The First Trip to the Arctic

by Harry Franklin, Jr.

While browsing the net one evening recently, I encountered and the many great articles written by Coasties over the years. One in particular caught my eye with considerable interest. Tom Serres’ article, LET’S VISIT THE WESTWIND, circa 1952, was pure nostalgia.. I served with Tom on the Westwind for a short time before he left in l953. His article recounts events encountered by the ship and crew from her commissioning in 1944. There was a short period of service as a cutter; the lend-lease period when she was a temporary Soviet icebreaker; then her post WWII return to the U.S.A. She was re-commissioned as a USCG Cutter and preparation was made for the first Arctic trip during the summer of 1953 (Nanook ‘53.)

I first laid eyes on this mighty vessel while she was in dry dock at the Bethlehem Steel Yard in Baltimore Md. I was among a large contingent of Seamen Apprentice's fresh from Cape May Training Center via TDY for one week at the Ellis Island Base. Rich Bannon, Irv Beller, Bill Thomas, Bob Hickey and Joe Gallagher were among the guys with whom I enlisted at the Fox Theater Building in Philadelphia PA in December 1952 and were now assigned to the Westwind in March 1953. We were in awe of the ship as she sat tied up to two other ships in dry dock. She looked much larger out of water than her 269 foot length and 44 foot beam. Trussed like Gulliver overrun by Lilliputians, the hard hats swarmed her superstructure. As we climbed the scaffolding and ladders to reach weather deck height, we crossed over a contiguous ship en route to the Westwind’s quarter deck. Like crashing thunder and brilliant lightning the blue-white sparks of acetylene torches and the noise of shipyard machinery gave us a stormy greeting with a din like a 90's heavy metal rock concert. A new page in life’s journal was about to be written for us.

The deck force was the lowest but nonetheless critically important rung on the ladder of authority on a ship. We quickly learned that there were no unnecessary or unimportant jobs on board. Everyone was expected to pull his weight. Chief Boatswains Mate Howard Tarr was the overseer. His red hair, barrel chest and imposing demeanor gained respect upon encounter. He was a strong leader, perfect for his position, whose imposing presence masked his innate compassion for his men. The new guys were introduced to the chief and to the ship’s crew’s quarters. Bleakly in transition from a period of neglect to one of restoration the crew’s quarters were below deck and without natural light. The dim florescent lighting revealed rows of triple decker racks suspended from a stanchion by chains . A thin mattress on stretched canvas attached to a metal frame by line threaded through peripheral grommets was our bed. A pillow, blankets and mattress cover from our boot camp issue, feathered our perch. A two foot square locker for personal items was assigned to us somewhere in proximity to our racks. A ditty bag, for laundry, was hanging from the rack frame which later, at sea, swung like the pendulum on a grandfathers clock, as the ship rolled and pitched. Reveille was a mad rush of bare feet hitting unpainted, cold and clammy steel decks. All hands sought space to reach for and open a locker door already blocked by another half wakened and seemingly mindless body in skivvies and T shirt. Up one ladder, down another to the head: do the three "S’s" before racing to beat the wait in the chow line.

A shipmate, I’ll call "Whitey", whose rack was in close proximity to mine, frequently chose not to rise for breakfast. "Whitey" was a non-conformist at a time when non-conformity was not "cool" and he frequently found himself "on report." His uniform was eclectic as were his habits. He had a shipmate who looked out for him and often offered to bring him breakfast when he did not make the chow line. "Hey Whitey, ya want somthin t’ eat?," his friend would say. "What’re they servin," said Whitey. "French toast and bacon, ya want some?" replied his buddy. If the response was in the affirmative, shortly thereafter his breakfast would be carefully placed next to his face on the pillow, without a plate, thus allowing Whitey to merely turn his face toward the aroma and chomp away without disturbing any other part of his tired body. Grease stains on the pillow case lingered at the original location of Whitey’s consumed meal. Whitey was a hell of a mechanic. He could fix and maintain small boat engines and he was permanently assigned to keeping the captain’s gig and the LCVP engines tuned up. He did everything he could to avoid promotion as though it were some kind of stigma. With each new stripe earned there would be an infraction of the code and the stripe would disappear. Whitey left the USCG as he entered, an E-1. Legend has it that his seabag went over the side as he departed for his home town to his real love, working on automobile engines.

