Coast Guard Heroes: Capt. Michael Healy

A portrait photograph of Captain Healy taken on the quarterdeck of his most famous command, the Revenue Cutter Bear, with his pet parrot, probably around 1895. U.S. Coast Guard photo.

A portrait photograph of Captain Healy taken on the quarterdeck of his most famous command, the Revenue Cutter Bear, with his pet parrot, probably around 1895. U.S. Coast Guard photo.

Written by Lt. j.g. Katie Braynard

If you ask any Coast Guard member what the largest Coast Guard cutter is, their answers will unanimously state Coast Guard Cutter Healy. And if you ask that same group who the cutter was named for, each and every person will respond with the same name: Capt. Michael Healy.

Not only the namesake of the Coast Guard’s largest cutter, Michael Healy is also considered a legend throughout the Alaskan waterways.

Commanding Revenue Cutters: Chandler, Corwin, Bear, McCulloch and Thetis, Healy became a legend enforcing federal laws along Alaska’s 20,000-mile coastline. Over his tenure, he became a friend to missionaries and scientists, while he also served as a rescuer of whalers, natives, shipwrecked sailors and destitute miners.

As a young boy, Healy was uninterested in pursuing academic prowess and instead began a seagoing career in which he quickly became an expert seaman and rose to the rank of officer aboard merchant vessels.

Utilizing his skills and expertise, Healy applied for a commission in the U.S. Revenue Marine in 1864 and was accepted as a third lieutenant. After serving aboard cutters along both the east coast and in Alaska, he was promoted to captain in 1883.

Three years later, Healy took command of Revenue Cutter Bear. Although already established as an expert navigator and seaman, Healy made his mark on history in this position.

Revenue Cutter Bear in ice. U.S. Coast Guard photo.

Revenue Cutter Bear in ice. U.S. Coast Guard photo.

He served as one of the sole government representatives in the remote waters of Alaska, and introduced missions that the Coast Guard would adopt for future generations: protecting natural resources, suppressing illegal trade, resupplying remote outposts and conducting search and rescue missions.

He also was at the forefront of the Coast Guard’s support of scientific research throughout the Arctic region. During the 1880s, John Muir made a number of voyages with Healy in support of a scientific program to introduce reindeer from Siberia to Alaska in order to provide food, clothing and other necessities for native Alaskans.

An 1880 posed image of a relatively young Michael Healy, later famous as cutter Bear’s Captain “Hell Roaring” Mike Healy. U.S. Coast Guard photo.

An 1880 posed image of a relatively young Michael Healy, later famous as cutter Bear’s Captain “Hell Roaring” Mike Healy. U.S. Coast Guard photo.

With his service, Healy became something of a national celebrity.

In 1894, an article published in the New York Sun described him as:

“Capt. Mike Healy is a good deal more distinguished person in the waters of the far Northwest than any president of the United States or any potentate of Europe has yet become. He stands for law and order in many thousands of land and water, and if you should ask in the Arctic Sea, ‘Who is the greatest man in America?’ the instant answer would be ‘Why, Mike Healy.’ When an innocent citizen of the Atlantic coast once asked on the Pacific who Mike Healy was, the answer came, ‘Why, he’s the United States. He holds in these parts a power of attorney for the whole country.'”

Healy retired from service in 1903, and died a year later in 1904.

Perhaps Healy’s outlook on his own service and leadership was best described when he stated, “When I am in charge of a vessel, I always command; nobody commands but me. I take all the responsibility, all the risks, all the hardships that my office would call upon me to take. I do not steer by any man’s compass but my own.”

Today, Healy’s legacy lives on aboard Coast Guard Cutter Healy, which continues to support many of the Arctic missions established by Healy more than 100 years ago.

Coast Guard Cutter Healy traverses through ice. U.S. Coast Guard photo.

Coast Guard Cutter Healy traverses through ice. U.S. Coast Guard photo

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