A Bear of a sea story

Revenue Cutter Bear before WWI. U.S. Coast Guard photo.
Revenue Cutter Bear before WWI. U.S. Coast Guard photo.

Written by Lt. Cmdr. Jamie Frederick, Atlantic Area public affairs.

Coast Guard Cutter Bear fittingly celebrated 30 years of commissioned service with a recent return to homeport after a successful eight-week patrol in the Caribbean Sea. Bear is the oldest of the Famous-class medium endurance cutters and the namesake of one of the most famous ships in U.S. maritime history. As a historian of the Revenue Cutter Service wrote 60 years ago:

The Bear is more than just a famous ship; she is a symbol for all the service represents – for steadfastness, for courage and for constant readiness to help men and vessels in distress.” The history of both cutters named Bear reflects the Coast Guard’s core values and offers a glimpse into the diversity of our service – both our missions and our people.

The original Bear was one of the first ships purpose-built to work in ice-bound conditions. Built in Scotland in 1874, Bear was 200-feet long with a wooden hull reinforced with six-inch thick oak planks and sheathed with Australian ironwood for a total of 10 inches of hull thickness. After several years in U.S. Navy service, Bear was transferred to the Revenue Cutter Service in 1885 and began a voyage around Cape Horn to a new homeport in San Francisco. It is from this point in Bear’s service that this great ship would prove historic to the Coast Guard and the nation.

Diversity of missions and people

Revenue Capt. Michael A. Healy, commanding officer of cutters Chandler, Corwin, Bear, McCulloch and Thetis. U.S. Coast Guard photo.
Revenue Capt. Michael A. Healy, commanding officer of cutters Chandler, Corwin, Bear, McCulloch and Thetis. U.S. Coast Guard photo.

Flash forward to today as the current Bear celebrates 30 years of service during Black History Month. The cutter exemplifies not only the Coast Guard’s diverse mission sets, but also personifies the service’s workforce. Today, the crew of Bear is diverse with a minority makeup of more than 30 percent. While diversity is a mainstay today, the Coast Guard and first Cutter Bear were far ahead of their time.

After arriving in San Francisco in 1886, Capt. Michael Healy assumed command of Bear. Healy was the first African-American officer in U.S. history and would become a legend enforcing laws and providing humanitarian services along Alaska’s 20,000-mile coastline. In Alaska, Healy and Bear made their mark on history and served as a symbol not only of the Revenue Cutter Service, but rather the government and people of the United States.

At the time, Alaska was without any major modes of transportation, so cutters served as the only federal presence in the territory. As a result, cutters adopted a wide set of missions and served as true interagency support vessels. There is no more fitting evidence to that claim than a list of accomplishments from Capt. Healy’s 1891 legendary Bear patrol. During that patrol Bear:

• secured witnesses for a murder trial;
• ferried reindeer;
• sailed the Alaskan governor;
• transported a U.S. Geographical survey team;
• carried lumber and supplies for school construction in remote areas;
• delivered teachers to their remote assignments;
• delivered mail for the Postal Service;
• enforced federal laws;
• provided medical support to natives and
• conducted search and rescue.

This list is remarkable, but not necessarily a stretch from the type of dynamic service our current cutter fleet provides the nation.

A legacy of diverse mission sets

The original Bear was a steam barkentine. U.S. Coast Guard photo.
The original Bear was a steam barkentine. U.S. Coast Guard photo.

The execution of a diverse set of missions is at the very core of the Coast Guard’s DNA. During WWII, the chief of naval operations charged the Coast Guard with overseeing the Greenland Patrol in the North Atlantic. Under the command of Capt. Edward Smith, the Bear patrolled Greenland’s waters. In October 1941, she brought home the German trawler Buskoe, the first enemy vessel in WWII. The chief of naval operations ordered Smith to “Do a little of everything – the Coast Guard is used to that.” Today our Coast Guard continues to provide flexible and nimble service to the nation.

