Warship Wednesday June 29, 2016: Greely’s last hope
Here at LSOZI, we are going to take off every Wednesday for a look at the old steam/diesel navies of the 1859-1946 time period and will profile a different ship each week. These ships have a life, a tale all of their own, which sometimes takes them to the strangest places. – Christopher Eger
Warship Wednesday June 29, 2016: Greely’s last hope
Here we see the gunboat USS Thetis, a 189-foot, 1,250-ton barquentine-rigged sealer and whaler constructed with a reinforced hull for operations in ice, purchased by the Navy for the Greeley relief expedition, for which it had been so employed about a decade before the above image was taken.
What was the Greely expedition?
Officially dubbed the Lady Franklin Bay Expedition, it was a wholly U.S. Army (Signal Corps) backed endeavor led by 1st Lt. Adolphus Greely (5th U.S. Cav), and numbered some 20 officers and enlisted men along with tag along civilians astronomer Edward Israel and Dr. Octave Pavy; joined by two Inuit dogsled drivers/hunters, Frederick Thorlip Christiansen and Jens Edward.
Embarked on the charted merchant ship SS Proteus (formerly a steam sealer hired by the War Department), the expedition was one of science and not warfare with its members dressed in civilian mufti for press photographs.
The hardy and rather dapper group set sail for the Far North, being disembarked by Proteus at Lady Franklin Bay near the northeastern shore of Ellesmere Island 11 Aug 1881 to establish a meteorological-observation station as part of the First International Polar Year from where they would winter over and collect weather and geophysical information (as well as push as far north as possible).
Two men, 1SG David Legge Brainard, late of the 2nd Cavalry and the Nez Perce War, and Lt. James Booth Lockwood, pushed the furthest north that any expedition until then ever had. Suffering through average temperatures of -75 degrees, violent storms and rough ice, they reached latitude 83 degrees 30′ North, within 350 miles of the North Pole, the farthest north ever reached by man. A silk U.S. flag made by Mrs. Greeley was unfurled on land they named Lockwood Island. Their record stood for 13 years until Norwegians Fridtjof Nansen and Fredrik Hjalmar Johansen reached latitude 86°14′ N.
As time wore on, shit got real, with 1882 coming and going and no resupply ship able to reach the expedition. This led to a rescue mission the next year.
Proteus, placed under the command of young Army 1st Lt. Ernest Albert Garlington (USMA 1876 and later a MOH recipient), attempted to retrieve Greely and company in 1883 along with the yacht Yantic, but failed dramatically when the big sealer was crushed in the ice. They had left New York with 50,000 rations and had only succeeded in landing 1,000, some of which Greely later found at Cape Sabine.
However, the rations would not be enough and the expedition wound up eating bird eggs, moss, seals, tiny shrimp, their dogs, their shoes, and any other thing they could (more on this) to keep alive as madness, scurvy and frostbite set in.
Then, with 1884 rearing its head with the prospect of our desperate Army meteorologists and civilian experts (whose contracts had expired and really wanted to go home) becoming popsicles or polar bear scat, the Navy stepped in.
Which brings us to Thetis.
The Scottish firm of Alexander Stephen & Sons Ltd., Greenock, was renowned at the time for being a global leader in the craft of large ocean-going sealers and whalers. One hull, the 198-foot/703-ton sealer Bear, was completed by the firm in 1874 and had been operating out of St. Johns, Newfoundland for a decade when the U.S. Navy bought her up for use in helping to rescue the Greely expedition.
Another Alexander Stephen & Sons’ vessel, the brand new and slightly larger sealer, Thetis, was just finishing her fit out in Dundee and purchased by the Navy 2 February 1884 to accompany Bear as the flag of the mission. She was a beautiful and very functional vessel with a strengthened wooden hull capable of operating in light ice conditions in the days before dedicated icebreakers.
Thetis put into New York for a very brief militarization and was ready for service as a commissioned warship within weeks.
With the two-ship expedition placed under the command of CDR. Winfield Scott Schley (later to become a hero and Rear Admiral for his actions at the Battle of Santiago de Cuba in 1898), they set out from New York on 11 May 1884.
