UDT-1 in the Arctic -- Summer of 1949

by E. L. "Spike" Field

The Arctic Dew Line resupply mission to the north shore of Alaska in the summer of 1949 included a detachment from UDT-1, including LT(jg) Edwin P. Smith, BM2 Walter "Spook" Otte, GM3 "Bo" Bohannon, "Choppers" Watson, "Red" Mack Boynton, "Spike" Field, Surratt, Robinson, and Willis. The demolition crew went board the ice breaker, Burton Island (AGB-1), at San Pedro, put in at Seattle for a few days and then headed to Point Barrow, Alaska, and the Arctic Ocean. Two days from Nome the Burton Island attempted to take LST 1147 in tow because of engine trouble. During a failed attempt to pass the ice breaker's tow cable to the LST, the end of the cable fouled on the starboard screw as it was being reeled back aboard. There we were, rolling in a force-seven sea with only one screw active and a partially disabled LST astern!

Otte, Bohannon, Field

Walter "Spook" Otte, "Bo" Bohannon, and Spike Field

Standing by the rail of the LST 1110 with the Burton Island, AGB-1 in background

"We had just been transferred to the LST because the ice breaker, Burton Island, had lost a screw on the ice flow coming through the Bering Strait. Note the ice on the water surface--just off Point Barrow."

"Spook" Otte had just completed hard-hat diving school so it was agreed that he should be the one to inspect the problem. He went over the side suited-up in the standard UDT "dry suit", and a hose-fed compressed air diving mask. Climbing hand-over-hand down the fouled cable, he found it had been turned over the shaft three times, but the screw did not appear to be damaged. While below, and hanging onto the shaft with all arms and legs, the ship (hull built like a football) was rolling such that Otte was under about 35 feet of water at one instant, and then, back near the surface. This up-and-down "elevator action" occurred in cycles of about once every few seconds. During each half-cycle roll, sea-water washed the aft deck rails, and then, on the opposite roll, the screw was practically exposed, with Otte hanging on. After his first descent to inspect the problem, he surfaced and requested a line that could be attach to the end of the tow cable such that the crew on deck could haul away to free each cable turn -- one turn at a time. It worked on the first try! Otte made more dives, re-attaching the line each time until the cable was completely free. He made five dives, not counting the many up-and-down cycles as the ship rolled in the sea -- an "ear drum breaker" (zero to 6 fathoms every few seconds) while holding onto the shaft. Afterwards, "Spook" said the water's action felt like a 100 mile-an-hour snow gale! Otte and two UDT safety swimmers, Watson and Willis, were given commendations for their work that day.

Underway again, the Burton Island came down hard-astern on a small berg as the ship rolled and pitched while going through the Bering Straight. The screw could have been sheared from the impact because the starboard shaft could provide no propulsion. Otte did not go down again to inspect! Upon arriving at Point Barrow the ship dropped hook and we took a short liberty to see how Eskimos live. After loss of its screw, the Burton Island was not considered capable of escorting the resupply LSTs through the Beaufort Sea pack ice, so the cargo-carrying LSTs were to be escorted by the Coast Guard's ice breaker, East Wind. Our UDT crew transferred to LST 1110 for the remainder of the voyage north and east into the Arctic Ocean. On the way to the Dew Line base, the LSTs stayed close to the Alaskan shore from which most of the pack ice had receded, while the East Wind followed from a seaward position about 1500 yards away.

After getting to our destination, both LSTs beached for unloading operations. UDT helped with cargo off-loading and drove an LCVP around to corral any loose floating oil drums. When the operation was nearly completed, Robinson and Field took a "recreational" swim in the freezing waters dressed-out in dry suits, two sets of long-johns, face mask, fins and the usual K-Bar knife. Around the clock unloading operations had been rushed since return to Point Barrow was mandatory before pack ice moved back toward shore and trap the LSTs, as had happened the prior year when one had been abandoned on the frozen beach. After returning to Point Barrow, our UDT-1 contingent boarded the USS George Clymer for transport back to San Diego and our home base on the Silver Strand at Coronado.

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