Written by Ens. John Roddy
The Coast Guard Cutter Bear marks another chapter in its distinguished service to the nation by celebrating 35 years since its commissioning on Feb. 4, 1983.
Bear is the first of the 270-foot Famous-class medium endurance cutters. These multi-mission capable platforms contribute to the safety and security of vessels on the high seas. Whether interdicting illegal drugs bound for American shores, participating in search and rescue operations, or delivering humanitarian supplies to disaster stricken areas, these cutters are always ready to answer the call.
To commemorate Bear’s long history of service, past and present crew members were invited to share photos and stories from their time aboard Bear.
Bear was built at Tacoma Naval Shipyard in Washington where the keel was laid on Aug. 23, 1979. The cutter would undergo sea trials in Puget Sound, and take a shakedown cruise along the west coast of the United States, steaming from Seattle to San Diego as the newest addition to the Coast Guard fleet. Along the way, Bear would undergo several major modifications, including the complete replacement of the original rudders once moored in San Diego. The ship would continue east, through the Panama Canal as part of a maiden cruise, making stops to great fanfare at places like San Juan, Puerto Rico, and Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, before arriving at its assigned homeport, Portsmouth, Virginia.
Once ready for operations, the cutter stood ready to answer the call to action throughout the 1980s and 1990s. During Hurricane Gilbert in 1988, the Bear crew performed search and rescue in the Caribbean, even dispatching an armed party to St. Croix and aiding in the evacuation of over 100 American citizens who had become stranded on the island. During Hurricane Hugo in 1989 the crew was again hard at work performing search and rescue in some of the worst weather imaginable. Crew members on the bridge remember the cutter’s list as bad as 45 degrees to starboard and 43 degrees to port!
In 1987, Bear played a major role in Operation Checkmate, a joint agency drug interdiction campaign that sought to combat cocaine trafficking in the Caribbean, seizing several tons of cocaine. In 1990, the cutter was selected to conduct joint naval operations with the Royal Navy, and as part of operations British Lynx helicopters landed on the deck of the cutter, a unique opportunity for both sea services to interact and enhance their skills together.
In April 1991, the Bear crew showed that they were always ready to help those in need when disaster struck the U.S. Navy hydrofoil USS Aquila. The Aquila was cruising on hydrofoils when it struck a breached whale, disabling and severely damaging the ship and injuring several personnel, including its commanding officer. As the nearest asset, Bear risked treacherously shallow waters to get on scene and render aid, taking the Aquila into a tow and bringing it back to safe waters. The crew was able to use the cutter’s flight deck to medically evacuate the Aquila’s injured personnel, allowing for timely medical treatment.
In the summer of 1999, Bear was selected to deploy to the Adriatic Sea as part of a NATO naval force in support of Operation Noble Anvil and Operation Allied Force, NATO’s military operations against the Former Republic of Yugoslavia. Bear provided vital escort to U.S. Army vessels transporting cargo to the Albania coastline, well within the range of enemy anti-ship missiles.
In 1994, the cutter deployed again to the Caribbean, to support both Operation Able Vigil and Operation Able Manner. Bear served as part of an armada of over 50 United States Navy ships and Coast Guard cutters during a period of mass Cuban and Haitian migrations. The task force combined saved the lives of over 60,000 Cuban and Haitian migrants, ensuring the safety of life.
In 2008, Bear celebrated its 25th birthday in the midst of a major engineering overhaul, a midlife extension project. While in drydock, the crew found unique ways to pay homage to the long and distinguished history of not only their ship, but of their namesake, the Revenue Cutter Bear. The elder Bear was famed for its Overland Expedition, which saw crew members heard caribou across hundreds of miles of rugged arctic terrain in order to rescue stranded whalers at Barrow Point, Alaska. To pay tribute to the long line of mariners that came before them, Bear officers redecorated the wardroom to showcase the leaders and Coast Guard heroes whose legacy they were carrying on. The crew worked together to create a history board for the modern Bear, to ensure its exploits would be remembered and that each crew member understood the long line of sailors they were joining.
Outside of maintenance, the 2000s saw Bear maintain its reputation as leader in the fleet. The cutter was one of the first cutters to deploy with Helicopter Interdiction Tactical Squadron aviation detachments, securing a place in the front line against the trafficking of illicit narcotics into the United States.
Today, Bear crews continue that tradition of mission excellence and service to country that has been upheld by every crew for the past 35 years. Bear continues to interdict drugs and enforce immigration laws at sea, while also rendering humanitarian aid and serving as a beacon of hope to vessels in distress when conducting search and rescue. In the summer of 2017, the cutter and its crew deployed in support of hurricane relief efforts, rushing to deliver vitally needed food, water, and building supplies to citizens left in the destructive wake of Hurricane Maria. Bear showed no sign of its age as the crew sped from Florida to San Juan, delivering over 43,000 pounds of supplies in record time.
But what has been one of Bear’s most defining achievements over the past 35 years? The unit and camaraderie of the crew, and the knowledge that there is no stronger bond than that shared by the crew. One thing is constant in every photo from 1983 to 2018, and that is that the people aboard Bear ensure they are “first in fleet, and second to none.”