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Michael Healy

Captain Healy on the quarterdeck of the Cutter Bear, with his pet parrot, around 1895.
Captain Healy on the quarterdeck of the Cutter Bear, with his pet parrot, around 1895. (Credit: USCG)
When I am in charge of a vessel, I always command; nobody commands but me. I take all the responsibility, all the risks, all the hardships that my office would call upon me to take. I do not steer by any man’s compass but my own."—Capt. Michael Healy.

Captain Michael A. Healy -- also known as "Hell Roaring Mike" – was commanding officer of the Coast Guard cutters Chandler, Corwin, Bear, McCulloch and Thetis, and became a legend in the late 1800s patrolling the 20,000 miles of Alaska's foggy, freezing, and treacherous coastline.

Portrait photograph of Healy.
Portrait photograph of Healy (Credit: USCG)
Healy was born near Macon, Georgia, in 1839, the fifth of 10 children born to Michael Morris Healy, an Irish plantation owner, and his wife Mary Elisa Smith, a former slave. Healy was the first African-American to command a ship of the United States government and according to the New York Sun, he was “the greatest man in America.”

Alaska’s unpredictable waters made for dangerous work, but Healy seemed to revel in the rugged assignments that few seamen would accept. Regarded as a skilled seaman and navigator, Healy took command of the Bear in 1886. Two years later, his crew rescued 160 sailors from whaling vessels trapped in icy waters near Point Barrow, Alaska. The daring rescue raised Healy’s profile to rock-star proportions.

Healy with his wife to his right on board the Bear.
Healy with his wife to his right on board the Bear. (Credit: USCG)
“His seamanship and navigational skills became the standards for the time, and his leadership still personifies the capabilities required by all captains who continue to challenge one of Mother Nature's most demanding maritime environments,” according to an article by the U.S. Coast Guard.

“Survival in these waters was linked more to the skill of the sailors and the seamanship of their captains than to the construction of the ships,” the article said. “Ships and crews relied totally on expert seamanship and captains who possessed more than normal navigational and leadership skills. One such man, Captain, Michael A. Healy, came to personify all these requirements and more. His skills enabled a young nation to carry its flag successfully and secure its interest in one of its most demanding territories.”

USCG Cutter Bear crew in the summer of 1895. Back: Dr. Bodkin, Engineer Coffin, LT Daniels, LT White, LT Emery; Front: CH ENG Schwartz, CPT Healy, ENG Dorry, LT Buhner, Carpenter Cain, Master At Arms Baundy.
USCG Cutter Bear crew in the summer of 1895. Back: Dr. Bodkin, Engineer Coffin, LT Daniels, LT White, LT Emery; Front: CH ENG Schwartz, CPT Healy, ENG Dorry, LT Buhner, Carpenter Cain, Master At Arms Baundy. (Credit: USCG)
During the last two decades of the 19th Century, Healy was essentially the federal government’s law enforcement presence in the vast northern territory. In his 20 years of service, he acted as: judge, doctor, and policemen to Alaskan natives, merchant seamen and whaling crews. The Native Americans throughout the regions of the north came to know and respect Healy and called his ship "Healy's Fire Canoe.”

“Healy was also the unswerving defender of the law in Arctic and Bering waters as well as on the coasts and islands of Alaska. Woe to any mutineer, seal poacher, or liquor trader who fell to Healy’s tender mercies,” the late John F. Murphy, professor of government for the U.S. Coast Guard Academy, wrote. “In law enforcement he preferred the instant and strong correctives of the frontier to the legal niceties of less harsh climates.”

Healy with his dog on board the Bear.
Healy with his dog on board the Bear. (Credit: USCG)
Healy was one of America’s early multitasking seamen. He protected Alaska’s natural resources, dismantled illegal trade, resupplied remote outposts and led successful search and rescue operations. Even in the early days of Arctic operations, science was an important part of Healy’s mission. Renowned naturalist John Muir made a number of voyages with Healy during the 1880s as part of an ambitious scientific program.

The Coast Guard Cutter Healy (WAGB 20) underway from the shipyard in New Orleans. The Polar Icebreaker/Research Vessel is named in commemoration of Captain Healy, as one of the most notable seaman and navigator of his time in the Bering Sea and Alaskan Arctic regions.
The Coast Guard Cutter Healy (WAGB 20) underway from the shipyard in New Orleans. The Polar Icebreaker/Research Vessel is named in commemoration of Captain Healy, as one of the most notable seaman and navigator of his time in the Bering Sea and Alaskan Arctic regions. (Credit: USCG)
During visits to Siberia across the Bering Sea from the Alaskan coast, Healy brought reindeer from Siberia to Alaska to help provide the Chukchi people with food and clothing. Healy’s humanitarian efforts were noted in the New York Sun in 1894: “Captain Healy's special compassion for the native population was expressed in many deeds and in his standing order: "Never make a promise to a native you do not intend to keep to the letter." According to the Sun, Healy’s reputation in Alaska made him more distinguished “than any president of the United States or any potentate of Europe.”

“[Healy] stands for law and order in many thousands of land and water, and if you should ask in the Arctic Sea, 'Who is the greatest man in America?' the instant answer would be 'Why, Mike Healy,’” the paper noted. “When an innocent citizen of the Atlantic coast once asked on the Pacific who Mike Healy was, the answer came, 'Why, he’s the United States. He holds in these parts a power of attorney for the whole country.'"

 

 
 
 
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