Life on the rocks at the top of the world

Survival is a grueling test that pits humans against the elements

By PAUL GRONDAHL, Staff writer
First published: Monday, May 15, 1995

THULE AIR BASE, Greenland -- As Merrill Wojcik maneuvers the truck over the familiar red clay roadways, past the gymnasium and the post office, he turns right at the dining hall and swings onto the tarmac at Thule Air Base, where a half-dozen C-130 cargo planes from the United States, Canada and Denmark are parked.The heavy bombers and 6,000 U.S. combat troops that made Thule America's first line of defense against the Russian threat at the height of the Cold War in 1956, when Wojcik was stationed at this Greenland base, are a distant memory.

``We were on high alert the whole time,'' Wojcik, 56, of Esperance, recalls of his Thule tour, when training focused on defending against an attack from Soviet troops, located 1,500 miles away, on the shores of the U.S.S.R., across the Arctic Ocean. ``They'd drive us out into the mountains with halftracks and dump us off in a snowbank with our machine guns. It was the longest year of my life.''

After a two-decade hiatus from military life with the Air Force, where he spent 10 years in active duty, Wojcik joined the 109th New York Air National Guard airlift group in Scotia, where he works as a full-time air field manager.

Wojcik is back at Thule, but he doesn't carry a machine gun, he isn't in training for some imagined ground war on the Greenland ice cap with invading Russians and the C-130s are flying nothing more dangerous these days than research scientists and their instruments.

``I enjoy being back here now,'' Wojcik says over a tray of food cooked by Danish civilians at the dining hall, where made-to-order omelets and an all-you-can-eat breakfast buffet sets one back $2.65.

Nowadays, civilians outnumber military personnel 6-to-1 at Thule, where just 135 Air Force personnel are stationed. It has the feel of a ghost town. Rows and rows of prefab barracks (``flat tops'') stand empty.

``I got here during the dark season and this place looked like one big trailer park with the lights out,'' says Chris Cole, 23, of Fort Jackson, S.C., a warehouse manager of the base exchange.

Beyond the base, the end of the Cold War left mothballed military installations, products of an overwrought imagination that seem now as anachronistic as duck-and-cover drills.

One such site, located a few hundred miles from Thule Air Base in central Greenland, is the long-abandoned Camp Century, ``The City Under The Snow.'' The vast underground living area was a classified military experiment run by the Army and powered by atomic energy.

In case of attack, presumably from the Russians, the fortified ice shelter would serve as a base of operations for a U.S. counterattack. A treaty that banned nuclear activity in Greenland caused the closure of Camp Century 35 years ago. The site was sealed off, but it remains encased in the ice.

Other outmoded military material litters the Arctic landscape. In 1989, the necklace of three dozen radar installations strung across the Far North from Alaska to Greenland the DEW (distant early warning) line, meant to detect incoming missiles were deemed obsolete by advances in technology and satellites. The derelict stations of the DEW line, including two in southern Greenland marked by large radar domes, remain on the ice.

That sprawling line of radar stations was replaced by a mountainside at Thule bristling with antennae and buildings housing high-tech equipment. It is known as the BMEWS (ballistic missile early warning system) site and it is a classified military installation, the raison d'etre for Thule.

Those who work at the BMEWS site, mostly American civilians employed by Raytheon Corp., view their jobs as prosaic as assembly-line work.

``We watch the Russians testing their missiles all the time over Russia,'' says Master Cpl. Kim Whincup, 35, one of three members of the Canadian Air Force working at the BMEWS site. ``Luckily, we haven't had any incoming yet.''

There are profound adjustments to be made in the transition at Thule Air Base from a purely military role to a function as a supply and logistics depot for ongoing scientific research projects in Greenland.

Relegating operation of the base to a civilian workforce has created new challenges. There is a fragile peace, marred by times of tension, between the Danish majority and the Greenlandic minority.

The Danes, provincial caretakers of Greenland who granted the natives home rule in 1979 after five centuries of control, had a monopoly on the plum jobs at Thule for many years until Greenlandics were hired beginning in 1990.

Now, about 200 of the jobs are held by Greenlandics and 400 by Danes, who harbor a lingering resentment against this new challenge to their dominance at Thule.

The Americans seem to be a buffer zone between the Danes and Greenlandics.

