Harold W. Flagg, the last surviving crewman of the Vineyard Lightship, which sank during the Hurricane of 1944 with the loss of 12 of his fellow crew members, died June 2 in Sandwich. He was 81 years old and suffered from leukemia, which, in keeping with the good fortune and resiliency that were the hallmarks of his life, he survived far longer than he or his doctors anticipated. So much so that early last year he started apologizing to friends and family - and even to his undertaker - for making his final arrangements, saying goodbye, getting everyone worked up and then living on in serene good health.

Mr. Flagg was featured in a story about the loss of the Vineyard Lightship, which appeared in the September-October 2003 edition of Martha's Vineyard Magazine. The lightship, anchored at the western approaches to Buzzards Bay and Vineyard Sound, was ordered to remain on station on Sept. 14, 1944, even though authorities knew a monstrous hurricane, with winds clocked at 134 miles an hour off the Virginia Capes, was closing on the southern New England coastline. The vessel, essentially a floating lighthouse and radio tower manned by a crew of up to 12 Coast Guardsmen at a time, also served as a lookout for German submarines during World War II.

It was for this reason - as well as a tradition that life savers and other sentinels along the coastline were never to retreat from wind or weather when civilian lives might be at stake - that the lightship, built in 1901, measuring 124 feet and displacing 693 tons, was ordered to stay put as the hurricane advanced. Mr. Flagg, a boatswain's mate who had served on the lightship for nearly two years, should have been aboard that night, but he was not. "Bad weather saved my life more than once," he told the magazine last fall.

Mr. Flagg, with four other Vineyard lightship crewmen, was scheduled to go on a two-week leave starting August 29, 1944. A tender from New Bedford, carrying a replacement crew, approached the lightship, which was anchored about one mile west of Cuttyhunk. But the seas were too rough to bring the tender alongside the vessel, and both the start and finish of Mr. Flagg's leave were postponed by 48 hours - thereby delaying his return to the lightship until the morning of Sept. 15. In a collection of albums he kept of the vessel and his fellow crewmen, he saved the order that required him to report back to his ship "on or before noontime" on Sept. 15. It amounted to a second birth certificate for Mr. Flagg; the ship was lost only nine hours before he was due to return to her.

The hurricane struck after dark on Sept. 14. A single message from the Vineyard Lightship, broken up by static, reached the Woods Hole Coast Guard Station sometime after 9 p.m.: "Our anchor is holding us," the men ashore thought it said. Mr. Flagg reported to a battered New Bedford the following morning to be ferried out to his vessel. But he was told it was gone. Islanders on Cuttyhunk had seen the lights on the vessel move - evidence of it dragging its anchor as it fought 100-mile-an-hour winds and 20-foot seas. Six flares were fired from the lightship around 2 a.m. The vessel went off the radar screen at Cuttyhunk around 3 a.m. Divers exploring the wreck in 1963 found evidence that a spare anchor had apparently broken loose and speared the bow repeatedly, opening it to the seas. The message had not been "Our anchor is holding us," but, more likely, "Our anchor has holed us."

Mr. Flagg, spared the ordeal that claimed the lives of 12 friends aboard his ship, was sent out with a party to search for bodies a week after the sinking. They were given two by another search boat, including that of Richard L. Talbot, the ship's cook, a hotel-trained chef who Mr. Flagg thought might have been the best in the Coast Guard. Mr. Talbot's body was battered, and it was this evidence of a violent end that caused Mr. Flagg to dispute vehemently the idea that the sea anchor was mainly responsible for sinking the ship. Examination of the wreck both before and after 1963 revealed that the entire superstructure of the vessel had been swept clean off the hull, and that a pair of freight doors may have been bashed in by the storm. Mr. Flagg had ridden out strong northeasters aboard the vessel, and he knew better than anyone what his friends must have gone through as the lights went out, the generator and engine failed, the pumps quit and the water came rushing in from above and below during the night.

Mr. Flagg, together with the four other survivors in the leave party, vowed to remember the crewmates they had lost. Through the decades they stayed in touch with survivors of their lost crewmen, including grandchildren of those survivors, and Mr. Flagg spent the next 45 years working with the Lightship Sailors Association, of which he was a life member, to establish a memorial to the ship and the crew. It was unveiled on the New Bedford waterfront in September 1999, and commemorates not only the loss of the Vineyard Lightship, but also the Nantucket Lightship, cut in half by the RMS Olympic in 1934, and the Cross Rip Lightship, swept away by ice in Nantucket Sound in February 1918. The centerpiece of the memorial is the bronze bell of the Vineyard Lightship, which was lifted off the wreck in 1963.

"The had us classed as survivors," Mr. Flagg said of the way the Coast Guard regarded the party on leave the night of the hurricane. "When you go up into Boston, to the receiving station, there's a little red tag under our names as survivors. So we got treated as survivors." That, Mr. Flagg told Martha's Vineyard Magazine, struck him as all wrong, given what his friends suffered and he was spared. "We were survivors of that family, let's put it that way."

After the loss of the lightship, Mr. Flagg went on to serve 38 years in the Coast Guard and Naval Reserve, running a carpentry shop and inspecting ships. Ethel Flagg, Mr. Flagg's wife of 54 years, died this spring. He is survived by three daughters - Marcia Flagg of Detroit; Nadine Flagg of Menomonee Falls, Wisc.; and Sandra Fon of Panton, Vt. - as well as one grandchild and one great-grandchild.