When Bear and crew returned to Portsmouth, Va., on their most recent patrol, their list of accomplishments included the interdiction and rescue of 165 Haitian migrants from a grossly overloaded sail freighter. And just days before, the crew located a suspicious sailing vessel operating without navigation lights near Isle de Tortue, Haiti. When Bear launched response boats, the vessel turned on their navigation lights and began jettisoning packages, which Bear’s crew recovered. Operating pursuant to the bilateral agreement with the government of Haiti, a boarding team apprehended eight suspects and seized 550 pounds of marijuana.

Reflecting on the past, looking to the future

The current crew of Bear forms a 30 to honor 30 years of the cutter's service to our nation. U.S. Coast Guard photo.
The current crew of Bear forms a 30 to honor 30 years of the cutter’s service to our nation. U.S. Coast Guard photo.

After a legendary career, spanning several generations, the Bear met her fate in 1963. After a restaurateur purchased Bear, the ship was towed from Halifax en route Philadelphia where the plan was to turn the ship into a restaurant. During the transit, heavy seas developed and as if in protest to being pier side as a restaurant, this proud ship began taking on water and quickly sank. Today, the original Bear lies in her final resting place at the bottom of the North Atlantic, but the tales from Bear still widen the eyes of men and women interested in the lore of the sea.

The U.S. will always depend heavily on the sea and cutters are essential for the offshore presence America requires to protect maritime interests. Today, the 30-year-old Bear remains on the hunt in a demanding, dynamic and unforgiving environment. Despite these challenges, a talented, dedicated and diverse workforce continues to answer the Nation’s call. As the Coast Guard celebrates the 30-year anniversary of the current Bear, the service honors the legendary service of her namesake and the diverse nature of its missions and people.

2 comments on “A Bear of a sea story”

  1. Commander Frederick,

    My mother cried the day the Bear sank. Her father was the medical officer from 1921 to 1926. The pictures and artifacts he collected tell of the last explorers to re-visit the Pole and the Passages.

    The Norge crash landed, after the dirigible flew the North Pole. Perry flew over in a biwing airplane. Bear met both explorers, on her last cruise as a Coast Guard Cutter.

    Between her decommission in ’26 and WWII when she was refit for diesel, she also went to work in the antarctic for Admiral Byrd, two tours.

    I never knew my grandfather. I have followed his life in following the work of the Bering Sea Patrol. Doctor Lazelle Sturdevant, Medical Corp, Army Doctor, and Teaching Doctor Nebrask U, served twenty years on four cutters, his first duty was the Bear and he joined Captain Cochran on her final tour of Alaska and Siberia.

    I work with Recreational Boating Safety on pfd issues, particularly for paddle sports. Glory must not be used as an indulgence. It must be, instead, a benchmark. We do not become heroes by wearing life jackets. We are required by tradition to be heroes by opposing unsafe regulatory policy that requires Coasties and yachties alike to follow the law, rather than to use their best judgement.

    Semper Paratus involves an open mind to critical issues. USCG is not the Army. Healy could have become a victim of his own justice, had he not concealed his African heritage. His heroism involved a desperate deception that lasted twenty some years.

    The National Boating Safety Advisory Council, under the direction of both uniformed and civilian officers must also open their minds to their own short comings. People died last year, because the complex challenge of recognizing safety issues and acting on them is bogged down in a political environment exacerbated by Federal Code requirements of bureaucratic law.

    Today’s Coast Guard leadership must work to focus on their traditional mission and not be distracted by the title acquired when they were placed under DHS.

    Out on the inland waterways of America, duty is a sacred trust, just as it was in Bering Sea one hundred years ago today. I have been asked not to lecture the Coast Guard. But, that would be inappropriate. I am sure Sturdevant was careful, but unafraid when he disagreed with Cochran on critical life and death issues to Natives or shipmates.

    The point is that people within the Coast Guard need to recognize that they have a heroic duty within (or without) the service to find fault, expose it, and improve! Lives are at stake, as always. Always Ready!

    Jack Hanna
    Bethel Island CA

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