USCG Series: The Loss of the Natsek
Each month, an interesting aspect of the world’s oldest continuous maritime service will be highlighted. The men and women of the United States Coast Guard follow in the fine tradition of the brave mariners who have served before them. As sentinels and saviors of the seas, the United States Coast Guard proudly continues its commitment to honor, respect & devotion to duty to maintain their vigil - Semper Paratus. The Loss of the Natsek The PBY’s wheels slid across the icy steel grating of the airstrip. The pilot and co-pilot monitored the speed gauges on the dashboard as the aircraft shook and shuddered as it raced toward the end of the runway. Bundled in their leather flying gear, little could shield them from the intense cold of the cockpit chilled by the northern environment. Despite the terrible conditions, the officers and crew of the PBY had a mission to complete. Reaching the necessary speed, the pilot eased back on the controls and the PBY slowly lifted into the crisp morning sky. Reaching altitude, the pilot banked slowly to attain the correct heading. “Keep a sharp look out,” he offered via his throat microphone to his crew. “We have to do our best to try and find her.” Responses from his crew filtered through his headset. Everyman aboard knew their job. It was time to find the cutter Natsek. The USCG cutter Natsek had been transferred to the United States Coast Guard and commissioned in June of 1942. A fishing trawler, she was one hundred and sixteen feet in length with a beam of twenty-three feet and a draft of eleven feet. She was two hundred and twenty five gross tons and had been built by the Snow Shipbuilding Corporation of Rockland, Maine the previous year. Originally christened the Belmont, she had received her new name, Natsek, the Inuit word for Fjord Seal, upon her commissioning. The Natsek, along with nine other similar vessels, were to serve as a vital link in the United States Government’s and military plan to ensure that Greenland and her adjacent waters could be patrolled, supplied, and secured as an integral staging area for the Allied forces as the German war-machine continued their unfettered march across mainland Europe. In the spring of 1941, with the German army’s march across Europe, government and military officials of the United States, British, and Canada agreed that the defense of Greenland was paramount for not only a staging area for aircraft but also because of the island’s cryolite deposits. It was well known that advanced parties of German radio operators were providing vital information about ship movements and weather conditions to their superiors in Berlin. Fears that the Germans would attempt to take control of Greenland and utilize it to serve as an airbase for launching attacks on Europe-bound convoys or worse, against points in the Western Hemisphere, were driving forces in the United States Government’s movement to take over the defense of Greenland from the Danish government in April of 1941. An initial force, named the South Greenland Patrol, consisting of the Survey Ship Bowdoin, the U.S.S. Raritan, and the United States Coast Guard cutters Comanche and Modoc was augmented with the U.S.S. Bear and the cutters North Star and Northland under the command of Captain Edward “Iceberg” Smith of the United States Coast Guard by July of 1941. Captain Smith was tasked with utilizing his small contingent of vessels to complete two main missions. The first, to support the United States Army in the establishment of necessary airstrips and bases and secondly, to protect Greenland from German interference or military operations. While the U.S. Army and her corps of engineers battled the difficult environs to build airstrips and bases that would be utilized as a fueling stop for aircraft being ferried to England and Europe, the small fleet of vessels, by October of 1941 consolidated into Task Force 24.8 or the Greenland Patrol of the Atlantic Fleet, were charged with supplying and defending the island. The first few months of the Greenland Patrol was largely a monotonous, mundane, solitary, and cold working environment peppered with flurries of intense action including U-boat attacks, overland or aerial rescue missions for downed aircraft crews, and searches for Nazi radio operators and shore parties. Despite the conditions and solitude, the Coastguardsmen were successful in capturing several Germans and their vessel, the Buskoe. The men, captured by a shore party of Coastguardsmen from the cutter Northland, was conducted without incident. The Germans had been found utilizing radio equipment in a remote outpost. While the men were not enemy combatants, as war with Germany had not been formally declared, the men and the vessel were captured and seized and transferred to Boston, Massachusetts. Lookouts maintained a stealthy vigil for the sleek grey silhouettes of German Kriegsmarine U-boats which exacted deadly blows to several vessels attempting