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Camp Century, City Under the Ice
Posted by: olfart
Date: May 31, 2017 02:13PM
In January 1960, my first duty station straight out of US Army Signal School, Ft. Gordon, GA, was to the USAPR&DC at Ft. Belvoir, VA. USAPR&DC? What the heck is that? US Army Polar Research and Development Center. After a few months orientation at Ft. Belvoir, things got interesting.

My first trip to Camp Century, Greenland, was a fascinating experience, as we had Walter Cronkite's film crew tagging along to do a documentary. They wanted to see how the trail on the ice cap was explored and marked, so we brought up the Weasel with the crevasse detector mounted on the front of it. The weasel was a small Jeep-like vehicle on tracks, and it had an angle iron framework mounted on the front with several aluminum dishpan-looking attachments that rode on the snow. A tangle of wires trailed back to the control console in the Weasel, where the operator read the output from the sensors. The Weasel maneuvered off the marked trail a few hundred feet to a known crevasse. The crevasse was a cavern under the snow, invisible from the surface. The film crew documented the Weasel's advance, then the console when the alarms sounded. Then things got a little Hollywood on us. The film crew wanted to show how the crevasse was opened and filled in, so we brought out the dynamite. The charge was set in the middle of the snow bridge over the crevasse, the film crew announced “Rolling!”, and the demolition guy pushed the plunger. There was a big boom, and nothing visible happened. All of the blast went down into the crevasse instead of creating a snow geyser for the camera. Well, that wasn't going to work at all for the film crew, so we had to set a second charge just off the crevasse so they'd have their geyser of snow for that scene.

The Hollywood drama didn't end there, however. When the blade Cat was brought up to start filling the crevasse, the film crew wanted to go down inside and shoot some footage. Heckuva deal, as I'd never expected to be able to see the inside of a crevasse. The blade Cat punched a hole in the snow bridge and pushed enough snow into it to form a steep slope. The crevasse was nearly 100' deep and probably 30' wide. We threw a knotted rope down the hole. One of the film crew members was chosen to “be Cronkite”, because no one would know the difference from behind with a parka and hood. Then they filmed as “Cronkite” descended into the hole. The rest of us followed, not using the rope. Just step out a couple of feet into thin air, drop about 10' and bury up into the powder snow slope. Kick out and do it again until we hit bottom.

The inside of the crevasse was one of the most beautiful things I've ever seen. It was like Carlsbad Caverns done in ice. Stalactites, stalagmites, and columns as far as the eye could see in both directions, all in shades of blue and white as sunlight filtered through the snow above. I hated having to leave, but we had somewhat of a schedule to keep. Getting back up that slope was a whole 'nuther story. The top end of that rope was tied to the blade of the Cat, and we grabbed a knot and hung on as it dragged the rope back out of the hole. My shirt was packed with snow inside and out, as the sleeves funneled the snow straight inside. That part I definitely could have done without, but it was fun in retrospect.

Arriving at Camp Century, I saw large snow blowing machines cutting trenches in the ice/snow. The main trench was up to a mile long, and shorter side trenches intersected it. The snow was being blown up and over the side of the trenches. Then cranes lowered curved corrugated steel roof panels onto ice ledges in the walls, and the loose snow was blown back on top of the roof. The snow in contact with the metal would be heated by the activity in the trench enough to melt and form a solid ice roof, adding strength. Prefabbed barracks buildings were set up in the trenches, forming the basis for the “Camp Century, City Under the Ice” title that Cronkite gave his documentary. The documentary aired, I think, in late 1960.

Re: Camp Century, City Under the Ice
Posted by: Ron J
Date: May 31, 2017 11:08PM
Olfart, Great story, thanks for sharing that rare experience in your life!
Ron J.:usaflag:

Re: Camp Century, City Under the Ice
Posted by: olfart
Date: June 01, 2017 11:55AM
Thanks for the kind words! That was the highlight of my time in the Army. Thinking back now on how many people in the world can say they've been inside a crevasse in Greenland makes me feel truly honored. Thank you, USAPR&DC!

