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The Beacon Beams Again

The Eye of Diablo has a bright past and brilliant future.


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Peter CrooksLast June, a huge crane was hauled to the top of Mount Diablo to remove the beacon from the state park’s Summit Building. The 85-year-old beacon, which is lit every December 7 to commemorate Pearl Harbor Day, was long overdue for repairs, and several Pearl Harbor survivors were on hand to witness its removal.

One of the veterans, moved by the effort to fix the historic light, told the men operating the crane that seeing the rusted, weathered beacon being rescued for repairs was like having his fellow sailors rescued from the depths of their watery graves.

“You should have seen those big, burly crane operators wiping tears from their eyes when they heard that,” says Danville resident Dick Heron, one of the volunteers who spent much of the past year working to restore the light.

This December 7, the beacon—also known as the Eye of Diablo—will be back on top of the mountain for its annual remembrance, with a fresh coat of silver paint and shining brighter than ever.

The restoration has been a $100,000 labor of love, requiring a remarkable community effort, especially by three longtime Save Mount Diablo volunteers—Heron, John Gallagher of Danville, and John Stuart of Lafayette—a tireless trio that has become known as the Beacon Boyz.   
 

The Beacon Boyz

“We thought it would be a relatively easy project,” says Gallagher, a retired veterinarian, with a laugh. “At its simplest, the beacon is nothing more than a big flashlight. Our plan was to put the beacon in the back of my pickup truck, drive it down to my house in Danville, and work on it in my garage.”

Not so fast, Beacon Boy. The eight-foot-tall, 1,400-pound beacon needed lots of work. It was rusted, covered with lead paint, and filled with asbestos wiring. It was also a historic artifact of the state park system, which meant legislation had to be passed for Save Mount Diablo to do the restoration, and a consultant had to be hired to make sure every step of the process was as historically authentic as possible.

The Beacon Boyz oversaw the yearlong project and lent their skills wherever possible. Stuart, whose career was in design and engineering with PG&E, fixed the motor and remote controls, and replaced the lightbulb. “I was able to get all that updated, so it will last another 80 years.”
 

“It’s been outstanding to see how many people have stepped forward to volunteer. ... We are doing this for the veterans of Pearl Harbor, and for those that didn’t survive.”


But the Beacon Boyz often had to get help from the community. An optical physicist from the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory made sure the specifications of the new halogen bulb were spot-on. A ranger from the Santa Clara parks system donated hazmat services. And Peterson Sheet Metal in San Ramon provided materials to build a new roof for the Summit Building.  

“It’s been outstanding to see how many people have stepped forward to volunteer,” says Heron, who has helped “beacon caretaker” Burt Bogardus (another key player in the restoration) every December 7 since 2006. “I think everyone sees the real purpose of the project. We are doing this for the veterans of Pearl Harbor, and for those that didn’t survive.”
 

Peter Crooks

The Survivors

Every year since 1964, Pearl Harbor survivors have driven to the top of Mount Diablo for the lighting ceremony. Navy veteran Chuck Koehler wouldn’t miss it.

Koehler, 89, was just 17 when he was stationed at Pearl Harbor. On December 7, 1941, he was up early, typing a letter to his mother, when a Japanese bomb landed nearby. The impact sent broken glass and blast fragments into the back of his head. Thinking the explosion had been caused by the crash of a U.S. airplane, Koehler ran outside and looked up to see a Japanese fighter in a direct dive, spraying bullets his way.

“As the plane passed over me, I saw a red sun painted on the wingspan, and I realized we must be at war,” says Koehler. “Then, I saw the plane drop a bomb, which confirmed it.”

Koehler can see the beacon from his Concord home, so he watches the light when he gets home after the ceremony and again just before dawn. He is relieved that the beacon will shine brightly for years to come
to commemorate that fateful day in our country’s history.

“I have four children, 16 grandchildren, and 19 great-grandchildren,” he says. “I am glad to know that their children will see the beacon long after I’m gone and remember what it means.”

As for the Beacon Boyz, Koehler can’t thank them enough.

“I don’t know if they will ever fully realize the value of what they have done for those of us who survived,” he says. “To us, the light from that beacon is sacred.”

 

TimeLine: The Eye of Diablo

  • 1928: The Mount Diablo beacon is lit by aviation pioneer Charles Lindbergh.
     
  • 1928–1941: The beacon sits atop a tower built by Standard Oil. The Standard Diablo tower is one of five major beacon towers to help guide planes on the West Coast. The others are in Los Angeles, Portland, San Diego, and Seattle.
     
  • April 1941: The lookout tower of the Mount Diablo Summit Building, a Civilian Conservation Corps project, is completed. The beacon is installed atop the building and continues to shine from sunset to sunrise, every night.
     
  • December 8, 1941: Following the bombing of Pearl Harbor the day before, the beacon is turned off because of fears that it could help Japan attack California. The beacon stays dark until the end of World War II, at which time it is no longer necessary due to the invention of radar.
     
  • December 7, 1964: The beacon is relit by Admiral Chester Nimitz, a Navy commander     in the Pacific during World War II, who attends the ceremony as a tribute to Pearl Harbor survivors.
     
  • 1964–2012: The beacon is lit every December 7 at sunset and shines until sunrise.
     
  • 2006: Save Mount Diablo becomes cosponsor of the annual lighting event with Sons and Daughters of Pearl Harbor Survivors.
     
  • December 7, 2012: Assemblywoman Joan Buchanan attends the beacon lighting. She wrote legislation to allow Save Mount Diablo to raise funds for the Beacon Restoration Project, on behalf of California State Parks, and to oversee the work.
     
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