By William H. Thiesen, Historian, Coast Guard Atlantic Area
The Bear is more than just a famous ship; she is a symbol for all the service represents—for steadfastness, for courage, and for constant readiness to help men and vessels in distress.
–Captain Stephen Evans, The United States Coast Guard, 1790-1915
As the quote above indicates, the Bear’s story adheres closely to the Service’s motto of Semper Paratus (Always Ready) and core values of honor, respect, and devotion to duty. This extraordinary ship on which legends were made remains the most famous cutter in the history of the Coast Guard, Alaska, and polar operations.
The legacy of the Bear lives on in the legends and lore of places where the cutter made history, such as the Arctic, Greenland, Bering Sea, Antarctica, Alaskan and Siberian coasts, and the Pacific Ocean. And remnants of the Bear may be found in locations around the country, such as a mast and crew gravesites at Dutch Harbor, Alaska; Michael Healy’s grave in San Francisco; research collections at the University of Alaska; digitized logbooks on the internet; muster rolls at the U.S. National Archives; her bell at New York’s Explorers Club; and Bear’s figurehead and deck gun at The Mariners’ Museum.
Over its long life, the Bear explored, policed, protected, nurtured, defended, and helped preserve the polar regions of the world and the populations of humans and animals that inhabit Earth’s frozen regions. During that time, Bear performed the missions of search and rescue, ice operations, law enforcement, environmental protection, humanitarian relief, polar research and exploration, and maritime defense. In addition, Bear recorded many firsts, such as the first to ship to deliver reindeer to Alaska; first to journey into the Arctic in winter; first to chart parts of the Bering Sea; and first and only ship to serve under the U.S. Navy, Revenue Cutter Service, Coast Guard, and Antarctic Service.
Cutter Bear and the men who sailed the ship remain a part of Arctic legend and the lore. However, this historic ship, on which legends were made, remains preserved in the depths of the element Bear sailed and steamed for nearly 90 years. While gazing at the Bear tied up at the dock in San Francisco, an old Arctic sailor once remarked, “Too bad she can’t talk. She’d tell some yarns. There’s one in every timber she’s got. If you put ‘em all together, landlubbers’d call it a fairy tale.”