Thursday, March 3, 2016

USS Bear: Over 60 Years of Polar Service

By Elijah Palmer
HRNM Educator

USS Bear was originally built for use as a sealing ship by a commercial shipyard in Scotland. After a decade of service in that venture, Bear was purchased by the US Navy in 1884 as part of a plan to rescue the Greely Expedition in northern Canada. The Greely scientific expedition was run by the Army Signal Corps and had been in the Arctic since 1881. Through a mixture of poor planning, mishaps, and lack of funding, however, by 1884 there was a dire need for rescue of the expedition as the men starved through the fall of 1883 and the first half of 1884. Of course, the extent of this was not known until later, but it was known that Greely's team would definitely need supplies and transport in the summer of 1884.
Ships of the Greely Relief Expedition in Greenland, 1884. Left to Right: USS Alert, USS Bear, and USS Thetis.
The Navy was asked to coordinate a relief mission, which fell under the command of Commander Winfield Schley, who would later command the "Flying Squadron" out of Hampton Roads during the Spanish-American War. Besides Bear, two other ships suitable for the Arctic (due to their reinforced hulls) joined the mission: HMS/USS Alert, on loan from the British, and the recently purchased Thetis. The expedition eventually found the remnants of the Greely Expedition, but only a handful of the original twenty five members survived as starvation had taken its toll. Later investigations found evidence of cannibalism on some of the corpses.  
Rescuers and survivors of the Greely Expedition. Commander Winfield Schley is marked "1". First Lieutenant Adolphus Greely is seated next to him (marked as "22") . The other survivors are seated in the foreground.
USS Bear was decommissioned shortly after the successful rescue mission. From 1885-1926, the ship operated in Alaska as a United States Revenue Cutter (until 1915 a separate service from the Coast Guard). During this time, the crew looked for illegal activity, offered assistance and rescue, and even brought reindeer from Siberia to help revitalize herds in Alaska. In the late 1920s, Bear was sold to the city of Oakland, California, and it was renamed Bear of Oakland. A few years later, famed polar explorer Rear Admiral Richard Byrd purchased the ship for use in his Second Antarctic Expedition, which lasted from 1933-1935. The Navy purchased the vessel from Byrd in 1939 and it was commissioned USS Bear (AG 29). Byrd then used the ship again for his third Antarctic mission that same year, which was called the United States Antarctic Service Expedition. Leaving out of Hampton Roads, the expedition spent much time doing scientific work near "Little America" in Antarctica. The team stayed in Antarctica until the spring of 1941, when the the prudent decision was made to evacuate given the global situation. 
USS Bear in 1884 (left) and 1939 (right). Note the airplane onboard in the right photograph.
When the United States entered World War II, USS Bear was modernized and used as part of the Northeast Greenland Patrol, as other ships were not available. As the war progressed, the vessel was eventually replaced and was decommissioned in 1944. USS Bear had a remarkably long, useful, and varied life in the period of polar exploration. It is a poignant reminder that ships of all sorts can have a role in the Navy.

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