Most of us were not as colorful and legendary as Whitey was but each of us had our trials as we were integrated into the mainstream of the deck force crew. At each morning’s muster on the quarter deck we were addressed by two boatswain mates, a first class and  his second class assistant. Like two corporate executives they would draw hard on their fat cigars, careful not to drop a hot ash on their pressed chambray shirts , as they assigned the jobs from their prepared list. Some jobs were custom made for their recipients. My buddy Bannon had a quick wit with a sharp tongue which irritated the leadership on deck. He also had a penchant for getting excused from assigned jobs ostensibly to do paper work for a young overworked Ensign. I often found Bannon’s antics humorous. My broad grin, however, was perceived as encouragement for his jokes and subsequently earned me some custom made jobs. For example, I was lowered into a rusted water storage tank with breathing mask, goggles and an electric sander. Like the light bulb dangling from the open hatch above, I also was suspended on a swing in the deep, dark tank to serve my country. Job completed I was awarded the follow-up task of spraying the tank’s interior with red lead. After removing the protective grease from my skin I then removed my saturated shirt and dungarees directly into the dumpster on the fantail.

Ultimately a cooperative spirit and strong work ethic resulted in an elevation of tasks more to my liking. It was good to be out on deck even to chip off old paint, sand and paint bulkheads or holystone decks as the ship rolled and plunged through the sea on shake down cruises. All systems approved by the General Electric team and others connected with the ship’s power plant and instrumentation we sailed for a short stay in Boston Harbor en route to Argentia, Newfoundland. Once beyond the three mile limit sea stores were "broken out" and a carton of Lucky Strike could be purchased for a buck. (Has the smoking lamp been extinguished throughout the Coast Guard by now?)

A more serious and closely regulated aspect of seagoing for young sailors were those duties directly involved in the operation of the ship. We had been to Dam Neck, VA. for gunnery practice on the quad 40"mm and 5"30mm cannon and we were called to general quarters for gunnery drills onboard the Westwind. Watches on the bridge, however, were the most interesting for me. Those watches brought each of us to the helm where we could feel the power of the twin screws and the lumbering tonnage of the ship. That huge rudder sitting between two enormous screws would respond to the slightest turn of the wheel making the ships bow glide to port and then to starboard. My first experience at the helm was not so successful in keeping the swing of the bow as tightly on heading as it should have been. Captain Curry rose from his leather chair where he often sat peering through the spinning port hole (to prevent freezing) and strolled out onto the wing of the bridge looking aft at our wake. Returning he declared "there’s a snake following us", referring to the zig zag path I had created. The OD, biting the stem of his corncob pipe gave me a white toothed grimace from behind his red whiskers reminding me to tighten the swing. Sometimes the sea was heavy and it was difficult to steer the ship. It wasn’t the turbulent sea effecting the rudder, it was the turbulent sea effecting our innards. Seasickness permeated the watch on the bridge. The Captain always set a strong example. He was never seen sick. He did, at times, leave the bridge for his adjacent cabin to check on his cat who, according to the captain, did surprisingly, get sea sick. Each man on the bridge, regardless of experience, eventually made the hurried trip to the exterior wing where a five gallon bucket was tied to a stanchion ready to receive the contents of our stomachs. Most watches on the bridge were in calmer weather and more exciting to the helmsman , especially later in the trip when he nosed the ships bow into an ice field. Her bow was designed to ride up upon the thick surface ice. Once there, her weight and forward power plunged downward cutting through the formidable frozen barrier. Unless ramming was necessary a clear path was nicely cut for the convoy of freighters following us.

Our first port was Argentia, Newfoundland. A short liberty in that beautifully rugged mountainous land beckoned us to the nearby village of Placentia, a short ferry ride across a beautiful lake. While hiking we located a tiny hut of a pub with a pot bellied stove at its center. Around it gathered fishermen in oil skin coats and caps who were smoking pipes as they drank near beer from their mugs. There was no television there in 1953. Entertainment was in the form of a collection of professional photographs of New York City. That sunny afternoon the pub’s patrons were enamored by the work of a visiting photographer who I believe, was in Newfoundland for the purpose of photojournalism.

Sailing north from Newfoundland we paused briefly as we encountered our sister ship, the CGC Eastwind returning to Boston after shearing a propellor blade in an ice field.

The air grew cooler as our gleaming white ship plowed through pristine sapphire blue waters in the shadow of the snow capped purple mountains of Labrador. Terms like "bergy bits," "Brash" and "growlers" crept into our vocabulary as we approached ice fields covering the surface of the ocean as far as the eye could see. Sailing north along the coast of Greenland we enjoyed daylight twenty-four hours a day. But clear weather was not always recorded in the ship’s log. There were snow storms and heavy fog casting a cold and isolated feeling onboard. The sound of the ship’s fog horn blown at regular intervals added to the rather dismal atmosphere.

Sometimes we were awakened by the ongoing crunching and thumping of brash, bergy bits, and larger chunks of ice freshly broken by our bow as they bumped and slid along the other side of the bulkhead separating us from the arctic ocean.

