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150 Years of U.S. Arctic Operations

cutter bear alaska
Early photograph of Revenue Cutter Bear assisting a vessel trapped in ice off of Alaska (U.S. Coast Guard)

By William Thiesen 09-13-2020 11:05:30

If you are subjected to miserable discomforts, or even if you suffer, it must be regarded as all right and simply a part of life; like sailors, you must never dwell too much on the dangers or sufferings, lest others question your courage. - Lt. David Jarvis, Overland Expedition to Pt. Barrow, Alaska, 1898

Jarvis’s quote indicates the skill and daring required of Coast Guard men and women who venture into the Arctic. For more than 150 years, the United States Coast Guard and its ancestor agencies have played a major role in that frozen region.

During the 1800s, as maritime interests chased valuable resources into icebound waters and U.S. shipping began to operate into the winter months, the duties of the U.S. Revenue Cutter service increased in frozen areas previously considered unsafe in wintertime. For example, in 1867, Alaska became a U.S. territory luring adventurers and those exploiting natural resources on land and at sea. Alaska’s vast maritime frontier required the support of the service’s law enforcement, humanitarian and search and rescue missions, so revenue cutters patrolled coastal waters and the Bering Sea during warmer months.

The first cutters designed to operate in the ice were “ice resistant.” These included the famed cutter Bear, which was heavily constructed with a wooden hull over a foot thick. Bear carried a full sail rig, but relied on steam power to navigate through the ice. In 1885, it began its service career, but it normally would not steam north of the Arctic Circle in winter months. One of the few attempts to do so was the Overland Rescue, which began in November 1897, when Bear headed north to relieve starving whalers trapped in the ice near Pt. Barrow, Alaska. Bear made it to Cape Vancouver, as far north as pack ice permitted, then disembarked a rescue team that drove a herd of reindeer 1,500 miles north to the icebound whalers. The rescue succeeded due to land-based dog sleds, while the cutter remained stuck in the ice until the spring thaw. During that period, the only other cutter with a wooden-hull reinforced to serve in Arctic ice, Thetis, served from 1899 to 1916.

By the late 1800s, the Age of Sail was fading and the Revenue Cutter service began an aggressive approach of not just surviving in the ice but breaking and clearing it. By the 1890s, the service transitioned from wooden-hulled ice resistant cutters to light icebreaking cutters made of steel. In addition, icebreaker bow design evolved and larger engines were used to power icebreakers through the ice. These icebreaking cutters would serve along the Northeast Coast and in the Great Lakes.


Rare photograph of the Revenue Cutter Seneca during the early days of the International Ice patrol. (U.S. Coast Guard)

On April 14, 1912, the passenger liner Titanic struck an iceberg and sank in the North Atlantic. The sinking resulted in the loss of 1,517 lives. In response to the disaster, international demand arose for a patrol of the ice zone, so the U.S. Navy assigned scout cruisers to patrol the Grand Banks for the remainder of 1912. In 1913, the Navy could not spare ships for this purpose, so the Revenue Cutter service assumed the duty. In March 1913, Cutter Seneca became the first revenue cutter assigned to the Ice Patrol. Revenue cutters Seneca and Miami conducted subsequent patrols in the northern waters best known for producing icebergs.


Recent photograph of a Coast Guard C-130 Hercules carrying out the aerial International Ice Patrol mission. (U.S. Coast Guard)

Every year since 1913, except during the world wars, the International Ice Patrol has been maintained by the Coast Guard. Since the establishment of the Patrol, there have been no vessels lost to icebergs in the patrol area. Today, the International Ice Patrol no longer relies on cutters to monitor icebergs. Instead, it uses long-range HC-130J Hercules aircraft equipped with advanced ELTA radar for iceberg searches. In addition, the Ice Patrol has relied increasingly on the latest satellite-based systems for prediction and monitoring iceberg formation and migration.

World War II would mark a shift from the incremental changes icebreaker technology witnessed in the early 20th century. Instead, the war accelerated production of icebreakers capable of breaking thick ice domestically and in icebound Polar Regions. From 1939 through the early 1940s, the U.S. built several classes of ice capable and icebreaking vessels. These included numerous 110-foot tugs and 180-foot buoy tenders capable of light icebreaking. In addition, the service built the wide-hulled Mackinaw to keep open the Great Lakes shipping lanes in the winter, and a number of “Wind”-Class icebreakers for Arctic icebreaking in the Greenland theatre of operations.


Color photograph of the famed Arctic cutter Northland in the ice of Greenland during World War II. (U.S. Coast Guard)

During World War II, Greenland was on the edge of the Battle of the Atlantic. The Nazi high command valued the area as a base for weather stations. The United States took over control of the region for occupied Denmark. The Coast Guard prevented important Cryolite mines from falling into enemy hands and supported air bases used to shuttle military aircraft to the European theater of the war. The service also escorted the convoys to and from Greenland. These convoy escorts included ice cutters, such as the Northland, Escanaba-class cutters and icebreaking tugs of the late 1930s and early 1940s.

Finding the Northwest Passage across the Arctic had been an ambition of mariners since the 1500s. In the 1950s, the establishment of the U.S. military’s Distant Early Warning (DEW) Line made it desirable to find re-supply routes to remote radar sites. So, in July 1957, the Coast Guard’s 230-foot icebreaking cutter Storis and 180-foot buoy tenders SPAR and Bramble sailed through the Bering Sea to attempt a crossing over the North American continent. Early on, it became apparent that ice navigation would not be practical for merchant ships, but the three cutters continued on their 4,500-mile odyssey. After getting frozen-in and nearly abandoning the expedition, Storis finally broke free and the small flotilla emerged in the Atlantic after 64 days. These three cutters were the first American ships to make the passage from the Pacific Ocean to the Atlantic using the infamous Northwest Passage.

Since 1965, the Coast Guard has been the sole U.S. operator of icebreakers. That year, the U.S. Navy transferred its icebreakers to the Coast Guard. Since that time, the Coast Guard has maintained icebreaking vessels capable of operating in the Polar Regions. With sea ice diminishing around the North Pole in recent years, Arctic operations have increased in importance. And, in August 2017, the Coast Guard’s ocean-going buoy tender Maple retraced the route of the 1957 Northwest Passage cutters 60 years after that historic feat.

In the 21st century, the Coast Guard is embarking on an Arctic strategy based on a fleet of new heavy and medium icebreakers. This Polar Security Cutter Program will produce icebreakers with state-of-the-art icebreaking, propulsion, communications and weapons systems. These new vessels will be capable of extended deployments that support the service’s traditional missions in Polar Regions, including movement of maritime transportation, law enforcement, scientific research, search and rescue, defense readiness and environmental response.


An illustration depicting the Coast Guard’s future heavy icebreaker, the Polar Security Cutter. (U.S. Coast Guard)

For 150 years, the Coast Guard and its ancestor agencies have played a vital role in the Arctic. During that time, the service’s ice operations have provided the U.S. with the capacity to support national interests in ice-bound waters. Today, the service continues to make an impact in Arctic waters and the Coast Guard’s ice operations mission has become more important than ever.

William Thiesen is the Coast Guard Atlantic Area historian. This article appears courtesy of Coast Guard Compass and may be found in its original form here.

The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.