Sunday, March 08, 2009

Sunday Ship History: North to Thule

The time travel machine takes us back to the 1950's  - the days of the Cold War. The days when the United States and its allies were on guard against a surprise attack coming over the North Pole, the shortest distance between the Soviet Union and North America. The allies were trying to establish their own northern bases from which military aircraft could be supported in providing a line of defense across the top of the world. One such base was built over 600 miles above the Arctic Circle on the west coast of Denmark's Greenland. Though the base is operated by the U.S. Air Force, its construction owes a great deal to the the United States Navy, the Military Sealift Command (formerly MSTS)and hundreds of sailors.

As set out here, the Thule project began in secret:
The Thule Air Base was constructed in total secrecy by the US military under the code name 'Blue Jay' in 1951. An armada of 120 shipments, 12,000 men, and 300,000 tons of cargo arrived in North Star Bay in July 1951, and construction immediately began. Living on board the ships and working around the clock, most of the airfield and base were built in only 60 days. Buildings were constructed with refrigerator-like Clements panels, and propped on pilings to prevent melting into the permafrost. During its peak, it housed approximately 10,000 personnel. Now, less than 1,000 men and women are stationed there.
In fact, before the push to construct an air base in Thule, there was a radio site located there that required resupply under difficult conditions:
"Nanook 50" was the operational code word for the resupply runs to Thule, Greenland and Resolute, Cornwallis Island, Canada. These supply runs took place in the summer months ( late June through August ) in the years 1947, 48, 49, and 50. In 1951 a secret operation code named "Blue Jay" replaced the Nanook operations. This operation now declassified brought together a massive supply and construction operation to build what is now Thule Air Base.
The later base-building secret deployment of 12,000 construction workers was accomplished by Military Sealift Command and the U.S. Navy, Coast Guard and Canadian forces:
In late 1952, while American attention was focused on the conflict on the Korean peninsula and toward the Cold War brewing in Europe, the Military Sea Transportation Service disclosed something unique in American military history, a secret operation . . . Of extreme importance was the enlargement of the Air Force base at Thule (Operation Blue Jay) so that it could support the new B-36 nuclear-capable strategic bombers, aptly named the "Peacemaker.

Commanded by Rear Admiral L. J. Huffman and under the direction of the first commander of MSTS, Vice Admiral Callaghan, 37 ships of MSTS, mainly time-chartered Victory ships, transported the necessary equipment while transports served as barracks for Army and Air Force engineers during the construction phase.

The location of Thule, 700 miles north of the Arctic Circle, required the ships to sail in company with icebreakers from the Canadian and American Navy and Coast Guard. Due to the heavy flow ice, ships needed to depart by early September, or face a winter trapped in the ice. The mission posed serious dangers to the crews and ships. The tanker USNS Sappa Creek experienced a radar malfunction and while in reduced visibility struck an iceberg and suffered severe damage to its bow, but was able to continue its mission.
The trip to Thule was delayed by heavy ice and the civilian construction crews were stuck for several extra days on ships waiting for the ice to thin enough for ice breakers to lead them to the Thule area (code name "Blue Jay"). An interesting diary of the transit and construction is here:
June 5th 1951
11 LST's - 3 LSM, left Norfolk headed north - weather sunny and hot turning to a chilly rain while at sea - Our flag ship of convoy with commander Fuller staff LST 980.
Attaining 9 knots hour and about 200-240 miles per day.
Have 64 N.A.C. men aboard with one superintendent, four foremen and my assistant convoy Lt. Mr. Chuck Greene.
June 14
Crew alerted for 24 hours watch for growlers (submerged icebergs) which are more dangerous because you come upon them before you know they are there - then Smack!!!! - Also sighted first iceberg - it was in distance - Capt. Bryan estimated it was eight miles of starboard out to sea - about 300 feet high and 700 yards from pinnacle to pinnacle - we stayed far away from that one, as ¾ of icebergs is usually submerged, and that's the part that raises havoc with ships.
June 17
Sighted coast of Greenland about 12 miles from ship.
Not visible to take pictures.
"Blue-Jay" still far off (1158 miles away yet).
June 20
Ice flow and bergs hampering progress - also fog.
Commander proceeding with caution since Ice-breaker can't be located, and we were expecting them to lead us balance of journey to "Blue-Jay".
Weather now very cold and miserable in general - Convoy at a complete stop because we're surrounded by ice, and Commander fears being hemmed in.
Second Convoy at our rear, having caught us because of our plight.
Snowing heavily for first snowfall of season.
Saw birds that resemble penguins, but figured they weren't since penguins are not found at North Pole.
Approximately 200 miles from job site and thought very discouraging at being so near and yet so far.
June 26
6th day ice bound - cold, foggy and miserable in general - Ice bergs all around - gradually closing in on us like a pair of hands around someone's throat - Staff and Crew worried - NAG personnel continuing discontentment - many plan to quit as soon as we arrive at Job Site, they're so angered at "run-around" they think they're getting.
Most though reallze that obstacles of nature the Navy is not responsible for.
June 30th
Tenth day ice bound - still no progress - supplies running short - men thoroughly dissatisfied at everyone and everything - sea calm, but weather very cold - "Blue Nose" certificates presented - given to any person who crosses the Arctic circle - food still diminishing, but by careful rationing it's holding out.
July 9th
34th day at sea and as yet no site of Blue Jay - although convoy now through main portion of ice pack, still no visible proof that Blue Jay can be reached soon unless open sea appears from no where.
Our troop ship the Piconic rammed the stern of LST-1144 causing considerable damage while ships weaving through ice pack to elude icebergs.
No personnel lost, but both crews frightened to death practicably since one would die from freezing or exposure if thrown into the water.
Men all on deck watch wonderful way Navy's officers and crew synchronize as a team as orders are flung at them guiding our ship thru perilous waters.
July 10 Sighted an epic of the true sea tradition - a small Danish rowboat with eleven men all huddled together to keep warm and proudly flying the Danish Flag.
Their fishing ship had been sunk by bergs and they had weathered nature elements until we saved them.
They were all hardy blond Norsemen and very very likeable.
None complained of the disaster - only thanked God of their deliverance.
NAC men and crew chatted all day with saved Danes and heard many remarkable tales.
Ships flow in open water, and unless something unforeseen occurs, will be at Blue Jay sometime today.
Plan to take pictures of beach and landing.
1301. - One minute after l PM "Blue Jay" dropped anchor - men cheering madly - reminiscent of Times Square en New Year's - tears in many eyes as drama of past 5 days at sea now at an end.
Sea choppy and landing impossible for a while as yet - Packed all gear in preparation for debarkation - Saluted Commander and crew and staff and left by LCVP at 5:22 - landed at "Blue Jay" at 5:41.PM.
Met Jack Altig, project Superintendent and assumed official duties at once.
A list of the LSTs. USNS ships and other units involved in "Blue Jay" is available here, along with a nice summary of the operation.

