Jan. 29, 2021 —
The Coast Guard Cutter Northland was a cruising class cutter designed to replace the famed wooden Arctic cutter Bear. In World War II, it took into custody the first enemy vessel and German personnel taken by U.S. forces. During its 20-year career, it became the most important U.S. vessel in the Arctic.
Like the Bear, Northland was designed to survive in the ice, but not necessarily to break thick sea ice like later icebreakers. In February 1927, Northland was launched at Newport News Shipbuilding Company, in Virginia, and commissioned on May 7th. The new cutter had a reinforced welded hull to survive the pressures of sea ice with cork insulation to keep out the cold. Northland was powered by two diesel-electric powerplants that could shut down if its single screw jammed in ice. It was also fitted with an auxiliary sail rig in case ice damaged its propeller. At a top speed of 11 knots, Northland could steam for 10,000 miles; however, at its cruising speed of eight knots, the cutter enjoyed a range of nearly 20,000 miles.
For the first 10 years of its career, Northland steamed alternately out of the West Coast ports of San Francisco, Oakland, and Seattle. The cutter served on the Bering Sea Patrol, where it performed many governmental functions in Alaska. For the Justice Department, it enforced the law, apprehended criminals, and transported floating courts. The cutter gathered military intelligence for the Navy Department and carried mail for the U.S. Postal Service. For the Interior Department, Northland transported teachers to village schools, conducted sanitation inspections, and guarded timber and game stocks. It surveyed coastlines and checked on regional industries for the Department of Commerce. In addition, it carried desperately needed Public Health Service doctors to isolated Alaskan villages.
By 1936, after nearly 10 years on the Bering Sea Patrol, Northland’s sail rig was removed and, two years later, it deployed from the West Coast on its last Arctic cruise. The cutter decommissioned after returning to its homeport. However, its career was far from over. Northland briefly served as a merchant marine training vessel and nearly served on polar explorer Richard Byrd’s third expedition to Antarctica. Unfortunately, Byrd cancelled the expedition after the September outbreak of World War II in Europe and Northland remained moored in Oakland.
In April 1940, the Nazis occupied Denmark. By May, Northland had transited the Panama Canal to the East Coast and entered the New York Navy Yard to refit for special duty in the Danish territory of Greenland. On August 20th, the cutter embarked on a cruise to Greenland’s eastern coast. When the cutter arrived, it stopped the Norwegian trawler Ringsel, then under German orders, but allowed it to return to Norway since the U.S. was neutral at the time. However, Northland did disable the Norwegian-run weather station on shore that Ringsel had supplied.
In August 1940, Northland played a role in preventing the Nazi invasion of Britain. Set to commence in mid-September, Operation “Sea Lion” was Adolph Hitler’s plan to transport German troops across the English Channel and land them in England. However, Northland had shut down a German-run Norwegian weather station in eastern Greenland at Torgilsbu. This closure and closure of other Norwegian weather stations ended reliable weather forecasting for the Germans causing cancellation of the invasion. Operation Sea Lion could have led to the fall of Great Britain and altered the course of World War II.
From 1940 until the end of World War II, Northland would become the busiest Allied naval vessel in the northern latitudes. During the fall and early winter months of 1940, Northland cruised the western coast of Greenland sounding waters near coastal villages. Northland’s navigation information, along with soundings by other Coast Guard cutters, resulted in the 178-page volume “Greenland Pilot & Sailing Directions.” This volume provided the only reliable set of navigation charts available to the U.S. ships at that time. At the same time, Northland installed a three-inch gun with crew at Ivigtut to protect the militarily strategic cryolite mine located there. Northland also identified favorable sites for military airfields that would later become U.S. airbases.
The year 1941 proved a very busy one for Northland. In April, the United States and representatives of Denmark’s government in exile signed an agreement that included Greenland as part of the U.S. area of defense for the Western Hemisphere. The Navy then tasked the Coast Guard as the agency in charge of the Greenland theater of operations. That same month, Northland set out on a two-month cruise to support the South Greenland Survey Expedition, which surveyed southwest Greenland for airfield sites, weather stations and aids to navigation. Meanwhile, Northland also provided search and rescue support for ships torpedoed by Nazi U-boats in the North Atlantic.
Meanwhile, the Coast Guard formed the so-called Greenland Patrol. In June, the service established the South Greenland Patrol with cutters Modoc, Comanche, and Raritan, and former Coast & Geodetic Survey schooner Bowdoin. In July, the service assembled the Northeast Greenland Patrol with the Northland, former Interior Department ship North Star, and the old Arctic cutter Bear. Within two years, the combined Greenland patrol fleet would number nearly 40 vessels.
