Did you ever hear of Maine’s wooden shoe fleet of the Greenland Patrol during World War II? Tiny in size, but large in accomplishments, these desperately needed fishing vessels were pressed into wartime service and commandeered by the U.S. Coast Guard at the outbreak of war. Sent to Arctic waters, these rugged vessels were testaments to Maine shipbuilding. Literally, thrown into the breach, they did desperate, heroic duty in hazardous seas off Greenland and the North Atlantic.

When Hitler’s forces overran Denmark in April 1940, the control of Greenland, the Danish northern colony, became a strategic question. By May, U.S. Coast Guard vessels were dispatched there, and an American consulate established at Godthab, present-day Nuuk.

But by early 1941, the U.S. decided on a more active defense of Greenland and surveyed suitable locations for air bases, weather stations and other military installations. To protect, patrol and resupply these outposts, suitable ships were immediately needed.

Plans were drawn up in naval shipyards for appropriate vessels for this Greenland Patrol, but none would be available for over a year. Other craft would therefore be needed to fill this breach until the new ships were built and became operational.

When Commander Edward H. “Iceberg” Smith saw 10 120-foot fishing trawlers sitting idle in Boston Harbor in early 1941, he immediately recognized their potential. USCG Commandant Vice Admiral Russell R. Waesche ordered them commandeered and manned with hand-picked crews.

Pictured is USCG Cutter Nanok with an iceberg in back. Courtesy of the collection of Russel C. Clark

 

Five of the ships had been built in Maine shipyards and had worked in fishing before their call to duty. The renamed wooden ships Natsek, Nanok and Nogak had all been built just before the war at the Snow Shipyard in Rockland. They had all seen a good deal of arduous work in the fishing industry before their Greenland job. The steel-hulled Aivik and Atak were also Maine-built but came from down the coast at Bath Iron Works.

Despite their diminutive size, these five trawlers were capable of ferrying over 90 tons of cargo in their holds and many more tons on deck. These fishing draggers became known as the Wooden Shoe Fleet, and they were thrown into service of the Greenland Patrol.

USCG Cutter Atak, taken shortly after being commissioned.

 

Originally named Arlington, the 251-ton, 128-foot, steel-hull vessel was built at Bath in 1936 and entered commercial fishing service that year. It worked extensively in New England waters until commissioned June 24, 1942, as Aivik, the Inuit term for walrus. Wartime conversion cost $75,000 and Aivik was used mainly for weather station duty in Greenland. It was returned to original owners on Sept. 11, 1944. Try as I might, I was unable to uncover a photo of the vessel, most photos that accompany information about it are of its sister ship Amarok.

Another converted Maine-built fishing vessel was Atak, originally named Winchester. Built in 1937 at Bath, it joined the commercial fishing fleet. Steel hulled and 128-feet long, the craft was commandeered and commissioned June 14, 1942, Atak is Inuit for harp seal. Its wartime conversion cost $75,000. Although designated for Greenland work, Atak had no electronics so was stationed mostly out of Boston. It was decommissioned July 15, 1944.

The Snow Yard in Rockland built the 121-foot fishing dragger Belmont, largest dragger at time of its launch in April 1941. Albert E. Condon designed the hull, while naval architect Joseph P. Andralouis designed the profile and deck plan. The main engine, a 575-horsepower diesel, five-cylinder Fairbanks-Morse two-cycle apparatus, drove a single propeller. In spring 1942, the 225-ton vessel was converted to wartime use for the Greenland Patrol and renamed Natsek, after Greenland’s Natsek Fjord.

By June 1942, it was on duty, accompanied by two more Rockland-built draggers, St. George (renamed Nogak) and North Star (renamed Nanok). They supplied the American-built Bluie stations up and down Greenland’s east coast through August. In late September, Natsek sailed from Narsarssuak to transport supplies and personnel to Skoldungen for a weather station. In November, it was ordered to assist in the search for a downed plane along the southeast coast.

In December 1942, Natsek departed Narsarssuak, along with Bluebird and Nanok, to return to Boston. Nanok and Natsek maintained greater speed than Bluebird, so they parted company. On Dec. 17, 1942, the two draggers sighted Belle Isle Strait, located between Newfoundland and Labrador.

While in the strait, Nanok and Natsek encountered fog, waves and extreme ice conditions. The captain of Natsek, Thomas La Farge, was a yachtsman and likely unfamiliar with extreme ice conditions. Unlike the other two ships reporting icing conditions, Natsek did not turn out its crew to pound shrouds and rigging free of ice. As conditions deteriorated, Natsek apparently turned turtle and went under with all crew.
The last contact with Natsek had been later that morning when Nanok sounded two blasts on its foghorn, answered by a flash of white light from Natsek. About 2:45 a.m., Nanok stopped and waited four hours to determine its position before proceeding through the strait. Natsek was never seen again.

USCG Cutter Natsek is shown after being commissioned and receiving its armaments. Courtesy of the Historian’s Office, United States Coast Guard

 

Nanok, originally named North Star, was 120 feet long, designed by Albert E. Condon and built by Ernest A. Gamage for $145,000. It was commandeered and commissioned in June 1942 and armed like its sister ships, Natsek and Nogak. Nanok is Inuit for polar bear.

When Thaddeus Novak stepped aboard it in Boston Harbor in June 1942, he was not impressed. “…she was a puny wooden shoe from a dirty foot…An undernourished tugboat, ugly and without grace…cramped, damp and tired, and the rotted fish odors are built into her thick, wooden skin…compared to the beautiful and graceful Sea Cloud I served on board, the Nanok is an outhouse.”

By October 1942, Greenland weather was bad. At times, Nanok had to be tied to other ships to combine resistance against the wind. Still, one of the fleet was blown ashore at one point but managed to break free. By December, Nanok was ordered back to the U.S. in company with Natsek. It was a horrendous trip, with constant ice build-up necessitating round-the-clock chopping to keep them from capsizing. Nanok safely arrived in Boston Dec. 22, 1942.

Nanok made another cruise to Greenland in 1943 and was decommissioned July 1944. It returned to private ownership then was sold to Norwegian owners and renamed Solnes. In October 1949, the vessel caught fire at Bassunde, Norway and was condemned.

Originally named St. George, Nogak was commissioned into wartime service July 7, 1942. Nogak is Inuit for caribou calf. The first to command Nogak was Ensign Gil Oakely, of Tenants Harbor. Decommissioned in July 1944, Nogak took back its original name but sat idle due to bureaucratic red tape until returned to private ownership.

The dragger then went back to fishing and in July 1946 hauled in the largest single catch of fish in Rockland history, at 210,000 pounds. The ship was sold for $40,000 in 1968 to an owner in Gloucester and eventually destroyed by fire off Cape Cod in 1980. It was the last survivor of the Maine-built wooden shoe fleet of the Greenland Patrol.

USCG Cutter Nogak was the last surviving member of the Wooden Shoe Fleet of the Greenland Patrol Courtesy of the Historian’s Office, United States Coast Guard

 

Charles Lagerbom teaches AP US History at Belfast Area High School and lives in Northport. He can be contacted at clagerbom@rsu71.org. He is author of “Whaling in Maine” available through Historypress.com.