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In the sweltering summer heat, Clayton “Chris” Christensen stands inside the bottom of the 153-foot-tall Oak Island Lighthouse. Sporting an “Army Strong” T-shirt and a ball cap that reads “Purple

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In the sweltering summer heat, Clayton “Chris” Christensen stands inside the bottom of the 153-foot-tall Oak Island Lighthouse. Sporting an “Army Strong” T-shirt and a ball cap that reads “Purple

Climbing the Oak Island Lighthouse at 99

In the sweltering summer heat, Clayton “Chris” Christensen stands inside the bottom of the 153-foot-tall Oak Island Lighthouse. Sporting an “Army Strong” T-shirt and a ball cap that reads “Purple Heart — Combat Wounded — World War II,” he’s preparing to climb the eight ship ladders to the balcony.

He’s made the climb maybe 25 times, he figures. At 99, he holds the record for being the oldest person to climb the lighthouse — the only one in the country constructed with ladders instead of spiral stairs. The climb is a knee-shaking feat for anyone with a fear of heights. But Christensen isn’t afraid. In fact, he’s whistling. This is far from the most courageous thing that he’s done in his life.

• • •

Christensen was a senior in high school on December 7, 1941. He had just left a movie theater in Charlotte, close to where he lived with his parents and siblings, when word reached him that Pearl Harbor had been attacked. He knew right away that the news would change his life.

He was drafted in 1942, reported for his physical in April the following year, and a week later boarded a train to Camp Maxey in Texas for basic training. After that came ranger training, where he learned to fire every Army weapon, drive equipment, and perform simple medical procedures, plus grueling physical drills in 100-degree Texas heat. Only about 20 of the 175 men that started ranger training with Christensen made it through. “You had to be tough to be in the military,” he says.

Chris Christensen smiles before he starts climbing the ladders in the Oak Island Lighthouse

According to 99-year-old Christensen, the secret to a long life is simple: Don’t drink, don’t smoke, and keep moving. photograph by Matt Ray Photography

Because Christensen had a high IQ, he went on to signal corps training, learning Navy signaling and becoming a speed radio operator, meaning that he could receive Morse code at 22 words per minute. He then boarded a train for Boston, where he would embark for England on the SS Argentina. From there, his company crossed the English Channel for France. On one of the landing crafts, looking out over the moonlit water, Christensen saw something shimmering. Realizing it was a torpedo, he yelled at the Navy captain to turn the boat. The torpedo, and a second one, missed the vessel — one of them by mere feet. At daybreak, the landing craft dropped anchor at the beaches of Normandy, where D-Day had occurred just months before.

The company then crossed into Belgium and on to the front lines. Christensen traveled in the commander’s jeep and was responsible for communicating with Division Headquarters by radio. Not long after they reached the front, the Germans surprised the Allies with an attack that would come to be known as the Battle of the Bulge. This would be the final major German offensive on the Western Front during the war.

At 99, Chris Christensen is the oldest person to have climbed the eight ladders to the top of the Oak Island Lighthouse. photograph by Matt Ray Photography

As Christensen dug a foxhole in subfreezing temperatures the night before the attack, he could hear the Germans’ tanks squeaking and rumbling, coming for him and his fellow soldiers. “I don’t know that I was afraid,” he says. “I was anxious. I didn’t know what to expect.”

Between attacks, Christensen volunteered to crawl to the machine guns, making sure that the gunners were still alive. After the first attack, Christensen was less than 10 feet out of the foxhole, his body lifting off the ground repeatedly as artillery hit all around him, when he caught shrapnel in his right arm. He kept moving.

When he approached the first two gunners, one of them had tears streaming down his face because his rifle was broken. “During basic training and always, you’re told that your rifle is your best friend,” Christensen says. “Protect it at all costs.” Christensen gave the man his own gun. When he returned to his foxhole, his captain wrapped his bleeding arm with a dirty handkerchief.

Christensen spent five days in the battle, which waged for a month. It was the bloodiest battle that the American forces would suffer during the war, but ultimately the Allies were victorious. Before the fighting began, Christensen’s captain had told him, “We’re not going to retreat. We’re not going to surrender. We’re going to fight to the last man.”

“Bad words,” Christensen says. “But that was the only way, looking back on it, that we could have handled it. If we’d given up, stuck our rifle out of the hole in the ground with a white handkerchief on it, the Germans would have been in Antwerp in 24 hours, and we would have been out of the war. We’d be speaking German today.”

After the battle, Christensen’s company crossed into Germany. It was there, near the Czechoslovakian border several months later, that he received the radio message from Division Headquarters that Germany had surrendered. “That was one of the best days of my life,” he says.

