Warship Wednesday Aug 3, 2016: The Grand Ole Bear
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 Aug 3, 2016: The Grand Ole Bear
With tomorrow being the 226th birthday of the U.S. Coast Guard (by proxy of the Revenue Marine Service), I figured we would get a jump on it by celebrating their most famous vessel today.
Here we see the one-of-a-kind Revenue Cutter/U.S. Navy Gunboat/Coast Guard Cutter Bear. She remained afloat some 89-years and spent about half of that in armed maritime service, making 35 patrols to Alaska, three trips to Antarctica, and serving in the Spanish-American War as well as both World Wars.
Built in 1874 by the firm of Alexander Stephen & Son in their Dundee Shipyard (Hull No. 56) on the east coast of Scotland, she was reinforced to operate in dense sea ice as a sealing vessel operating in the Far North. Crafted of live oak, with planks six inches thick and a deck of teak wood, some spots on her hull were over 30-inches thick and braced by timbers 18-inches square. A three-masted barkentine with yards on her foremast and gaffs and booms on her main and mizzen, she could make a stately 14-knots under canvass and was fitted with a steam plant that could push her at 6-knots.
Delivered to W. Grieve, Sons & Company of Dundee (and St. John), she was operated by that firm from Newfoundland until 1880 when ownership changed to one Mr. R. Steele, Jr, who continued her sealing career, completing 10 annual trips to the waters off Greenland in the search of then-valuable seal pelts.
With the fiasco that was the U.S. Army’s Greeley Expedition needing rescue from their brothers in blue, who had no such vessels capable of service in the ice, Bear was purchased for $100,000 by the U.S. Navy, 28 January 1884, at St John’s and duly commissioned after brief refit as USS Bear, 17 March 1884, with one LT. (later RADM) William Hemsley Emory (USNA 1866) in command.
After her brief naval career that involved assisting in the retrieval of Greeley and remaining associates (which can be read in more detail here) the 10-year old scratch-and-dent sealer turned rescue ship was decommissioned and struck from the Naval Register in April 1885, transferring to the Treasury Department’s Revenue Cutter Service.
Leaving New York 9 Nov after picking up a trio of 6-pounder popguns and a magazine filled with torpedoes (mines) for destroying derelicts found at sea, USRC Bear arrived in San Francisco after a fairly rapid passage of just 87 days.
Soon after arriving, she picked up her most famous master.
From the Coast Guard Historian’s office:
In 1885 the colorful “Hell Roaring”‘ Mike Healy, a dynamo of a man with an unpredictable temper, assumed command. Healy was a good skipper, and he commanded the Bear for more than nine years, longer than any other. He had another distinction as well: he was the first African-American to command a U.S. Government vessel. In time, Healy and his ship became legend in the lusty, brawling Territory of Alaska.
The Bear’s duties on the Alaskan Patrol were many. She carried mail which had accumulated at Seattle during the winter, as well as Government agents and supplies. On her trip south from Alaska, she transported Federal prisoners and other questionable characters whose presence in Alaska ‘was undesirable. The deck of the Bear often served as a court where justice was dispensed swiftly but fairly. The Bear also conducted investigations, undertook crime prevention and law enforcement. She and other cutters like her were often the only law in that turbulent part of the world. The Bear also conducted soundings to improve charts of Alaskan waters, and her surgeon furnished medical attention and surgery to natives, prospectors, missionaries, and whalers. These duties are still part of today’s Bering Sea Patrol.
In 1897, Bear was involved in the great Overland Rescue of eight whaling vessels and 250 crewmembers who were trapped in the ice and was able to penetrate to within about 85 miles of Nome, still far too short to do the whalers any good. The ship then dispatched an over-land party of’ 1LT D. H. Jarvis, 2LT B. P. Bertholf, and Surgeon S. J. Call. Equipped with dog teams, sleds, and guides, Jarvis and his companions set out for Point Barrow.
Again, the Coast Guard office:
Before them lay a 1,600-mile journey through frozen, trackless wilderness. But the “Overland Expedition for the Relief of the Whalers in the Arctic Ocean” as it was ponderously called, became one of the great epics of the north.
During the exhausting journey, Jarvis and Call collected a herd of nearly 450 reindeer. Driving the herd ahead of them in the face of icy winds the party reached Point Barrow about three and one-half months after being put ashore by the Bear. To the despairing whalers, the arrival of the relief party was nothing short of a miracle.
An in-depth Harpers article from 1899 details the mission with maps and illustrations.
The Spanish-American War saw Revenue Cutters mobilized under Naval service but the slow and increasingly creaky Bear simply maintained her annual trip to Alaska and performed patrol on the West Coast on the outside prospect that a Spanish auxiliary cruiser may pop up over the horizon.
This followed a tough couple of years during the Klondike and Yukon gold rushes from 1898-1900 in which she was the only law enforcement asset in the territory, her bluejackets having to enforce order on more than one occasion while in port. She likewise had to rescue many a lost landlubber who had packed aboard condemned craft in Seattle and set off for Alaskan waters or bust.
When World War I came, Bear conducted neutrality patrols along the Alaskan coast while on 28 January 1915, the Revenue Cutter Service, and the U.S. Life-Saving Service were combined to form the United States Coast Guard.She was officially transferred to the Navy 6 April 1917, remaining on her home station but under Naval control through the end of November 1918, picking up some more small arms including a few machine guns and a coat of hastily-applied gray paint.
Then, came another decade of more traditional service on the frozen beat.
