Joseph Holoubek

'So iced up we couldn't use it'


During his years on the USS Northland in World War II, Joseph Holoubek battled ice as he did Nazis.

It was so cold in the waters of the North Atlantic, he said, you'd last only three minutes if you fell in the water.

His face swathed with a giant beard to protect it from temperatures 40 degrees below zero and ice storms, Holoubek and the Coast Guard cutter's crew stopped three times a day to whack their ship free of ice with whatever they had on hand: baseball bats, screwdrivers, hammers, sledges and wedges, too.

Holoubek worried first about his gun, the forward gun he was in charge of as a gunner's mate on the ice breaker.

"It got so iced up we couldn't use it," said Holoubek, 89. "But submarines couldn't surface anyhow, so we liked that part of the weather. And we had to do this, all hands on the ship had to get up and chip ice."

The Northland watched for German submarines up in the North Atlantic, around Iceland and Greenland. It helped knock out German radio stations on islands around Greenland, stations that took weather readings.

"The weather forms up there. So they knew when the weather was right for the Germans to go over and bomb England and France. The British didn't have this information. They'd fly their bombers over and the weather would close in. And they couldn't drop their bombs because they didn't know where the hell they were at."

On one occasion the Northland got so stuck in the ice, it had to blast its way out, fingers crossed, with 500 pounds of dynamite. No one knew if the ship would hold when the ice blew.

"The Northland - boom! - went up in the air, the ice started breaking all around, chips flying. It was a big mess below."

On one of the raids with the Army, thick ice prevented the Northland from moving right in. The crew finally sent Army troops and some Coast Guard guys in on foot. They carried in all the supplies, then hiked to a crest at the back of the island. Army commandoes were supposed to top the crest the next morning and raid the radio station.

"What happens is, they come charging over the hill to raid the radio station and here's our guys out there waving, 'Don't shoot! Don't shoot!' The ice had moved out - ice moves. And so our ship pulled right up almost to shore. They put the motorboat over, they went in, the Germans surrendered, they took them aboard ship," he said,

"And then the Army comes charging over."