The Cutter Northland At War©

By Jack Dorsey

Copyright © 1991, The Virginian-Pilot. Reprinted with permission.



Peter B. Lasamen was 22, breaking ice off the coast of Greenland and swearing at the bitter arctic air, when he encountered his first enemy.

"There were six German rifles lined up in a row, all aimed at me," Lasamen recalled. It was 50 years ago this week - Sept. 14, 1941 - when he and the crew of the Coast Guard cutter Northland started their version of World War II, three months before war was officially declared.

"It was about 6 p.m.," Lasamen said. "I was the coxswain in our small boat. We had just captured their radio station and set it on fire and they came rowing up in their boat. They wanted to know who we were and who had taken all their clothes."

The Northland crew had learned from some Danish trappers that the Germans had set up a radio station on the northwest coast of Greenland. The German soldiers were sending weather data back to their homeland.

"Remember, the weather patterns over Greenland today are the weather patterns over northern Europe tomorrow or the next day," said another Northland crewman, retired Capt. Robert Barber. "They needed the information for their aerial attacks over England."

For 14 former crewmen of the Northland who attended ceremonies Thursday aboard the modern-day cutter Northland, the memory of the encounter with the Germans a half-century ago lingers as if it were yesterday.

Thursday's observance of the 50th anniversary of the Northland's arctic conflict was the first time the crew had been reunited.

The crew dealt the first U.S. blow of a war that the United States would not officially enter until after Dec. 7, 1941, when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. But the Northland's burning of the radio station and the seizure a day earlier of a German trawler have lived in history as the first U.S. naval capture of the war.

"We had no idea it was such a momentous day," said Al Courter of Hudson, Fla., a 30-year Coast Guard veteran who retired as a chief warrant officer.

Courter was 19 then, a seaman second class. He remembers other Northland missions as well, including the rescue of three downed Canadian pilots who spent 14 days on the ice cap and the search for the air crew lost when the ship's seaplane crashed.

Reuniting this week after so many years was "absolutely amazing," said Courter. "We never anticipated getting together like this."

Twenty-two of the ship's original crew of 140 were located for the ceremony. Many of the others have died, he said.

"We range in age from 69 to 90," Courter said, pointing to Tony Simon of Cape Canaveral, Fla., the oldest.

"I was the old man even then," said Simon, a 40-year-old warrant officer at the time.

One former crewman recalled how the ship sent a half-dozen armed men ashore to raid the German radio station that September day in 1941. The guardsman kicked in the front door of the shack, surprising the group of sleeping German soldiers.

The Germans surrendered immediately, recalled Barber, the retired captain.

Recalling the encounter with the other soldiers in the boat, Lasamen said he showed them the American flag on his whale boat and advised them that they were under arrest.

"They wanted to know if we were taking them to Sing Sing (prison)," said Lasamen, a retired master chief boatswain's mate.

"We asked them why they left all their gear unprotected," he remembered. "They said they thought they were the only crazy fools in the arctic."



Courtesy of Ken Laessar's CG History Site

The Coast Guard cutter Northland, 216 feet long and 2,000 tons, was America's only ice breaker in the early 1940s. It had been commissioned in 1927, decommissioned in 1938 and reactivated in 1940 as the winds of war began to blow.

Two Mast, Pre WWII Configuration

Courtesy of Ken Laessar's CG History Site

Northland WPG 49
The Northland was designed to be the replacement for the famous Arctic-cutter Bear. She was structurally reinforced to withstand hull pressure of 100 psi and lined with cork for warmth. Welding as opposed to riveting was used extensively in her hull for added strength -- an innovative feature for 1926. Captain Q. B. Newman, USCG, designed her diesel-electric power plant. As completed, her two masts carried yards to support sails. She was designed with a single screw, and the Coast Guard initially believed it advisable to provide an auxiliary means of power should the Northland sustain machinery damage in her icy environment. Her sails were removed and masts trimmed in 1936. Bilge keels were not fitted due to their susceptibility to ice damage. The two flaws in the design were the ship's relatively low power and the rather poor form of her bow entrance. 

WWII Configuration
Courtesy of Ken Laessar's CG History Site

Northland Highlights
1927 -- 38 stationed on West Coast, used extensively for Bering Sea Patrol; 
26 Oct 38 assigned to Maritime Commission for Byrd Antarctic Expedition --
9 Aug 39 assignment canceled due to war in Europe; 
1939 assigned to maritime training; 
18 Jun 40 ordered to East Coast for Greenland Patrol; 
1 Jul 41 assigned to newly established Northeast Greenland Patrol; 
12 Sep 41 took the Norwegian trawler Boskoe into "protective custody" and captured 3 German radiomen ashore; 
1941 -- 45 assigned to CINCLANT (DESLANT) -- stationed at Boston, MA, and used extensively in Greenland waters, making 8 cruises in all; 
22 Jul 42 rescued 25 survivors from 2 B-17s and 4 P-38s which made 
forced landings on ice cap; 
23 Nov 42 landing party from cutter rescued 3 Canadian airmen stranded on Greenland Ice Cap; 
26 -- 27 Nov 42 plane from cutter rescued 2 Army airmen stranded on Greenland Ice Cap --
2 Coast Guardsmen and cutter J2F-5 plane lost; 
1I -- 15 Apr 43 on weather station; 28 
Jul -- 31 Aug 43 destroyed German weather station on Sabine Island, Greenland;
Sep 43 propeller crushed in ice;
Nov 43 installed a direction finder station on Jan Mayen Island in the Arctic Ocean; 
21 Apr 44 sustained moderate damage from ice in dense fog; Jul 44 discovered the burned-out German trawler Coburg;
24 -- 31 Jul 44 destroyed German weather station, Cape Sussie, Greenland;
l Sep 44 pursued and caused to scuttle the German trawler Kehdingen -- 
captured enemy crew of 28 and received moderate hull damage from ice; 
2 Sep 44 J2F-5 aircraft from cutter bombed but missed surfaced U-boat.

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