Tag Archives: USCGC Healy (WAGB 20)

As the Winds Blow

Original caption: “The Coast Guard icebreaker Westwind (WAGB-281, ex-Severni Pulius, ex-AGB-6), left, receives personnel and cargo from her disabled sister ship the Eastwind (WAGB-279), right, as they lay moored in Kane Basin north of Thule, Greenland. Enroute to Weather Station Alert with supplies, the Eastwind suffered damage to her starboard propeller blade and a hole in her forepeak while maneuvering to break through heavy Polar floes driving the ship toward shore. The Westwind went to the assistance of the Eastwind and undertook the attempt to reach Alert. The two Coast Guard icebreakers accompanied a Navy Task Force Group on the 1954 joint U.S. Canadian resupply mission to far northern weather stations in the Arctic.”

Note the WWII-era Higgins type LCVP between the two icebreakers and a second one on Westwind’s davits. USCG Photo via the National Archives (205581260)

If you look carefully, you will also see the uniqueness that is a trio of H-13 Sioux (Bell Model 47) type helicopters on the breakers’ decks, with one on Westwind and two on Eastwind. The USCG purchased three up-engined Navy HTL-4 variants (dubbed HTL-5s) in 1952 and used them through 1960, with all three likely seen in the above image. They, as with other helicopters since the 1940s, proved useful in scouting paths through the ice fields.

With their full “soap bubble” canopies, the Korean War-era whirlybirds are instantly recognizable to fans of “MASH.” Between the HTL-5s and similar variants, the service used eight Bell 47s, redesignated HH-13s, as late as 1968.

Both of the above Winds were laid down during WWII– with Westwind serving with the Soviets as Lend-Lease for six years– and would continue in their role of crushing it in the polar regions for decades after the above image was snapped.

“Ice Breaker Penetrating the Ice Pack” Painting, Watercolor on Paper; by Standish Backus; 1956; “Pack ice is composed of massed fragments of sea ice drifting with wind and current. Modern Icebreakers such as Glacier, Edisto and Eastwind normally transit such ice fields without difficulty or loss of speed. However, thinned-skinned vessels must be protected from ice pressures against their hulls. This may be accomplished by leading the escorted vessel through the dangerous areas with its bow lashed firmly into the notched stern of the icebreaker. Here Eastwind is represented towing YOG-34 through the Ross Sea pack, while overhead one of the helicopters scouts the ice conditions.” –Commander Standish Backus. Unframed Dimensions 22H X 30W Accession #: 88-186-BH.

Eastwind, which had captured the German trawler Externsteine during the “Weather War” in Greenland, an event that went down in history as one of the last enemy vessels seized by an American prize crew, decommissioned early Dec 1968 and was slowly scrapped in New Jersey– a fate worse than death.

Westwind was the next to last of her class decommissioned, serving until 1988, at which point she had 43 years under her belt (under two different flags). Plans to keep America’s last WWII-era icebreaker as a museum ship never firmed up and she was, like her sisters, recycled.

Speaking of helicopters and icebreakers…

Shortly after completing her historic crossing of the Northwest Passage (during which the ice wasn’t even thick enough for an Ice Call) by the medium icebreaker USCGC Healy (WAGB-20), an MH-60R of the “Vipers” of HSM-48 cross decked this week from USS Jason Dunham (DDG-109) while off the East Coast, the first time an MH-60R had landed on an icebreaker. 

Shades of the new Polar Security Cutter, perhaps… 

Coast Guard Clears Northwest Passage, Marks Increasing Overseas Deployments

One of the smallest of the armed forces– in manpower terms only about a tenth the size of the U.S. Navy, and roughly equivalent in the same metric to the much better-funded French Navy — the U.S. Coast Guard has been showing up overseas a lot recently.

