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The Polar Fleet

Polar ice operations began for the Coast Guard in WWII. The main driver was Greenland Patrol duties. 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. At the same time the Navy began building Burton Island and Edisto. Northwind, Southwind, and Werstwind were loaned to Russia. Given this, a fifth ship was started. The fifth ship was named Northwind (the second ship to carry the name). Mackinaw was a one-of-a-kind breaker that served the Great Lakes. At war’s end, the Coast Guard’s icebreaking inventory included only three heavy-duty vessels, Eastwind and second Northwind, as well as the Lakes’ cutter Mackinaw.

In December 1946, Adm. Richard Byrd commanded Operation High Jump, an exploration of the Antarctic region. Northwind was assigned to this historic operation, one that became the precursor for the subsequent Operation Deep Freeze expeditions of the 1950s. Northwind was to be joined by the Navy icebreaker Burton Island, but this vessel was not completed in time, leaving the Coast Guard cutter to do double duty. (Eastwind remained on the Atlantic coast and in Greenland waters during the period of the expedition.) Operation High Jump proved to be a feat of epic proportions and narrowly escaped disaster on the polar ice. At one time or other, all eleven of the task force’s vessels became trapped in unexpectedly thick ice, and three were holed and severely damaged. Merrick lost her rudder and Northwind towed her over 1,000 miles to New Zealand for repairs, then returned. Not the least of the cutter’s accomplishments was the opening of the Bay of Whales as a port: she pounded through an area a mile wide and two miles long in 63 continuous hours, encountering ice 10 feet thick, clearing the bay for offloading supplies to build Little America Four.

The Coast Guard would not return to the South Polar regions until 1955, but in the interim operated extensively in northern waters. After High Jump, Northwind resumed the Bering Sea patrol in 1948, the first such patrol in eight years. In 1951, Westwind returned from the Soviet Union and joined Eastwind on the Atlantic. These vessels reverted to typical winter icebreaking duties. New responsibilities arose in the Arctic areas in the late 1940s and 1950s. U.S. military bases in the region now required periodical resupplying. In 1955, Coast Guard vessels were involved in facilitating the construction of the Distant Early Warning line of far northern radar installations. Later, these same stations would require icebreakers for their resupply.

In 1957, the resupply of these stations resulted in the first transit of the fabled Northwest Passage across the “top” of North America. The cutters Storis, Spar and Bramble (the latter 180-foot tenders), were to determine if vessels cut off by ice from escape to the Pacific, could break out to the east. The ships worked their way eastward for two months, far north of any semblance of civilization, and met the Canadian icebreaker Labrador coming from the Atlantic. Spar and Bramble then continued to the East Coast. Spar became the first American vessel to circumnavigate the North American continent.

Another Arctic operation of the 1950s was the US, Canadian Beaufort Sea expedition. Northwind participated in this and did pioneering work in exploring the McClure Strait (about 75 North latitude).

The first Operation Deep Freeze to the Antarctic continent began in 1955 and marked the Coast Guard’s return to that region. These vital scientific and exploratory expeditions became an annual commitment. They all required at least one heavy duty icebreaker, the majority of the expeditions were accompanied by two icebreakers, but as many as four have been involved. Their primary responsibility of course was in breaking paths for the conventional vessels carrying the bulk of the personnel and equipment. However, as was demonstrated in Operation High Jump, icebreakers were imperative for the safety of vessels, which were not equipped to withstand ice pressures. Thus the traditional Coast Guard search and rescue mission took on a new meaning in these expeditions. Beyond these tasks, the icebreakers also participated in purely scientific work, such as meteorological and oceanographic studies. Also invaluable were the helicopters launched from the icebreakers. These aircraft provided a vast range of services including surveying, meteorological data gathering, transportation, and logistical support. Coast Guard icebreakers participated in all Deep Freeze operations except that of 1958, which was accompanied by the Navy’s Glacier.

With the Deep Freeze operations as a constant commitment, the need for new icebreakers was to grow in the ensuing years. No doubt Deep Freeze was a contributing factor in a congressional bill to appropriate funds for constructing a nuclear powered icebreaker in 1958, in the midst of the “Atoms for Peace” movement, which also spawned the nuclear merchant ship Savannah. Congress approved the measure, but the administration rejected it as prohibitively expensive, particularly in view of the other vessel needs of the service. The idea resurfaced in the subsequent session of Congress, but was again denied for similar reasons.

