Here at LSOZI, we take off every Wednesday for a look at the old steam/diesel navies of the 1833-1954 period and will profile a different ship each week. These ships have a life, a tale all their own, which sometimes takes them to the strangest places. – Christopher Eger
Warship Wednesday, August 4, 2021: The Grand Old Lady of the North
As today is the 231st birthday of the founding of what today is known as the U.S. Coast Guard, you knew this was coming! Here we see the floating football that is the Wind-class Coast Guard icebreaker Northwind (WAG/WAGB-282) mustering up all available power from her six engines to penetrate a pressure ridge in the Bearing Sea during the winter season, July 1953. Note her twin 5″/38 mount forward and her Hedgehog ASW system at the platform under the bridge. Pretty stout armament for an iceboat, but we’ll get into that.
How the “Winds” came to blow
When World War II started, the U.S. Navy was up to the proverbial frozen creek as far as icebreaking went. While some foreign powers (the Soviets) really liked the specialized ships, Uncle Sam did not share the same opinion. However, this soon changed in 1941 when the U.S., even before Pearl Harbor, accepted Greenland and Iceland to their list of protected areas. Now, tasked with having to keep the Nazis out of the frozen extreme North Atlantic/Arctic and the Japanese out of the equally chilly North Pac/Arctic region (anyone heard of the Aleutians?), the Navy needed ice-capable ships yesterday.
The old (read= broken down) 6,000-ton British-built Soviet icebreaker Krassin was studied in Bremerton Washington by the Navy and Coast Guard. Although dating back to the Tsar, she was still at the time the most powerful icebreaker in the world. After looking at this ship and the Swedish icebreaker Ymer, the U.S. began work on the Wind-class, the first U.S. ships designed and built specifically as icebreakers.
Set up with an extremely thick (over an inch and a half) steel hull, these ships could endure repeated ramming against hard pack ice. Just in case the hull did break, there were 15-inches of cork behind it, followed by a second inner hull. Now that is serious business. These ships were so hardy that one, USCGC Westwind (WAGB 281), almost 30 years after she joined the fleet, was heavily damaged by ice in the Antarctic’s Weddell Sea. About 120 feet of the port-side hull was gashed when brash ice forced the ship against a 100-foot sheer ice shelf. The gash was two to three feet wide and was six feet above the waterline. The crew patched the side, there were no injuries, and the breaker returned home under her own power.
At over 6,000-tons, these ships were bulky for their short, 269-foot hulls. They were also bathtub-shaped, with a 63-foot beam. For those following along at home, that’s a 1:4 length to beam ratio. Power came from a half-dozen mammoth Fairbanks-Morse 10-cylinder diesel engines that both gave the ship a lot of power on demand, but also an almost unmatched 32,000-mile range (not a misprint, that is 32-thousand). For an idea of how much that is, a Wind-class icebreaker could sail at an economical 11-knots from New York to Antarctica, and back, on the same load of diesel…twice.
To help them break the ice, the ship had a complicated system of water ballasting, capable of moving hundreds of tons of water from one side of the ship to the other in seconds, which could rock the vessel from side to side in addition to her thick hull and powerful engines. A bow-mounted propeller helped chew up loose ice and pull the ship along if needed.
With a war being on, they just weren’t about murdering ice, but being able to take the fight to polar-bound Axis ships and weather detachments as well. For this, they were given a pair of twin 5″/38 turrets, a dozen 40mm Bofors AAA guns, a half dozen 20mm Oerlikons, as well as depth charge racks and various projectors, plus the newfangled Hedgehog device to slay U-boats and His Imperial Japanese Majesty’s I-boats. Weight and space were also reserved for a catapult-launched and crane-recovered seaplane. Space for an extensive small arms locker, to equip landing parties engaged in searching remote frozen islands and fjords for radio stations and observation posts, rounded out the design.
Two of the class, Eastwind and Southwind, operated against teams of German scientists and military personnel who attempted to establish weather stations in remote areas of Greenland late in the war.
As noted by the USCG Historian’s Office on this chapter of “The Weather War,”:
On 4 October 1944 Eastwind captured a German weather station on Little Koldewey Island and 12 German personnel. On 15 October 1944 Eastwind captured the German trawler Externsteine and took 17 prisoners. The trawler was renamed East Breeze and a prize crew sailed her to Boston.
Northwind was ordered from Western Pipe & Steel Co., Los Angeles, (Builder’s Number CG-184) for $9,880,037 and her keel was laid 10 July 1944, the same week the Allies were fighting for Saint-Lo in France and Saipan in the Pacific. Impressively, she was finished in 54 weeks, commissioning 28 July 1945, just a fortnight before the Japanese threw in the towel. As such, her war service was negligible.
