Bertholf: Coast Guard Commandant or Reindeer Herdsman?

Hint: The first in class of the new National Security cutters bears his name. We’ll get to the answer in a bit, but, first the story.

In the late 19th century, several whaling ships became frozen and trapped in the ice at Point Barrow. This might not seem like a national emergency, but, it was a time when the country depended on the oil drawn from whales to heat homes in the winter. Without, this source of oil, it would be a hard winter for a great many citizens. A rescue attempt was made, but failed and most of the crew of the ships perished. The government decided this was not going to happen again. But—it did, with the same result.

A decision was made to transport reindeer north to remote sites and pay local citizens to care for and propagate the herd. The next time the whaling ships were stranded, the reindeer would be moved across the ice to the ships to provide food for the crews until the ice thawed in the spring and they could free their ships.

Well, of course, it happened again. In 1897, in fact, when Bertholf was assigned to the US Revenue Cutter Bear. usrc_bear_ice

The Bear was tasked to cross through the treacherous Bering Sea into the Arctic Circle and get the pre-positioned reindeer to the stranded whalers. The Bear was not an icebreaker and was stopped at the ice pack near Nelson Island. The Bear’s Captain put ashore three officers, including Bertholf, to retrieve the herd that the government had been supporting for this moment, and drive them overland to the stranded whalers—roughly 1500 miles. The caretaker of the herd, however, had other ideas and refused to give up the herd. To shorten the story, Bertholf did finally convince the caretaker to acquiesce. Because of the distance, the team required sled dogs. But because of the lack of trained dogs, Bertholf had to pull from many Inuit villages. Finally, after gathering sufficient transportation as well as collecting up the reindeer, the team reached the whalers in March of 1898. For this feat Bertholf and the rest of his team were awarded Congressional Gold Medals for their heroic efforts. Their expedition has been hailed as one of the most perilous rescue missions in maritime history.

In 1915 the “Act to Create the Coast Guard” was signed into law. Ellsworth Bertholf was appointed the first Commandant of the US Coast Guard.

So the answer to the question? Both

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