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Empire editorial: Polar history sent to the scrap yard

Fans of Cold War-vintage ice breaker hit a bureaucratic iceberg called MARAD

Posted: July 11, 2012 - 12:00am

A piece of Arctic and Antarctic history was scrapped on July 2 in Brownsville, Texas, a sad end for a noble ship that pioneered modern exploration and observation of the regions around both poles.

The heavy ice breaker USS/USCG Glacier was retired in the mid-1980s but not forgotten by its crew. It was the object of fund raising and work parties organized starting more than a decade ago by a non-profit group that sought to make the ship a museum, or a hospital and polar research vessel.

The Glacier Society spent more than $3 million repairing systems aboard the Glacier, but ran into trouble when the economy tanked.

Although dormant for a few years, backers of a new plan to put the Glacier in a Florida berth made a last-ditch attempt to get the Maritime Administration (MARAD) to swap another ship, a more valuable one to be sure but one without the Glacier’s rich history, to the scrap yard that bought Glacier.

But the contract was already let, the ship’s hull was cleaned of debris (revealing a sound hull and intact paint) and the vessel was towed away. MARAD declared that the ship was unsound, and all physical evidence to the contrary offered by the Glacier Society was ignored.

We believe the U.S. Department of Transportation could have intervened to save the ship. Appeals were sent to the department secretary, according to the Glacier Society’s increasingly desperate correspondence this summer.

The Glacier received verbal support from U.S. Sen. Mark Begich a couple of months ago. The senator’s firm letter to Maritime Administration officials was apparently ignored. No legislation to transfer the ship was ever discussed. U.S. Sen. Joe Lieberman also sent a letter, according to the Society, but no one took things to the next level.

“Sen. Begich believes he did as much as he could to garner support for the Glacier writing letters and weighing in on the issue,” according to Begich press secretary Julie Hasquet.

“We regret there was not enough strong support from those who would have benefitted from its use as a museum. We appreciate the leadership of Glacier Society and wish them well in securing another historic vessel which meets their needs,” said Begich.

The proposal to swap the ship also ran into opposition from some in the ship scrapping business who saw it as a sweetheart deal for the Texas scrap yard. Thus the Glacier, a Cold Warrior, once the last flagship of polar explorer Rear Adm. Richard E. Byrd, became a potential political hot-potato.

This week the Glacier Society finally threw in the $3 million towel.

“We are deeply saddened by the Glacier loss, but I am reminded of the words of Col. Norman Vaughn: “Dream big and dare to fail!” wrote Glacier Society Chairman Ben Koether.

MARAD’s belated offer to send some other ship from the floating junk yards it maintains is too little and too late.

How can a replacement ship top this record, provided to us by the Glacier Society:

• During the first of 15 “Operation Deep Freeze” voyages, the Glacier served as flagship for famous polar explorer Rear Admiral Byrd during that 1955-56 mission.

• The Glacier was the first icebreaker to make her way in 1955 through the frozen Bellingshausen Sea. She then proceeded to help create the U.S. Naval Air Facility at McMurdo Sound in Antarctica, after breaking through an icepack to establish another U.S. base.

• While aboard the Glacier, Dr. James Van Allen of the University of Iowa in 1958 discovered “The Van Allen Belt,” a radiation belt of high-energy particles, mainly protons and electrons, held captive by the magnetic influence of 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 U.S. Geological Survey made probes into the earth’s mantle in order to better understand the emerging theory of plate tectonics.

• The Glacier’s crew collected radio signals that helped identify the existence of Sputnik, the first man-made satellite to orbit Earth.

• The ship, commissioned in 1955, completed 29 voyages to the South Pole, and 10 to the North Pole, the last in 1985.

The numbers in this deal are as sad as the outcome. The Glacier Society spent $3 million to fix-up ventilation and other systems and test the soundness of the ship’s hull. Volunteers spent hundreds of hours working in the vessel in California’s Suisun Bay. MARAD sold the Glacier for $146,726.

This heavy ship with a hull built for busting through 20 feet of sheet ice will provide a lot of scrap metal. It would be a cruel irony if its remains go into the new ice breakers being built by foreign powers that one day could challenge our rights in newly-opened Arctic sea lanes. America is down to one functioning ice breaker as it is, with our only heavy ice breaker in repairs and itself just saved from scrapping.

As a museum, the ship would have raised awareness of the extreme need for our nation’s presence in the dangerous waters and ice fields at the northern and southern extremes of our globe. Instead, this piece of history has been ordered destroyed, and with it the work of Glacier Society volunteers. A random replacement ship won’t fix all that damage.

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