ARCTIC “CRUISE” TURNED TREACHEROUS
The Icebreaker WESTWIND has an adventure to forget..
a joint operation of the Coast Guard icebreaker WESTWIND, on loan to the Navy for operations with the Air Force.
While preparations were being made dockside at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, a variety
of people began to arrive—an Air Force mapping group from Miami, a Navy
Underwater Demolition Team, a representative from the U.S. Weather Bureau, and a
Navy aviation maintenance crew to keep our helicopters flying. Last, but not
least, was a Walt Disney camera crew.
supplies were being loaded to last at least five months, during which the ship
would break ice for an early supply entry into Thule Air Force Base, in
Greenland, and assist in resupplying stations at Alert, Eurke and Resolute Bay.
2, 1954, with the Navy band playing the Coast Guard song Semper Paratus, we departed New York. Passing the Statue of Liberty,
a Coast Guard helicopter on harbor patrol touch landed on the ship’s flight
deck, amusing the curious passengers on the Station Island ferry.
HTL helicopters from Lakehurst, New Jersey, then joined the ship as it cleared
the harbor and set a course for Newfoundland.
stop at the Argentia Naval Base allowed a briefing with the pilots providing
long-range ice reconnaissance with Neptune aircraft.
second short layover at St. Johns, Newfoundland, we were joined by an Air Force
HO4S helicopter from Ft. Pepperell, and a Canadian Mountie who came aboard for
transportation to Franklin Bay on Ellesmere Island . . . thus setting the final
stage for our northern trip.
first ice-breaking operation of the season began on June 10 in HAMILTON Inlet, the entrance to the air base at Goose Bay, Labrador.
Several trips up and down the bay released the pressure and, with the tidal
force, ice began breaking up and flowing out to sea. The ship then headed for
Greenland. The only green on this giant island being in its southern protected
areas, well inland from the stormy wrath of the North Atlantic. We visited Bluie
West One Air Base of World War II days, now known as the Narssarssuaq
International Airport. Its many wartime barracks being converted into a TB
sanitarium by the Greenlanders at the time.
heading north, the ship paid a courtesy call on the Danish Naval Base at Grondal,
opposite the cryolite mining town of Ivigtut. A lone PBY Catalina flying boat
comprised the base’s air group. Heavy outdoor construction equipment left
behind by the Army Engineers were usually moved indoors during the long winter
days, dismantled, cleaned and painted to a like-new condition. The Danes proved
quite frugal in their ways.
reached us that the Sondrestrom Base was out of fresh provisions, and the ship
began in earnest doing what it was supposed to do—breaking the ice up the
80-mile fjord. This was an alternate emergency base during World War II, then
known as Bluie West Eight. Midway up the fjord we crossed the Arctic Circle.
King Neptune with his full court held initiation ceremonies for the new
arrivals. Traveling ever northward, Ellesmere Island and Greenland soon appeared
on the radar screen, and we discovered from the radar plot that the old
navigation charts of the late 1800s indicated a ten-mile error between the two
islands. Other icebreakers later confirmed our discovery.
Mellvile Bay the ship encountered heavy ice. Our problems seemed to begin when
one of the Navy HTL helicopters crashed on June 24. The Navy pilot was killed
and the Coast Guard officer flying as an observer was immersed in the frigid
water for more than 12 minutes suffered hypothermia as a result and could not be
a sister ship, the EASTWIND, was
caught in pressurized ice, with strong winds forcing her to fight her way off
the rocky coast of Ellesmere, but in ramming her way free the EASTWIND holed her cargo hold and broke one of her propeller blades.
To make matters worse, one of her helicopters made a forced landing on the ice,
fortunately without any injuries to the crew. This second mishap resulted in the
Navy grounding its entire fleet of HTL helicopters.
As the WESTWIND
continued her way north the days became longer. Crewmen were issued
sunglasses—to be worn at midnight because of the low angle of the sun’s rays
reflecting from the mirror-like sheets of ice. Reaching Thule in late June, we
transferred our wrecked chopper and the remaining good helicopter, along with
the Air Force chopper, to the air base for inspection. The remains of the two
officers were piped ashore with full military honors, to be flown back
Long pier at the base became a home-away-from-home, complete with mail service
from the States. We paid close attention to the inverted iceboxes that served as
living quarters at this northernmost base. Three panes of glass were used for
windows to keep out the Arctic winters. The permafrost changed the way men lived
in these northern latitudes, where temperatures constantly averaged a low of 50
to 60 degrees below zero. Water had to be trucked about the base, as well as
the back-up for the EASTWIND, the WESTWIND
fueled to capacity and departed for Robeson Channel to rendezvous with the
damaged icebreaker, and to relieve her of cargo and supplies for the Alert
Disney crew making the 90-minute documentary began discarding its travel log
script and just went along with the events as they began to unfold. This was the
beginning of Men Against the Arctic
handicapped and without helicopters, we had to depend on the Navy’s Neptune
planes for ice reports.
looking back at the channel track left behind us in the ice, we saw Arctic fox
and an occasional polar bear rummaging through the garbage we dropped overboard
onto the ice. The season was late and progress proved to be slow. Upon entering
the Lincoln Sea, bordering the Arctic Ocean, pressurized ice practically slowed
the ship to a halt. Three tantalizing miles to go and within sight of the orange
fuel tanks at Alert, the decision was made to abort the trip when a blade broke
on the port propeller. With no further progress and a chance of wintering over
in this polar trap, we made an attempt to extricate ourselves and change course
temperatures hovering at 48 below zero and winds continually blowing from the
polar regions, we found ourselves listing about ten degrees from the pressure
being exerted on the ship. The Navy icebreaker Atka
was dispatched to the edge of the ice field to provide possible assistance. A
new task group was then formed just to free the WESTWIND from her ice trap. Through the many radio messages, the
words “air evacuation” began to appear as the Navy icebreakers Staten
Island and Edisto were ordered to join the relief operation. The assisting
ships were ordered to standby and avoid any possibility that they, too, become
trapped in the ice.
chances of wintering in the Arctic became very real. Many of the crewmembers
didn’t wait for Sunday to hold a prayer vigil . . . praying openly, as if only
through the power of prayer could the Almighty spare them from this polar trap.
September 9, Mother Nature provided the necessary ingredient to release the WESTWIND.
The wind blew continuously from the south and southwest for 12 hours, with the
crew anxiously looking for any sign that the ice was relaxing its pressure. The
ship then came to life, throbbing with vibrations as all of its six engines
turned on line, ramming the ice. The gigantic ice floes, with the WESTWIND
encased, had drifted dangerously close to the rocky coastline. These were
uncharted waters, and it was a calculated risk to just turn the ship around.
Four agonizing hours of ramming a channel to the first open water seemed like an
eternity. Just in time, as the ship made progress, the lead behind us closed in
as we continued to the edge of the ice to join the Atka.
tied up at the Brooklyn Navy Yard on September 30, 1954, finishing a 121-day,
12,000-mile odyssey. But the longest part of the journey was those four miles
through the rapidly closing lead on our way to open water.
Return to Coast Guard Stories