When three men clad in white protective ...
Welcome aboard the USS Glacier
Volunteers strive to restore polar vessel to shipshape

By Lisa Vorderbrueggen
November 16, 2002


When three men clad in white protective suits boarded the USS Glacier two years ago, the sight nearly broke their hearts.

She had been afloat 15 years in the Suisun Bay Reserve Fleet, the military's mothball yard for ships upriver from Benicia.

They sloshed across the excrement-encrusted deck and descended below into pitch darkness to find three feet of dank water in many of its cabins, rust, mold, rotting rodents and peeling paint.

"At first, I almost stopped breathing," said 65-year-old Ben Koether, a former navigator on the ship and chairman of the Glacier Society, a nonprofit group formed to restore it. "But then I looked around, and I could see that she is structurally sound. We can do this."

So, one week each month, sometimes more, Koether and dozens of volunteers from all over the country gather to resurrect the Glacier.

The dead birds and rats have disappeared, along with the eye-popping odors of mold, feces and stale air.

You can now see most of the 29 black-and-white penguins painted on the smokestack, one for each trip to the South Pole.

Take a seat in the captain's quarters. The sofa is relatively clean.

Trek the ship's nine decks with their maze of passages and peer into the dozens of rooms; most are remarkably presentable.

Turn the switches and the lights come on, thanks to a generator and a stem-to-stern wiring check.

Restoration started as a joke when a former Glacier captain issued Koether a mock order during a crew reunion: "Save the Glacier!" Koether had thought the military scrapped her.

But serendipity, or the angel that Koether insists watches over the Glacier, led to an ex-crewman who had a photo of the ship anchored in Suisun Bay.

He and two buddies took the fateful trip from the East Coast to California.

Two thousand phone calls, or so it seemed, and dozens of meetings later, he persuaded key federal lawmakers to turn over the title to the ship. President Clinton signed the bill in October 2000.

Koether and the society have a massive task.

The Coast Guard stripped the ship of its radio, sonar and other key equipment during decommissioning.

They sliced open the center of the ship like a can-opener cutting through a tin of beans to remove the four generators that drove its 10 diesel engines.

They may have even taken the Glacier's steering wheel. Most of the brass has disappeared, too.

Evidence abounds of the Glacier's 32 years at sea, giving the ship an eerie Titanic feel.

During its heyday, 400 crewmen lived and worked for months aboard the ship.

In the office, a three-inch-stack of typewritten, yellowed maintenance orders rests on the corner of a scuffed gray desk.

Thin mattresses encased in yellowed sheets adorn bunkbed- berths.

Placards affixed or painted onto the rounded, hatch doors reveal the small-town nature of a ship at sea: post office, dentist, barber shop, lounge. The doctor's office has an operating room.

The cabin Koether occupied as a young sailor looks almost the same as it did 43 years ago: Tiny.

On a recent run to the Glacier, he ran his fingertips over a worn spot on his old desk where he once taped a picture of his sweetheart, now his wife.

The ship has its critical mechanical assets, Koether said.

The Coast Guard spent $15 million upgrading the Glacier's mechanical systems a year before mothballing it. The military rebuilt the diesel engines and installed air conditioning.

The society plans to tow the Glacier from Suisun Bay early next spring and dock her where volunteers will document her condition and prepare a restoration plan.

She probably spend time in dry dock, as well, both for repairs and equipment installation.

Meanwhile, the society must raise $26 million for the restoration. Koether plans to seek federal and private money.

Ultimately, the society intends to sail the Glacier again.

As a government ship, it cleared channels of ice and carried researchers and scientists on polar expeditions.

Owned and operated by a nonprofit group, the Glacier would perform much the same work. Koether plans to court universities to join a consortium of scientists committed to funding and equipping the ship.

A two-story pile of rubble over the engine rooms is actually pieces cut out of the ship to remove the generators.

"It's all there. We just have to put it back together like a puzzle," Koether said. "That's how you have to approach a project like the Glacier: One piece at a time."


The USS Glacier was the world's largest and most powerful icebreaker when the Navy commissioned it in 1955. Here are a few facts about the ship:

  • Length: 310 feet
  • Weight: 8,915 tons
  • Draft: 28 feet, 6 inches
  • Power: Diesel electric power plant generates 21,000 shaft horsepower
  • Hull: Capable of breaking ice up to 20-feet thick
  • Maximum speed: 18 knots
  • Builder: Ingalls Shipbuilding Co., Pascagoula, Mississippi
  • Service: Navy, 1955-1966; Coast Guard, 1966-1987; Suisun Bay Reserve Fleet, 1987 to present.
  • Mission: Clear shipping channels and relocate researchers, scientists and their supplies to research centers at the poles.
  • Polar trips: 29 to the Antarctic, 10 to the Arctic, sailed 944,050 miles
  • Motto: "Follow me."
  • Restoration: The Glacier Society has undertaken an effort to restore the Glacier to service as a research, educational and polar exploration vessel. For information, visit www.glaciersociety.org. To volunteer, call or e-mail Tom Rusert at trusert@glaciersociety.org or 866-423-7529, Ext. 6.

Source: Glacier Society and Times research


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