him out of the water. They told David that he had been mighty close to death. Although he didn’t remember it, they said that he had thrown up nearly an entire bucket of seawater.
Kent Knierim and David Aikens became close friends and chummed around together, but they never talked about that night. And, many others who knew Kent, never heard him talking about the night that he risked his life to save a fellow Coast Guard lighthouse keeper. Kent was a humble man.
In the early 1990s, while I was serving in the Coast Guard in Long Beach, California, I mentioned to an acquaintance that I had found this really interesting account in Coast Guard records about the keepers of Los Angeles Harbor Lighthouse being washed overboard. Imagine my surprise when my fellow Coastie, Lieutenant “Mike” Miles, said, “I know all about it. I was there!” I hadn’t made the connection that “Richard Miles” was the “Mike Miles” I had befriended. He filled gaps in the official account with the story of his stopping to light a cigarette and the return of the dog King.
Editor’s Note: Subsequent interviews, conducted by Timothy Harrison and Debra Baldwin of Lighthouse Digest with David Aikens and the widow of Ken Knierim, helped locate photos and additional facts for this account, and, along with the artwork by Darrel W. Orwig, have helped to enhance this story for publication to preserve this horrific night and amazing rescue story for future generations.
This story appeared in the
May/Jun 2018 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.
All contents copyright © 1995-2018 by Lighthouse Digest®, Inc. No story, photograph, or any other item on this website may be reprinted or reproduced without the express permission of Lighthouse Digest. For contact information, click here.