However, she was soon on the cutting edge of modern polar operations. Stationed in Boston, she landed her aft 5-inch mount to clear her decks for a large helicopter platform to accommodate a primitive HNS helicopter of the type the Coast Guard had pioneered the use of in 1944-45.
Then came a deployment in the form of Operation Nanook, under the command of Captain Richard Cruzen. The destination: Greenland and the Canadian Arctic, where Northwind would field the first helicopter seen in that part of the world.
As detailed by the Coast Guard Aviation Association:
The task force was made up of two Navy AK transports modified for sub-zero operations, fully equipped to construct the stations. In addition, the Seaplane tender USS Norton Sound, with two PBM seaplanes, was part of the Taskforce as was the submarine Atule which conducted tests and carried out operations under the ice in Baffin Bay and to the north. The wooden-hulled net tender Whitewood was used as a survey ship. The Coast Guard ice breaker Northwind joined the group north of the arctic circle providing escort and navigation through the ice fields. The Northwind had on board an HNS helicopter piloted by Coast Guard Aviation Pilot 1/c John Olsen. This was a precursor of things to come in polar operations.
In November 1946, Capt. Charles Ward Thomas, the famed skipper of her sistership USCGC Eastwind during the Weather War with the Germans, assumed command of Northwind. During the Thomas years, Northwind would participate in Operation High Jump, the fourth Byrd expedition to the Antarctic, and subject of the Academy Award-winning motion picture, “The Secret Land.”
Highjump and the follow-on Windmill operation in 1947-48 to this day were the largest naval task forces to operate in Antarctica, consisting of 13 ships including an aircraft carrier and 33 aircraft. Many crackpot legends hold it was to scout out possible secret Nazi bases in the region where Hitler, who was still thought missing at the time, may have escaped to via U-boat.
Northwind spearhead of the expedition, clearing the way through the Ross Sea ice pack for Navy cargo ships. For the mission, she carried both a Grumman J2F Duck floatplane and a whirlybird.
It was during Highjump that Northwind successfully completed the first major rescue mission involving a submarine, freeing USS Sennet (SS-408) along with the supply ships Yance and Merrick, who were stuck in a thick ice flow in the Antarctic Circle.
On 15 January 1947, Northwind’s chopper made the first helicopter flight to the base “Little America” in Antarctica. The pilot was LT James A. Cornish, USCG and he carried Chief Photographer’s Mate Everett Mashburn as his observer.
Stationed in Seattle from 1947 to 1973, she fell into a cycle of polar ice operations, alternating trips from the Arctic to the Antarctic. In 1948, with the Northwind, Captain Thomas re-established the annual Bering Sea Patrol, which had been discontinued during the war, conducting the first such patrol in eight years, and compiled an oceanographic report of the waters navigated in the Bering Sea and the Arctic Ocean.
Northwind’s crew, by nature of the cutter’s work, saw some amazing things.
Her Cold War career (see what I did there) consisted largely of a series of Operation Deep Freeze resupply missions to the Antarctic, alternating with Bering Sea patrols with the latter including missions to install and support the Distant Early Warning (DEW) Line.
The 269-foot cutter also performed standard Alaska patrol tasks, such as holding “floating courts” that roamed from port to port and providing a modicum of military presence in far-away towns as needed.
In 1965, Northwind pulled another “first.” That July, she conducted an oceanographic survey between Greenland, Iceland, and Scotland and was the first Western vessel to operate in the Kara Sea off the Soviet Union.
Between 1966 and 1989, Northwind hosted a series of Icebreaker Support Section (IBSEC) deployments, each consisting of a pair of Sikorsky HH-52A Seaguards, which picked up a red (officially orange) paint scheme.
Between 9 June and 22 September 1969, Northwind transited 14,000 miles from the Bering Sea through the Northwest Passage then made it back to Seattle via the same route, the first vessel to conduct both a West-to-East and East-to-West transit of the Northwest Passage in a single season.
From 1973 to 1975 Northwind underwent extensive machinery modernization and electronic modification at the Coast Guard Yard at Curtis Bay, Maryland, which included landing the rest of her WWII-era heavy armament (she still had a small arms locker and four stowed .50 cal M2s) and picking up the familiar red-hull seen on today’s American icebreakers.
