Keeper Bio: Olsen, Sven T

Sven T. Olsen-Photo courtesy Carrie Karbley

Dates of Service: 1927-1957

1899:   Born in Norway on March 14.

1914+/-:  At age 15, Sven Olsen serves aboard a Norwegian Merchant ship for approximately 10 months. He then works on an English coal ship which was torpedoed by a German U-Boat during World War I off the coast of St. Nazaire, France.

1922-1925:  Sven comes to the United States and Joins the U. S. Lighthouse Service as a seaman.  He is assigned to lightship LV-69 on the Diamond Shoal station off the coast of North Carolina.

1925:   Olsen returns to Norway

1927:  Sven Olsen comes back to the United States where he re-joins the Lighthouse Service as a seaman and is assigned to LV-52 on the Fenwick Island Shoal station of off Delaware. The ship was a 118-feet long iron vessel powered by steam.

1930:   Becomes a naturalized citizen of the United States. He, along with the entire crew of LV-52, is transferred to the LS-116 being constructed at the Charleston Drydock Company. The LS-116 was placed in service on July 31st, 1930, and assigned to the Fenwick Island Shoal station off of Delaware. 

1933:  The decision is made by the Lighthouse Service to replace the lightship with a lighted buoy and the light station is dis-established.  LS-116 is equipped with a High Frequency Radio Direction Finding beacon.  The ship is relocated to the Chesapeake light station which is 17 miles offshore of Virginia marking the entrance to the Chesapeake Bay.

1936:    On September 17 – 18, LS-116 main anchor chain breaks so the ship becomes adrift in the track of a hurricane.  The spare anchor is rigged, and its engine run ahead for 10 hours to reduce dragging of the spare anchor. The motor launch and whaleboat were damaged. It is relieved for repair on September 19 and returns to the station on September 25.

1939:     The U.S. Lighthouse Service is absorbed into the U.S. Coast Guard. Sven decides to stay and enlists in the Coast Guard.

1940:    In the US Census, Sven Olsen is listed as a mariner on LS-116 but by January 1941 he has transferred off the lightship.

1941:     Sven Olsen is stationed in Crisfield, MD., where he served on the Coast Guard Buoy Tender 52305.  His record of service in the Coast Guard after that is not known.

1957:   Sven Olsen retires from the U. S. Coast Guard on May 31, as a Boatswain Mate 1st Class, after 30 years of continuous service.

1988:   Sven T. Olsen dies on July 19. He is buried at Holly Hills Memorial Gardens, Baltimore, Maryland.

Sven T. Olsen Anecdotes

From a young age, Sven Olsen loved the water. By the age of 14, he signed up to work on fishing and coal boats, traveling to other countries on the North and Baltic seas, then England, France & Spain. After surviving one ship grounding and breaking apart, he worked on a freighter that was torpedoed and sunk by a German U-Boat in 1917. Sven spent several hours in the water until he was rescued by a French Naval boat. 

After immigrating to the United States in 1927, he worked on lightships with his friend, another Norwegian, Captain Alexander Andersen. When the U.S. Coast Guard absorbed the U.S. Lighthouse Service, Olsen joined the Coast Guard and stayed until he retired in 1957, totaling 30 years of continuous service. At least 10-11 of those years were on the Lightship Chesapeake, LS-116 where he served as a seaman until late 1940.

In a Baltimore Sun Newspaper interview, Sven recalls two hurricanes in 1933 and 1936 which lasted approximately 24 hours, which unmoored the ship. One of his favorite pastimes was fishing, especially for sharks. One of those sharks was a 16-foot shark, which he made a walking stick from the shark’s spine.

Olsen described how the foghorn on the new LS-116 was a nuisance. It was composed of four separate horns facing each compass point, which sounded once every three minutes. Olsen said, “You really just couldn’t stay on the deck”.  He describes one Christmas Eve in the late 1930s, when a dense fog blanked the harbor. The foghorn blew once every three minutes for 21 days!

After his retirement in 1957, Olsen moved to Baltimore and remained until his death in 1988.

Sources: Interview with Sven T. Olsen on August 19, 1980, by Frank Hebblethwaite / US Coast Guard Historian; 1940 U.S. Census;; The Baltimore Sun, June 6, 1981



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