Coast Guard charted the Northwest Passage in 1957 and continues to play a lead role in the Arctic today

As the Coast Guard has now crossed into our 226th year of proudly serving America, we will highlight our long history of ensuring national security throughout the entire month of August. This blog is part five of our history series which has been featured every Monday in August. Join the celebration on social media by using hashtags: #HappyBdayUSCG, #CheersUSCG and #CGhistory.

Northwest Passage

Northwest Passage Route, 1957

At the height of the Cold War, the Coast Guard served a leadership role in the Arctic,
this time in the defense of our Nation.

– U.S. Coast Guard Arctic Strategy

Written by Arlyn Danielson, Coast Guard Curator

Four hundred and sixty years. This is the time span that separates the first attempt in 1497 to discover and navigate a new northerly sea route to East Asia, and the successful attempt in 1957 of three United States Coast Guard Cutters and one Canadian ship to convoy through and officially chart what had become known as the fabled Northwest Passage. (The Northwest Passage is actually several passageways through the complex archipelago of the Canadian Arctic.)

Sailing out of Bristol, England in May 1497, under the anglicized name of John Cabot, Genoese maritime explorer Giovanni Caboto made the first voyage to the new world to try his luck discovering a faster, more direct trade route to the far East. Had he been successful, the route would have traversed through the treacherous and complicated archipelago of the Canadian arctic- an immense area of water, ice, and mostly uninhabited snow and ice covered islands north of Canada.

Despite his intentions, John Cabot’s voyage ended along the coastline of eastern Canada and possibly Maine. He returned to England and eventually disappeared from history. However, over the next four centuries, multitudes of sailors, explorers, and scientists were inspired to undertake similar voyages experimenting with different routes and ideas on charting a pathway through the North Polar Region. Indeed, finding a route through the waters of the Northwest Passage became an obsessive focus for innumerable expeditions- many vanishing without a trace or returning home empty-handed. This quest continued unabated up to the twentieth century with disappointing results compared to the efforts made.

Coast Guard Cutters Storis and Bramble, Northwest Passage voyage, 1957. CG Photo.

Coast Guard Cutters Storis and Bramble, Northwest Passage voyage, 1957. CG Photo.

The first successful attempt to sail through the Passage was accomplished between 1903 and 1905 by Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen. Using a small, shallow draft fishing vessel, he carefully maneuvered his way through, sticking close to coastlines. The next successful transit of the Northwest Passage was accomplished between the years 1940 and 1942 by a Canadian ship called the St. Roch, which had an ice strengthened hull and was skippered by a Norwegian named Henry Larsen.

It wasn’t until the summer of 1957 that the Northwest Passage was conquered again and charted by the persistent and considerable efforts of three United States Coast Guard Cutters – Storis (WAG 38), Spar (WAGL 403) and Bramble (WAGL 392), and one Canadian ice breaker, HMCS Labrador. For this journey, the Coast Guard was tasked with establishing and charting a successful path through the Northwest Passage in response to defense concerns caused by Cold War tensions with the Soviet Union.

Coast Guard Cutter Storis, an ice breaker, was based in Juneau, Alaska. Spar, homeported in Bristol, R.I., and Bramble, based out of Miami, were both buoy tenders. All three cutters rendezvoused in Seattle and set sail on July 1. Their mission was the annual resupply of the far northern bases of the U.S. Navy’s Military Sea Transportation Service, and to conduct hydrographic surveys of Arctic waters and to search for a sea route deep enough to support larger, deeper draft cargo ships. The Distant Early Warning (DEW) Line was constructed as an early warning radar observation and detection outpost against the threat of hostile aircraft reaching North America.

Coast Guard Cutter Bramble during the Northwest Passage voyage 1957. CG photo.

Coast Guard Cutter Bramble during the Northwest Passage voyage 1957. CG photo.

The Navy’s Military Sealift Command transported over 2.5 million tons of cargo, 12 million barrels of fuel, and 7,500 personnel over a period of two years to construct some 50 DEW Line sites. The Coast Guard, in conjunction with Navy and Canadian forces, led what remains one of the largest mobilizations of materials and equipment ever in the Arctic. After clearing the way for the summer DEW Line construction work, the cutters continued to press on through the openings in the summer ice cover. Gaining a better understanding of ice floe movements, and transiting through them without sustaining severe damage or getting stuck in the ice pack was critical for future shipping activity in this region.

The three cutters were under the overall command of Cmdr. Harold L. Wood, commanding officer of Storis. Spar was skippered by Lt. Charles V. Cowing, and Bramble was skippered by Lt. Cmdr. Harry H. Carter. Sailing northward around the Alaskan coast and through the Bering Strait, the cutters skirted the coastline of Northwest Territories for a large portion of the trip. Eventually the convoy turned northward and traversed the Rae, James, Ross, and Franklin Straits. While in Franklin Strait, the cutters became trapped in an ice floe field for a number of days before Spar freed itself and then helped the other vessels reach clear water. During this time, the cutters continued their mission of charting and recording water depths, correcting old charts, in addition to leaving moored buoys to mark future shipping lanes. As they entered Bellot Strait September 6, 1957, they met up with HCMS Labrador which guided them through the challenging seventeen mile passage. In doing so, they became the first deep draft ships to sail through this waterway. Continuing eastward, they sailed toward Lancaster Sound, crossed the Arctic Circle and steamed into the Labrador Sea. Heading homeward, they continued along the eastern Canadian and United States coastlines.

By October 1957, all three cutters had reached their respective homeports and thus went down in history to become the first American vessels to transit through the icy seas of the Northwest Passage and circumnavigate the North American continent.

Northwest Passage plaque, 1957. CG Photo.

Northwest Passage plaque, 1957. CG Photo.

Just as the Coast Guard helped to ensure national security in 1957 by charting the Northwest Passage, the Coast Guard’s operations today in the Polar Regions also have a direct impact on U.S. sovereign interests. As ice melts, traversing the Arctic waters become more and more desirable as an oceanic trade route from the North Atlantic to the North Pacific. This route essentially represents a transformational shift in the maritime trade, akin to the opening of the Panama Canal in the early 20th century since it can cut existing oceanic transit between Europe and Asia by an estimated 5,000 nautical miles. While tourism is not yet a significant contributor to local economies in the U.S. Arctic, it is likely to grow in decades ahead. In fact, the largest cruise ship to transit the Northwest Passage is setting sail as we publish this piece to do just that – navigate from Alaska to New York by way of the Arctic Ocean. The increase in vessel traffic presents challenges to sovereign capacity for incident prevention and response in the Arctic. The melting of ice also means the number of icebergs will rise as they break away from glaciers. Therefore, the Coast Guard will continue to remain Semper Paratus in the Arctic, drawing on our rich history of operating in these high altitudes.

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