to bring men and supplies to various outposts, composed landing parties across the unforgiving tundra, and continued to fight the dangerous weather conditions. It was clear to Captain Smith, that additional vessels, capable of transiting the shallow and challenging fjords of Greenland’s coastline, were vital if those under his command were going to successfully complete his various operational missions. Under the approval of Commandant Admiral Russell Waesche, Captain Smith was authorized to acquire ten additional small vessels to augment his growing flotilla. The vessels, all of a New England fishing trawler design, were outfitted, repainted in the blue and white Thayer system of camouflage, and sent to Greenland. The new fleet was soon operating in the harsh conditions of the waters of Greenland. Along with the Alatok, Amarok, Arluk, Atak, Arvek, Nanok, and Nogak, was the Natsek. The cutter Natsek was placed under the command of Lieutenant, Junior Grade, Thomas S. La Farge. With vast experience at sea, La Farge and his crew of enlisted men, performed their duty with diligence and honor in support of the patrol’s various missions. In between operations, the men were faced with extreme boredom and monotonous duties. When free from work and other duties, the men enjoyed the base library, watched newsreels, wrote letters to loved ones, and spoke of the war raging in Europe. Others, including Coastguardsmen, Norman Thomas, a coxswain, and Benjamin Wolf, a seaman, decided to capture their experiences in Greenland in drawings and paintings. The two men initially had met during basic training for the Coast Guard in Manhattan Beach. A few months later, the two men met up again in Greenland and their love of art reestablished their friendship. As the men painted and conversed about art, their finished canvases captured the eye of another Coastguardsman. Striking up a conversation, Thomas and Wolf then befriended the admirer of their work, a fellow artist, Lt. (jg) La Farge, who prior to taking charge of the Natsek, had been a mural painter. Thomas, Wolf, and La Farge continued to capture the environment, the men, and the missions of the Greenland Patrol so that others, on the home front, could learn more about their important role in world affairs. The monotonous duty continued on through the fall and into the winter. On December 13th, 1942, Lt (jg) La Farge received orders that the Natsek, along with the Nanok and U.S.S. Bluebird, were to proceed from Greenland to Boston, Massachusetts. Lt. (jg) La Farge mentioned to his friends Thomas and Wolf that he was returning to the United States and would, if they chose, transport their paintings aboard the Natsek. Thomas and Wolf agreed with the plan and quickly boxed up the forty canvases for loading and transport aboard the cutter. A few days later, the Natsek, with the paintings aboard, was ready to set out for Boston. With her nearly frozen lines cast off to the dock, La Farge and his men were looking forward to returning to the United States. Looking out at the barren and harsh landscape of Narsarssuak, Greenland, the crew knew that the sight of Boston would be more than welcomed and well-deserved. It was December 16, 1942 and Christmas was only a week away. The Natsek joined the Nanok and U.S.S. Bluebird in a column as they steamed slowly and steadily down the SkovForjd on their way to Belle Isle Strait. The two cutters, capable of maintaining more speed, reached the Belle Isle Strait before the U.S.S. Bluebird. The U.S.S. Bluebird, after consultation with the commanding officers of the Natsek and Nanok, agreed to allow the two cutters to proceed ahead together. The U.S.S. Bluebird would bring up the rear of the column. At 0100 hours on December 17th, 1942, a light snow began to fall on the horizon. Upon their arrival near the Belle Isle Light, the light from the beacon was lost in the increasingly dense snowfall. The two cutters drew alongside one another and the commanding officers determined their plan to proceed. The Natsek, it was decided, would take the lead through the strait. Both officers agreed that they would keep one another within sight of one another. The Natsek’s crew waved to the men aboard the Nanok and soon after, the cutter disappeared from sight as the snowfall increased and set down a blinding blanket upon the waters. An hour or so later, as each of the cutters were proceeding at a snail’s pace through the strait, the fog horn of the Natsek was heard aboard the Nanok. The commanding officer aboard the Nanok, Lt. Magnus G. Magnusson, decided that the heavy snowfall and fog made proceeding through the strait too dangerous. He ordered all stop until the weather improved. The Nanok, in the darkness of night and amidst the heavy snowfall, did not proceed until the morning hours of the 17th. By nightfall, the Nanok had cleared Belle Isle Strait and had reached Point Amour Light. Though the snow had waned, the winds had shifted to the West and the seas