For me, life on the icecap began on Friday the 13th August 1954. I was 22 years young and too busy with life each day to understand and appreciate the value and wonder of the next 98 days of my life. Now 54 years later I can only regret I didn’t keep a daily log to help me remember each and every one of those days. The few notes I have to jog my memory I will gladly share with you.
I think I should start by telling you how I got to the icecap in the first place. It all started when I was serving a two year tour at Red Cliff, a radar site on the coast at St. Johns Newfoundland. With about six months left to go I was informed I was being transferred to Thule where a tour of duty was one year. That meant my six months would be shortened to three months. On August 7th I was on a flight out of Torbay at 0900 hours. Three hours later I was at Goose Bay waiting for an 0300 flight to Sondy for lunch and then another four hours to Thule. (C-54’s aren’t exactly jet speed) On August 9th I cleared the base and got a ride to P mountain (n32), home of the 931st AC&W where I was issued my arctic gear and learned I was on my way out to n34 on the icecap.(n33 & n34 were detachments of the 931st)
At this point I was asking myself “what the hell is the icecap.” On Friday the 13th I got the answer. I found myself on a C47 with ski’s heading for a place without a runway to land on.
When I got off the plane I looked around for some kind of building but all I saw was a few tubes sticking out of the snow and a radar dome along with a couple antenna towers and a little plywood shack. Holy crap!
It didn’t take long to figure out this was a whole nuther world. Even twenty four hours of light each day didn’t reveal anything different no matter which direction I looked. The world around me was white snow as far as the eye could see. Other than the small group of men I was to share this experience with, the only living thing I was to see in the next ninety eight days was a lone bird that probably had lost his way.
The tubes sticking out of the snow included a couple of hatchways with ladders down into the living quarters below. It was nothing more than a long steel culvert with a series of branches off each side with buildings sitting in them like square pegs in round holes.
We had names for them. Names like latrine, kitchen/mess hall, radio room etc. (you get the drift) The main hallway and branching culverts weren’t heated, only the square buildings. The unheated areas as I remember maintained a fairly constant temperature. Always below freezing of course but not consistent with outside temperatures. At the time of my arrival temperatures were mild, almost up to freezing. Before my departure it would be near fifty below. At one end of the hallway we had a large doorway to bring in supplies. Because it was below grade we had to clear a ramp way to access it. That was a job for anyone able to operate a caterpillar. It was a never ending project due to snowdrift every time the wind picked up.
The light season was the right season. The right time to stock up for the long winter. There wouldn’t be any planes in when the rough part of winter arrived. Two C47’s equipped with ski’s made regular trips with rations and other supplies and hopefully mail. Those of us that didn’t have regular duty hours like radio and radar operators did, kept busy unloading supplies etc. One of our big jobs was picking up air dropped barrels of diesel fuel to stock pile for the winter. (our generators were diesel) Our drop zone was pretty well spread out. C47’s with side doors could only drop five or six barrels on each pass, then had to circle around for another pass till they were unloaded. On rare occasions a C-119 with a door in the rear end would make a drop. All they had to do is raise up the nose of the plane and barrels would come rolling out one after another unloading in just one pass and clustered in a small area. Pilots on these drops had to show some guts. Drops had to be made at low altitude or the barrels would break open. Knowing how high you are off the deck of white snow isn’t always easy. (we were later to lose one of our C47’s flying too low)
On August 23rd (my 11th day) at 2400 hours I saw the sunset and sunrise at the same time. It was the beginning of the end of the light season. By mid November it would be sunrise and sunset followed by darkness. My notes aren’t too clear on this. Only an entry on November 9th indicates “about 2 hours of twilight today”. That leaves a huge gap in my calendar I need to fill between August and November, so let me backtrack a little. There is a strange similarity between the light and dark seasons. It is the fact that it is always the dark season when you step inside. Living buried beneath the snow shuts off all natural light whether it is the sun, the moon, or the stars.
Getting back to the C47 we lost, on September 3rd one of our regular supply planes (8460) dropped off our radar. It had gone down about 8 miles from our site. We rigged a sheet metal sail on our weasel pulling a sled hoping to track it on our radar for a rescue mission. I’m not too sure how well that worked but we did complete the rescue. The pilot had dropped down too low and simply made an unexpected belly landing. I wasn’t part of the rescue but did get to go out to the crash site a few days later to salvage equipment. Fortunately their were no serious injuries to personnel aboard. In the dark season this may have been a different story to tell.