Along the north western coast of Greenland we crossed the Arctic Circle triggering an old ritual. Crew members crossing that degree of latitude for the first time were known as "Bluenosers." They had their noses painted blue the night before the crossing and were duly initiated into the Polar Bear Club the next day. Old Salts had a hey day cutting clumps of hair from the heads of the Bluenosers. Mustard, ketchup and other condiments from the galley found their way onto the bluenosers as they were paddled and finally washed down with the ships fire hoses. Fortunately it was one of our warmer days on deck but the spray was not all that refreshing. A ceremony with King Neptune and court was held at which we were issued a card making us lifetime members of the Polar Bear Club. I still have mine. The initiation was a party atmosphere and a real morale booster for everyone one onboard.

Thule, Greenland was our next destination. There was a newly established Air Force base there, an important link in the DEW line which monitored activity over the pole and protected the American continent from attack from that direction. Everything in Thule was frozen. Permafrost makes the earth impenetrable. Utility lines and pipes stretched across the surface and over roads by trestle work. The barracks were elevated above the ground and covered with aluminum reflecting the red midnight sun like rectangular mirrors. The Air Force welcomed us with a tour, spirits and ultimately found us to be willing customers for souvenirs sold at their commissary. A lot of domed clocks were given to mom’s and wives that September. Evenings on board the ship we were often amused by listening to Radio Moscow ‘s propaganda directed at Thule and offering the distorted Communist view of Capitalism in the U.S.A.

Although the first arctic voyage of the newly re-commissioned Westwind during the summer of 1953, has been recorded as uneventful, it has always lingered in my memory as a very eventful summer in my life, and the coldest. Comparatively, the unfortunate events of the following years voyage to the Arctic were not uneventful. The loss of the Westwind’s XO, and his helicopter pilot in a crash into the frigid Arctic Ocean was tragic.

There are always caveats to alert Arctic voyagers. More than once while on the bridge I observed Captain Curry lean well over the wing extension to intently observe the path of large chunks of ice broken by the bow and now tumbling along the ships hull toward the churning screws. This kind of scenario cost the Eastwind a propeller blade thus aborting the mission. Fortunately the Westwind was spared that misfortune in 1953. While anchored at Thule we were shuttling supplies from ship to shore and somehow a cable became entangled in our port screw. The captain had all hands stand to starboard as he shifted water to the corresponding heeling tanks creating a starboard list and subsequently lifting the port screw closer to the surface. Our hero was a Chief Damage Controlman who donned the diving suit and cut the cable extricating it from the screw. Cheers and accolades greeted him as he was lifted from the water.

Having delivered the supply ships to Thule ,The Westwind prepared for the next leg of the journey. Decks heavily loaded with equipment and supplies we departed Greenland for Ellsmere Island and a Canadian/American weather station at Point Resolute. We provided another years supplies for five men who committed a year of their lives for the sum of $5000.00 to man the station. Resolute was accessible in August only by icebreaker. We brought replacements to relieve those grizzly stalwarts going home. It was an interesting place but not one I would choose for a year of solace. To say the Arctic trip was awesome is an understatement especially in today’s vernacular. Other than a few Eskimos we met at Thule and the Canadian trappers who offered us Arctic Fox pelts, we saw no indigenous life in that frozen venue. After months at sea we were glad our work was finished and we were heading south to home port, New York.

Passing the Statue of Liberty we were escorted by the NYC fireboats, hoses spraying arcs of white water into the air in deference to our return home from Nanook ‘53. It was an exciting welcome for our crew and it marked the culmination of a rich first nine months in the USCG for me.

Memory fades with age but I do remember several names of friends I made on the Westwind back in l953. Hey! Rich Bannon, are you out there? How about your side-kick from Philly, Irv Beller. Then there was the suave CG poster boy Bob Branzell and big Jim Barley a real swabby and good friend ; New Jersey’s best, Bob Hickey, the kid on the crew; my buddy and fellow salesman from Wanamakers in Philly Joe Gallagher, who encouraged me to enlist in the USCG; and Clarence Arnold from Glen Burnie Md., an original Westwind crew member. There were a few Gunners Mates from southern states whose racks were clustered in a corner of the crew quarters: Halliday, Hutto and Clarity. I remember a tall New Yorker named Harrison who also came aboard with our contingent from Cape May ...a friendly guy named Arcari who often helped us make a clean sweep fore and aft daily at 1600 hours on the good old deck force. From Rahway NJ two great guys named Moley and Wooley, I think Jim and Bob. There are many others whose faces are clear in my mind’s eye but I can’t quite read the name stenciled on their chambray shirts.

In January 1954 Rich Bannon and I threw off the lines as the Westwind left New York and we went on to school at Groton Ct. Another new adventure, new friends, and concentrated study awaited us there as those years of personal growth evolved into rich memories.

My wife and I travel a lot but we will be checking in on on the laptop. If anyone reading this account of the Westwind’s l953 arctic voyage can relate with personal insight, add your addendum. It would be great to hear another perspective of that CG Saga..... . Log in won’t you?




Return To Coast Guard Stories