Group Plans to Bust Ice-Breaker Out of Mothball Fleet

by John R. Moses, Editor
Benicia Herald

 

Some local maritime history fans have joined a dedicated nonprofit from the East Coast to try and get the old U.S. Navy ice-breaker USS/USCGC Glacier out of Suisun Bay's Mothball Fleet and back onto the oceans as a floating classroom.

The ship, rich in Cold War history and the lore of Arctic exploration, is at the center of years of work by The Glacier Society, East Coast lawmakers and a national network of volunteers.

Among the locals signed onto the project are Benicia Volunteer Fire Department members who will stand vigil as a "fire watch" during some work.

Monday and Tuesday are planned as big days for the project, as volunteer crews come to town to cut a donated Navy generator out of one mothballed vessel and install in the Glacier.

The volunteers are "ready to go," said Glacier Society Chairman Ben Koether, a Florida resident who was drafted by the Glacier's crew association to head the project.

He said 70 berths are made up and people are ready to spend two weeks working aboard the ship doing restoration work in exchange for another week of berthing to us as vacation time.

The hitch in this plan, which has to be executed by October or the ship could revert back to the Navy without Congressional action, is that the Glacier still needs a home. A delegation is working on Vallejo to try and get a spot at Mare Island near a decommissioned aircraft carrier opposite the ferry terminal.

Koether hopes the ship will eventually be able to join five restored Liberty Ships, including the Jeremiah O'Brien, which is berthed in San Francisco, on a cruise to Europe for future D-Day ceremonies in Normandy.

The Glacier's supporters are nothing if not determined. They managed to draft Koether in as head of the project at the end of a ship's reunion party. Koether thought the old ship had been scrapped, but someone brought photos of it anchored in the Reserve Fleet, and the rest is literally history.

In July 2000 Congress passed a law transferring the old ship to the society for use in education and public service.

The goal is to get the ship to Bridgeport, Conn., via a North Pole navigation route and set her up as a tourist attraction and floating classroom.

The group hopes to educate the public about not only polar exploration but the armed services and their role in marine exploration. It would be an operational marine research vessel as well as a tourist spot.

Koether went to sea as a teenager in the Merchant Marines in the early 1950's, serving aboard a sailing vessel with marine researchers.

The scientists, who Koether said went on to be giants in their field, encouraged him to go to college before going back to sea when his hitch was up. And he did, earning an ROTC commission as ensign aboard the Glacier upon graduation.

He'd never been on an ice-breaker before and the North Pole was not his stomping grounds.

Things got more tense when after just 60 days aboard he became the navigator, and the sextant and compass his best allies.

Someone once asked him how it felt to be navigator on an ice-breaker in treacherous waters. "Have you ever been scared to death for two years in a row?" he replied.

Fate wasn't going to let him get completely away from the ship that collected radio signals that let the U.S. discover the Soviet Union's first satellite was in operation.

Forty years to the day after he walked down the gangplank for the last time a letter arrived at his home from an old sailor aboard the Glacier addressed to the navigator. There was to be a reunion.

Koether then was almost 65, ready to retire from a successful career. He promised the crew he'd survey the ship - that's what he did for a living, and convince them that it was an unsalvageable wreck.

When he climbed aboard he was surprised. Some cabins were sparkling clean and some" looked like a bomb went off in them."

"Walking through the ship was like agony and ecstasy," he said. It was, in fact in better condition than some ships already restored from World War II vintages.

So the only ice-breaker left from the old fleet, Admiral Byrd's ship which also launched early rocket versions in tests of that then-developing technology, was to be saved.

That was two and a half years ago.

About a month ago Ron Rice got a call from back east explaining the project. After consultation the Benicia Volunteer Fire Department agreed to help. "The need a fire watch," said Rice.

Law required fire fighters present when a ship is being welded in case a fire breaks out, said Koether.

The Glacier Society is now a member of the Historic Naval Ship Association and recognized as an operating museum. The society has 141 registered volunteers. To learn more go to www.glaciersociety.org for information and updated status reports.

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