Coast Guard Cutter Bear Turns 25

PORTSMOUTH, Va. – The U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Bear (WMEC-901), the first of thirteen 270-foot “Famous Class” cutters commissioned during the 1980s, is celebrating its 25th year of service today while patrolling off the coast of Florida.

The keel of the present-day Bear was laid on Aug. 23, 1979, launched on Sept. 25, 1980, and formally commissioned into Coast Guard service on Feb. 4, 1983.

“We are very proud to serve on Bear as she reaches 25 years of distinguished service to the United States,” said Cmdr. Wes Pulver, Bear’s commanding officer. “The cutter’s 25th birthday marks a proud moment in her career, which includes 21 drug busts and response to numerous national emergencies.”

Although Bear is now older than 55 percent of her crew, and only three of the ship’s 103 crew were in the Coast Guard when she was commissioned in 1983, Bear’s history and legacy of service are well known both by the crew and those in the Coast Guard.

Today’s Bear is named after one of the most historic ships in Coast Guard history, the U.S. Revenue Cutter Bear (AG-29), a 199-foot steam-powered barkentine of heavy oak construction completed in Scotland in 1874.

Bear was purchased by the U.S. government in 1884, and a year later was transferred into the Treasury Department’s Revenue Marine’s Alaskan patrol, conducting 34 patrols in the Bering Sea for more than 40 years. Bear embodied the concept of the multi-mission ship by rescuing shipwrecked mariners, breaking ice, enforcing fisheries laws, carrying mail, making hydrographic surveys, delivering Siberian reindeer to native Alaskans, and serving as a floating territorial courtroom. Between 1886 and 1895, Bear was commanded by a legendary figure in the service’s history, Capt. Michael Healy, who received his commission from President Abraham Lincoln and was the first commissioned African-American officer of the United States government.

After being retired by the Revenue Cutter Service in 1928, Bear was used by Richard Byrd as his flagship for two geographical exploring expeditions to Antarctica in the 1930s.

Bear was taken back into naval service during World War II and served on the Greenland Patrol as USS Bear (AG 29) until she was again decommissioned in 1944, transferred to the Maritime Commission, and sold.

During its modern-era history, the Bear has added to the list of historical achievements for cutters operating under her namesake.

In 1986 Bear responded to the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster by searching more than 1,900 nautical square miles of ocean. In 1989, Bear was the tactical commander for the initial rescue and relief operations on St. Croix, U.S. Virgin Islands, following the devastating Hurricane Hugo. During this operation Bear evacuated 139 U.S. citizens, coordinated the evacuation of 100 sick and injured civilians and initiated the national relief response for the more than 50,000 residents on the island.

Bear has responded to two armed hijackings, the most dramatic of which occurred on the 250-foot coastal freighter Madrid in March 1989. Thirty armed hijackers, led by five deserters from the Haitian Army took control of the vessel at gun point. A boarding team from Bear disarmed the hijackers, returned control of the vessel to the master, and freed 15 people, including a small child being held hostage.

In the early 1990s, the cutter participated in operations Able Manner and Uphold Democracy off the coast of Haiti, and Operation Able Vigil assisting in the interdiction of more than 36,000 Cuban migrants in the Florida Straits.

In the summer of 1999, Bear deployed to the Adriatic Sea in support of “Operation Allied Force” and “Operation Noble Anvil,” NATO’s military campaign against the forces of the former republic of Yugoslavia. Bear served in the USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN 71) battle group providing surface surveillance and search and rescue response for the sea combat commander, and force protection for the amphibious ready group operating near Albania. Bear provided combat escort for U.S. Army vessels transporting military cargo between Italy and Albania, well within enemy surface to surface missile range.

When hostilities in the Adriatic concluded, Bear entered the Black Sea as the first ever U.S. Coast Guard cutter to participate in Exercise Cooperative Partner, a joint military exercise involving ships and aircraft from the U.S., France, Greece, Turkey, Romania, Bulgaria, and Georgia. Bear completed the summer by providing training with the Tunisian and Royal Moroccan navies. In all Bear visited and acted as maritime ambassador to nine countries: Spain, Italy, Bulgaria, Turkey, Greece, Tunisia, Gibraltar (U.K.), Morocco, and the Azores (Portugal).

During this 25-year period Bear also made nine cocaine and 12 marijuana seizures resulting in more than $500 million worth of illegal drugs from reaching the shores of the United States.

The 270-foot class of cutters called the “Famous Cutter” class is the newest in the Coast Guard’s medium and high endurance deepwater fleet. The 378-foot cutter Hamilton, the lead cutter of the 12 Secretary Class high endurance cutters, was commissioned 1967. The 210-foot cutter Reliance, the lead cutter of the 15 “Reliance Class” medium endurance cutters, was commissioned in 1966.

According to the Bear’s commanding officer, his ship’s longevity and success are a testament to the Coast Guard’s can-do attitude, and a reminder of the need to deliver modern platforms and equipment as soon as possible.

“As the lead ship of the newest class of medium and high endurance deepwater cutters, it also reminds us of the necessity of the Coast Guard’s modernization and recapitalization efforts as we continue to serve the American Public into the future,” said Pulver.

Like most of the fleet’s medium endurance cutters, Bear hadn’t received major systems upgrades during its 20-plus years of service. Last year, Bear completed a six-month refurbishment under the Mission Effectiveness Project (MEP), at the Coast Guard Shipyard and Engineering Logistics Center, Curtis Bay, Md.

The MEP targets the 270-foot, 210-foot and 110-foot cutters. Each vessel undergoes scheduled maintenance availability during which its hull, mechanical and electrical structures and equipment are renovated to ensure efficient and economical operation.

MEP has been successful and cost-effective, but as the fleet continues to age the ultimate solution to addressing the increasing maintenance and sustainability issues is to acquire new platforms as soon as possible, such as the National Security Cutter, the first of which arrives later this year.

Bear departed its homeport of Portsmouth, Va., Tuesday (Jan. 29), and is scheduled to remain underway until late March, continuing the tradition of service and mission execution, where in just the last year she has: conducted counter-drug patrols; interdicted migrants attempting to illegally enter the United States; conducted joint operations with the Royal Bahamian Defense Force, DEA and other Coast Guard units; and supported humanitarian overflight missions following Tropical Storm Noel.

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