Remembering The North Star

Originally Titled, "When They Were Young"

By Mike Bower

 [These Stories are from “We’ve Been There” by Esther V. Stormer ©1992 – Reprinted By Permission.]  


[Excerpts from a log kept by WO Mike Bower while serving on the USCGC NORTH STAR in 1943.]

The NORTH STAR was formerly Admiral Byrd's expedition ship and the last wooden ship in the Coast Guard. At 225 feet long with a reinforced prow, the NORTH STAR was especially suitable for breaking through the heavy ice fields found off the coast of Greenland.

I was originally stationed at Coast Guard Air Station Elizabeth City, NC, when the call for volunteers went out. Chief Aviation Pilot Joe Solare, First Class Aviation Mechanic Carl Macklin, and Second Class Aviation Mechanic Tony Kalemba, and I was selected.

We were assigned to a bi-plane amphibian J2F-5 number 00751, which we flew to Curtis Bay, MD, where the NORTH STAR was berthed. As a Radioman First Class, I was expected to stand shipboard radio watches in addition to being a crew member of the aircraft and, therefore, responsible for the upkeep of the communication and electrical equipment of the aircraft.  


Photo Courtesy of Ken Laessar

May 1, 1943: Reported aboard the NORTH STAR at Curtis Bay, Maryland for two days of shipboard familiarization while our aircraft was being outfitted back at Elizabeth City.

May 4: Picked up aircraft and flew back to Curtis Bay where we landed in the bay; we were hoisted aboard by the ship’s boom and nestled in the especially built cradle on the well deck.

May 12: Sailed from Curtis Bay at 0830 with the yard band sending us off. We leisurely made way through the Chesapeake Bay, along the New Jersey coast, into Long Island Sound and finally to Pier 5 in Boston where the ship moored.

May 20: Pulled out of Boston at 1045 hours for Portland, Maine where we arrived May 22, anchoring in Casco Bay.

May 27: Left for Greenland and the ship immediately went on water hours with no showers or clothes washing.

May 29: Off Halifax, Nova Scotia at 0200 hours. General Quarters alarm sounded at 1000 hours when sub contact was made. This was the first of many contacts made by radar, but lost in very thick fog and cold weather. The water temperature is 35° with rough seas.

June 1: Made our way through the sub nets at 1130 hours and docked at Argentia, Newfoundland. We were able to take on water so restrictions were lifted.

June 3: Pulled out for Greenland at 1215 hours and ship placed back on water hours. Reports of 18 German subs between here and Greenland. A torpedo would surely make many splinters out of this all-wood ship. We were escorting the ships HOGAK and ARLAK and the minesweeper ALBATROSS. I was standing 8 to 12 radio watches and we sighted our first iceberg. It was at least three times the size of the ship and termed a "growler."

June 9: Through heavy seas and frigid weather we moored at Ivigtut, Greenland. During the past week we sighted literally thousands of icebergs and growlers. Though desolate, Greenland is a land of icy beauty. Water restrictions were lifted.

June 13: I was on radio watch and at 0930 hours, received a code message from the senior ship off Greenland, indicating the Coast Guard Cutter ESCANABA had been sunk. We got underway in very rough seas to conduct a search for survivors.

June 15: While still conducting search pattern we received word that 2 survivors had been picked up (2 days ago). The search was discontinued and we proceeded to the southern tip of Greenland, rounded Cape Desolation and anchored at the mouth of the fjord. It is believed the ESCANABA struck a mine (German) or was sunk by a torpedo. All hands but two were lost.

June 16: Moored at BW1[2] (Southern Greenland) at 1215 hours.

June 21: Went to the Army field and flew a Coast Guard PBY-5A stationed there. We were airborne for 3 hours, during which time I stood radio watch while dropped mail to a couple of isolated Coast Guard stations.

June 30: Coast Guard Cutters NORTHLAND, STORIS, MOHAWK, and COMANCHE in and taking on supplies for a yet unknown mission. We took 12 Army Rangers aboard.

July 12: The STORIS moved alongside and transferred 25 howling Eskimo dogs. Captain Von Paulson, the Senior Coast Guard Officer in Greenland, came aboard amidst many and varied rumors concerning our mission.

July 3: We pulled out at 0930 hours with the NORTHLAND and escorting freighter NEVADA through ice filled waters.

July 5: After breaking through an almost solid ice field we rounded Cape Farewell and headed north off the East Coast. Through huge swells, we made fair time with the convoy still intact.

July 8: We were stopped by heavy ice with a 60 knot wind blowing. At the whim of the elements we drifted within sight of Anmagssalik. Captain Von Paulson, our skipper and Captain Dieitz, along with two Army Ranger Captains, walked over 2300 yards on the ice to the NEVADA.

July 10: On watch I copied a report of the invasion of Sicily. The NEVADA got clear of the ice and made it to the fjord; damaging their rudder in the process. Our escort job was completed and we headed to dry-dock in Reykjavik, Iceland. Badly damaged below the water line and taking on 18 inches of water an hour.

July 13: One of the dogs, dying, was shot and dropped over the stern. We arrived in Reykjavik at 0400 hours. The NORTHLAND took Captain Von Paulson and some of the Rangers aboard and left for Eskimonres, Greenland. Their mission: Capture the German weather station there.

