Passage(s) of an Arctic Icebreaker, WW II Veteran and Israeli Hero

By Elizabeth Alexander, MSc Geopolitics and Security post-graduate student. 

Born 1927, Newport News, Virginia. USA 

Died 1962, Haifa, Israel

CGC Northland, icebreaker, cruiser, sailor, spy, postmaster and navigator of the seas, Nazi hunter, decorated war hero, blockade-runner and rescuer of refugees ceased Feb. 2, 1962 in Haifa, Israel. Scrapped (in Italy) but not forgotten.

Northland_Color_1_smWe don’t write obituaries for ships, but perhaps we ought to. Their voyages embody narratives of the lives they carried on board, their hulls of the oceans they crossed, battles they fought and places they docked. Like the seas and oceans they traversed, their histories are fluid, beginning at one place for a purpose; ending transformed and perhaps recycled to quite another.  Hasty and Peters believe that the object of the ship has potential for both the production of geographical knowledge and our understanding of the world. The tale of the Northland illuminates that potential impeccably.

The Coast Guard Cutter Northland’s journey is a thrilling biography.  She was a hardened-hull cruising gunboat with double-masted auxiliary sails. Built in Virginia in 1929 for Arctic waters, she ended an improbable and heroic journey in the driest of places – cut to pieces.

She spent her ‘youth’ patrolling the Bering Sea as a mobile site of government providing law enforcement, postal services, military intelligence, and delivering teachers and nurses to remote villages.  Decommissioned after her last Arctic cruise in 1938, retirement was short.  In 1939 she was re-commissioned to join the second Byrd Antarctic Expedition, but never made it to the other pole. War intervened, her sails were removed in 1940 and she sailed off to Greenland to survey harbors for patrol forces before the United States entered the war. She captured the first German vessel by a US ship in WWII.

In 1942, a Grumman Duck amphibious biplane launched from the Northland to rescue the crew of a B17 that crashed while attempting to rescue the crew of an earlier crash. The Duck successfully made one trip with survivors back to the ship, but, ignoring weather warnings, smashed into the ice on the second run. Reluctantly the decision was made to leave the three Coastguardsmen aircrew on the ice. A mission known as the ‘Duck Hunt’ is underway in 2014 to recover the men who remain cryogenically entombed in 40 feet of ice.

The Admiral for the Greenland theatre made the Northland his command ship; it torpedoed a submarine and captured several German Navy ships, earning two Battle Stars. After the war, she departed the Arctic and patrolled the New York Coast tracking weather, but her next mission would have been hard for anyone to forecast.

In 1947, anti-ShipNamedtheJewish Stateboarding barbed wire was erected around her deck, a wooden superstructure built on the aft and she became the Medinat Hayehudim (Jewish State).  Zionists had purchased her for a specific mission: to run the British blockade of Palestine with 2,700 Holocaust survivors aboard. The British Royal Navy captured and secured her in Haifa’s port. Their British Intelligence report, probably written by the Palestine Security Section, described the passengers as consisting of “a remarkably high number of Jews over 50, several of whom were decrepit…The families were of fairly low middle class origin, ugly, dirty and shoddily dressed.” The report reported that the passengers’ sang the  ‘propagandist’ HATIKVAH lustily and in many different keys…with energy but badly out of tune.”

The British described the ‘Northland as “filthy and more crowded than almost any other illegal ship on records.” When the British withdrew within the year, she sailed to Tel Aviv to be stripped of the aft deck superstructure, and armed with machine and anti-aircraft guns. The Northland thus became the first warship in the Israeli Navy.  Her new job was to patrol the new state of Israel’s extensive coastline. Renamed Eilat A-16, she engaged in numerous campaigns and her decks witnessed the first Israeli casualty at sea in a skirmish with the Egyptian air force. Renamed ‘Matzpen’ she served as a supply and training ship in the mid 1950’s until 1962, when at age 35, she was sold as scrap to an Italian firm.

Who knows what recycled form her remains have taken now? The Northland’s story is one of constant change – physical form, naming, mission, and setting. No doubt other ships that have sailed the seas before and after her time have equally enigmatic stories to tell and deserve their own obituaries within what Peters refers to as ‘the watery world’.


This posting forms part of a series of ‘Polar Posts’ by our MSc students as part of their work in Klaus Dodds’ Geopolitics of the Polar Regions class. We will be adding further Polar Posts in the coming months.

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