Crews At Work Aboard the Glacier

by John R. Moses, Editor
Benicia Herald


It is hard, dirty and sometimes hazardous work, but volunteers intent on salvaging a Cold War-vintage ice-breaker from the Reserve Fleet in Suisun Bay say their time and energy will pay off when the ship is moved to a new home for repair and restoration.

Volunteer firefighters and a Benicia welder joined members of the Glacier Society last week as a 6,000 pound generator was removed from a ship next to the USS/USCG Glacier and brought aboard for future installation as an emergency backup power plant.

Local welder Calvin Fisk was hired to oversee the cutting of a large hole in the side of the decommissioned ammunition ship Mauna Kea and subsequent repair work after the generator was removed.

Benicia volunteer firefighter Dave Ratto and probationary volunteer Paul Ottner stood fire watch as Fisk and others worked among sparks from the torch reattaching a steel plate. Flashed lit the dark space one level below deck as they worked.

Ratto got the call the night before from the Volunteer Fire Department asking him to serve aboard the Glacier. Ratto said part of being a volunteer fireman is to go where you're needed. He and Ottner filled buckets of water to refill if necessary a portable apparatus called an Indian Bag that sprays water on Class A blazes like cloth, wood or paper. A fire extinguisher was available for chemical and grease blazes.

Fisk said some thought it might take days to get the cutting done so the generator could be freed. "We got it out in an hour and a half."

Glacier Society crews have quietly been working aboard the ship for more than two years, and making a good deal of progress. The ship was given to the society just over two years ago and the group has until October to move the vessel. After restoration it would sail to Bridgeport, Conn., to serve as a floating classroom and tourist attraction. It would be available as a working maritime research vessel.

The Glacier is a long way from Bridgeport in many ways, but closer than when the first work crew boarded.

"That first week all we did was patch holes and pump water," said Tom Ebnet of Nisswa Minn., a member of the Glacier Association and the non-profit Glacier Society who has been with the restoration effort since it began as a mere concept six years ago.

Ebnet, a sewer and plumbing contractor and treasurer of the ship association, served aboard the Glacier from 1961 to 1963.

Like others aboard Friday, some of whom had never served on the ship, Ebnet said a big reason he volunteers is that this is the only ice-breaker of its kind and the last of its era.

Sent to sea in 1955, the Glacier had no sister ships. It was the most powerful ice-breaker in the free world during the Cold War - at least until the Soviet Union started building nuclear powered vessels, several of the work crew said.

Standing in the hangar turned office and lunch room that used to house two helicopters for use in polar exploration, the society's official/unofficial volunteer coordinator said all the work is worth it.

"This ship is really an historic treasure," said Bob Farmer of Novato, a former commanding officer in the Coast Guard and one of several former ships' captains who volunteers time and expertise.

Farmer was commander of the Burton Island, a different type of ice-breaker. His ship was scrapped "and cut up into razor blades." he said. "I don't want to see another one go."

Farmer learned of the drive to save the Glacier in an article and decided to help out. He calls himself the group's "recruiter."

On Friday the group had a new recruit from the Benicia Community.

Ernie Kelly of Benicia had read of the Glacier Society in the Benicia Herald and decided to help.

Kelley went on an inspection of neighboring ships with another of the crew Friday to see what parts the group might requisition from other vessels, none of which are likely to go any where soon.

Part of the risky work is surveying those vessels, in various states of repair.

Crews take radios and travel in pairs for safety.

A former merchant marine early in life, Kelley said he is retired now and has the time to spend on the project.

He was one of two recent enlistees from Benicia.

The volunteers work in a quiet and kind of creepy neighborhood with great views.

The Glacier is crammed between two derelict, 1930s-vintage hulks and the former ammunition ship. Volunteers have to clamber up the gangway of the former Wabash, a rotting hulk of wood and metal, and then cross a similar vessel, which like the Wabash has developed a definite starboard list.

Work is aided by a donated generator in the hangar. The ship's own generator needs some serious work.

Where some might see a rundown ship, Glacier volunteers see a vessel that deserves its place in maritime history.

There are 29 penguins painted on her, one for each trip to Antarctica. That doesn't count her trips to the Arctic zones. The vessel was used when balloon-lifted rockets were launched, assisting in the discovery of the Van Allen radiation belt above the Earth. It was key in the many Operation Deep Freeze expeditions to Antarctica and in establishing and resupplying bases there. It played key roles in exploration of both arctic and Antarctic waters.

One man aboard on Friday was there when the history began. George Rooney of Massachusetts was on the original crew of the Glacier and is working toward its restoration. He showed a card he keeps in his wallet indicating he has been screened and approved by the government when discussing procuring supplies from other decommissioned ships - just to make sure visitors know nobody is getting sticky fingers with government property.

He remembers going where few if any had gone before during polar voyages.

"The air was unbelievably clean. Not too cold. -20 was the most you'd see during the summer," Rooney said.

Also aboard was Rooney's brother, James Rooney, a former pilot who wound up sailing on one voyage with his brother after his fuel-laden DC-3 couldn't make its appointed destination.

Although talks are continuing, the Glacier Society does not yet have a home for the Glacier while it is being repaired. To learn more about the work go to the society's web site,

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Glacier Society
905 Honeyspot Road
Stratford, CT 06615
(866) ICE PLAY (423-7529) TOLL FREE
(203) 375-6638

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