In 1959, at the urging of President Eisenhower, the major powers of the world signed the Antarctic Treaty. The treaty banned all military operations in the South Polar regions. As a result, all weapons were removed from Coast Guard icebreakers. The early 1960s, a joint study on icebreaker utilization concluded that efficiency would be served best by combining all icebreaking under the Coast Guard. When the Vietnam War began requiring increased commitments of Navy personnel in Southeast Asia, one of the sources of these men was the Navy icebreakers, which were turned over to the Coast Guard in 1965 and 1966. A total of five were transferred; Staten Island (which had been the first Northwind in 1944), Southwind (named Atka in Navy service and renamed Southwind upon return), Edisto and Burton Island (the Navy Wind-class ships), and the largest American icebreaker, Glacier (the “Big G”). This vessel was built in 1954, and was essentially an enlarged “Wind.” She was 309’ in length, 74’ in beam and 28’ draft. With these transfers the federal icebreaking function was concentrated in the agency most historically fitted to carry it out. The Coast Guard now had eight major ocean going icebreakers. This number remained stable until 1968, when Eastwind was decommissioned after 24 years of service.

Eastwind and Northwind were assigned until 1966, when Glacier (now Coast Guard owned) made the first of her nearly sixteen consecutive trips to the Antarctic. Second in number of expeditions was the Burton Island, with ten to her credit by 1989. The last of the “Winds” to make a Deep Freeze cruise was Westwind, in 1984. She was forty years old at the time.

The 1970s brought new challenges for these ships, even as they were beginning to show their age. The discovery of oil on the North Slope of Alaska suddenly added a new dimension to Coast Guard duties in Arctic waters. Southwind and Staten Island, operating in Alaskan waters contributed to the new oil boom. Northwind surveyed the North Slope in 1971. The latter freed an icebound convoy of twenty tugs and forty barges en route to Prudhoe Bay in the same year. The upshot of new needs and aging vessels brought the authorization of the Polar Star-class icebreakers, the first of which was laid down in 1974. These were the first newly built Coast Guard icebreakers since the “Winds” of 1944. It was hoped that several of these would be forthcoming, but budgetary constraints limited it to two, Polar Star and Polar Sea, both built by Lockheed Shipbuilding of Seattle, for approximately $50 million each. These ships, measuring 399 feet in length by 83 feet in beam, displaced over 13,000 tons and were designed to break 6.5 feet of ice at a continuous 3 knots, and 21 feet by ramming. Two separate propulsion systems were built into the ships, 18,000 horsepower diesel electric motors were for “normal” icebreaking, and 60,000 horsepower gas turbines were for heavy ice (up to 21 feet in thickness).

The new vessels incorporated computerized laboratories for “wet or dry” marine studies, a heated conning tower some 100 feet above the waterline, and reversible pitch propellers. The latter enabled the vessels to reverse direction without stopping engines, a characteristic particularly useful in icebreaking by ramming. High efficiency pumps and 400-ton capacity heeling tanks gave the vessels swifter response in rocking maneuvers in ice than the “Winds”. The older vessels had a tank capacity of 250 tons and response time of 90 seconds. The new vessels decreased the time element to 50 seconds. Finally, much attention was paid to the habitability of these ships, for improved morale on extended cruises. Both ships were commissioned in 1976, and have served in both Arctic and Antarctic regions since.

The Coast Guard’s inventory of first-line icebreakers gradually decreased from the late 1960s through the 1980s, leaving the two “Polars” alone in 1989. First to go was Eastwind, in 1968, followed by Edisto, Staten Island, and Southwind in 1974, 1975, and 1976, respectively. Burton Island was decommissioned in 1978, and the remainder of the “Winds” (Westwind and Northwind) in 1988 and 1989. Glacier went out of service in 1987. At this date, at least one (Northwind) remains in the “reserve fleet” (mothballs) awaiting final disposition and scrapping.

In 2000, the latest addition came to the Coast Guard Red Fleet, USCGC Healy. Healy is designed to conduct a wide range of research activities, providing more than 4,200 square feet of scientific laboratory space, numerous electronic sensor systems, oceanographic winches, and accommodations for up to 50 scientists. Healy is designed to break 4 ½ feet of ice continuously at three knots and can operate in temperatures as low as -50 degrees F. The science community provided invaluable input on lab lay-outs and science capabilities during design and construction of the ship. At a time when scientific interest in the Arctic Ocean basin is intensifying, Healy substantially enhances the United States Arctic research capability. As a Coast Guard cutter, Healy is also a capable platform for supporting other potential missions in the polar regions, including logistics, search and rescue, ship escort, environmental protection, and enforcement of laws and treaties.

For a complete list of Coast Guard icebreakers that served in WWII go to this Link.

For a complete list of Coast Guard icebreakers that served between 1947 and 2000 go to this Link.

For a complete list of Coast Guard icebreakers in the current Fleet go to this Link.

For a complete list of all Coast Guard icebreakers go to this Link.