BMEWS - 510 Full Days - Thule, Top of the World

We received an early introduction into the topography to expect at Thule as we flew over northern Canada and Baffin Bay from Goose Bay, Labrador, to Thule. Ice, snow, and bleak dirty grey land and seascape was all that was visible. We were not far north out of Goose Bay when all vegetation vanished, to be replaced by grey.

We landed at Thule at about the beginning of the spring of 1961. Only 800 miles from the North Pole, there was some sunshine, with the sun low on the horizon for several hours per day. A magnetic compass would point nearly due west, into northern Canada, at the magnetic pole. Most of us started a "510 count-down" calendar the day we landed, marking off each day's passing. When we first arrived, we were met by people who made it clear that we had a long way to go. They would shout, "I've only got 183 days left, what about you?", or other counts. The 510 began to seem like a lifetime.

Thule Air Force Base was built in the lowlands below the ice cap on Baffin Bay at the mouth of Wolstenholm Fjord. Formerly a Strategic Air Command (SAC) bomber installation, Thule was being used as an Air Defense Command (ADC) tactical fighter base in 1961. The base was also a stopover for aircraft resupplying the far north weather station, Alert, in northern Canada. Dundas village, an Eskimo and Danish village was just north of the base. The airfield was to the south of the main base complex. To the south of the runway was a ridge line upon which stood, among other things, the Thule Armed Forces Radio and Television Service (AFRTS) television station, KOLD. After months at Thule, nearly everyone was afflicted to a sleep disorder which we called "Thule Big Eye." We would go days without being able to sleep. I can't recall a person in the RCA complex who didn't suffer from Big Eye at least once. KOLD broadcast late night movies on a program named for this malady, "The Thule Big Eye Theater."

The RCA Service Company compound was at the east side of the air base, just a couple blocks north of the airfield. RCA had several three-story dormitories, two one-story dorms (which we called "rabbit hutches"), a mess hall, and a motor pool. I was assigned quarters in one of the rabbit hutches which had single rooms. The three-story dorms had two to four-person rooms. We understood that the single room dorms were supposed to be for higher ranking personnel; and over the year and a half I was there, there were several "threats" to move those of us who were at the lower grades into the multi-person dorms. I was never moved, however.

Thule AFB was a relatively large and well-equipped base, with over 10,000 military personnel, including those from the Air Force, Army, Coast Guard (while the icebreakers were in port), and a few Navy. The base had several clubs: an Officers' club, a Non-commissioned officers' club, and an Enlisted club. My grade made me eligible for membership in the NCO club. The clubs were where we gathered for a "real" meal, steak and beer, most Friday nights. There was occasional USO entertainment from the States which appeared at the Clubs, and was enthusiastically welcomed. The base also offered a gymnasium with a well-equipped weight room, sauna, and basketball court. There were a small bowling alley and a very well stocked Base Exchange.

Beer, mostly excellent high-power Danish brews, was cheap and available in the Base Exchange. To keep our beer cold, many of us built "refrigerators" which consisted of an insulated box hung out the open dorm window, with a door on the inside. The cold outside air, insulated from the inside, provided just the right temperature for beer.

Greenland is a possession of Denmark. It was no surprise, then, that there were a large number of Danes employed at the base. The Air Force, as well as RCA, employed Danish nationals to do the more menial tasks around the base and the RCA compound. Danes were employed as housekeepers, cooks, dishwashers, and drivers. What was a surprise was the education levels and skills of these Danes. It was not unusual to find an engineer serving breakfast in the mess hall or a schoolteacher cleaning rooms. The pay offered the Danes for these tasks, very low by our standards, was higher than that which could be earned in Denmark. Many of the Danish nationals had been at Thule for a number of years and were planning to stay for several years longer. They were saving a nest egg so that when they eventually returned home, they could retire and live off their savings. The Danes were very friendly people, many helping us learn a smattering of the very difficult Danish language. All spoke English to varying degrees, mostly quite well. The mail man, Peter, was fluent in several languages and spoke nearly flawless English. The Danes also seemed to be very entrepreneurial, cutting hair, taking passport photographs, importing Danish sex magazines (very popular at Thule), or running other businesses to supplement their official pay.

If one were to describe Thule in a single word, it would be "harsh." What vegetation exists is small and low to the ground. The relative humidity is very low, staying at 10 percent or less with only rare exception. Most of the snow which fell on the base was not a result of local precipitation, but rather was blown off the ice cap which had hundreds of thousands of square miles of year-round snow. Winter temperatures would hover in the minus 30F range for weeks at a time; summer warmed up to about 55F. With 24-hour daylight, summer, though short, was really quite pleasant. During the Thule summer, we did a lot of exploring around the base, radar site, and ice cap, hiking the hills between work shifts. There was some wildlife: arctic foxes and hares were regularly seen. Winter storms could become violent. A "Phase 3" storm, the most severe, would pack winds in excess of 100 miles per hour. All the buildings and exposed facilities had to be hardened to withstand these winds. I witnessed one Phase 3 storm over the Christmas, 1961, holidays which saw the anemometers at the BMEWS site "pegged" at 165 miles per hour. During this storm, the temperature rose from minus 35F to above plus 30F in less than eight hours. One of the anemometers blew away during the storm. Interestingly, the Bob Hope USO tour which was at the Air Base during this storm, was stuck in the Officer's Club. My crew was stranded at the radar site, on duty for about 72 hours continuously, and listened to the Bob Hope Show from the base over a Public Address system.

The environment was unkind to everything man-made. Because of the permafrost which never thawed more than a few inches below the surface, it was impossible to place sewers underground. Each building had a large, insulated holding tank to hold sewage. When it became nearly full, an Air Force sewage tank truck ("honey trucks") would empty the tank. On one memorable occasion, I watched a honey truck operator sitting astride the tank, watching it fill, while he calmly ate a piece of pie. As my tour at Thule wore on, the scene, "'What did you do in the Air Force, Daddy?'. 'I drove the Thule Honey Truck, sweetheart,'" became a perverse Thule vision for me.

Many of the simple things we took for granted at home were difficult at Thule. We couldn't be shipped whole milk, for example. Instead, dried milk products were reconstituted in a relatively large processing plant to "make" milk and dairy products on site. At first the milk looked and tasted weak, but we soon became accustomed to it. Ice cream was also made on site with the reconstituted milk. Unlike the milk, though, I never got used to the ice cream which had a consistency somewhere between wet sand and cold Cream of Wheat, was almost always too sweet, and whose flavor was rarely identifiable.

Since the BMEWS site, J-Site as it was known, was some 12 or 13 miles from the base, RCA bused us to work and back each day. Buses left from and returned to the RCA mess hall for each shift, with a couple of late buses following the normal shift buses for the occasional straggler. The Air Force "school buses" were rough-riding, drafty, and filled with dust from the road. Many of us wore a breathing mask made from a handkerchief or scarf to filter some of the dust. At the end of the bus ride was one of the most magnificent locations I have ever seen, the Thule BMEWS J-site.

Table of Contents
© Copyright 1996, Gene P. McManus, Baltimore, OH