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NC man joins fight to save historic Arctic exploration vessel

Historic icebreaker USS/USCG Glacier may have one last chance to become a museum

Posted: July 29, 2012 - 12:06am

MOREHEAD CITY, N.C. — A county resident who once served on an historic U.S. Coast Guard ice breaker is now trying to keep that ship from being broken down and sold for scrap.

John Fulcher has joined an effort to preserve the USS (later USCGC) Glacier, which was once a flagship for the late explorer Rear Adm. Richard Byrd. Fulcher is a former U.S. Coast Guard electrician’s mate, second class. Born in Sea Level, he’s now a city resident and owner of a recreational vehicle park in Sea Level, built on his family property.

The Glacier, named after Glacier Bay, Alaska, was launched in 1954 as a U.S. Navy icebreaker. Its maiden voyage was as Rear Adm. Byrd’s flagship in the first Operation Deep Freeze, the last of the famous naval explorer’s Antarctic expeditions.

The Glacier Society has a website up, www.savetheglacier.org, with links to sign a petition to save the Glacier and to make donations for anyone interested in contributing. They also have a Facebook page at the website www.facebook.com/SaveTheGlacier.

Rear Adm. Byrd served in the Navy from 1912-1927, then again from 1940-1947. He’s famous for his feats of exploration, such as his trans-Atlantic flight from New York to France in 1927. He was one of several aviators, including Charles Lindbergh, trying to get there first. Although Lindbergh beat then Lt. Cmdr. Byrd in completing the trip, the naval officer still managed to successfully cross the ocean.

Rear Adm. Byrd is also famous for his first Antarctic expedition from 1928-1930, which earned him the gold medal of the American Geographical Society. The Glacier became Rear Adm. Byrd’s flagship for the last of his Antarctic expeditions, from 1955-1956, when he and his men established permanent bases in Antarctica, including McMurdo Station, the largest community and research center at the South Pole.

According to the U.S. Coast Guard History Program, the Glacier became a USCG vessel in 1966. She was taken to the Boston Naval Harbor for an overhaul and repainted in Coast Guard colors.

The Glacier Society, a nonprofit organization that wants to purchase and preserve the 309-foot, decommissioned USCG icebreaker, is currently trying to negotiate a purchase from Esco Marine, a ship salvaging company in Brownsville, Texas. The U.S. Department of Transportation’s Maritime Administration (MARAD) old the Glacier to the company this year for scrap metal salvage.

It was in Boston, Mass. that Fulcher became involved in the Glacier’s history. Fulcher was transferred from Portsmouth, Va., to Boston to help overhaul and serve on the Glacier. Fulcher said it was quite an experience to serve on the icebreaker.

“I didn’t want to go,” he said, “because I’d just gotten married. But I got a wealth of experience.”

After the ship was fixed up, it set out from Boston to Acapulco, Mexico, by way of the Panama Canal. From there it went to Long Beach, Calif., where the crew departed on the latest Operation Deep Freeze.

Fulcher said the most memorable of all the places he saw during his tour onboard the Glacier was a three-day stop in Honolulu, when he was feeling particularly heartsick for his new bride.

“I was sitting on a bench in Waikiki,” he said. “I looked up and saw a big moon and thought, ‘That’s the same moon she’s seeing.’ Thirty years later, on our 30th wedding anniversary, we sat together on that same park bench.”

From Hawaii the Glacier headed to Antarctica, crossing over the equator. It was here that Fulcher experienced the “Crossing the Line” ceremony practiced in the Navy and Coast Guard. The ceremony involves sailors who haven’t crossed the equator before being put through an initiation ritual.

Some time later, the vessel reached Antarctica. When asked what it was like to see the frozen continent for the first time, the first thing Fulcher said was, “Wow.”

“One of the first things I remember seeing was a smoking, active volcano — Mount Erebus,” he said.

The Glacier’s primary mission was to break up ice in the Ross Sea to McMurdo Station and escort cargo vessels to and from the base. The ship was built to break through ice up to 20 feet thick. However, the first time getting to McMurdo proved very challenging.

“It took us three weeks to break a path 20 miles long,” Fulcher said. “Twenty-four hours, we were backing up and ramming the ice. There were times we got iced in and had to send out a demo team to dynamite us out.”

Once the initial path was broken up, the Glacier had a somewhat easier time escorting ships to and from McMurdo. They would re-supply in New Zealand, which Fulcher said was also where they spent their shore leave.

“It was a different place,” he said, “with old English-speaking people, very friendly.”

The Glacier acted as escort through the frozen sea for cargo ships from November 1966 to April 1967. In the southern hemisphere, November through January are the summer months, which is when all Antarctic research must be done; during the rest of the year the climate is too cold and harsh to work in.

After Operation Deep Freeze, the Glacier made stops in Sydney, Australia, the Fiji Islands and Caledonia before returning to Long Beach. It was here Fulcher and the Glacier parted ways. Fulcher was later honorably discharged from the Coast Guard, while the icebreaker went on to take part in several more Operation Deep Freezes until it was decommissioned July 7, 1987.

The future of the Glacier

The Glacier is described in an article, “Group still fighting for ship whose fate may be sealed” in The Benicia Herald April 20 edition, as a one-of-a-kind vessel. Fulcher said the ship has a great history, which is why he and others are trying to save it.

According to the Herald article, The Glacier Society has been trying to save the ship for about 14 years. Fulcher said at one time, it was believed The Glacier Society had managed to purchase it, but it turned out they hadn’t secured a title to the ship.

Over the years the society has attempted to find space in several states to turn the Glacier into a museum. However circumstances, including a benefactor dying, have stymied their efforts. Then MARAD sold the ship to Esco Marine in February.

“We don’t know what negotiations have brought about yet,” Fulcher said, “but they’re trying to get it placed in a place called ‘The Notch’ in Miami.”

The place Fulcher was referring to is a mooring facility in Miami’s Bicentennial Park. Fulcher said the city government of Miami is interested in helping turn the Glacier into a museum.

However, the two biggest challenges facing The Glacier Society and its associates are raising funds and getting the proper paperwork.

Fulcher said many of those who want to help save the icebreaker but don’t have much money are trying to help by telling people about the vessel and the efforts to save it.

“This is a Coast Guard town and county,” he said. “It’s very much a Coast Guard area. We’ve got hopes this will do something.”

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