Hell-Roaring Mike's a Hero

By Captain W. Russell Webster, U.S. Coast Guard

By 1864, Healy already was an established seaman. With the advent of the Civil War, he returned home and sought a commission in the Revenue Cutter Service (RCS), receiving his appointment as a third lieutenant in 1865. He rose steadily through the ranks of the RCS, serving on various cutters on the East Coast, and by 1883 Healy had achieved the rank of captain. He took command of the Revenue Cutter Bear in 1886, and for the next nine years, "acted as judge, doctor, and policeman to the natives and whites of Alaska. The Bear , in short, became a floating government."

Healy was widely respected for his law-enforcement prowess. In January 1894, a New York Sun writer said of Healy's stature in Alaska and the Arctic:

Captain Mike Healy is a good deal more distinguished than any President of the United States or any potentate of Europe has yet become. He stands for law and order in many thousands of miles 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." 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."

For twenty years or more Captain Healy has been the sole representative of legal authority in much of the territory north of Port Townsend. To the indians of that region he stands for the United States government. To the whalers of the Arctic he is by turns a beneficent providence and an avenging Nemesis. Everybody in San Francisco knows him. He has time and again suppressed disorder and prevented crime in regions a thousand miles from any legally constituted authority. He is the ideal commander of the old school, bluff, prompt, fearless, just. He knows the Bering Sea, the Straits, and even the Arctic as no other man knows them.

Captain Healy spent 20 years on ships operating between San Francisco and Point Barrow and set a "standard of performance never matched. Thousands owed their lives to his skill and daring in rescue operations." His humanitarian spirit is best exemplified in his co-authorship and execution of the great reindeer experiment to aid the Alaskan Eskimos.

Visiting King Island in the Bering Sea with Dr. Sheldon Jackson, Healy was shocked to learn that fur traders had overharvested seals, leaving the natives bereft of their usual source of food. More than 200 villagers had died from the effects of alcohol and starvation. Familiar with the Chuckhi natives of Siberia and their use of reindeer for food, clothing, and transportation, Healy quickly came up with a solution. He would transport reindeer to the island on board the cutter Bear . Dr. Jackson would administer the program and provide the natives training in reindeer herding and breeding.

The legitimate seat of government was more than 3,000 miles away, so the initial financial backing to get the project under way came directly from Healy's pocket. Dr. Jackson eventually spoke to Congress about the program and was able to get funds and additional cutters for the program. "Over the following decade over 1,200 animals were transported across the Bering Strait. Estimates vary but most agree that the herds eventually multiplied to over half a million. This great and successful social experiment provided the means of survival to Alaskan Eskimos at a critical period."

The Bad

Alcohol consumption on board ship was not unusual in Healy's time. "Charges of drunkenness were commonplace, particularly in the Bering Sea, where cold and damp weather made warming spirits attractive.” Indeed, as one Healy scholar has noted, "On more than one occasion Captain Healy would spend up to 72 hours in the crows nest of his vessel guiding it through the ice to safety. It is perhaps understandable that he sought relief in a warming bottle of brandy when such labors ended."

But Healy had developed a drinking problem, and during the Bear's 1895 cruise, his proclivity for drink made him an easy target for those who did not approve of his harsh mannerisms and strict disciplinary ways. Twenty-five officers of the RCS, all junior to Healy, signed charges alleging an array of misconduct and forwarded them to Secretary of the Treasury J. G. Carlisle in Washington, D.C. After an investigation, on 8 June 1896, Secretary Carlisle issued an order that dropped Captain Michael A. Healy to the foot of the list of captains of the Revenue Service; suspended him from rank and command and kept him on waiting orders for a term of four years; and publicly reprimanded him by reading this order on board all vessels of the Revenue Cutter Service. The three officers at his court martial had found him guilty of:

  • Conduct to the prejudice of good order and discipline
  • Conduct unbecoming an officer and a gentleman
  • Tyrannous and abusive conduct to inferiors
  • Conduct detrimental to discipline
  • Placing a vessel in perilous position while in an intoxicated condition, thereby endangering the lives and property under his command
  • Insulting and abusive treatment of officers
  • Drunkenness to the scandal of the service

The Ugly

After his four-year suspension, Captain Healy returned to duties with the RCS as commanding officer of the West Coast cutter McCulloch . His fortunes quickly were soured, however, by a series of devastating personal tragedies. Soon after reporting on board the McCulloch he watched the burial at sea of his lifelong friend Captain C. L. Hooper. This was followed by the death of his oldest brother and surrogate father, James. "Then came another blow. He was to return to San Francisco and turn over command to W. C. Coulson, one of the judges at his court martial."

Healy's final setback occurred when he was ordered to take command of the cutter Seminole out of Boston. Near the end of a career that saw him become the preeminent sailor of treacherous Arctic waters, he was bitterly disappointed; the position was "similar to the one he had as a lieutenant 25 years earlier." On 7 July 1900, he was found "dead drunk" and threatening his own life. Restrained by his officers, Healy nevertheless attempted four times to commit suicide, twice by jumping over the side, once by hanging himself, and finally, by slashing an artery with the crystal of a watch.

After a period of treatment in a Port Townsend hospital, Captain Healy was sent home. In 1902, his case was reviewed by a new administration, which found that the captain had been treated too harshly and that his trial had been unfair. Healy was reinstated to the number three place on the captain's list and given command of the cutter Thetis . He then completed successful cruises to Alaska in 1902 to 1903. He retired in 1904 at the required age of 65 and died of heart failure less than a year later.

