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
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
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
"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
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
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
"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, www.glaciersociety.org.
# # #