The way was hazardous as there was much more ice back in the 19th century and today’s satellite and aerial survey was not available. Nevertheless, the two ships along with a pair of Royal Navy vessels in partnership poked through some 1,400 miles of ice, sometimes having to blow a course through the pack until on 22 June, near Cape Sabine in Grinnell Land, Schley rescued Greely and his six remaining emaciated companions who were sheltering in a broken down tent.
That’s right. Just seven of 25 were taken alive from the frozen wasteland after 34 grueling months in the inhospitable North. The dead had succumbed to starvation, hypothermia, drowning, and other perils.
Greely himself, who enlisted in the 19th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment at the age of 17 during the Civil War and had over two decades of legit campaigning under his belt, was a task-maker and conducted a 3-man firing squad execution of at least one private (Charles B. Henry, the heaviest man on the expedition) who proved an incurable food thief.
Then came the 1,400-mile trip back through the same ice.
One of the seven rescuees, Sgt. Joseph Ellison, who was recovered from Cape Sabine missing a foot and a finger, died 16 days later while at a weight of just 78-pounds.
Then soon after the expedition made Portsmouth, there were allegations of cannibalism.
Second in command 2nd Lt. Frederick F. Kislingbury, a Little Big Born survivor who died of starvation (and whose fork is in the Smithsonian), was found to have his cadaver “methodically carved” postmortem.
When their food gave out the unfortunate members of the colony, shivering and starving in their little tent on the bleak shore of Smith’s Sound were led by the horrible necessity to become cannibals. The complete history of their experience in that terrible Winter must be told, and the facts hitherto concealed will make the record of the Greely colony — already full of horrors — the most dreadful and repulsive chapter in the long annals of arctic exploration.
As noted by the Army in their official history, all was forgiven due to the circumstances:
Criticized at first, Greely was eventually absolved of blame and recognized for his accomplishments. In 1886, he received the Founder’s Medal of the Royal Geographical Society of London and the Roquette Medal of the Societe de Geographie of Paris. In 1923, the American Geographical Society awarded him the Charles P. Daly Medal.
As for the Thetis, and Bear for that matter, the Navy had little continued use for ice-strengthened rescue ships from Scotland in a time when every dollar counted so both were laid up rapidly after their return from the Arctic. Thetis, her total time of active service in the Navy being just over nine months, was decommissioned 26 November 1884 and laid up at New York.
Refitted for work as a gunboat to include mounting a single Hotchkiss 53mm 5-barreled revolving cannon forward (the largest gatling gun model ever made), she was recommissioned 15 Jan 1887. This gun appeared to be the only one in federal service for a time so you can call her armament unique.
Thetis then sailed from New York to San Francisco on a leisurely eight-month low budget patrol during which she stopped at most of the large Latin American ports and waved the flag.
Then came three lengthy summer survey patrols along the Alaskan coast, which took her as far as Point Barrow and Cape Sabine– where she had rescued Greenly and his men a few years before. Pressed into work as a gunboat, Thetis sortied to El Salvador to babysit American interests there during an attempted coup in July 1890, which lasted several months.
Then came more Alaska surveys, a trip to Hawaii in 1892, and a four-year period conducting coastal surveys off the Mexican Pacific coast, going out of commission in 1897.
Transferred to the Revenue Cutter Service as USRC Thetis in 1899– after landing her peculiar 53mm gatling gun for a more appropriate trio of 3-Pdr (47mm) singles– she served out of Seattle where she sailed on the Bering Sea Patrol along with her old Greely companion USRC Bear.
While stationed there, Thetis cruised the Bering Sea for the “protection of seal fisheries,” assisted vessels in distress, and carried officials from a U.S. District Court to become a “floating court.”
For many years, the Revenue Service was the sole source of Federal authority in the territory, including seven years when the Treasury Department was given charge of the rugged landmass. Duties of these vessels and men included protection of sealers and whalers, providing general police protection, and emergency operations.
