During the summer of 1943, a martial atmosphere took over the normally peaceful waters of Lake Michigan, as the U.S. Navy ramped up its training exercises in the area. In Chicago, two paddlewheel aircraft carriers plied the waves and certified class after class of newly minted carrier pilots. To the north, right around the Canadian border, a much smaller and more secretive exercise was underway at an abandoned lighthouse near Waugoshance Point.
The Waugoshance Lighthouse was built in 1851 to help steer mariners away from dangerous reefs and shoals. During the Second World War it served the country in a reversed role, with the red and white tower acting as a beacon for experimental radio-controlled drones.
The highly secretive program, codenamed STAG-1, was dreamed up as the American response to increasingly common Japanese Kamikaze attacks. Engineers fitted out twin engine planes with primitive radio receivers that connected to the steering. Aviation Machinist Michael L Beshara later described for the Library of Congress Veteran’s History Project, “They had a television camera in the nose, and a hydraulic unit that was controlled by radio impulses for each operation they wanted to control.”
Pilots flying a “mothership” trailing several miles behind would steer the drones over their unlucky targets. After dropping powerful 2,000 pound bombs, the expendable drones were allowed to simply crash down into the water.
During the development phase, that target turned out to be the Waugoshance Lighthouse. Bombs rained down around the defenseless lighthouse throughout 1943—grainy footage of the runs is viewable on YouTube. Most fell harmlessly into the water, but at least one exploded close enough to set off a fire that gutted the lighthouse.
The abandoned hulk stood sentry over the icy waters of Lake Michigan, forgotten until 2011 when it was transferred from the Coast Guard to the Waugoshance Lighthouse Preservation Society. Efforts are currently underway to restore the historic lighthouse.