``It's hard to watch the jobs go, because the economy is not good in Denmark,'' says Lasse Knudsen, 40, a Dane who manages the dining hall and a 15-year veteran of Thule. Knudsen, who is divorced, says his net pay is double what it would be in Denmark because of a lower tax rate for Greenland and free dormitory housing. Despite the isolation and the no-family-member policy at the base, there is a waiting list of job applicants at Thule.

``We're so different as people, the Danes and Greenlandics, that there can be some trouble,'' concedes Didriasen Morten, 23, an electronic technician who left Copenhagen two years ago to dig himself out of debt and start saving money. ``It can get very lonely up here, which is why I'm leaving soon.''

Besides talk of the good money, the main conversation amid the grim, forlorn dirt streets of Thule (it's not termed ``remote hardship duty'' by the Air Force for nothing is ETD (estimated time of departure).

``Nine days! Nine days and I'm outta here!'' says an exultant Avis Hagans, 38, who left her three children and husband behind at Virginia's Langley Air Force Base nearly one year ago to build her resume as manager of the Thule base exchange.

``It's been a long, difficult year, but I've learned a lot and I'll be up for a promotion when I get back.''

Hagans, who is nicknamed Miss Congeniality at Thule for her upbeat mood, has witnessed the culture clash at the base.

``The Danes consider this their place, the Greenlandics are coming in, taking their jobs and they're treated as second-class citizens,'' Hagans says.

``There's some racism here,'' says Jens Eldevig, 27, a Greenlandic taxi driver. ``There are a lot of old-time Danes who have been here 10 or 20 years, and they resent us getting our share.''

Some are in the middle, like Charlotte Lund Jensen, 27, a drafter, whose mother is Greenlandic and whose father is Danish.

``I have one foot in each side and I have sympathy for both,'' Jensen says. ``I speak both languages and try to get along in both worlds, but I'm not fully accepted in either.''

Not only are the workers of Thule struggling with deep-seated ethnic differences, they battle depression during the long months of darkness, the confinement of howling storms and the profound loneliness of being so isolated from family and friends.

They try to make the best of it, passing the time working out at the gym, getting involved with bowling leagues, volleyba ll tournaments, basketball games, arts and crafts, downhill skiing (the lift is a pickup truck), a lending library of books and videos, a computer center and movie nights.

But the place still has the feel of a prison camp, where, particularly in the dark season, residents wear a narrow path between the dining hall, work site and dormitory. The busiest spot on the base is the bar at the Top of the World Club. Drinking at Thule is legendary. There is a large Alcoholics Anonymous chapter here.

``There's not much else to do at night but drink,'' Jensen says, tossing back a rum and Coke. ``Some people can handle it and some can't.''

Each finds a personal way of coping with the desolation. For Charles ``C.J.,'' Jackson, it is the music.

In an empty barrack on a deserted side street, Jackson, 39, of Colorado Springs, who has worked for seven years at Thule, six more than he initially planned, is playing jazz at the base radio station, 5 OZ 20, 97.1 FM.

``I don't know if anyone listens and I don't care. This keeps me sane,'' says Jackson, who carts a backpack full of classic jazz CDs from his dormitory to the radio station three or four nights a week. If he doesn't show, the station is on auto pilot, playing pre-recorded tunes.

Jackson has lived with Thule's isolation since he got out of the Army in 1987 and couldn't find a job stateside. He works as a satellite technician for Raytheon at the BMEWS site. He enjoys his $40,000 salary, but has to work seven days a week, 10 to 12 hours a day. He gets a couple weeks' vacation every three months. It costs him about $700 for a round-trip airline ticket home.

About the best thing Jackson has to say about Thule is that it has a low crime rate. ``I can leave my room unlocked and nobody will steal my stereo and CDs,'' he says.

The toughest thing is being without female companionship. A former girlfriend, who had been stationed at Thule for a year, left two years ago. His proudest moment came when he hosted a series of radio shows on the history of jazz for Black History Month in February.

He says he hopes to move on soon after a stay at Thule that has been far longer than he planned. He dreams of becoming a disc jockey in Colorado Springs. If he gets back home for good, he knows what he wants to do first. ``I just want to get in my car and drive and drive and drive. I'm just going to keep going 'til I can't go anymore.''

And for Wojcik, the periodic returns to Thule offer an opportunity for nostalgic reflection. While it's a nice place to visit, he wouldn't want to live here. ``This was not good duty back in '56,'' Wojcik says. ``We were waiting to be attacked by the Russians at any moment. At least that threat's gone.''


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