He captured the first enemy ship in World War II, was called by Admiral Byrd as 'the best ice sailor alive' and became president of the reorganized Frederick A. Cook Society in 1957.


Admiral 'Tommy' Thomas, Ice Captain of both polar regions in war and peace

Charles Ward Thomas (19031973) was quite possibly the greatest "ice admiral" of the United States in the twentieth century. He claimed pioneering experience guiding U.S. Navy ships through the treacherous Arctic Ocean floes off eastern Greenland and then in the Ross Sea in Antarctica.

President Roosevelt awarded him the Legion of Merit for heroic service in capturing the first enemy ship in wartime since the Spanish-American War, and in overcoming a German weather service base in eastern Greenland in October 1944 with the surrender of all of its personnel.

Three years later Captain Thomas was in Antarctica commanding an icebreaker for Admiral Byrd's fourth expedition, known as "Operation High Jump." In 1955 he was chief of staff for the Task Force that was known as "Operation Deep Freeze" for U.S. participation in the International Geophysical Year.

In 1957, shortly before his retirement from the U.S. Coast Guard as a Rear Admiral, Thomas accepted the presidency of the reorganized Frederick A. Cook Society. He traced his support for the explorer back to his wartime service in Greenland, meeting with the Inuit and reading Cook's account of his journey to the Pole. In his book, Ice is Where You Find It, Thomas recalled his experience in the discovery of three small uncharted islands off the east coast of Greenland:

"We named one of our newly charted islands Mikkelsen Island in honor of the [Danish] explorer. Another we named Niels Jensen Island. I insisted that another be named after Dr. Frederick Cook, who with Amundsen saved the Belgica expedition to the Antarctic in 1897 and later became the first man to reach the North Pole."

Thomas said that this was "my personal view based upon oceanographic congruities," reflecting a public opinion by an informed field person which at that time was in the decided minority. In later years Thomas would expand upon his statement in published works at Harvard University and in naval publications. The significance of Admiral Thomas in the literature of the controversy takes upon new meaning over the years and warrants a fuller examination of his extraordinary career.

Admiral Thomas, whom Rear Admiral Richard E. Byrd has termed "one of the best ice sailors alive," was to recall his first lesson in polar navigation many times. He learned it the hard way when he was assigned to the command of the coast Guard cutter Northland in wartime duty with the Greenland Patrol.

Orders to hunt for Nazi weather stations meant combating a highly unpredictable foe, learning myriad tricks and a whole new jargon about compact fields, close pack, moderate pack, brush, floebergs, heaping ice, young ice, turret ice. The Northland's skipper was an "ice worm."

The first missions were of significant military importance despite the fact that there were only a handful of German scientists and technicians in the far North Atlantic area needles in a vast frozen haystack.

The Northland was not an icebreaker and it had a reputation of being top-heavy. On one very secret mission to deliver all the equipment and establish a high-frequency direction-finder station on a remote island far north of Iceland, Captain Thomas had to sail dangerously late in the season in direct disobedience to leading orders he found in the ship's files, faced with the threat of capsizing. 

In 1944 Thomas assumed command of the first of four ocean icebreakers built during the war. Powerful and efficient, the Eastwind sailed or rather crashed its way farther north than any ship had ever traveled under its own power, and enabled its Coast Guard personnel to accomplish a unique feat: the capture of an enemy surface ship, the first such capture by the United States since the War with Spain.

In 1951, Admiral Byrd wrote of his former ice navigator:

"It was his task to convey three naval supply and command ships with thin unprotected hulls through 500 miles of the ice of this sea. To steam such ships into ice fields was unorthodox and indeed a ticklish business. Thomas, backed by the courage of Rear Admiral Richard Cruzen, made that experiment a success. It was a landmark in ice navigation."

After service as Deputy Commander of the Eastern Area of the Coast Guard, Thomas retired as a Rear Admiral in 1958. He soon accepted a position with the Oceanographic Institute at the University of Hawaii and by 1970, he was an associate in oceanography at Harvard University. That year he authored a monograph which maintained that Cook's description of glacial ice between 87 and 88 North was "a significant factor favoring Cook's attainment of the Pole."

Admiral Thomas articulated his position in a 1973 article in The Retired Officer. During that period he had become a professor of science at Nathaniel Hawthorne College in New Hampshire. From his retirement of active duty until his death, Admiral Thomas was the president of the Frederick A. Cook Society, which at that time was concerned largely with the preservation and use of the papers of the explorer. He was a frequent correspondent with Helene Cook Vetter, youngest daughter of the explorer. A tragic automobile accident in Argentina took the lives of Admiral Thomas and his wife in December 1973.

Copyright 2005 - The Frederick A. Cook Society