Written by Petty Officer 1st Class Timothy Tamargo. Excerpts from Commodore Ellsworth P.Bertholf by C. Douglas Kroll and The Overland Expedition: A Coast Guard Triumph by Paul Johnson.
On Aug. 21, 2012, the engines were lit and mooring stations set. There was a cool breeze blowing, but with the warm sun it was easy to forget the ship was moored at Base Kodiak, Alaska. Ship stores were loaded earlier in the day along with fuel and all personnel on the sailing list were accounted for. Once underway, all that was left to do was recover the small boat on the starboard side, land the MH-65 Dolphin helicopter, with its crew from Air Station Los Angeles, and prepare the Coast Guard Cutter Bertholf to deploy to sea to a destination that no cutter of this class had gone before – the Arctic Ocean.
However, the name Bertholf is not new to the Arctic region, nor is the Coast Guard. Almost 115 years ago, a group of men set out on a mission to save approximately 265 sailors who were icebound in the Arctic Ocean aboard eight whaling ships just off of Point Barrow, Alaska. These men were part of the Revenue Cutter Service, the precursor to the present day Coast Guard, and among them was 2nd Lt. Ellsworth P. Bertholf, later Commandant of the Coast Guard, who were tasked to lead an expedition to rescue the mariners in distress by Treasury Secretary Lyman J. Gage by order of President William McKinley. In command of the overland expedition was 1st Lt. David H. Jarvis with Bertholf as his second in command. The third member of the Cutter Bear’s landing party was Dr. S. J. Call, a familiar figure on Revenue Cutters in Alaska. Call was a ship’s physician whose medical skill would be needed by any survivors at Point Barrow.
Dire omens were everywhere on the day of the landing, Dec. 15, 1897, at Cape Vancouver, about 700 miles south of the point Secretary Gage had selected originally. The landing itself almost ended in disaster as wind-lashed water and rapidly running ice threatened to swamp the boats carrying men and equipment ashore. While Jarvis and his men fought for their lives, the Bear’s crew struggled to avoid unmarked shoals in little more than four fathoms. By dusk the expedition was safely ashore and the Bear steamed out to sea not to be seen again by the men until eight months later. Bertholf, Jarvis, and Call were now committed to a 1,500-mile journey through the Alaskan wilderness at top speed in temperatures as low as 60 below zero surrounded by the gloom and dark of the long Arctic winter.
Arctic natives warned against the attempt as unwise even without the hundreds of reindeer Jarvis hoped to acquire along the route. Yet this expedition had to go out: the president himself had asked that it be done.
During the next hundred days, Bertholf and his companions endured almost every hardship known in the Arctic. Traveling in the winter darkness across sea ice or frozen tundra, over mountain passes and snow sometimes too soft to bear the load, these determined men never allowed their own comfort or safety to interfere with the mission.
At times the ice was dangerously soft. Occasionally visibility was so poor that the group came close to plunging over hidden cliffs. Blizzard after blizzard hindered their movement, sometimes forcing them to huddle in some abandoned hut or in a tent. The cold was incredible. On the other hand, just above St. Michael (200 miles northwest of Cape Vancouver) the temperature rose capriciously, leaving the undulating gravel and boulder surface of the tundra almost bare. It was in such circumstances that Mate Tilton, one of two men sent from the stranded whaling vessels at Point Barrow, was found struggling toward St. Michael seeking help for the stranded whalers.
Tilton pronounced the proposed reindeer drive an impossible scheme. Pushing, pulling, and straining, the sleds moved on, at times slowly, at other times making up to fifty miles in a day. A blinding snow almost ended the expedition as the guide groped for the trail on hands and knees.
On another occasion the party was saved only by the instinct of the reindeer when even the Eskimo guide had lost the way. Time after time, the hospitality of poor, isolated Eskimos kept the men of the expedition alive and thereby the only chance of the icebound men at Point Barrow to be rescued.
Cape Prince of Wales was 500 miles north of St. Michael and it was here that Jarvis succeeded in persuading both the missionary W. T. Lopp and “the Eskimo known as Charlie (Artisarlook)” to lend their valued herds to the government to help in the reindeer drive. A herd of about 400 reindeer was assembled and moved under dreadful conditions toward Point Barrow still 800 miles distant. The men suffered from extreme and mounting fatigue in this second half of the journey. Blizzards, drifting snow, rough terrain, and biting wind turned the expedition into a nightmarish ordeal. Nevertheless, they remained determined.
