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Iceberg Smith's 1931 Graf Zeppelin Arctic Expedition
by William H. Thiesen, Atlantic Area Historian, USCG - October 4, 2015

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“It was a magical journey, this Arctic cruise of 8,000 miles in 136 hours! In the kaleidoscope of swiftly moving scenes, the highlights of our voyage seemed like flashes upon the screen, so quickly was one impression replaced by the next.”

In the above quote, Coast Guard officer Lt. Cmdr. Edward “Iceberg” Smith wrote in a journal article his enthusiasm for an important Arctic expedition in the German airship Graf Zeppelin. Of the approximately 40 expedition members, Smith was one of the only American participants and the only U.S. military member aboard the Zeppelin.

Left -Official service photograph of Lt. Cmdr. Edward “Iceberg” Smith taken before the historic 1931 Graf Zeppelin Arctic expedition. Right - Iceberg Smith taking observations from the comfort of Graf Zeppelin’s passenger gondola. (Image created by USA Patriotism from photos courtesy of the U.S. Coast Guard)
Left -Official service photograph of Lt. Cmdr. Edward “Iceberg” Smith taken before the historic 1931 Graf Zeppelin Arctic expedition. Right - Iceberg Smith taking observations from the comfort of Graf Zeppelin's passenger gondola. (Image created by USA Patriotism from photos courtesy of the U.S. Coast Guard)

In 1913, Edward H. Smith graduated from the Revenue Cutter Service Academy, forerunner of the U.S. Coast Guard Academy. He was born and raised on the island of Martha's Vineyard and descended from a family long associated with whaling and the sea. Like many of his classmate, such as Elmer Stone, Fletcher Brown and Carl Christian von Paulsen, Smith enjoyed a distinguished and interesting career in the Coast Guard.

Early in that career, Smith served aboard several cutters, including the Manning, which performed convoy duty in World War I. It was in 1920, when he received assignment to the Cutter Seneca and the International Ice Patrol that Smith developed a life-long interest in oceanography and the Arctic, and became known as “Iceberg” Smith. For the next decade, Smith engaged in the scientific study of iceberg formation at Harvard University, where he earned a master's degree in 1924. In 1928, he used Cutter Marion to perform a survey of one of the most prolific iceberg-producing regions, located in West Greenland. In recognition of his scientific studies, Harvard awarded him a doctorate in geologic and oceanographic physics in 1930. He was the first Coast Guardsman to receive a doctoral degree and became recognized as an international authority on Arctic ice.

The Graf Zeppelin Expedition proved a combination of Arctic exploration and Indiana Jones-style adventure. On one hand, the Zeppelin served as a platform to support Germany's state-of-the-art scientific equipment, including a geomagnetic laboratory, a nine-lens panoramic mapping camera, and a hot-air balloon weather-sensing probe. On the other hand, members of the German Foreign Office saw the expedition as a way to strengthen German-Soviet ties and claim previously uncharted lands to show the world that Germany had not renounced an interest in territorial expansion.

Smith must have marveled at the airship's technology and appointments. It boasted a navigation station equal to any contemporary sea-going vessel, meteorological equipment for predicting local pressure systems at least three times a day, as well as smokeless cigarettes and frost proof fountain pens. During the expedition, Smith would be passing over some of the most forbidding lands on Earth from the comfort of an electrically heated cabin with picture windows to view the frigid landscape below. Smith enjoyed the warmth and comfort unknown in the frozen often-deadly struggles carried out by ice-bound explorers.

As dawn broke on Friday, July 24, 1931, Iceberg Smith and his airshipmates embarked the Zeppelin in its hangar at Friedrichshafen, Germany, and its 300-man ground crew walked the airship to its take-off point. By 8:35 a.m., the Zeppelin was on its way to Berlin, where it arrived at 6:00 p.m., circled the city several times for the benefit of local spectators and set down for the night at nearby Templehof Field.

The next morning, Graf Zeppelin began the first leg of its journey with a flight to Leningrad, Russia, by way of Helsinki, Finland. Soviet fighter aircraft met the airship at the Russian-Finnish border to escort the Zeppelin around sensitive coastal defense installations and on to Leningrad. After Graf Zeppelin landed at Leningrad's Commandant Aerodrome, Smith and the rest of the crew received an official welcome by local Soviet leaders and enjoyed a lavish banquet. That evening, the Soviets topped off fuel, stores and hydrogen gas and Soviet members of the expedition stowed their gear on board the Zeppelin.

In the morning of Sunday, July 26, Smith and the airship's scientists and crew were ready to begin their 8,000-mile aeroarctic journey. Graf Zeppelin proceeded from Leningrad over the port city of Archangel and the White Sea, at altitudes between 500 and 1,500 feet, before heading due north through the Arctic Circle and over the open water of the Barents Sea. As the airship flew farther north, the temperature dropped from 60 degrees to 50 to nearly freezing. The open water began to exhibit ice patches, then ice floes and, finally, a solid ice sheet.

Graf Zeppelin spent Sunday evening and most of the next day crossing the Barents Sea and by 4:30 p.m., Monday, July 27, Smith and the crew first sighted islands of the Franz Josef Land group. The airship made landfall at the glacier covered headlands of Cape Flora, however, Graf Zeppelin continued on to nearby Hooker Island, site of the most northerly meteorological observatory, and rendezvous point with the Soviet icebreaker Malygin. At 5:00 p.m., the airship descended to the water's surface and Malygin sent out a boat with naval officers and meteorologists. The boat and Zeppelin exchanged post bags full of mail with unique German North Pole stamps cancelled using an exotic postmark on board the airship. The postmarked mail was returned to Germany by way of the U.S.S.R. The meeting between Zeppelin and icebreaker proved brief as ice floes drew dangerously close to Graf Zeppelin's low-hanging gondola.

