Restoring the Historic Icebreaker "Glacier"

By Peter Robinson
January 23, 2003


While every ship has its own unique history and certainly the U.S.S. Glacier has an illustrious past, it is now set on a course for an even more important future. The U.S.S. Glacier made Antarctic history by becoming the first ship to penetrate the Bellingshausen Sea to make landfall on Thurston Island. On that voyage the navigator was Ben Koether who now some 40 years later as chairman of the Glacier Society is planning an ambitious program to save the historic polar vessel, restore it as an operational oceanographic platform for marine and medical science, and environmental education.

When commissioned in 1955, it was the world's largest and most powerful icebreaker; 310 feet long with a beam of 74 feet and a full load displacement of 8,915 tons. Glacier was capable of breaking ice 20 feet thick. From 1955-66 the "Mighty G" served with the U.S. Navy. It served as R.Adm. Richard E. Byrd's flagship during Operation DeepFreeze (1955-56).

In 1966 when the Coast Guard assumed responsibility for the U.S. ice breaking missions and all Navy icebreakers were transferred to the U.S.C.G. her hull was painted red and the Glacier assumed the name "Big Red." During her 32 years of service the ship made 39 expeditions steaming nearly a million miles.

The ship routinely broke through 20 miles of channel permitting cargo vessels to bring supplies to the American base at McMurdo Sound. The Glacier also rescued the ice beset Danish ship, Kista Dan, which was carrying veteran explore Sir Vivian Fuchs. On its way back to Boston, the Glacier assisted in flood relief for two weeks in an area near Forteleza on the Northeastern coast of Brazil.

Since Glacier's retirement, ex-shipmates have formed the U.S. Glacier Association and started a history of her 32 years of service. Glacier made 29 trips to the Antarctic (15 consecutive) and 10 to the Arctic. At the 1997 reunion the late James Tinch, the Association President, was discussing the fate of the Glacier with Ben Koether, the 1959-1961 navigator. At the end of the meeting, Jim turned to Ben and gave him an order to "Save the Glacier." With a smart "aye-aye," the Glacier Society was launched.

The mission of the Glacier Society is to restore the Glacier as a living, operating tribute to those who have helped expand the knowledge of the Polar Regions. Despite the significant contributions of the United States to polar exploration there is no museum in this country dedicated to recognizing the military personnel and civilian scientists who made it all possible and providing an educational resource to ensure the sacrifices and accomplishments made by so many are remembered. For years the motto of the Glacier was "Follow Me."

So far the restoration has been achieved primarily by volunteers through a process similar to that used for the operating Liberty ships.

Through arrangements with MARAD Facility at Suisun Bay, several teams of volunteers have worked on the ship conducting initial ship checks, restoring interior lighting and making minor repairs. The Coast Guard has already provided the Society with a surplus Arctic Survey Boat. The Navy has provided the nine-foot long builder's model of the Glacier on long-term loan.

Interested companies and organizations have already contributed such things as diesel generators, transportation of the model, administrative services and support.

The biggest challenge was to obtain Congressional authorization for transfer of the Glacier from the Maritime Administration to the Glacier Society. With the support of Senator Joe Lieberman, Senator Chris Dodd and Congressman Chris Shays, all from Connecticut, authorizing legislation was introduced. In October 2000, the bill including authority for the Secretary of Transportation to transfer the Glacier to the Glacier Society was approved by the Congress and sighed in law by the President.

The program plan envisions a work period in Suisun Bay of about two years and then transfer to a facility in the Bay area for major restoration efforts. Finally, the Glacier would proceed to a West Coast shipyard for dry docking and a major overhaul of the engineering plant. Glacier would then move under her own power to her permanent homeport in Connecticut and be opened as a national resource for education, and international museum of polar exploration for tourists and historians, and an on the job training site for vocational and apprentice programs, and a unique platform to conduct academic oceanographic research.

2003 Peter Robinson

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