From 1978 to 1989, Northwind was stationed at Wilmington, North Carolina, and used for general ice-breaking, including in the Great Lakes, which her lack of fixed gun mounts kept her under Canadian treaty restrictions. Rather than Bering Sea cruises, she alternated Deep Freeze trips with Arctic East cruises, sailing in Baffin Bay and supporting Thule AFB in Greenland with side trips to Iceland and Norway.
Clocking in on the war on drugs at a time when the service was hull poor, on 4 November 1984 Northwind seized the P/C Alexi I off Jamaica for carrying 20 tons of marijuana, becoming the first icebreaker to make a large narcotics seizure.
It was during her 1986 cruise that Northwind assisted in a joint Denmark-U.S. relocation operation, shuttling arctic musk ox around Greenland via her Sea Guards, likely another first.
Northwind outlived her seven sisters. Weather War vets Eastwind and Southwind/Atka, along with the former Navy-owned Staten Island, Burton Island, and Edisto were all scrapped in the 1970s. In the Frozen North, the Canadian Coast Guard’s CCGS Labrador lingered until 1987. Only USCGC Westwind (WAGB-281), who had served the Soviets for six years under Lend-Lease as Severni Polius (North pole), endured, surviving another decade on the salvaged parts of her sisters.
Northwind, “The Grand Old Lady of the North,” was decommissioned on 20 January 1989, just shy of 44 years with the service and 11 months after Westwind was taken out of service. She had no less than 27 skippers and never saw a period of mothballs until she was shipped off in 1990.
After a decade floating in the James River, ex-Northwind was scrapped at International Shipbreakers, Port of Brownsville, Texas in 1999.
Like Northwind, the other members of her class pulled down several “firsts.” For instance, USCGC Eastwind (WAGB-279) was the first Coast Guard cutter of any type to circumnavigate the globe after departing Boston on 25 October 1960 bound for Antarctica and arriving back in Boston 5 May 1961. This was followed up by a similar Antarctic summer cruise by her sistership, USCGC Southwind (WAGB-280) [ex-USS Atka (AGB-3)] in 1968-1969.
While all eight Winds have long been scrapped, their unarmed half-sister, USCGC Mackinaw, which broke ice on the Great Lakes for six decades, is a floating museum in Michigan, and her grandfather, the old now 98-year old Krassin, is preserved at Saint Petersburg.
A bell from Cutter Northwind, perhaps from our icebreaker, is on display behind the Highland County Historical Society building in Hillsboro, Ohio, a town that made such bells for the Navy and Coast Guard.
The bulkhead on Northwind where various IBSEC avdets chronicled their cruises among the icebergs from 1966 to 1989 was removed after the cutter was decommissioned and restored by ATC Mobile personnel (where the IBSEC was stationed) in 1991. The bulkhead art is on display at the National Naval Aviation Museum in Pensacola.
There is also a public FB group on the ship.
With the Coast Guard building a new class of Polar Security Cutters, basically modernized and better-armed icebreakers, it would be nice if they brought the old “Wind” names back.
Displacement: 6,515 tons (1945)
Length: 269 ft oa
Beam: 63 ft 6 in
Draft: 25 ft 9 in max
Installed power (1945): 6 × Fairbanks-Morse model 8-1/8OP, 10-cylinder opposed-piston engines at 2,000 shp (1,500 kW), each driving a Westinghouse DC electric generator.
Propulsion: (1945) 2 × Westinghouse Electric DC electric motors driving the 2 aft propellers, 1 × 3,000 shp (2,200 kW) Westinghouse DC electric motor driving the detachable and seldom-used bow propeller.
Propulsion (1973): Four 3,000 horsepower DeLaval diesel engines, two GE electric motors
Speed: Top speed: 13.4 knots (1967)
Economic speed: 11.6 knots
Range: 32,485 nautical miles
21 officers, 295 men (1944)
13 officers, 2 warrants, 160 men (Post-1967 USCG service)
14 officers, 137 crew + room for 12 scientists and 14 AvDet personnel (Post 1975)
Sensors and processing systems:
SA-2, SL-1 (1944, removed 1949)
SPS-10B; SPS-53A; SPS-6C (1967)
Sonar: QCJ-8 (1944-45)
4 × 5″/38 (twin mounts)
12 × 40mm/60 (3 quad mounts)
6 × 20mm/80 (single mounts)
2 × depth charge tracks
6 × “K” guns
M2 Browning machine guns and small arms (1944)
Aircraft carried: 1 Grumman J2F Seaplane, later two helicopters in telescoping hangar
1 x5″/38 single mount
20mm Mk 16 cannons (singles)
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