People climb the ladders inside the Oak Island Lighthouse

After serving in World War II, Christensen was honorably discharged from the Army as a sergeant. He eventually moved to Brunswick County, where he climbed the Oak Island Lighthouse at least two dozen times. photograph by Matt Ray Photography

Christensen spent almost another year in Europe before boarding a ship back to the States. Three days from docking in New Jersey, they hit a terrible storm with 80-foot waves. “I thought we were gonna turn over, sure enough,” he says. Whenever the ship rode down a wave and slammed into the bottom of the trough, it shuddered like it was going to break apart. The powerful waves and impacts tore holes in the hull, creating a crack from one side to the other. Christensen had survived the war only to risk death again on the journey home.

Fortunately, the ship survived the storm, and pumps from vessels on either side kept it from sinking until it pulled into port. The Statue of Liberty was a welcome sight. “I knew that everything was gonna be fine at that point,” Christensen says.

• • •

Halfway up the Oak Island Lighthouse, Christensen is still whistling. The climb doesn’t faze him one bit. He doesn’t even slow down. Up he goes, one step at a time, the heat rising with each ladder that he ascends.

Making the climb with him is Bob Ahlers, chairman of the board for the Friends of the Oak Island Lighthouse, which maintains the structure and the grounds. Ahlers likes to share information about the lighthouse with visitors. He tells them that it was completed in 1958. That it was constructed with ship ladders because that was the quickest way to reach the top. That it was the second-to-last lighthouse built in the country because the advent of new technology — sonar and radar — installed on boats rendered lighthouses obsolete.

He explains that the Oak Island Lighthouse was built to be fully automated and was the only one in the state that never had a keeper. That when it was built, its mercury vapor-based bulb made it the brightest in the country and second-brightest in the world. Later, it had the first rotating LED light of any lighthouse in the country.

Chris Christensen at the top of the Oak Island Lighthouse

The first time Christensen climbed the Oak Island Lighthouse, about 30 years ago, he was amazed at the expansive view. “It was pretty neat,” he says. “Looked like you could see for a hundred miles.” photograph by HUNTER BRADDY

Christensen has heard all of this before. He first started climbing the lighthouse about a week after he moved to Oak Island 30 years ago. Why? He says that since it was there, he figured he might as well climb it.

After the war, he got a job, married, had a couple of kids. He lived in Charlotte up until his retirement, when he and his wife moved to Oak Island’s Long Beach. There, he went fishing on friends’ boats and became active in the local chapter of the Veterans of Foreign Wars. For years, he rode in a World War II jeep during the island’s Independence Day parade.

Nowadays, Christensen lives alone in Southport, where he moved after his wife died in 2000. He keeps an active routine. He starts his day off with the senior breakfast at Local’s Restaurant on Howe Street: scrambled eggs, sausage, hash browns, white toast, and an iced tea. Then he usually drives down the street to Southport Waterfront Park, listening to classic country songs by Loretta Lynn and Bobby Bare on the radio in his sedan, which is decked out in World War II ball caps.

At the park, he’ll walk along the waterfront for a couple of miles, back and forth, and then sit in one of the bench swings overlooking the Cape Fear River, watching the boats go by and listening to the seagulls squawking. From there, he can see Oak Island Lighthouse to the southwest. Some days, he’ll go over to the island and visit Veterans Park, where his name is among those etched into a brick wall with the American flag flying above. Other days, he’ll meet friends and go to the lighthouse, where they’ll sit outside and shoot the breeze.

Oak Island view

From the top of the lighthouse, Christensen can see the sweeping marshland and shore of Oak Island. photograph by HUNTER BRADDY

He’s been planning this latest climb for months. Although he’s already the oldest person to have ascended the lighthouse, he wanted to climb it again after he turned 99. He figured if he could do that, no one would try to beat his record.

When he reaches the top and steps onto the balcony, greeted by a welcome cool breeze, Christensen looks out over the Elizabeth River and Southport to the north, Fort Caswell and Bald Head Island to the east, the Western Bar Channel to the south, Oak Island all around him. This landscape has been his home for nearly a third of his long life. He’ll be leaving soon, moving to Monroe, outside of Charlotte, to live with his son. He’s at the age where he shouldn’t live alone. He’s too stoic to say it, but it’s clear that he’s sad to go.

But, he ponders, maybe I’ll come back and climb again next year. When I’m 100.

Oak Island Lighthouse
300 Caswell Beach Road
Oak Island, NC 28465

This story was published on May 14, 2024

Rebecca Woltz

Rebecca is the staff writer at Our State.