A photo of Captain Mike HealyCaptain Michael A. Healy, the only African American to have a command or commission in any of the Coast Guard’s predecessor services, commanded the cutter Bear from 1887 to 1895. Healy retired as the third highest-ranking officer from the Revenue Cutter Service.
One of ten children born in Macon, Georgia, to an Irish immigrant and a slave of mixed blood, Healy habitually ran away from school. At the urging of his brother, who felt sea life would discipline the youngster, the 15-year-old Healy was hired as a cabin boy abroad the clipper Jumna in 1855. He applied to and was accepted by the Revenue Cutter Service in March of 1865, was promoted to Second Lieutenant in June 1886, and to First Lieutenant in July 1870.
As First Lieutenant, Healy was ordered aboard the cutter Rush, to patrol Alaskan waters for the first time. He became known as a brilliant seaman and was considered by many the best sailor in the North. A feature article in the January 28, 1884 New York Sun stated: "Captain Mike Healy is a good deal more distinguished person in the waters of the far Northwest than any president of the United States or my potentate in Europe has yet become."
Healy distinguished himself when he took command of the cutter Bear, considered by many the greatest polar ship of its time, in 1886. The ship was charged with "seizing any vessel found sealing in the Bering Sea." By 1892, the Bear, Rush and Corwin had made so many seizures that tension developed between the United States and British merchants. Healy was also tasked with bringing medical and other aid to the Alaska Natives, making weather and ice reports, preparing navigation charts, rescuing distressed vessels, transporting special passengers and supplies, and fighting violators of federal laws. He served as deputy U.S. Marshal and represented federal law in Alaska for many years.
On one of Bear’s annual visits to King Island, Healy found a native population reduced to 100 people and begging for food. After ordering food and clothing, Healy worked with Dr. Sheldon Jackson of the Bureau of Education to import reindeer from the Siberian Chukchi, another Eskimo population. During the next ten years, Revenue cutters brought some 1,100 reindeer to Alaska . The Bureau of Education took charge of landing and distributing the deer, and missionary schools taught the natives to raise and care for the animals. By 1940, Alaska’s domesticated reindeer herds had risen to 500,000.
The Coast Guard named an icebreaker for Michael Healy, in acknowledgment of his inspiring commitment to the Service, including his invaluable assistance to Alaska Natives.