Once established at Thule, the construction of an air force base faced some unusual problems:
The minimum temperature and maximum wind velocity were not known in this part of the world when the base was planned. Therefore everything was built to the highest standards possible for temperatures of -100 F (-73 C) and winds up to 200 mph (320 km/hr). Special designs were also incorporated from lessons learned in Alaska during WWII.

. . . While it is probably correct to state that Thule AFB became operational before 1953, it was far from being completed at that time. It was built by 5,000 to 8500 experienced U S construction workers, toiling ten hours per day and seven days per week, a majority of which were employed by North Atlantic Constructors (NAC). . .

Arctic building Buildings that had to be at ground level, like aircraft hangars, had double floors with cold air circulating between the two floors. All other buildings were well above ground. This prevented the permafrost from thawing out and drastically shifting. As long as the 1600 feet (480 m) thick permafrost stayed frozen, Thule sat on solid ground. If it thawed, it was just a slushy mix of water and gravel. Everything was designed to keep the permafrost frozen as much as possible.
Steam, water and electric lines were run above ground in insulated conduits.

Thule AFB was one of the TDY locations for air refueling squadrons flying KC-97 tankers for refueling B-36 and B-47 bombers which were cycling on alert across the Arctic Ocean during the Cold War.

Today Thule is still an active base, boasting the only Air Force operated deep water port (summer use only) with an Air Force tugboat. The mission of Thule has changed:
Despite the lower defense profile today, Thule is still on the first line of defense. The air base has the Ballistic Missile Early Warning System, a two-sided, solid-state, phased-array radar system that just celebrated its 40th anniversary.

The primary mission is to provide early warning against launching of intercontinental ballistic missiles and sea-launched ballistic missiles against the United States and Canada. The radar tracks the skies over most of the northern hemisphere from Labrador to Alaska in a fan-shaped pattern, focusing on northern Russia for signs of missile or rocket launches.

The site is one of three keeping eyes on the skies — 24 hours a day. The other sites are in Alaska and England. Together they cover from China to Africa. The radar can track objects the size of a softball 3,000 miles out in space. It’s also able to track up to 16 satellites or missiles within 1/18 of a second. If a launch is detected, the crew commander of the three-member missile warning operation center calls the Missile Warning Center at Cheyenne Mountain Air Force Station, Colo. If any attack were imminent, the Thule crew would be the likely ones to see it first.

“After it’s spotted, it’s about 30 minutes until impact,” said Lt. Col. Dale Smith, the operations officer of the site. “That’s why we have a manned crew, in case the computer hardware and software go ‘kerplunk.’ ”

The unit also watches space for satellite re-entries, breakups and decays.

Maneuverable satellites that do not belong to the United States or its allies are watched to see if there is any change in orbits. Since the days of Sputnik, the site has tracked more than 26,000 objects in space. There are still 8,331 still in orbit. The site monitors nearly 400 to 500 orbiting objects on a daily basis.


  1. Anonymous1:48 PM

    Thanks!! Enjoyed reading the history of the construction of Thule Airbase. My dad was one of the construction crew that came up from Norfolk and he proudly displayed the document certifying he was a member of the Knights of the Blue Noses. He also had boxes of photos of the icebergs, glaciers, etc.-all so cold. Must have been hard dangerously cold work but he remembered it as a great adventure in his later years.

  2. Anonymous9:15 PM

    My Dad was also involved in the construction of Thule. Am interested in talking with anyone who might have info or pictures to share.
    Daughter of a Blue Nose.

  3. Anonymous8:03 PM

    I was on LST 525 as part of this operation. I remember being stuck in ice for many days before "cutters: freed us!