Philippine Sea

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Sunday Ship History: "Bear"

It began with a simple idea from an Austrian scientist named Carl Weyprecht. Weyprecht was interested in meteorology and theorized that the polar areas held important clues. One result of these theories was the International Polar Year:
The first International Polar Year (IPY) took place from 1881 to 1884, and was the first series of coordinated international expeditions to the Polar Regions ever undertaken. The first IPY, inspired by the Austrian explorer Carl Weyprecht, was the antecedent for other international research programs such as the landmark International Geophysical Year (IGY) in 1957 and the upcoming 4th International Polar Year, planned to begin in 2007.
The contribution of the United States to the IPY was an expedition to the northern reaches of Canada. This expedition was under the leadership of an Army Lieutenant (5th Cavalry) named Greely. The trip started out in July of 1881 and Greely's party consisted of 24 m3n. Delivered to a site on Ellesmere Island, Greely and company constructed a shelter and set out to explore the area. However, Greely and his party became trapped and, when a rescue vessel was crushed by ice as it attempted to deliver supplies, in serious peril. Lobbying by Greely's wife finally stirred the government into action to try to rescue Greely and his men. In order to effect the rescue, a stouter ship capable of safer operations in ice floes was required. To this end, the government bought a Scottish built ship designed for whaling. This ship, Bear went on to to fame:
The cutter Bear probably was the most famous polar exploration ship of all time. Originally built as a sealing ship, she served the United States as a rescue vessel, a revenue cutter, a Coast Guard cutter, a polar exploration vessel, and an Arctic patrol ship during a career of unmatched length. She was in the service of the US Government for nearly 60 years, and she survived to be nearly 90 years old.
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In 1884, shortly after completing an overhaul, the ship was purchased by the US government to be used for the rescue of the Greely Expedition, which was trapped in Lady Franklin Bay in Northern Greenland. The expedition, under the command of Lieutenant A. W. Greely, had set up a camp to study the winter conditions of the north in 1881 (Note by E1: Site 9 on the nearby map). Their relief ship in 1882 had failed to reach them, and the 1883 ship also failed to break through the ice. When the 1883 relief ship failed to reach the camp, the men gambled that a rescue ship would be coming, broke camp, and started trekking south. From August to October 1883 they moved south, then set up camp for the winter. By springtime the food had run out; they were desperate.

The Bear was the last hope of the trapped expedition, and the government wasted no time in dispatching her north. After a hurried trip to New York she was outfitted for the mission and commissioned in the US Navy. Bear left New York April 25th, 1884, then stopped at St. John's for final supplies. With the USS Thetis, another sealer purchased for the rescue, as flagship, Bear headed north from Canada on May 4th. She pushed onwards under steam and sail, and soon entered the ice. Battling through the pack ice while keeping a lookout for the expedition, she pushed forward. On June 22 Bear and Thetis finally arrived at the expedition's camp. Only Lieutenant Greely and six men remained alive. Bear immediately turned south and raced the men to Portsmouth, NH for medical treatment.
The rescue of the Greely part was only the beginning of the legendary Bear's career. Turned over the the Revenue Service, one of the predecessors of the modern Coast Guard, Bear spent 40 years performing duties as a unit of the Bearing Sea Patrol:
For more than 36 years the Bear traveled north into the Arctic each spring and with the coming of winter returned to San Francisco to lay up for the winter. In the Arctic, the Bear acted as a mail boat, supply ship, hospital, police department and court for the isolated northern settlements, in the process becoming an institution of the northern settlements, and, particularly under the command of Captain Michael " Hell Roaring Mike " Healy, contributed greatly to the United States relations with the indigenous peoples (To relieve starving natives, Healy sailed to Siberia, purchased reindeer at his own expense, and transplanted the heard by ship to Alaska to become the nucleus of a herd for food and hides.). The Bear also made important contributions "at home:" her crew played a major role in rescue operations following the San Francisco earthquake of 1906. During the decade in which Michael Healy was its captain, the Bear was not merely a useful ship; Bear was, as the official historian of the Coast Guard has said, "a symbol for all the service represents--for steadfastness, for courage, and for constant readiness to help men and vessels in distress."
Captain Healy is the man for whom one of the current U.S. Coast Guard icebreakers is named. His story must wait for another Sunday. A classic tale of the Bear was its role in rescuing the crews of trapped whalers with an "Overland Expedition" composed of members of the crew of Bear (a summary of the Overland Expedition can be found here and a complete report can be downloaded here).