One of the more unusual tasks Thetis performed was importing 81 Siberian reindeer to provide a food staple for starving Eskimos and she had an abundance of mascots aboard.
In May, 1904, Thetis sailed from Seattle to Honolulu, dropped off supplies for the station at Midway, and then continued to Lisianski Island. At Lisianski, 77 Japanese feather hunters were found illegally killing terns and gooney birds. These trespassing Japanese aliens were apprehended and transported to Honolulu.
Thetis contiued operations in Hawaiian waters where she investigated poaching by Japanese fishermen and transported officials of the Department of Agriculture who were studying bird populations. For the remainder of her career she shipped between Hawaii and Alaska, continuing duty as a floating court (with a U.S. District Court judge, assistant U.S. Attorney, deputy U.S. Marshall, clerk and a stenographer aboard) and investigating bird reservations throughout the Pacific, including making voyages to Midway Island and even serving as a tour boat to take the territorial governor around on goodwill visits.
Thetis was decommissioned 30 April 1916 after some 32 years of U.S. maritime service equally split between the Navy and Revenue Service.
She was sold in June to the W&S Job Co, NY, NY for $24,800 and used as a Newfoundland-based sealer until 1950 when the old girl was grounded approximately 2 miles from St. Johns and broken up, seven decades on her keel.
Today, one of the few relics of her on public display is the oddball 53mm Hotchkiss she carried from 1887-99, preserved at the Mare Island Shipyard Museum.
Thetis, of course, was named for a sea nymph of Greek mythology who was the daughter of the sea god Nereus and the mother of the Trojan War hero Achilles. While the first Navy or Coast Guard ship to carry the name was our crush-proof sealer/rescue ship/gunboat/cutter, it would not be the last in either service.
The Navy commissioned USS Thetis (SP-391), an armed 100-ton yacht during WWI and kept her on the Navy List until 31 March 1919; then in 1944 commissioned the escort carrier USS Thetis Bay (CVE-90/CVHA-1/LPH-6) which remained in service through 1964.
For the Coast Guard’s part, they celebrated their former Revenue Marine Cutter with the 165-foot patrol cutter Thetis (WPC-115) who served from 1931-47 and chalked up at least one German U-boat during WWII as well as the more modern 270-foot medium-endurance cutter USCGC Thetis (WMEC- 910) which has been based out of Key West since 1989.
As for Greely and his expedition, he went on to become head of the Signal Corps, led the government’s responce to the San Francisco earthquake in 1906, retired as Maj. General, was issued a MoH for lifetime achievement, and is buried in Arlington National Cemetery.
Of the other survivors, many were active in exploration the rest of their lives:
- 1SG David L. Brainard went on to serve throughout the Spanish-American War, wrote two books about the expedition, and was the last member of the group to die in 1946. Rising to Brig. Gen., he was U.S. military attaché in Buenos Aires then Lisbon, Portugal during the Great War.
- Hospital Steward Henry Bierderbick was active in the National Geographic Society, Explorers’ Club, and the Arctic Club until his death on March 25, 1916 and wrote several scholarly works about the polar region.
- Pvt. Julius Frederick named his daughter Thetis and worked for the Weather Bureau for years.
- Pvt. Francis Long would later join the Baldwin-Ziegler Expedition, which would attempt to reach the North Pole.
- Pvt. Maurice Connell continued working for the Weather Bureau well into the 20th century after his retirement from the Signal Corps.
The expedition, gathering three years of met data in the far North at a time when none existed, produced a wealth of information that is still proving useful today.
“We are now using [Greely’s] data to understand how global warming happens,” says historian Michael Frederick Robinson, “to understand how the climate has changed over the last hundred years.”
A memorial placed in 1923 by the National Geographic Society near the site of the Greely Expedition’s landing on Pim Island endures.
Then of course, there is the Bear, but that is another story…
Displacement: 1,250 tons
Length: 188′ 6″
Draft: 17′ 10″
Machinery: Compound-expansion steam
Small arms and mines
1x53mm Hotchkiss 5-barreled gatling gun
3 x 3-pounder 47mm rapid-fire guns
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