On March 26, 1898, a beautiful clear day, the relief party sighted the most westerly of the icebound whaling vessels. The Belvedere was banked up with snow with little visible except spars and rigging.
“We drew up alongside at 4 P.M., and going aboard announced ourselves and our mission, but it was some time before the first astonishment and incredulousness could wear off and a welcome be extended to us,” said Jarvis.
They soon learned that scurvy had broken out among the starving whaling men. Those living ashore were housed in wretchedly crowded, filthy, cold quarters. These men were from the crushed whalers Orca and Jessie H. Freeman. All the men, both ashore and aboard ship, were living in misery and hopelessness, waiting for inevitable death.
The arrival of fresh meat reversed the progress of scurvy. However, these men needed more than food and Jarvis was superbly equipped to furnish the organization and discipline needed to see them through the difficult time ahead. Additional shelter was built using wood from a crushed vessel. The men were split up into smaller groups for better sanitation and comfort. Cleanliness was enforced and medical aid applied where needed. In May, baseball on the ice was organized to bring the men out of their apathy and depression and to provide exercise after the long period of idleness.
When the Cutter Bear broke through to Point Barrow on July 28, Captain Tuttle was relieved to find that the Overland Expedition had been a success and that all but a few of the whaling men had survived. Laden with survivors, the Bear arrived in Seattle on Sept. 13, 1898, almost ten months after its feverish departure the previous winter.
The Bear’s officers and men had departed as popular heroes. Bertholf, Jarvis, and Call were recommended by President McKinley for decoration. Gold medals voted by Congress were presented to them in 1902 with expressions of thanks.
Today, the crew of the Cutter Bertholf is deployed as part of the Coast Guard’s Operation Arctic Shield, the largest humanitarian outreach effort not in response to a disaster (natural or man-made) in recent history. The Coast Guard is using the mission as an opportunity to exercise capabilities to ensure the right resources are deployed to conduct Arctic operations.
“As we press Bertholf above the Arctic Circle to provide maritime safety, security and stewardship, we are honored to carry the legacy of Commodore Bertholf, the Revenue Cuttermen, and all Coast Guardsmen who have gone before us since the 1800s,” said Thomas Crabbs, the commanding officer of the Coast Guard Cutter Bertholf.
As the nation’s lead federal agency for ensuring maritime safety, security and stewardship in the Arctic, the Coast Guard performs its statutory missions to ensure the Arctic remains a safe, secure and environmentally protected region.
The Bertholf crew works with local partners to overcome many operational challenges the Arctic presents, including sea state patterns, ice conditions, arctic survival and search and rescue efforts over an expansive territory. Local people have the knowledge and experience in coping with these challenges from generations of living in the area and can partner with the Coast Guard complete mutual goals.
“Strengthening Partnerships is a primary objective of our mission,” said Crabbs. “In the Arctic, the importance of partnerships is immediately apparent. The communities that have thrived for a more than a millennium in this harsh frontier understand there is no going it alone. It is a lesson best learned early by anyone intent on participating in the Arctic.”
The melting sea ice has resulted in the opening of new navigable waterways and increased human activity, which creates an increase in demand for Coast Guard and other federal, state, local and tribal capabilities in the Arctic. With ever increasing Arctic domain awareness, the Coast Guard is responsible for maintaining the safety and security of the maritime transportation system and is the search and rescue coordinators under the national search and rescue plan. With that, the Coast Guard Cutter Bertholf’s crew is dedicated to ensuring the protection of the Arctic maritime environment and of all those who depend on it.
“Human pressures of transportation, exploration, and exploitation will continually increase as the ice recedes. Daily, we track and engage research, industry, and high adventure recreational vessel traffic,” said Crabbs. “We are knitting maritime domain awareness with local and national resources, and providing a welcome presence of safety, security and partnership.”
The actions of Commodore Bertholf and the Overland Expedition stand as a testament to human courage and as a reminder of a time when a small group of dedicated mariners brought relief and justice to the Alaskan frontier. Today, Coast Guard ships and crewmembers still cruise Alaska’s dangerous waters always ready to aid those in distress, including the men and women of the Coast Guard Cutter Bertholf, continuing on the traditions of the service protecting people on the sea, protecting America from threats delivered by sea and protecting the sea itself.