After the rendezvous with Malygin, Graf Zeppelin continued to the northeast to photomap the rest of Franz Josef Land. The survey of this island group revealed several features not seen from ground level, including new islands and peninsulas previously believed to be islands. A Russian scientist aboard the Zeppelin estimated that three hours of aerial mapping represented about four summers of survey work by a land-based party.

At midnight on Tuesday, July 28, Graf Zeppelin reached the northernmost latitude of its trip at 81� 50� N, about 565 miles south of the North Pole. German insurance firms would not cover accidents or mishaps north of latitude 82� N due to the treacherous conditions and odds against rescue between that latitude and the pole.

From the expedition's most northerly point, Smith noted, “Here was one of the most beautiful scenes of the trip, looking northward towards the midnight sun, then just below the horizon. All objects appeared to be bathed in the soft and mellow light except where a golden reflection shone brightly along a glittering, icy path between us and the pole.”

From Franz Josef Land, Graf Zeppelin proceeded to the island of Severnaya Zemlya, located 300 miles to the east. During the flight, Smith witnessed unusual formations in the sea ice, including smoothly polished ice disks one to two miles in diameter, and patches of brown, green and yellow color caused by algae in pools of melt water. As the airship approached the island, Smith found that the sea ice formed a continuous sheet from glaciers flowing down from Severnaya Zemlya's northern headlands.

After arriving at the island, Graf Zeppelin assumed an altitude of 4,000 feet to begin its photographic survey. In 1914, a Russian icebreaker had charted the island's shoreline, but humans had never seen the island's interior. The survey of the land mass revealed that it was actually two islands separated in the center by a wide channel and Smith saw little vegetation nor evidence of animal life.

From Severnaya Zemlya, Graf Zeppelin crossed the Vilkitski Strait to the Taimyr Peninsula. The ice and snow of the island group gave way to the dark earth colors of tundra, and the crew discovered a new uncharted mountain range. Smith saw the trip's first animal life, including large waterfowl and herds of reindeer, which scattered in every direction as the airship drew near. In two hours, the Zeppelin reached Lake Taimyr, a distance that took the most recent land expedition a month to cover on foot. Graf Zeppelin's scientists conducted a complete camera survey of the lake, mapping many features never seen or charted before.

Departing the Taimyr Peninsula, theZzeppelin crossed the Kara Sea on its way to the massive island of Novaya Zemlya. Graf Zeppelin passed over pack ice most of the trip until open water appeared for a few miles around the island. The Zeppelin ascended to about 4,000 feet at the northern tip of the island and began a photographic survey along its length. Smith witnessed the island's mountainous landscape, covered by snow and ice and punctuated by glaciers calving hundreds of icebergs into the water.

The Arctic's icy landscape in 1931 as seen from the Graf Zeppelin. (U.S. Coast Guard courtesy photo enhanced by USA Patriotism!)
The Arctic's icy landscape in 1931 as seen from the Graf Zeppelin. (U.S. Coast Guard courtesy photo enhanced by USA Patriotism!)

After surveying Novaya Zemlya, Graf Zeppelin flew straight over Archangel and continued on to Germany. Originally, the Zeppelin was scheduled to stop in Leningrad, but the Germans altered that plan at the last minute and the airship proceeded directly to Berlin. At Berlin, the Zeppelin stopped for only a half hour then left for its home base at Fredrichshafen. After only 136 hours in flight, with no mishaps or problems, Graf Zeppelin returned to Friedrichshafen at 5:00 a.m., Friday, July 31.

Despite the inability to fly north of latitude 82� N, the expedition proved an unqualified success. Graf Zeppelin had passed over vast regions never seen by the human eye and discovered new landforms, such as islands, mountain ranges and peninsulas. It also photographically surveyed large parts of the Russian arctic previously unknown and un-mapped. In presaging the use of aviation in the Coast Guard's modern International Ice Patrol, Smith ended his report by concluding that aviation would prove very useful in the Coast Guard's role of monitoring iceberg production in West Greenland waters.
Iceberg Smith taking observations from the comfort of Graf Zeppelin's passenger gondola. U.S. Coast Guard photo.

The 1931 Graf Zeppelin expedition proved the first and most successful venture in the history of German polar exploration, but it was also the last airship expedition. The poles had remained one of the final frontiers of human exploration prior to man's journey into space and the Graf Zeppelin proved that polar exploration could be accomplished safely and comfortably with the aid of airship technology. However, when Adolph Hitler's National Socialist Party ended Germany's Weimar Republic in the early 1930s, the Zeppelins no longer ventured into the Arctic.

Iceberg Smith continued to work on ice-related missions after completing the Graf Zeppelin expedition. He led a long and distinguished Coast Guard career, commanding cutters in Alaska and assuming command of the International Ice Patrol. During World War II, he commanded the Greenland Patrol, the Coast Guard command responsible for the Greenland theater of operations.

In 1950, Smith retired as a rear admiral and became director of the Oceanographic Institution at Woods Hole, where he served for six years before retiring for good. He passed away in 1961 and was buried with his ancestors at Martha's Vineyard. Iceberg Smith was one of the Service's long blue line, who devoted his life to increasing our knowledge of the Arctic and sea ice formation for the safety and benefit of all who navigate the world's Polar Regions.

By William H. Thiesen
Atlantic Area Historian, U.S. Coast Guard
Provided by U.S. Coast Guard
Copyright 2015

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