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Greenland Patrol

June 1941 – 1945

Greenland, an island mostly above the Arctic Circle, is surrounded most of the year by a wide belt of floating ice that the Eskimos call storis.  During the summer, the temperature in the south reaches 50°, the storis drifts westward, and the southern tip becomes accessible to sea traffic.  Denmark had governed Greenland for several hundred years.

On the south coast, on Asrsok Fjord, the village of Ivigtut sits on top of the world’s only known deposit of cryolite, a soft, translucent material.  In the 19th century, it was discovered that molten cryolite could function as an electrolyte to separate metallic aluminum from bauxite.  Ivigtut became crucial to the aircraft industry.

On 9 April 1940, Denmark surrendered to Germany.  Under the Monroe Doctrine, the U.S. declared that the Danish Ambassador to Washington, Dr. Henrik de Kauffmann, was the legitimate representative of his country and the U.S. would defend Greenland.  On 21 May, USCGC Comanche delivered James Penfield to establish an American consulate in Godthaab.  Comanche charted the coastline and took soundings.  USCGC Northland, with an icebreaking bow, joined her.  CDR Edward Smith, a PhD oceanographer with considerable knowledge of Greenland, was given command of Northland.

By 1941, Greenland was strategically crucial.  The Great Circle Route passed over southern Greenland.  Aircraft bound for England could land and refuel there. Vessels for the Atlantic convoys were based there. Weather stations were established.  In March, USCGC Cayuga delivered a scouting party to locate suitable sites for military bases.  On 9 April, Secretary of State Cordell Hull and Kauffmann signed and agreement authorizing the U.S. to build the bases.

On 24 May, USCGC Modocwas searching for survivors of a convoy attack.  At 1930, a warship appeared out of the mist.  Two Swordfish dove on the apparition.  Modoc was in the middle of HMS Victorious’ attack on BismarckModoc’s crew watched as Prince of Wales, Norfolk and Suffolk passed in pursuit of Bismarck

In June 1941, the forces operating in and around Greenland were organized as the Greenland Patrol, Task Force 24.8.5, with Smith in command in Northland.  A stream of Army freighters (many manned by Coast Guard crews) arrived, escorted by cutters, to begin the task of establishing the military bases.  By September, the installations were operational.  In July 1941, a detachment of Marines landed in Iceland, and the U.S. assumed responsibility for the defense of that country also.

On 29 January 1942, USCGC Alexander Hamilton, a convoy emergency vessel, was sunk by a torpedo losing 26 men.

In 1942, the Coast Guard received seven SC-497-Class sub chasers.  These were Navy vessels manned by Coast Guard crews.  They also began to convert several fishing trawlers for escort duty.  Three 180’ tenders joined the patrol.  Storis was a 230-foot WPG, commissioned in September 1942, designed specifically as a supply ship for the Greenland Patrol.  Her design was influenced by the 180-foot tenders, but she doubled their tonnage and had a third more horsepower.

In 1942, the Coast Guard began building four powerful and heavily armed icebreakers to perform the Greenland resupply mission and to act as flagships for the Greenland Patrol, Task Force 24.8.5.  These ships were Northwind, Eastwind, Southwind and Westwind.  These four ships were the most powerful and strongly built such ships in existence.  They were completed in 1944.  Unfortunately Northwind and Westwind were transferred to Russia under Lend Lease before they ever served the Coast Guard and Southwind only served a few months before going.  Only Eastwind served through the war.  A second Northwind was started, but completed after the war.

The duty followed a depressing pattern.  A transport would blow up, a cutter would dash in and pick up survivors, the sonar operators would pick up an echo they hoped was a u-boat, the cutter would drop depth charges, and all hands would try to convince themselves they had at least damaged the sub.  On 25 August 1942, Chatham was sunk.  Of 569 on board, only 29 were saved.  Many were simply too cold to hold the rescue lines and froze to death while rescuers watched helplessly.  On 3 February 1943, Dorchester was sunk.  This time, Coastguardsmen in rubber suits went over the sides to pull freezing men from the water.  They saved 299 men.  Aboard Dorchester, Father John Washington, Rabbi Alexander Goode, Reverend George Fox and Reverend Clark Poling handed their lifejackets to soldiers and waited in a group to go down.  On 13 June 1943, while escorting a convoy, USCGC Escanaba suddenly exploded and sank.  Two crewmen out of 103 survived.  No Greenland Patrol vessel was credited with sinking a u-boat, but on 18 June 1942, Northland got a probable.

Germany never intended to invade Greenland, but did establish weather stations supported by trawlers.  The first naval capture of the war came in September 1941 when Northland raided weather station and seized a German-controlled Norwegian trawler. In September 1944, Northland destroyed another enemy radio shack, and chased the support trawler through thickening ice packs.  The German crew scuttled their ship and surrendered.  The German commander’s sword was hung on the wardroom bulkhead.  In October 1944, Eastwind destroyed a weather station, and found the German freighter Externsteine frozen in the ice.  Eastwind, supported by Southwind,shelled the vessel till she surrendered.  Externsteine was the only German surface ship captured during the war and was pressed into service as a patrol vessel.

The Coast Guard established a LORAN station on Jan Mayen island and 50 aids to navigation in Greenland waters.

Lt John Pritchard and RM1/c Benjamin Bottoms, flying a J2F from Northland, died while trying to rescue the crew of a crashed B-17.

The Greenland Patrol was disestablished in 1945.  In all, 37 Coast Guard cutters had been involved in the Greenland Patrol.

To see a complete list of the cutters of the Greenland Patrol go to this Link.