History of the Glacier

The Glacier

History of the Glacier

Glacier was designed and built for the US Navy at Ingalls Shipbuilding Company in Pascagoula, Mississippi. Construction began in August 1953 and Glacier was completed and commissioned in May 1955. Her first homeport was Boston, Massachusetts. She was the fourth ship with the name Glacier and the first and only icebreaker.

On her maiden voyage, Glacier sailed south to participate in the first Operation Deepfreeze (1955-1956) in preparation for the International Geophysical Year. Glacier had the honor of being flagship for the noted polar explorer Admiral Richard E. Byrd during that first trip to the Antarctic.

In 1966, national responsibility for Icebreaker Operations was transferred from the Navy to the Coast Guard. Glacier shifted services and homeports. From Long Beach, California, she continued to service both the Arctic and Antarctic regions. Since that first trip, Glacier has made over two dozen Antarctic trips and more than a dozen Arctic trips in support of scientific research. By opening vital channels to allow supply ships to research stations and remote settlements, Glacier has worked hard over the last thirty years to earn her motto – “Follow Me.”

Highlights from her more than thirty years of service

Powered by ten Fairbanks/Morse Diesel engines developing 21,000 horsepower, maximum speed of 17 knots, overall length of 310 feet, beam of 74 feet, draft of 28 feet and gross tonnage of 8915 tons, Glacier was immediately the “free world’s most powerful icebreaker” capable of breaking ice of six and more feet thick. Glacier is unique, since she was first in her class and subsequent icebreaker designs follow her lead.

There was no icebreaker like her during her primary years of Naval Service (1955-1966 when she was transferred to the US Coast Guard). Other icebreakers serving at the time during Operation Deep Freeze were USS Atka (AGB-3) and Burton Island (AGB-1). These vessels were of Burton Island class, far smaller and less powerful than Glacier. Atka was commissioned in 1944.

Glacier’s shakedown and maiden voyage in 1955 from her homeport in Boston, MA was memorable for many reasons of national importance to the scientific exploration of Antarctica.

During 1955-56 she spearheaded the first Operation Deep Freeze. This was to become America’s primary exploratory mission to the Polar Regions during the next several decades.

On her first mission Glacier served as the flagship of Rear Admiral Richard E. Byrd. Byrd had already led four expeditions to Antarctica (1928-30; 1933-35; 1939-41; and Operation High Jump in 1946), thereby establishing himself as America’s premier polar explorer. In 1928 from Little America he commanded the first flight to the South Pole and in 1946 he led the Navy’s first and largest assault on the unknown.

On Glacier’s maiden voyage with Byrd on the bridge, the Navy broke through the ice of McMurdo Sound (discovered by Captain Sir James Clark Ross in 1841) and helped establish what would become the base for US operations during the International Geophysical Year in 1957-58. She then proceeded westward toward the Bay of Whales to re-establish America’s presence on the Ross Ice Shelf at Little America V.

This main voyage, therefore, re-established the primacy of the United States in explorations of the Antarctic continent. Lead by Admiral Byrd, for four decades America renewed her commitment to exploring the vast unknown territories with the powerful capabilities of USS Glacier.

Operation Deep Freeze II found Glacier again leading the way for “man’s most ambitious assault on the White Continent” (Boyer, National Geographic, September, 1957, p. 339). This International Geophysical Year would see 11 nations establishing 46 scientific bases on the continent, once again led by Glacier as she “[smashed] her way through the Ross Sea ice pack in October, earlier in the Antarctic year than any other ship in history.” By the end of this Glacier-led expedition the US Navy had established six new bases in Antarctica and had (since Byrd’s first expedition in 1928) explored 2.6 million square miles-half of the entire continent. (ibid. p. 342). America’s primacy in Antarctica had been firmly established with the help of what Navy sailors called “the Mighty G.”

There can be little doubt that without the leadership of Rear Admiral Richard E. Byrd Antarctica would not have attained the prominence it had in 1956, nor today as scientists from the National Science Foundation regularly set out to disclose Nature’s secrets.

During subsequent expeditions to Antarctica Glacier was responsible for major explorations in the Bellingshausen Sea area (1959-60), an expedition during which the current Chairman of the Glacier Society, Mr. Bernard G. Koether, II, undertook the navigational duties.

During all these expeditions Glacier hosted many scientists who embarked upon pioneering work in their fields:

  • Dr. James Van Allen of the University of Iowa in 1958 discovered what we now call “The Van Allen Belt.” This is a radiation belt of high-energy particles, mainly protons and electrons, held captive by the magnetic influence of the earth.
  • Dr. William Littlewood conducted pioneering work in oceanography (measuring different ocean density layers) for the National Science Foundation during Operation Deep Freeze III.
  • Scientists from the US Geological Survey made probes into the earth’s mantle in order to better understand the emerging theory of plate tectonics.

In 1976, the Coast Guard launched its new “Polar” class icebreakers, Polar Star and Polar Sea. They became the primary icebreakers in subsequent polar expeditions. However, Glacier remained active in polar exploration, research, and icebreaking. In the summer of 1976, Glacier participated in polar military exercises including the Submarine Arctic Warfare Project and the SLAR (Side Looking Airborne Radar) Project. While participating in “Deep Freeze 80,” onboard researchers discovered three large submarine canyons just off the continental shelf of Victoria Land. Other discoveries recorded during the expedition included an unusually deep marine basin off Cape Hooker, and a sea mountain chain believed to be an extension of the Balleny Fracture Zone.

Glacier’s highly successful Navy and Coast Guard career included the Meritorious Unit Commendation awards in 1961, 1969, 1971, 1975, 1980, 1983 and 1985. Glacier ended that 32-year career with a legacy measured not only by the 29 penguins painted on her stack, signifying her Antarctic cruises, but solid achievements in exploration, charting, and scientific discovery, as well as successful rescue missions in the best traditions of the sea. Glacier was responsible for opening up vast areas in the Antarctic and Arctic that were previously inaccessible to navigation, thanks to her innovative naval architecture and construction that provided hull strength with power that enabled her to penetrate new polar frontiers.

Glacier was unique among the icebreakers of her day. Her power, length and speed allowed her to break ice where no other vessel could go. Her motto, during her service in Antarctica was “Follow Me.”

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