Sep 25

Bears in the Archive!

Tuesday, September 25, 2018 8:03 AM

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During the course of a day in the U.S. Naval Institute Photo Archive, a digital archivist can make their way through a lot of photographs. After a while, they can all seem to blend together, becoming some strange amalgamation of a battle scene, an aircraft, and a naval vessel in the mind’s eye. That’s why it’s always a treat when a photograph comes along that breaks the cycle and brings you something different, fun, or exciting. For example, this photograph:

Machinist Mate turned bear keeper feeds his new charge.

I did some extra digging about this bear and his human companion.

In the summer of 1929, the minesweeper USS Gannet (AM-41) was deployed to Alaska as aircraft tender for the Alaskan Aerial Survey. Well, at some point during her cruise, the Gannet‘s sailors got it in their heads to request a mascot for the ship. And not just any mascot; that’s right, they wanted a bear. The survey’s commanding officer, Lieutenant Commander Arthur W. Radford, agreed, if and only if one of the crew took responsibility for the bear. Once the lucky machinist’s mate volunteered (I unfortunately couldn’t find his name in my research), Radford, a future Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, took it on himself to contact the Alaskan Department of Fish and Wildlife to see if procuring a bear was actually possible.

USS Gannet (AM-41) during the 1929 Alaskan Survey.

One of the Alaskan Aerial Survey’s four Loening OL-8A amphibian observation planes is hoisted on to the Gannet‘s stern. (U.S. Naval Institute Photo Archive)

Luckily, the Alaskan authorities had recently raided a vessel from Seattle and found a bear cub that had been illegally taken from the Alaskan frontier. Because the bear had already become accustomed to humans, the authorities agreed to give it to the crew of the Gannet, if they promised to find a zoo for the bear once it began to mature. After the San Diego Zoo agreed to take the cub once the Gannet returned to her nearby home port, and the cub was brought on board.

At this point in my research, I decided to look into military bears, and how they were procured by other militaries. While there haven’t been many bear mascots in history, the few who do stand out were bought rather than granted by a government body. Wojtek, a bear that actually served in World War II carrying ammunition for the 22nd Artillery Supply Company of the Polish Army, was purchased from a young boy in Iran, who found the cub after its mother was shot.

Wojtek the bear with a Polish soldier.

Wojtek the bear with a Polish soldier.

Winnipeg, a black bear from Canada, was bought by Lt. Harry Colebourn, became mascot of the Canadian Army Veterinary Corps (CAVC) and a pet of the Second Canadian Infantry Brigade Headquarters during World War I. All the bears, however, were later donated to zoos. After the war, Wojtek was placed in the Edinburgh Zoo, where he lived until the age of 21, and Winnipeg went to the London Zoo, where she lived until the age of 20. (Fun Fact: Winnipeg was also the inspiration for that lovable classic, “Winnie-the-Pooh.”)

LT Harry Colebourne and Winnipeg "Winnie" the bear.

LT Harry Colebourne and Winnipeg “Winnie” the bear.

Now, keeping a live bear under any circumstances wouldn’t be easy, but I suspect handling bears on land is a bit easier than in the close-quarters of a ship at sea. The crew of Gannet learned this almost immediately after bringing their new, furry companion on board. In the middle of the night the young cub woke up in his cage and was a lonely. Smelling his mechanic companion, the bear pried open the metal bars of his cage and proceeded to climb over the sleeping sailors to get to his new friend. The CO was woken by shouts and cries and had to intercede on the bear and the mechanic’s behalf, so the cranky sailors wouldn’t shanghai the pair. Not surprisingly, the cub’s time on Gannet was much shorter than Wojtek or Winnipeg’s sojourns with their army companies and presented to the San Diego Zoo the next time they were at port. While I couldn’t find any more information on our furry friend past this point, I’d like to think he lived out his days happy and well-fed in the California sun.

Machinist Mate turned bear keeper feeds his new charge.

Machinist’s Mate turned bear keeper feeds his new charge.

Stories like this one are what make working in the archives so enjoyable. When I get the chance to bring to light a long-forgotten narrative and learn something new, it brings new energy to the day, and reminds me why I chose this field of study. I hope learning a little something about mascot bears and their hijinks brought some light to your day, too.