had increased in intensity. The frigid waters sprayed the ship and quickly encased her decks, bridge, and deck structures with a thick and dangerous covering of ice. Lt. Magnusson ordered his men out onto the decks to break the ice. A thick covering of ice, the men all knew, would undermine watertight integrity and could threaten the vessel’s stability. To survive the voyage and reach Boston, the men would have to physically break and remove the ice from the Nanok’s decks and deck structures. Lt. Magnusson scanned the horizon for any sight of the Natsek. Hopefully, he reflected, they had cleared Belle Isle Strait and were ahead of the whipping winds and spray. Lt. Magnusson could not focus on the Natsek. He watched his men, bundled up in heavy weather gear, smashing the ice on the decks. He had to ensure that his own vessel and men weathered the storm safely. The Nanok proceeded through the storm for three days. On the 22nd of December, as the Nanok reached the waters off of Cape Sable, the storm finally abated. The fatigued and wearied crew were finally able to rest from their back-breaking ice-breaking duties. Aft of the Nanok, the U.S.S. Bluebird trudged on her voyage and finally reached Boston on the 26th of December. Upon their respective arrivals in Massachusetts, it was learned that the Natsek had not arrived. Word quickly passed and within hours, a communique had been forwarded to all points in Greenland, Newfoundland and Nova Scotia of the overdue Natsek. None reported any sightings or information about the missing cutter or her officer and crew. Over the course of the next few days, a wide-spread and multi-service search was conducted both aloft and along the various coastlines of the cutter’s track. Despite the arduous efforts of the U.S. Army’s aircrews and the Coastguardsmen aboard the cutter Algonquin, which had been dispatched to assist in the search, the only information determined was that the Natsek had last been seen transiting Belle Isle and proceeding on a southerly course toward Quirpon or Cape Bald. No trace of the cutter had been sighted. No lifeboats, life rings, or flotsam was ever found. The Natsek, and her crew of twenty-four men, had simply disappeared. An investigation into the disappearance and loss of the Natsek offered only speculation. Due to the weather and sea conditions experienced by the Nanok, most believed that the accumulation of ice on the Natsek’s decks and superstructure, had caused the cutter to founder. Another possible explanation was that during the investigation it was determined that the deckhouse structure of both cutters was similar in that they were “secured to fore and aft beams by through bolts bearing against washers of such small area that, under heavy strain, the wood in the way of the waters failed permitting loosening of the deckhouse structure enough to destroy watertight integrity.” The failure in the design would have been catastrophic. The other theories proposed were that the Natsek either stranded on “outlying rocks of the Newfoundland coast in an attempt to gain a harbor or refuge” from the inclement weather and sea conditions or that she had suffered engine failure. Whatever the cause, the Natsek and her crew were never found. The cutter Natsek, a hearty converted fishing trawler, along with her nine sister trawlers, were a vital and worthy unsung component of what would become the largest expansion of the missions and operations of the United States Coast Guard as the service, along with her sister services of the United States, joined together to defeat the Axis powers. The cutter Natsek, her crew of twenty-four men, steered through the maelstrom of blinding snow, to their deaths in the icy waters somewhere past Belle Isle Strait. They were lost in support of ensuring freedom and the hope for democracy as darkness was being thrust upon the peoples of the world under the shadow of German and Japanese forces. Their loss, relegated sadly to an afterthought due to the passage of time, should never be forgotten or dismissed as their efforts exemplified the tenets of service embodied by the men and women who served as members of the United States Coast Guard. The forty paintings stowed aboard the Natsek, the work of artist Coastguardsmen Thomas and Wolf, were also lost in the disappearance. Word of the loss struck a major blow to both artists not because of the lost artwork but rather due to the loss of their friend, Lt. (jg) La Farge and his crew. Despite the loss, the two artists returned to their sketch books and notes and decided to replicate the forty lost paintings. Not only did the repainted canvases offer those on the home front a glimpse into the life of the men serving as part of the Greenland Patrol, it also was an homage of sorts for their friend Lt. (jg) La Farge and the crewmen of the cutter Natsek – true heroes of the United States Coast Guard whose actions exemplified the tenets of the service as true sentinels and saviors of the seas.