Thomas Dutton has been in the U.S. Coast for 31 years, currently as the leader of a team that maintains the many lighthouses throughout the Hawaiian Islands.

Keeping the lights
on for you

Ever wonder who keeps the lights shining at the dozens of lighthouses in Hawaii? It's a crew of 10 U.S. Coast Guard members led by Senior Chief Thomas Dutton. The 49-year-old Dutton joined the Coast Guard fresh out of high school in Framingham, Mass. He and his wife, Mary, have four sons, all grown up, and live in Coast Guard housing at Red Hill.

Question: How many people work with you on maintaining Hawaii's lighthouses?

Answer: There's five of us attached here (at the U.S. Coast Guard's Sand Island-based Integrated Support Command), plus we have five reservists.

Who: Thomas Dutton

Title: Senior Chief, U.S. Coast Guard

Job: Officer in charge, Coast Guard Aids to Navigation Team, Honolulu

Q: How many lighthouses are there in the islands?

A: There's eight that we actually call lighthouses, like the Diamond Head and Makapuu lighthouses, but we also have structures, like pipe towers, skeleton towers that look like an erector set, and some are concrete, placed on prominent points of land.

Q: So you have four-wheelers or whatever to get to these places?

A: We have two four-wheel-drive trucks that we use and a trailer that we tow around with all our equipment in it. We visit each island at least once a year, for about two weeks at a time. Every light is serviced at least once a year, but the bigger lights, like Diamond Head, Makapuu, Kauhole Light on the Big Island, and Molokai Light at Kalaupapa, we visit those twice a year.

Q: You do more than just change lightbulbs, right?

A: Oh yeah, it's more general maintenance. We do a lot of weedwhacking, to make way for the lights. We also clean up trash left by tourists. The amount of trash is incredible. It breaks my heart. And then there's the vandalism -- broken windows and lights, stolen chain-link fences.

Q: How do you get to each of the islands?

A: Sometimes, if we're responding to a discrepancy, we fly over commercial and then rent a car. Or we'll take a Coast Guard C-130 (aircraft). But if that doesn't work, we'll load things on a barge and ship it over and pick it up when we get over there.

Q: Are lighthouses really necessary anymore?

A: They're not as prominent as they used to be, but you still have the small boater who likes to see that white light, like at Makapuu, in case they don't have GPS.

Q: How long have you been in the Coast Guard?

A: I've been doing the Coast Guard for 31 years now. I've been doing Aids to Navigation -- lighthouses and buoys -- since 1986. This is my second time here in Hawaii. I really love it.

Q: Where are you from originally?

A: Massachusetts, but I grew up all around New England. I joined the Coast Guard in 1973, right after high school, and this has been my career ever since.

Q: Are you planning to retire soon?

A: I actually retired Aug. 1 of last year, but was recalled for three years ... and that's fine with me.

Q: What about after that?

A: After that, we (my wife and I) probably are going to try live in Hawaii. So we'll be looking for jobs.

U.S. Coast Guard - Hawaii

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