Profile: Rear Adm. Edward “Iceberg” Smith and the Greenland Patrol

Rare color photograph of famed Greenland Patrol flagship Northland breaking ice. (U.S. Coast Guard)

Published Sep 6, 2020 1:40 PM by William Thiesen

"To the officers of the Greenland Patrol vessels: This is your command. Your first command. Your first great chance. It is hard, responsible, vital duty. War duty. Don’t fail your country or your ship or me." - Rear Admiral Edward “Iceberg” Smith, 1944

In 1944, Coast Guard Rear Admiral Edward Smith commanded U.S. Navy Task Force 24 and the Coast Guard’s Greenland Patrol. As the quote above indicates, he demanded a lot of his men, but his career shows he demanded even more of himself.

Descended from Martha’s Vineyard whalemen, Edward Hanson Smith was born in 1889 at Vineyard Haven. His parents were Edward J. and Sarah Elizabeth (Pease) Smith. After attending Vineyard Haven’s public schools and then New Bedford High School, he spent a year studying at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Appointed a U.S. Revenue Cutter Service cadet in 1910, Smith entered the service’s School of Instruction when classes were held on board the Revenue Cutter Itasca at Arundel Cove, Maryland. Smith graduated and was commissioned an ensign in May 1913. Like many of his classmates, such as famed aviator Elmer Stone and World War I hero Fletcher Brown, Smith experienced an interesting career.

From graduation to the start of World War I, Smith served on a number of East Coast cutters. After U.S. entry into the war and mobilization of the Service, he served as navigator of Cutter Manning in the U.S. Navy’s Atlantic Patrol Force, which escorted convoys between England and Gibraltar. After the war, he was assigned to Cutter Seneca as the International Ice Patrol’s first scientific observer. After that experience, he dedicated his career to operations in the Arctic and research in oceanography. Because of his focus on ice research and early work with the International Ice Patrol, his peers nicknamed him “Iceberg” Smith.

Coast Guard cutter Seneca deployed on the International Ice Patrol. (U.S. Coast Guard)

He continued carrying on the duties of observer with the International Ice Patrol until August 1924. When not on Ice Patrol duty, he studied at Harvard University and prepared Coast Guard bulletins on the work of the Ice Patrol. In recognition of this work, Harvard awarded him a master’s degree in 1924. He was also awarded a fellowship in oceanography by the American Scandinavian Foundation, which he used to study a year at the Geo-Physical Institute at Bergen, Norway. After returning to the U.S., he resumed his work with the Ice Patrol reorganizing its scientific programs and introducing dynamic oceanography to predict the movement of icebergs. During this time, Smith developed a system that could forecast the annual number of icebergs drifting south from Newfoundland.

One of his most notable assignments occurred in the summer of 1928, when he commanded Cutter Marion in oceanographic surveys of the Labrador Sea, Davis Strait, and Baffin Bay, home of some of the most productive iceberg glaciers in West Greenland. This oceanographic work proved the most extensive of its kind ever made by the U.S. In June 1930, Harvard University awarded him a Ph.D. in Oceanographic Physics in recognition of his research in ice formation. It was the first Ph.D. awarded to an active-duty Coast Guardsman.

Between January 1928 and June 1936, he served as commanding officer of various vessels in the Coast Guard’s Destroyer Force, which patrolled the East Coast to interdict rum runners during Prohibition. His commands during this period included five Coast Guard destroyers and Coast Guard Base 18 at Woods Hole. However, he was absent from those commands much of the time to perform work in connection with the Ice Patrol, and specialized research.

Graf Zeppelin hovering over the water during Smith’s expedition to the Russian Arctic. (U.S. Coast Guard)

One of Smith’s assignments during this time was a flight on the dirigible Graf Zeppelin made in mid-summer 1931. In July 1929, Harvard University, the American Geographic Society, and the National Academy of Science had recommended him as a scientific member of an Arctic zeppelin flight proposed by Germany. A flight of six days covering of 8,000 miles in the Russian Arctic, it was the longest non-stop flight ever made by the Graf Zeppelin. Serving as observer and navigator, Smith gathered from this flight more information for the International Ice Patrol.

By 1936, Smith was assigned command of Cutter Tahoe and, in 1937, he took command of the new 327-foot cutter Spencer, both of which were assigned to Alaska. While commanding the latter, he was cited by the Navy Department for rescuing the crew of Navy minesweeper, USS Swallow, from Kanaga Island in February 1938. That same year, he was assigned command of the International Ice Patrol for the 1939 and 1940 ice seasons.

In June 1940, Smith was assigned command of famed Arctic cutter Northland and, in October 1941, he assumed overall command of the Coast Guard’s Greenland Patrol. Composed primarily of Coast Guard cutters and aircraft, the Greenland Patrol defended against foreign incursions and supported U.S. Army airbases for aircraft transiting over the North Atlantic to the European Theater of Operations. Under Smith, Nazi forces were repeatedly prevented from establishing weather stations in Greenland.

Smith remained in charge of the Greenland Patrol until late 1943. During his years in command, he advanced from the rank of commander to captain then to rear admiral. Late in the war, he served as Commander, Task Force 24, U.S. Atlantic Fleet. Rear Admiral Smith was World War II’s first Coast Guardsman to receive the Distinguished Service Medal—Commandant Russell Waesche received the only other DSM awarded to a Coast Guardsman for wartime service. Smith was also honored by the King of Denmark as a Commander of the First Degree of the Order of the Dannebrog.

In 1945, Rear Admiral Smith was appointed commander of the old Third Coast Guard District, headquartered in New York. In 1946, he became captain-of-the-port of New York and the first commander of the Coast Guard’s Eastern Area, known today as Coast Guard Atlantic Area. In the late 1940s and early 1950s, he also served on the staff of the Applied Physics Laboratory of John Hopkins University, the Weapons System Evaluation Group under the Secretary of Defense, and the Navy’s Naval Research Advisory Committee. Smith was a member of the American Geophysical Union, Arctic Institute of North America, Aero-Arctic Society, and Propeller Club of New York. He also held an unlimited master’s license, the highest certification granted a master mariner.

Rear Admiral Iceberg Smith change-of-command in Argentia, Newfoundland. Smith turned over command of Navy Task Force 24 to Coast Guard Rear Admiral Earl Rose (fourth from left) in August 1945. (U.S. Navy)

In 1950, Rear Admiral Edward “Iceberg” Smith retired from the Coast Guard with more than 40 years of service. That same year, he accepted the position of director of the Oceanographic Institution at Woods Hole, Massachusetts, and remained its head until 1956. Smith died on his 72nd birthday in 1961 and was laid to rest at his ancestral home of Martha’s Vineyard. He contributed greatly to our knowledge of the Arctic and oceanography and was one of the countless men and women of the Coast Guard’s long blue line.

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.