I commented earlier that there was no runway at our site. We did have a landing strip though. One of our regular jobs was maintaining it. I wasn’t good enough with the cat to dig out our entrance but I did manage to help with the runway. We used a large I beam to drag and level the humps of drifted snow followed by a large roller to compact it. We had fuel drums cut in half outlining the landing strip. When we had flights coming in after our days got shorter arriving after dark we had to keep these barrels filled with diesel fuel to mark the landing strip. We had to go out and pour gasoline on top of the diesel and light it to get the diesel fuel burning before the plane arrived. After each night landing we had to refill the barrels for the next time. Daylight didn’t determine if flights came in. Weather was the main factor.
Our water supply wasn’t as high tech as future sites like Camp Century. We had a snow melter that had to be fed regularly. That was another job for the cat and it’s front loader. We never had a water shortage, but it sure had a flavor all its own. Exhaust from our generators as well as the cat supplied a unique “diesel flavor” to the snow and our water. Our water supply had a heavy layer of oil floating on top. I know water and oil don’t mix well but I guarantee the taste does. It also keeps your internal system well lubricated. I won’t go into details on that subject. ( you figure it out) Oh well, at least we had hot showers and flush toilets. What more could a man ask for?
I wish I could remember names of more of the guys that were there but the only ones I know are those I have pictures of. One that sticks in my mind is a guy named Frankenstein. (I’ll just call him Frank) Frank wasn’t USAF . He was either civilian or army engineer. He was doing research on tunnels under the snow. They weren’t very big but you could stoop down or crawl through them. If I remember correctly he was taking measurements to record expansion and contraction between the walls. I should remember more about this because I filled in for him for few days while he was away at Thule for personal supplies. You entered the tunnels through an igloo type structure. I have pictures of it and also down in the tunnels. The igloo was about a quarter mile away as I recall. On one trip out there on the cat along with one of the other guys, we came up out of the tunnel and found the wind had picked up with a lot of snow blowing. We didn’t get very far before my eyes were beginning to freeze over and it was hard to see the lights of the antenna towers. I kept wiping my eyes as I was heading into the wind blown snow knowing full well what it could mean if I got off course and missed my target. The guy with me wasn’t much help either. He had his head down in his parka and his back to the wind. It was quite a relief when we did get back.
I don’t remember much about leisure time. Our sleeping quarters were kept pretty dark or low lighted because there was always someone trying to sleep, so the mess hall was always a good place to hang out. Evenings after dinner you could always find guys sitting around swapping stories or playing cards over coffee. One of the two cooks was always busy with one thing or another. The night cook did all the baking and the day cook was kept busy fixing our meals. (with help from someone on K P.) We weren’t allowed any beer or other form of booze on site. I’m not sure if that was a regulation or if they just made a point to leave it off the supplies sent. Our day cook took exception to this practice and took matters in his own hands. He used canned cherries to make home-made “cherry-jack.” I steered clear of the stuff so I can’t really say if it was good or bad. I only know the night baker had to work long hours trying to fill two jobs for three days. Some of us had to pull some extra K P to keep meals on the table. Anyway, Red never tried making any more home brew. Another forbidden sin was facial hair. Beards were considered an invitation for frost bite. Rather than keeping your face warm, it was regarded as a breeding ground for freezing condensation from your breath.
One thing that stands out in my mind is nobody ever complained. Morale was never a problem. I don’t know if that was true all seasons of the year or not. I have to admit, I was there at a good time. We had enough work to keep us busy and I wasn’t there for the harsh winter weather that was to follow. Just being able to get outside to work as much as I did was a blessing. I never saw any friction between any of the men at any time. We ate good and enjoyed a lot of steaks. I remember going out in the hallways looking for icicles forming at seams of the tubes when we had iced tea. Our latrine was complete with hot showers and flush toilets. We even had washer and dryer laundry facilities. Looking back on it we really didn’t have much to complain about. A lot of the guys may have volunteered for their tour out there. Maybe I was the only one that was shanghaied. There are all kinds of reasons to remember this as an experience of a lifetime and how lucky I was to live it.
When it came time for me to leave the cap I knew I was going home to see my family for the first time in two years. My thirty day leave would get me home at a time where I would have to leave again just before Christmas. I decided to take a gamble and passed up a flight back to Thule hoping for another before winter weather shut us off till spring. About ten days later another plane came in and I grabbed my duffel bag and ran. The gamble worked out and I spent Christmas with my family. If I had lost I might be sitting here telling you about “winter on the icecap.”
Thanks for taking the time to read my story. I hope you enjoyed reading it as much as I’ve enjoyed telling it.