In 1929, after 35 annual deployments to Alaska and service on the periphery of two wars, Bear was removed from the Treasury Department and offered for sale, with a half-century under her keel. Her place had already been taken in the fleet with the commissioning in late 1927 of the purpose-built steel-hulled icebreaking gunboat USCGC Northland (WPG-49).
Saved from the scrappers by the city of Oakland, California, for a token fee, she was renamed Bear of Oakland and used as a museum ship.
In 1930, she was used as the filming location for the sealer “Ghost,” in the Milton Sills as ‘Wolf’ Larsen version of Jack London’s The Sea Wolf.
Then came the famed Arctic explorer, Rear Adm. Richard E. Byrd, USN, who was looking for a (cheap but capable) vessel for his Antarctic Expedition and he purchased the Bear of Oakland from the city for just $1,050 in the Spring of 1932.
The thing is, Bear (renamed SS Jacob Ruppert) still had her 1885-mounted 6-pounders aboard (with breech blocks) which caused Byrd, officially a civilian on a civilian ship, some heartburn in Mexican ports when he stopped to recoal her on the way through the Panama Canal to Boston, but he nevertheless appeared in that New England port in August.
For visibility in the whiteout, she was painted coal black
Leaving for the Antarctic in 1934, the ship was vital to Byrd’s successful expedition, which included the explorer spending four months over-winter on the frozen continent that is discussed in his autobiography Alone.
Returning to Boston in 1935, Byrd leased Ruppert/Bear to the Navy for $1 per year, and she was stored at the Boston Naval Yard in poor condition.
Then in 1939, Byrd’s United States Antarctic Service Expedition got underway and the old Bear was refitted with a diesel engine, her original figurehead was replaced with a carved polar bear, new canvas and rigging was brought aboard, and new spars and a foreyard of fresh Oregon pine were fitted.
She was given stores for 18-months, kennels for 78 sled dogs were built on deck, and a U.S. Army M2A2 light tank was heaved aboard to test in the ice. A Barkley-Grow T8P-1 two-engine seaplane was hoisted aft.
This resulted in her second official (not counting her unofficial transfers in 1898 and 1917) Navy commission as USS Bear (AG-29), 11 September 1939.She left for her second trip to the Frozen South, 22 November, flagship to the force that included USMS North Star, a 1434-ton wooden ice ship built for the Bureau of Indian Affairs, at the time the only other U.S. ice-strengthened ship available.
In early 1941, Bear returned to the Antarctic for her third and last trip, this time to evacuate the Americans from the continent with the looming war.
Returning to Boston, her newly rejuvenated sail rig was scrapped. Her spars and yard removed, only the stumps of her masts remained. Equipped with a Grumman J2F-1 seaplane and armed with some AAA mounts (seen under tarps below).
She was a warship again.
In May 1941, the Northeast Greenland Patrol was organized with Bear, her ice-strengthened Coast Guard replacement Northland, and her old sailing companion the former Interior Department ship North Star, with Captain Edward H. “Iceberg” Smith, USCG, in overall command of the force.
They soon struck pay dirt and Northland seized a three-man German weather station along with the Norwegian sealer D/S Buskø (159 gt) in September (three months before Pearl Harbor) and took her to MacKenzie Bay, on the Greenland coast, where Bear took up tow and “protective custody” of her prisoners for the trip down to Boston.
Buskø carried with a crew of 20 Norwegian quislings, a supposed German agent, and “one other dog,” who was working as a radio supply ship to keep German weather stations operating in the Far North operational. She was the first capture of a belligerent ship by U.S. Naval forces in World War II and arrived on 14 October to a big international news splash.
A few more trips around Greenland and Iceland were left for her, but by 1944, the writing was on the wall for the old warrior.
Decommissioned, 17 May 1944, Bear was transferred to the Maritime Commission for disposal, 13 February 1948.
Sold by the Maritime Commission for commercial service in 1948, she was renamed Arctic Sealer and was to be used as a sealer home ported at Halifax, Canada– her original purpose, but this largely fell by the wayside and she did not return to her old stomping grounds after all.
After moldering away in Halifax for almost 15 years, she was resold for conversion to a floating museum and restaurant at Philadelphia, PA, but she foundered under tow 90 miles south of Cape Sable, Nova Scotia on 19 March 1963.
Her wreck site is unknown, despite the best efforts of a 1979 search conducted by cadets from the Coast Guard Academy.
The old ship remains alive in the work of maritime artists.
Her bell is at Joint Base Anacostia-Bolling and is kept in tip-top shape while her binnacle has been retained at the USCGA.
The polar bear figurehead from Bear is in the collection at the Mariners’ Museum in Newport News, Virginia. Following his celebrated 1940 expedition, Admiral Byrd presented the figurehead to the facility.
The Coast Guard maintains an extensive 40-page online scrapbook of the old Bear as well as an extensive website.
Since 1980, her name has been perpetuated by the class-leader of the Famous-class 270-foot medium endurance cutters, USCGC Bear (WMEC 901) based at Portsmouth, VA.
As for “Roaring Mike” Healy, the Coast Guard named their newest icebreaker (WAGB-20) for him in 1997, shown below, while reindeer-herding lieutenants Berthoff and Jarvis each had a cutter named after them in modern times.
Length: 198′ 4″
Draft: 17′ 11″
Displacement: 703 tons
Machinery: Compound-expansion steam, 25-5/8″ and 50″ diameter x 30″ stroke, 101 nominal hp (1885)
Diesel engine/sail rig (1935) Diesel only after 1939.
Speed: 14kts max on sail, 6 on steam, 8 on diesel
Complement: 51 (1884) 39 (1939)
Armament: 3 x 6-pound rapid-fire guns (1885) disarmed 1935. Equipped with small arms and light machine guns 1940.
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