U.S. Coast Guard Cutter ‘Bear’ – A Remarkable Legacy of Maritime Achievements
USS Bear (AG-29) as she appeared while serving the Navy as a survey ship in the waters of the Antarctic. Notice the aircraft onboard. U.S. Navy National Museum of Naval Aviation.
On October 14, 1941, the United States Coast Guard cutter Bear steamed into Boston Harbor towing the German spy vessel Buskoe—the first U.S. naval capture of World War II. It was only one of many noteworthy episodes in the Bear’s impressive career, the longest of any Coast Guard cutter.
Bear was built in 1874 at the Dundee Shipyard in Scotland, as a rugged seal-hunting vessel. After ten years of operating out of Newfoundland, she was purchased by the U.S. Navy to take part in a rescue expedition to the Arctic. The Bear was sailed to New York, commissioned into the Navy, and equipped for the task ahead of her.
On May 4, 1884, the USS Bear, accompanied by the USS Thetis and the USS Alert, sailed northwards to save the surviving members of an expedition led by Army first lieutenant A.W. Greely, which had departed a few years earlier to observe winter conditions in the Arctic. Having succumbed to poor leadership and a considerable amount of bad luck, the Greely Expedition’s six survivors were left stranded in the Arctic winter for months until they were spotted and rescued by the Bear and its companions.
Soon after the Bear’s return, the Navy declared her too old and unfit for duty and decommissioned her. The Coast Guard’s predecessor, the Revenue Marine Service, noted the suitability of the vessel for the service’s missions in Alaska, acquired the Bear, and sent her northwards for a record forty years of service with its Alaskan Patrol.
After a brief stint under the command of Captain A. A. Fengar, the Bear was entrusted to Captain Mike “Hell Roaring” Healy, an energetic leader who was also the first African-American to ever command a U.S. Government vessel. Stationed at San Francisco, the Bear sailed northwards each spring as the only representation of the U.S. Government in the Alaskan wild. Under Healy’s command, Bear took on the responsibilities that were, and still are, the daily chores of Coast Guard cutters in Alaska.
Law enforcement immediately became one of the Revenue-Marine cutter’s priorities as it patrolled the Alaskan wilderness. The Bear transported convicts and witnesses, conducted criminal investigations, and even held a court of law on her heaving decks. Along with other cutters, she assisted in charting Alaskan waters by making observations along the coastline, and offered medical attention to natives, settlers, and hunters along her patrol. Another of her responsibilities was escorting whaling vessels that hunted in the waters between the coastline and the massive icebergs that loomed miles offshore. Each year, Bear was involved in rescuing vessels that had not headed south quickly enough to escape the ice.
The Bear, and indeed the entire Revenue Marine on the Alaska Patrol was celebrated for working tirelessly to establish friendships with the Alaskan natives. During his ten years of commanding Bear, one of Healy’s notable and kindhearted accomplishments was the importation of a herd of Siberian reindeer to Alaska at his own expense, the sole purpose of which was to feed and clothe natives.
After Healy was promoted and replaced by Captain Francis Tuttle, the Bear distinguished itself in a daring rescue mission known as the Overland Rescue of 1897.
This was the climax of Bear’s time in Alaska. It involved the rescue of eight whaling vessels and some 275 men who had taken refuge from a storm off isolated Point Barrows and had become trapped by icebergs. The Bear had recently finished her summer patrol but was sent northwards again to rescue the whalers, the first time any cutter on the Alaska Patrol had attempted an arctic voyage in wintertime. By December 14, the Bear found itself blocked by ice and landed a small expedition to try to reach the whalers by land. Pulled along by dog teams and sleds, the rescue party led by First Lieutenant D. H. Jarvis reached the whalers after three and a half months of traversing 1,600 miles of arctic wasteland.
On January 28, 1915, the Revenue Marine Service, and the Bear with it, was transferred into the newly created United States Coast Guard. The USCGC Bear continued on its patrol of Alaskan waters up to and throughout World War I, during which the Coast Guard was temporarily absorbed into the Navy. Soon afterwards, the cutter was again declared obsolete and eventually replaced in 1928 by the Northland. Possession of the cutter was given to the city of Oakland, California, and the Bear was converted into a maritime museum. In 1930 the cutter became the movie set of a motion picture based on Jack London’s novel Sea Wolf.
Bear’s return to adventure came when the retired admiral Richard E. Byrd was searching for a vessel to aid in his second Antarctic expedition. He purchased the Bear for a ridiculously cheap price, renamed her Bear of Oakland, and sailed her to Boston for refitting in June 1932. More than a year later, the Bear left Boston and embarked on a rigorous but successful voyage. Later in 1939, Admiral Byrd obtained her for his third and final arctic voyage, replaced her ancient boiler engine with a new diesel one, and modernized her equipment. By 1941 Bear had finished her Antarctic voyages—just in time to be rapidly assigned to the Navy for the onset of World War II, more than fifty years after the Navy had first decommissioned her!
During WW2, Bear was assigned to the Greenland Patrol along with several other Coast Guard cutters. The Greenland Patrol was created shortly before the United States’ official entrance into the war; cutters patrolling Greenland’s coasts mainly performed weather observations and kept Germany from establishing a presence on the Island. As previously mentioned, Bear aided in the first U.S. naval capture of the war by towing the German spy-ship Buskoe into Boston Harbor. A few years later, the Bear had become so worn out and obsolete that the Navy decommissioned her for the final time, effectively ending her years of active service in June 1944.
In 1948, the Bear was purchased by a Canadian company and outfitted for her original occupation—sealing. The market for seals plummeted, however, and all work on her was abandoned. She was rescued from ending her days on an abandoned beach by a Philadelphia businessman, who bought her with intentions of renovating her into a restaurant and museum.
Under tow to her final harbor, Bear was caught in a storm and began to sink. The two crewman on board had no way of escape and sent out a distress call when, in the words of historian Howard Bloomfield, “A most appropriate thing happened.” A Coast Guard aircraft from Air Station Salem, Massachusetts, successfully dropped an inflatable boat for the stranded sailors. The Coast Guard pilots were witness to the sinking of a vessel that was close to ninety years of age and had served the United States Revenue Marine Service, Coast Guard, and Navy for nearly eight decades.
The legacy of the Bear continues today, its heroic Overland Rescue serving as the inspiration for the United States Coast Guard Academy’s mascot the “Bears.” In the words of Coast Guard historian Robert Browning “The Bear is more than just a famous ship; she is a symbol for all the (Coast Guard) represents – for steadfastness, for courage and for constant readiness to help men and vessels in distress.”
(Editor’s note—A new Bear still sails for the Coast Guard. See this article from The Virginian-Pilot newspaper of Hampton Roads.)