Yesterday, the icebreaker USCGC Healy (WAGB 20), arrived in Baltimore following a recent transit of the Arctic’s Northwest Passage for the first time since 2005. Importantly in terms of polar commerce, Healy’s skipper said the ice had receded to the point that the cutter’s crew couldn’t even get an “ice liberty” call.

“A lot of the floes had melt ponds with holes in them like Swiss cheese,” Capt. Kenneth Boda, commander of the Seattle-based icebreaker, told the Seattle Times. “We couldn’t get the right floe.”

Healy left her Seattle homeport on July 10, arrived at Dutch Harbor 19 July, conducted operations in the Gulf of Alaska and the Bering Sea, then entered the Chukchi Sea, crossed the Beaufort Sea, entered the Northwest Passage which involved transiting the straits between Banks and Victoria Island and Devon and Baffin Island, proceeded down Baffin Bay and the Devon Strait, calling at Nuuk, Greenland on 13 September. From there, she proceeded through the Labrador Sea to Halifax (9 October) and Boston (14 October) before calling at the Coast Guard Yard in Baltimore after a 102-day cruise starting in the Pacific, running through the Arctic Ocean, and ending up on the Atlantic coast.

It should be pointed out that Healy is one of the Coast Guard’s polar-capable icebreakers and the service operates her as a “multi-mission vessel to protect American interests in the Arctic region.” However, she is only termed a “medium icebreaker,” built more for science than for crushing ice. Further, her only provision for armament is pintel mounted crew-served weapons, such as .50 cals, which are almost always stowed.

In stark contrast, the planned new Russian Arctic patrol ship class is intended to carry the very deadly and long-ranged Kalibr-K “Club K” (NATO: SS-N-27 Sizzler) container-type cruise missile system. Keep in mind that the Russians tossed Kalibrs from small corvette-sized warships in the Caspian Sea some 1,500 miles over Iranian and Iraqi airspace to hit targets in Syria 2015.

Club K missile containers at the stern of the Russian ice-class project 23550 patrol ship

Keep in mind that in 2018, then-USCG Commandant Paul Zukunft said while speaking at the Surface Navy Association that the service’s new heavy icebreaker (I mean Polar Security Cutter) class building in Mississippi will have space, weight, and electrical power set aside to carry offensive weapons, such as the Naval Strike Missile.

WestPac cruises

Besides talking about polar presence, the Coast Guard is increasingly showing up in points West, as exemplified by the return this week of the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Munro (WMSL 755) and crew returned to their Alameda homeport Wednesday following a 102-day, 22,000-nautical-mile deployment to the Western Pacific.

The 418-foot National Security Cutters like Munro, essentially an old school fast frigate sans ASW weapons (but with sonar), have been making WestPac cruises under the tactical control of Commander, U.S. 7th Fleet, with much regularity. Big Navy likes these white hulls as they are arguably more capable than the LCS and free up precious DDGs from nation-building and flag-waving evolutions so they can spend more time with the carrier and phib groups.

September 2021, HMAS Sirius (AO-266) conducts a dual replenishment at sea with HMAS Canberra (LHD-2) and USCGC Munro (WMSL-755), during Indo-Pacific Endeavour 2021. (RAN Photo by LSIS Leo Baumgartner)

During her deployment, in addition to meshing with U.S. Navy assets, Munro worked alongside the Japan Coast Guard, the Japan Maritime Self Defense Force, the Philippine Coast Guard and Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources, the Royal Australian Navy, and the Indonesia Maritime Security Agency. She also kept tabs on a Chinese naval task force found unexpectedly operating just off the Aleutians. 

Since 2018, three other National Security Cutters – Bertholf, Stratton, and Waesche – have deployed to the Western Pacific.

Overseas training 

Finally, as many gently-used former Coast Guard assets, including 110-foot Island-class and 87-foot Maritime Protector-class patrol boats, are being gifted to overseas allies, the USCG has been training the incoming new owners. Such an example is the below video from VOA, posted this week, of USCG personnel training Ukrainian navy bluejackets.