This blog is part of a series honoring the long blue line of Coast Guard men and women who served before us. Stay tuned as we highlight the customs, traditions, history and heritage of the Coast Guard.
William H. Thiesen, Ph.D.
Atlantic Area Historian, United States Coast Guard
This is a continuation of Cutter Bear’s venerable history; see here for the first part of Cutter Bear’s history.
During the 1898 Spanish-American War, U.S. military leaders had harbored a fear that Spanish privateers would terrorize the West Coast. Consequently, they hatched a plan to defend the coast using revenue cutters stationed out of California and Washington. This plan included arming and armoring the Cutter Bear. However, the war ended before Bear had a chance to complete the Overland Relief Expedition, so there was no need to fortify the cutter. During World War I, the U.S. remained neutral through much of the war and faced few threats in the Pacific theater after it entered the conflict. Consequently, Bear continued its Bering Sea Patrols.
Bear also provided humanitarian relief to regions outside of Alaska. For example, the cutter was laid up in San Francisco when the 1906 Earthquake struck. In the quake’s aftermath, Bear’s men immediately set to work using the cutter’s steam launch to transport goods to the waterfront and worked with local authorities in search and rescue and law enforcement. During this effort, Bear personnel worked closely with U.S. Army units then under the overall command of General Adolphus Greely. After the relief effort, President Theodore Roosevelt personally thanked the Revenue Cutter Service for its “prompt, gallant and efficient work.”
By the mid-1920s, Bear had served Alaska for over 40 years and over 30 Bering Sea Patrols. During that career, the whaling fleet had sailed out of the Arctic fogs into the mists of memory and waves of miners had come and gone. As Alaskan settlements developed, civilizing influences once provided from the sea by Bear became locally available on land. Life in Alaska had become more civilized as new technology shortened distances between Alaska and the lower 48 states. These improvements included modern aids to navigation and lighthouses, the telegraph, military bases, steel steamships, the submarine cable, reliable aircraft and the radio. The venerable cutter had witnessed many changes in the north and, in 1927, President Calvin Coolidge officially signed Bear over to the City of Oakland to become a historic museum ship.
But the venerable Bear was destined for greater glory. After retirement by the Coast Guard and a brief career as a floating museum, Arctic explorer Richard Byrd re-activated the famous cutter. In 1928, Byrd used Bear as one of two ships for his first Antarctic expedition in which he established the well-known research base at Little America. He returned home in 1930 and used Bear on a second expedition in 1933. Byrd’s expeditions were the first American scientific missions to the Antarctic and they resulted in advanced discoveries in weather, climate and geography. Meanwhile, Bear still relied on its 19th century sail rig and coal-fired steam engine. Describing his trusted ice-ship, Byrd claimed: “There was a joy and spirit to the Bear’s attack . . . She was built for the ice . . . She could lower [her] head and bore in. Therein lay the merit of the honorable and ancient Bear . . .”
In the late 1930s, President Franklin Roosevelt placed Byrd in charge of the United Sates Antarctic Service. And, in 1939, Byrd employed Bear once again to reach his base in Antarctica. Prior to this cruise, to the Antarctic, technological change had overtaken Bear’s original design and construction. Its new diesel powerplant no longer required a tall coal-fired smoke stack and Bear’s barkentine rig was altered to support a scout plane. By 1941, with war clouds forming on the horizon, Bear evacuated the scientific personnel stationed at the Antarctic bases and returned to the States.
Bear not only served a variety of populations, the cutter carried an ethnically and racially diverse crew. Like other Pacific-based cutters, Bear proved to be a cultural and ethnic “melting pot,” much more so than the nation it served. Bear carried a crew whose native lands not only included U.S. natives, but also Asian and Pacific Island nations, Europeans and Scandinavians. Bear also held the distinction of carrying not only Michael Healy, the first African American to take a ship into the Arctic; the cutter also carried George Gibbs, Jr., the first person of African descent to set foot on the Antarctic continent.
In 1944, at 70 years of age, Bear was re-activated by the Navy for service in Greenland, where the cutter undertook its first mission as a United States ship in 1884. Bear served in the Greenland Patrol as USS Bear, only this time it looked very different from its first year in the Navy. In 1941, the Navy cut down the masts to support radio gear, added modern armament and equipped the vessel to carry an amphibious reconnaissance aircraft. Unlike in 1884, Bear relied on a Coast Guard crew during World War II. As a part of the Greenland Patrol, Bear cruised Greenland’s waters and, in October 1941, brought home the German trawler Buskoe, the first enemy vessel captured by the U.S in WWII.
In May 1944, the Navy decommissioned Bear for the last time and transferred it to the U.S. Maritime Commission. Bear remained in surplus until 1948 even though its timbers were still sound. Buyers from Halifax purchased Bear hoping to use the cutter in the sealing trade. Bear remained moored in Halifax for years until its Canadian owners finally sold it to a restaurant entrepreneur in Philadelphia. In March 1963, a seagoing tug took the old cutter in tow to its new home. During the transit, heavy seas developed and, at a point south of Halifax and 200 miles off the Massachusetts coast, Bear parted the tug’s towline. Bear began taking on water through its seams and the tug evacuated the crew trapped aboard the powerless vessel. The historic ship began sinking and finally left the surface of the water at 9:10 a.m. on March 19, 1963.
Over its long life, Bear explored, policed, protected, nurtured, defended and helped preserve the polar regions of the world and the populations of humans and animals that inhabit the earth’s frozen regions. During that time, the cutter performed the missions of search and rescue, ice operations, law enforcement, environmental protection, humanitarian relief, polar research and exploration, and maritime defense. The cutter recorded many firsts, such as the first to ship to deliver reindeer to Alaska; first to journey into the Arctic in winter; first to chart parts of the Bering Sea; and first and only ship to serve under the U.S. Navy, Revenue Cutter Service, Coast Guard and Antarctic Service. Cutter Bear and the men who sailed aboard remain a part of Arctic legend and the lore of the long blue line.