In summer 1941, Northland patrolled Greenland’s eastern coast. In August, it established the “Sledge Patrol,” run by Danish coast watchers, which served as a deterrent to further Nazi footholds on the eastern coast. On September 12th, Northland sighted the Norwegian trawler Buskoe at Myggbukta, on Mackenzie Bay. Northland sent a boarding party to investigate and found Buskoe fully equipped with powerful radio transmitters. Northland took the Buskoe into “protective custody”, the first enemy-controlled vessel seized by U.S. forces since the War of 1812. Buskoe’s seizure led to the capture of a German-run radio station about 125 miles north of Mackenzie Bay, which the cutter’s shore party destroyed. The seized vessel, its crew and the German radiomen were sent to Boston for internment. The three radiomen were the first enemy military personnel incarcerated by U.S. forces in World War II.
In October 1941, the Coast Guard merged the South and Northeast Greenland patrols under one command. The commander for the consolidated Greenland Patrol was famed Coast Guard officer and ice expert, Edward “Iceberg” Smith. From the outset, Northland served as Iceberg Smith’s command ship. In December, the U.S. declared war on the Axis Powers and Northland received upgrades for wartime service. These included an ice camouflage paint scheme, radar and sonar gear and provision for an amphibian aircraft. It was also up-armed with two three-inch deck guns, four 20mm anti-aircraft cannons, two depth charge racks and two anti-submarine “Y” guns.
In 1942, Northland performed further combat and support missions in Greenland. In the spring, it led an effort to establish a military airbase at the end of the Sondre Strom Fjord. This project began with a six-week mission to clear ice out of the 90-mile long fjord so a tanker and a transport could steam to the head of the waterway. After the ice cleared, the vessels deposited aviation fuel, men, and equipment to build a military airbase for bombers and fighter aircraft transiting from North America over the North Atlantic to the U.K. Northland also established a radio beacon at the entrance to the fjord to help these aircraft navigate from Canada to the new airfield.
By June 1942, military aircraft began arriving in Greenland and Northland initiated a new mission as an aviation rescue platform. In July, Northland rescued 25 airmen whose squadron of two B-17s and six P-38s made a forced landing on Greenland’s ice cap. In November, a landing party from Northland also rescued three Canadian airmen stranded on the ice cap and, later in the month, Northland’s Grumman J2F-4 amphibian aircraft rescued two crewmen from another B-17 lost on the ice cap. Northland’s aircraft crashed while rescuing a third member of the B-17’s crew killing the Coast Guard pilot, radioman and a bomber aviator. Late that year, Northland also helped establish an emergency landing strip at Ikateq Fjord on Greenland’s eastern coast.
In 1943, the Arctic cutter established a radio direction finding station on the Norwegian island of Jan Mayen located north of Iceland and 300 miles off Greenland’s eastern coast. This radio direction finder could locate transmissions from any future weather stations established by the Germans in the region. Northland also spent months working its way through countless miles of pack ice on Greenland’s eastern coast at times using explosives to blast its way through the floes. Later, damage caused by the ice required Northland to drydock for rudder and propeller repairs. That same year, Iceberg Smith had been promoted to rear admiral retaining Northland as his flagship. During the war, other Coast Guard luminaries would command Northland, including aviation pioneer and Gold Lifesaving Medal hero, Carl Christian von Paulsen, and distinguished icebreaker commander, later rear admiral, Charles Thomas.
Once again, the year 1944 proved a busy one for Northland. In July, the cutter discovered a burned-out Nazi spy ship believed to be the trawler Coburg, which had been gutted and abandoned by its crew. Later in July, a landing party from Northland found a deserted Nazi weather station on Shannon Island near Cape Sussie, Greenland, and destroyed it. In September, Northland pursued the Nazi trawler Kehdingen for 70 miles through ice floes off Great Koldewey Island. The trawler’s U-boat escort fired torpedoes at the Northland, but they exploded after contacting pack ice. After scuttling their ship, Kehdingen’s crew of 28 Germans surrendered and was taken under guard aboard Northland. Northland’s amphibian aircraft later bombed and narrowly missed sinking the trawler’s U-boat escort.
In the fall of 1944, modern Coast Guard icebreakers such as the Storis, Eastwind and Southwind joined Northland in the Greenland patrol. Where the old ice cutter had previously led Greenland operations establishing military bases, rescuing downed aviators and fighting off German incursions, Northland could finally share responsibility with new more capable icebreakers. In 1945, with the war in Europe coming to a close, enemy operations in the Greenland theater diminished and Coast Guard operations shifted to a peacetime posture. In 1946, Northland transferred from Navy control to the Treasury Department and briefly served weather patrol duty until decommissioned in March.
Later in 1946, Northland was sold to an American firm surreptitiously for the Israeli “underground” and it headed for the Mediterranean in 1947. After refitting, it was renamed The Jewish State and ran Jewish immigrants through the British blockade to Palestine. In 1948, after the creation of the State of Israel, the former cutter renamed Matzpen, became the first vessel in the Israeli Navy. The former Arctic cutter spent its final 15 years serving in the Mediterranean before the Israeli Navy decommissioned it in 1962 and sold it for scrap.
During Northland’s storied career, the cutter wrote many chapters in the history of Arctic operations. It was the only ship known to carry Nazi POWs to prison and, later, carry Jewish refugees to Palestine. Northland and the men who sailed it will forever remain a part of the legend and lore of the United States Coast Guard.