A Man of His Time

In the latter part of the 1800s, Captain Mike Healy and other RCS cutter commanding officers labored in a climate of immense freedoms and incomparable responsibilities. "The captains of the cutters patrolling the Bering and Arctic.... were always enjoined to `protect the interests of the government,' a formula which allowed them almost unlimited discretion in carrying out their missions.

The 'interests of the government,' magnified by the vast distances, extreme climate, and sparse population of Alaska, were numerous and varied."

The main maritime business in Alaska's waters was whaling, "an occupation made dangerous by the conditions of Arctic navigation . . . endless fog, treacherous and shifting water currents, unpredictable gale force winds, and the lack of reliable charts, lights, or other aids-to-navigation magnified the toll taken by the Arctic." It was hazardous work, and the officers and crew of the whaling ships were paid handsomely for it. But no such monetary benefits were offered to officers in the RCS in 1880. Notes John Murphy, "It was not high salaries which drew certain of the officers of the Revenue Marine to volunteer service in Alaska and in the Arctic. Personal comfort was never the rule in the Arctic; political preferment was to be gained elsewhere; and the hazards of Arctic navigation brushed aside the faint hearted."

Within this context, Healy's harsh authoritarian, no-nonsense manner and more than occasional drinking bouts are perhaps more understandable, but they made him the bane of the Women's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) and the Coast Seaman's Union, both of which denounced him as a "drunken monster whose atrocities aboard ship out-rivaled those of the Spanish Inquisition." In February 1890, Healy faced his first court-martial, charged with being drunk on duty and tricing up mutineers on whaling ships—after being called in to enforce discipline by merchant captains afraid of unruly crewmen.

Tricing up was a disciplinary practice; a man's hands were manacled behind his back and then he was pulled up by a rope that had been run over a beam until his toes barely touched the deck. No permanent damage was done, but the WCTU and the seaman in this case felt that Healy's punishment had been excessive and barbaric. Healy felt the tricing up was needed to frighten the mutineer, and he let the court know that he was "the only representative of the United States." As he described the behavior of the men, which the WCTU had called "inoffensive," he repeated some of the language they had used in addressing their captains, officers, and himself. The women of the WCTU were deeply affronted, and they wrote Secretary Carlisle an angry letter about Healy's demeanor. Eventually, however, the mutineer seaman was discredited and Healy was acquitted of all charges.

One of the whaling captains who relied on Healy's law- enforcement abilities could not resist a parting shot at the WCTU ladies. He described a feat of shiphandling by Healy on the very day Healy was accused of being drunk in Alaska. The captain concluded, "If it takes a drunken man to do that, a man better get drunk."

But by 1895, Captain Healy had been overtaken by a new era, one in which he found himself out of place. "When Captain Mike first put to sea, sea captains drank hard and drove their crews hard. It had always been this way. Now a new day dawned. Young officers were now trained at a School of Instruction and became aware of their rights, as well as their responsibilities. 'Hell Roaring Mike's' style had no place in the new day."

A Well-Deserved Honor

Given Captain Healy's somewhat checkered career, some within the Coast Guard have questioned the decision to name the new icebreaker in his honor, even speculating that the choice somehow was motivated by political correctness. This debate is centered on the captain's African American lineage and the fact that, historically, icebreakers have been named for winds, seas, and stars (e.g., the Northwind [WAGB-282], Polar Sea [WAGB-11], and Polar Star [WAGB-10]). According to John Thorne of the Coast Guard's Public Affairs staff, however, the Healy's naming board's unanimous recommendation was based on Healy's significant humanitarian contributions and service to the Coast Guard (then the RCS), and that these far outweigh any shortcomings in his career or personality.

Captain Michael A. Healy, RCS, was a true Coast Guard hero. His accomplishments as a law-enforcement officer, a sailor, and a humanitarian in the untamed Alaskan and Arctic areas of the late 1800s are unsurpassed. Thousands of native Alaskans and fur traders owe their lives to Captain Healy, who risked his own life on many occasions to carry out the formidable responsibilities of his command. Few cutter commanding officers then or since have experienced anything like the brutal conditions, both human and environmental, that were prevalent in Alaskan and Arctic waters.

Captain Healy also, no doubt, was an alcoholic. But to judge him by today's standards may be to judge him too harshly. Other Revenue Cutter Service officers in his situation also drank, including several of Healy's accusers. Indeed, the tradition of having alcohol on Coast Guard vessels continued until the early 1980s. Captain Healy's conduct often was unacceptable—even by the standards of his own time—but some have advanced the idea that his operational adventures in the life-threatening environment of Alaska and the Arctic would have generated enormous stress, perhaps even leading to post-traumatic stress disorder, and that this might explain some of his behavior. Certainly, the captain did not have access to anything like today's Coast Guard's psycho-social and medical systems for debriefing and follow-up care.

But there is no question that Captain Healy's accomplishments far outweigh his shortcomings. His heroics have gone unrecognized for more than a century, and even now, the uninformed may say the service has erred by naming its new icebreaker Healy . The Coast Guard should make a concerted effort to educate the general public and its own personnel about Healy and other past Coast Guard heroes, including their frailties. To do so will arm today's Coast Guardsmen with the facts when Healy's dirty laundry is aired in 15-second news clips in tomorrow's media.

Captain Webster is the group commander, Coast Guard Group Woods Hole, Massachusetts, and a frequent contributor to Proceedings and Naval History magazine.


Captain Webster is Chief of Operations, First Coast Guard District, in Boston, Massachusetts. He is a frequent contributor to Proceedings.

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