GLACIER Recedes Into History

GLACIER Recedes Into History

By  Shawn J. Dake

USS GLACIER en route to the breakers in Brownsville in the Panama Canal

One of the most significant ships in U.S. history has gone to the breakers. The USS GLACIER (AGB-4) was designed by William Francis Gibbs firm of Gibbs & Cox just a year after work was completed on the SS UNITED STATES. The 310 foot long icebreaker was ordered by the Navy and laid down on August 3, 1953 at the Ingalls Shipbuilding Corporation in Pascagoula, Mississippi.  Although similar in design but longer than the 269 foot “Wind” class of icebreakers built during World War II, the GLACIER would prove to be the only one of her class built. Among the major accomplishments of this vessel were operating nearly 30 consecutive missions (except 1971) to Antarctica as part of Operation Deep Freeze. The GLACIER was the flagship for Admiral Richard E. Byrd’s last Antarctic sojourns beginning in December, 1955. It was an essential participant in the construction of Little America V and the Naval Air Station and base at McMurdo Sound, Antarctica which is still in operation today.

This cutaway of the GLACIER appeared in All Hands Magazine in December, 1956.

The GLACIER was launched on August 27, 1954 and was ready to be commissioned by May 27, 1955. The ship would serve with the Navy for 11 years before icebreaking operations were transferred to the United States Coast Guard in 1966. From June 30th of that year the ship was given the new designation as USCGC GLACIER (WAGB-4). It would continue to serve the Coast Guard until July 7, 1987 when it was decommissioned and transferred to the Maritime Administration for lay up at Bremerton, Washington. During the many years with the Coast Guard the ship primarily operated from her base at Long Beach, California. Under the Navy it had been Boston, Massachusetts. Finally on March 3, 1991 the GLACIER was towed into the reserve fleet at Suisun Bay, California. Row E, closest to the Benicia Bridge would be her home for the next 21 years.

Aboard the GLACIER; the Crew Mess and Recreation Room, photo by Jonathan Haeber, courtesy of

Although listed as eligible for inclusion on the National Register and a likely candidate for historic preservation, despite multiple efforts to save the ship, it was sold to Esco Marine in Brownsville, Texas for scrapping on February 12, 2012 for the sum of $146,726.00. It was first towed to Mare Island at Valencia, California in April for cleaning and in preparation for the long tow through the Panama Canal. Excerpts from the MARAD description of “National Register Eligibility Statement” and their “Statement Of Significance” nicely sums up the incredible value this ship provided to the United States for the 32 years of its active career. “GLACIER played a crucial role during the period of U.S. Polar exploration and in the establishment of permanent bases in Antarctica… The vessel represents a significant and distinguishable entity as the only ship both designed by and built for the U.S. Navy for the specific purpose of icebreaking, and it was the largest and most powerful of its kind for more than two decades.” The report goes on to say that the USS GLACIER “is the last remaining vessel from the U.S. Navy’s icebreaking fleet… It remains notable as a polar icebreaker, making 29 deployments to the Antarctic and 10 to the Arctic. Date: January 14, 2011. Determination: ELIGIBLE.” Few ships receive this historical designation but unfortunately for the GLACIER it was not enough to save her. Even with an 11th hour push by a preservation group to stay her execution, MARAD ordered Esco Marine to commence scrapping on Monday, July 2, 2012.

The stern of the GLACIER showing her powerful twin screws in the dry dock at Mare Island on April 26, 2012 preparing for the tow to the scrapyard. Photo © Frank Cleope, Jr.

The GLACIER had a displacement tonnage of 8,650 tons. Considering its role in exploring and mapping the most extreme reaches of the globe it carried a large complement of up to 16 officers and 232 enlisted personnel. To facilitate icebreaking the ship had a wide beam of 74 feet and a deep draft of 29 feet. Heeling tanks were a significant feature of the GLACIER which with the aid of four enormous pumps could cause the vessel to rock ten degrees from side to side every 85 seconds enabling it to squirm free of ice. It was capable of breaking through up to 20 feet of pack ice. The propellers were three-bladed, on twin screws which could drive the ship at a speed of 16 knots. In the early years under the Navy the ship was armed with one dual five inch gun and three dual, three inch guns. Two helicopters could also be carried aboard for aerial reconnaissance and mapping of the icy terrain. The ship was named for Glacier Bay in Alaska. Far from the ice that it once called home, the historic vessel will now melt into history in the hot climate of southern Texas.

Special thanks to Frank Cleope, Jr., Jonathan Haeber, and Terry Tilton


Shawn Dake

Shawn Dake

Shawn J. Dake, freelance travel writer and regular contributor to MaritimeMatters, worked in tourism and cruise industry for over 35 years.  A native of Southern California, his first job was as a tour guide aboard the Queen Mary.  A frequent lecturer on ship-related topics he has appeared on TV programs.  Owner of Oceans Away Cruises & Travel agency, he served as President of the local Chapter of Steamship Historical Society of America.  With a love of the sea, he is a veteran of 115 cruises.
Shawn Dake

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