Updated Nov. 14
A Vineyarder traveled to one of the northernmost parts of Iceland this summer, to read out loud a dedication for a U.S. Coast Guard crew that served during World War II, which included his father.
Mark Alexander, financial advisor at Martha’s Vineyard Securities, said that eight decades ago, the crew of the Northland, a U.S. Coast Guard submarine chaser, received a special certificate for crossing the Arctic Circle on July 15, 1943. The certificate listed the exact location where the ship crossed: a longitude of 16 degrees, 10 minutes west and a latitude of 66 degrees, 33 minutes north.
“I knew this was at the bottom of my dad’s dresser all folded up,” Alexander said of the certificate. “I had seen it when I was a teenager, but it didn’t hit me. At the time, I’d never been to Iceland before.”
The document was decorated with a ship sailing across an icy sea and Neptunus Rex, “ruler of the raging main,” who was accompanied by a sea lion and a polar bear, and brandished a trident. The message on the certificate was Neptunus Rex granting permission and safe passage to the sailors in his domain.
Similar certificates have been issued to sailors for crossing certain points of the world aboard other military vessels, such as to the crews on the USS Connecticut on Jan. 6, 1908 (held by the Mariners’ Museum and Park in Virginia) and the USAT Seascamp on Feb. 9, 1944 (held by the Pritzker Military Museum and Library in Illinois).
“My dad didn’t think this was a historic thing,” Alexander said, adding he wouldn’t be surprised if the same type of document was folded up in other people’s dressers. “In fact, he never went back there. He did go to Iceland … Reykjavik.”
The senior Alexander was U.S. Coast Guard Chief Petty Officer Paul Alexander, who passed away in 2006. He handled radio communications and mail distribution aboard the Northland. According to Mark Alexander, the 55-man crew was actually sailing toward the English Channel, at times crossing through enemy waters during the night, when they crossed the Arctic Circle. This was to scout out potential landing spots in Europe, a part of the planning process that would lead nearly a year later to the D-Day landings in Normandy, France, on June 6, 1944.
“My father was the radio man, and he had no idea why the ship was in the English Channel, nor did he know the nature of the mission; nor even if there was ever going to be a D-Day in the future,” Mark wrote. “Only the captain knew the heading and the mission.”
Eighty years to the day of the Northland’s crossing, Mark Alexander arrived with his wife, Connie Alexander, and a friend in Iceland, Selja Janthong, and ventured out to the northernmost lighthouse in Iceland, called Hraunhafnartangi. The location was close to the coordinates listed on the document his father received.
Mark carried with him a dedication he wrote for his father and the crew of the Northland. He read it “as loudly as I could” at the lighthouse on July 15, 2023.
“We here now and all our family and friends now know that our future was in that ship,” the dedication reads in part. “Had the ship been hit by any kind of enemy fire, and my father and his shipmates been killed, then all of my father’s descendants and the unborn descendants of his shipmates would have been wiped out before any of us were born.”
The dedication concludes by asking Paul to send “any sort of message, no matter how short,” if he could, and if he does, “we will all be listening.”
Mark said that he approached The Times with his father’s story to pay respect to veterans, but he also recognized that there may no longer be any people alive who were aboard the Northland.
“There’s only me to give testament to it, based on a few pieces of paper and a history of where my dad really was,” he said.
Updated with the correct spelling for Selja Janthong’s surname.