July 15: In dry-dock, another dog lost by falling over the side. Learned we had been stalked by German sub on our way here. He fired on an escorting Army plane. Also learned that German anti-aircraft guns drove off planes at Eskimonres. The NORTHLAND was bombed by planes, but suffered no damage.

July 20: Passing Jan Mayen Island when JU-88 attacked. Our 3in. 50 guns drove it off, smoking, over the horizon. Many seals sighted. Captain killed one polar bear, which was brought aboard.

July 26: Received message indicating the Germans had evacuated the weather station. The NORTHLAND crew captured two Germans. We encounter thick ice about 15 miles from Greenland and well north of Arctic Circle.

July 27: Drifting in solid ice field with no opening in sight.

August 11: Still stuck in ice, morale low, food and medical supplies getting to critical stage. Weather very cold.

August 25: Finally made it to a clear enough spot to take aircraft off. We were put over the side and became airborne. I had to stand on wing and crank engine due to a dead battery. It took a half hour of cranking to finally start engine. We flew over Eskimonres and retumed to the ship, finding solid ice surrounding the small clear area where the ship drifted.

August 26: Our rudderpost was broken from pounding ice. A trawler, POLAR BEAR, of Greenland, made it close enough to us to take us in tow. Removed tow line due to impenetrable ice. Now the POLAR BEAR was stuck with us. Two of crew in straight jackets following breakdowns. Water restricted to one quart per man per day. 

September 1: Making flights every day, searching for a way out. The POLAR BEAR was able to break out.

September 6: Our flight was successful in that an opening to clear water was spotted. A cable was run around the damaged ships rudder and secured to bits on either side of the stern. In this manner of steering we succeeded in making our way out to open water. We were met in clear water by the NORTHLAND who escorted us to dry-dock in Reykjavik.

September 21: Underway for BW1 with ALSTOK and freighter NYCO. Roughest sea yet experienced. Many sick.

September 28: Finally arrived at BW1 entering fjord at 1615 hours. Had NYCO in tow after it hit an iceberg.

October 5: Underway for States. Through sub wolf packs, mountainous seas, and a hurricane. We arrived in Boston at 0800 hours on October 18, 1943.  

A guy came on the ship as Chief Radioman who had never been anyplace but the district office and only knew how to work a teletype. From the time he'd made Third Class until he made Chief, he'd never worked a radio and didn’t know Morse code. At the beginning of WWII, it was difficult to make a rating of any kind, but he just kept going up, being in the right place at the right time.

On the ship we had to copy FOX[1] schedules to get weather and any pertinent information. A lot of it was coded, of course. I had to take this guy's place every time he was supposed to have a watch because he couldn't copy code. He didn't do much of anything but sit on his duff or write out reports. He knew the code a little, but he copied about four or five words a minute and FOX was about 14 or 15 words a minute.

I was in the radio room one time when a messenger came in and said, "Under no circumstances carry a message to the old man. He's asleep." I told him to just take them to the exec and have them initialled. A message came in and I showed it to the messenger and said, "Don't wake up the old man." I'll be damned if he didn't go down and wake him up.

First thing I know, I hear on the intercom, "Bower, report to the Captain's stateroom." He chewed me out, but good. I tried to tell him there wasn't anyone on the radio at that time. He could have cared less. He restricted me to quarters for three days. The next day, he called me and darned if he didn't apologize. He'd gotten it straightened out. About a week later he asked me how I'd like to become Chief.

"Captain, I've only been First Class for about three years. We've got people back at the air station that were Chiefs and they got busted and can't make Chief back.”

He said he was sending in 18 or 19 names for advancement in rating and seven were for Chief. Everybody that was recommended on the list made it. A guy had been first for ten years.

We had a bos'n named Brown who was a Scandinavian. You could hardly understand him when he got excited because he still had the accent. He used to brag about how good his gun crew was. We'd been caught in the ice about six weeks, and the doctor aboard said, "There's not going to be any chance of getting out of here, we're going to lose a few of you. We don't have enough food or water." Which was a bunch of baloney because we had two more ships up there that could make drops. In any case, one morning, bright and early, here comes a German Junkers 88 over the horizon and apparently spotted us, although we were painted white just like the ice.

He made a pass and we saw something drop from the plane and land in the water at the edge of the ice about half a mile away. It looked like it could have been a torpedo. The gun crew opened up on him and he turned tail. He'd put in a rich mixture, which emits a puff of black smoke out of the plane, and the old man was standing there and he said, "By golly, I think we got him."

He was smoking cause he was hauling, but the old man put the gun crew in for a commendation. I never knew if they got it.

  Another time we were caught in the ice and the ship finally got to a place where the boat could be put over the side and get a place cleared where we could take off. We had a mechanic and a ship’s navigator in the bilges of the plane. The pilot sat in front, me in the rear, and there was a cargo hold right below. We took off and I looked down between my legs and I could see their heads together. The navigator and the mechanic were trying to stay away from the sides of the plane because we were flying between the icebergs. They kept getting closer and closer. We were looking for a lead in the ice so we could ram our way through and get out of there. We finally found one, charted it and went back. The pilot spotted it; the navigator was down there hugging the mechanic. We got back and the old man put that navigator up for a commendation, which he received, but didn't mention the pilot's name or anything.

Lots of people ask me how I liked the Coast Guard. Personally, I never had a bad day in the service. The bad things are now funny or forgotten. They had to kick me out after 30 years! Mike Bower is a retired Coast Guard Warrant Officer


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