However, we are not yet done with Bear.
In 1915 the Revenue Cutter service became part of the Coast Guard, and Bear became USCGC Bear. During WWI she worked for the Navy, but went back to Bering Sea patrol after the war. Bear was deemed obsolete in 1921, but no replacement was available, so she served on. In 1924 she was trapped in ice, pushed ashore in a storm, and reported to be destroyed, but she was eventually hauled off with little damage. 1926 marked Bear's 36th and final voyage into the Bering Sea. In 1928 the new cutter Northland was commissioned, taking over Bear's duties. After being decommissioned, ownership was turned over to Oakland, and Bear became a museum near her old winter home of San Francisco. During her brief retirement, Bear became a movie star: Bear playing the part of Death Larsen's sealship "Macedonia" for the 1930 movie "The Sea Wolf".
But even then, her "ice days" were not over. Another famed polar explorer sought her out. Richard E. Byrd, who gained fame for reportedly flying over the North Pole, and also for an leading an expedition to Antarctica bought her from the city of Oakland for about $1000. Bear was then used in two of Byrd's expeditions and in removing US personnel from the Antarctic at the start of WWII. Bear then reentered active service:
Repurchased by the Navy 11 September 1939, she was commissioned the same day as Bear (AG-29). Following two voyages to the Antarctic (22 November 1939-5 June 1940 and 1 0 October 1940 18 May 1941), Bear served with the Northeast Greenland Patrol until returning to Boston 15 November 1943. She was decommissioned 17 May 1944 and transferred to the Maritime Commission 13 February 1948.
More on the Greenland Patrol here. Bear was somewhat reconfigured for here Greenland mission, which, ironically, included looking for German "weather reporting teams" snuck ashore in Northern Greenland. Now she sported a float plane:
In June and July 1941, the American naval forces congregating around Greenland were organized officially into the Greenland Patrol. The Northeast Greenland Patrol, with Iceberg Smith in command, consisted of the Northland, the wooden-hulled former survey ship North Star and an old friend of the Coast Guard now flying a Navy pennant, the USS Bear.

The Bear, a former seal catcher built in 1875 and used by the Revenue Cutter Service for years on the Bering Sea Patrol, now sported a modernized superstructure and an
aircraft. The South Greenland Patrol, under LCDR Belcher of the Modoc, included the cutter Comanche, the Coast Guard icebreaking tug Raritan, and the Navy auxiliary schooner Bowdoin. In October, the two commands were consolidated under CDR Smith as the Greenland Patrol, designated Task Force 24.8 under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Atlantic Fleet.

A memorandum from ADM Harold Stark, the Chief of Naval Operations, outlined the mission of the Greenland Patrol:

"1. Naval operations will be required in Greenland ... for two purposes. The first purpose is to support the Army in ... establishing in Greenland airdrome facilities for use in ferrying aircraft to the British Isles.

2. The second purpose is to defend Greenland and specifically to prevent German operations in Northeast Greenland."
Bear carried out her mission:
On the Greenland patrol she made the first US capture of the war: the German ship Busko, captured while setting up a radio station to assist U-boats. Bear served until new vessels were available to replace her; she was then laid up at Boston.
Well, maybe. According to this source at pg 26, it appears that Busko was a captured or commandeered Norwegian ship and had landed a German weather team when Busko stumbled upon Bear:
As the Busko neared the southern tip of Greenland, they saw the U.S. Navy patrol boat Bear and hailed her. The captain told the navy this bizarre story. The Bear took the Busko in tow, and went back up north where they found the story to be true. The Navy then picked up the Norwegians who had been left off and the German "weather" expert.
Another view here:
The United States Coast Guard was involved in the first wartime capture of a German vessel in September of 1941. The fishing vessel MV Buskoe was acting suspiciously, and after lurking around Greenland the USS Northland, a Coast Guard Cutter on Greenland patrol boarded the fishing vessel. After the fishermen were routinely questioned, they searched the vessel. The Coast Guard crew found 27 Norwegians on board, which was suspicious because by this because Germany had already invaded Norway in April of 1941, so by being Norwegian the crew was under suspicion as possible infiltrators.

After talking closely to the crewmembers, nothing was discovered until the vessel itself was searched. The Coast Guard found proof that the fishing vessel was serving German outpost radio stations including various German Radio equipment on board the Busko.

After seizing the crew and further questioning it was discovered that the fishing vessel had dropped off a German crew several hundred miles away. The crew was arrested and held, and the Coast Guard Cutter USS Northland immediately set sail by its Commander Von Paulsen, to try and find the dropped off insurgents, and the enemy radio base. They were able to discover the location after steaming for about 24 hours straight. They surrounded the radio station, and captured three Norwegian commandos, radio gear, codes, and confidential German instructions. The men were taken into custody and arrested as illegal immigrants because war had not been declared formally. Further investigation found that Norwegian German agents replaced all of the Norwegian crewmembers of the Busko.
Another source at pages 98-100 follows the more heroic line.

Time
magazine reported the capture here:
Into Boston Harbor last week steamed the filthy, seaworn, ketch-rigged little (61-ton) Norwegian tub Busko, first Nazi sea victim of U.S. naval might, trapped off Greenland by a U.S. patrol vessel, escorted into the harbor by the old 703-ton Coast Guard cutter Bear, once a Byrd Antarctic ship. Aboard the Busko were radio equipment, skis, dogsleds, two dogs, a Gestapo agent, 18 Norwegian sailors, a woman and a boy. What was the status of the captives? Were they prisoners of war or (since the U.S. is not in the war) prisoners of defense? Under what law could they be held in jail? The unembarrassed Justice Department, which knows a lot about the law, smoothly ruled that the Busko's crew could be held "because they are not in possession of the proper traveling documents."
The problem being that the U.S. was not officially at war yet.

Shortly after the Busko incident, Bear, nearing 70 years old, was retired and later efforts to revive her as a whaler and as a floating restaurant ended in failure. As she was being towed, whe dropped part of her mast through her hull and sank off the coast of Massachusetts in 1963.

Her name lives on in the more modern cutter USCGC Bear which has just celebrated her 26th year of service.

Long live the Bear and the memory of the men who served in her!

1941 Bear photos from here.

Another report on sovereignty involving Greenland here.

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