Re: Camp Century, City Under the Ice Episode 1
Posted by: olfart
Date: June 01, 2017 12:10PM
In January of 1960 I was a recent graduate of the US Army Signal School at Fort Gordon, GA after 16 weeks of radioteletype training. When the orders came out, mine said I was to report to Fort Belvoir, VA at USAPR&DC Headquarters. “What the heck is USAPR&DC?” was the first thing I thought. Over the next two weeks at home on leave, I asked everyone I knew what that meant. Nobody had an answer for me.

Upon arrival at Fort Belvoir, I received directions to USAPR&DC Headquarters. Duffle bag in hand, I shuffled off the bus in front of a big sign that said, “Welcome to the US Army Polar Research and Development Center”. That was a shock. Who knew there even was such a thing?

Life at Fort Belvoir was somewhat laid back compared to the rigid schedules at Ft. Hood in basic and Ft. Gordon in radioteletype school, and I quickly adapted to the daily routine. Mostly we reported to the Com Center where we swapped yarns about our past civilian lives and talked about radio. The folks who had been there a while told tales about Greenland, where we would soon be going. One of the guys said there's a beautiful girl behind every tree. He neglected to mention there are no trees in Greenland. Camp Tuto, the base camp, was closed for the winter, and we would all be shipping out in April to reopen the camp. The seasoned troops explained that some of us would stay at Camp Tuto, and others would be assigned to “heavy swing” duty. Still others would be stationed at Camp Century, later dubbed “City Under the Ice” by Walter Cronkite.

When April rolled around, we packed our duffle bags and boarded buses for a nearby Air Force base. I had no idea what to expect until I saw the huge C-124 as the buses pulled up alongside it. It was a 4-engined cargo hauler, and we were to be the cargo. Inside it was bare aluminum walls with a row of web benches down each side. Our bags and gear were piled in the middle, and we rumbled off on our big adventure. The trip was long, LOUD and cold. Did I mention LOUD? We made a fuel stop at Gander, Newfoundland and finally arrived at Thule AFB, Greenland about 16 hours after leaving the States. Thule would become “downtown” for us hicks in the sticks.

At Thule we got aboard buses and made the 14-mile trek up a dirt road to Camp Tuto, located at the edge of the ice cap. Everything was still buried in snow, so the first order of business was to get into the supply hut, a canvas “Jamesway” structure. Once we dug our way to the door and opened it, we found the inside was also packed with snow. That put a dent in our morale, but we set about shoveling aisles to get to the supplies.

Our barracks were orange prefabbed single-story buildings set in neat rows . There was no way to bury pipes in the permafrost, so all plumbing was above ground. There were no toilets or showers in the barracks. We had communal showers and 6-hole outhouses set up in several places throughout the camp, so there were lots of dirty, constipated folks walking around there. Having your butt frozen to a toilet seat was no fun. Emptying the half-drums under the holes was no fun either, but that's another story.

After clearing a path to the doors of the barracks, we made ourselves at home. There were windows down each wall of the barracks, and the experienced troops explained that the windows were how to tell the time. In the morning, the sun shines in this side, and at night it shines in that side. The sun was very low in the sky and only dipped below the horizon briefly for a semi-twilight. It was a little weird getting used to the sun circling the horizon rather than rising and setting.

At the com shack, aboiut ½ mile from the barracks, we were assigned duty shifts of 12 hours on, 12 hours off, 7 days a week. It's not like we had anywhere to go for entertainment anyway, so we might as well work. We got acquainted with the radios and learned that only rarely would we be using the teletypes. Most of our communications would be using CW (International Morse Code) and voice with an occasional incoming teletype. Due to atmospheric conditions, there were times when radio signals would be totally unreliable, and CW was the most reliable mode we had.

As the camp stirred back to life after its long winter nap, there was lots of activity on the edge of the ice cap just above the camp. Trucks were running in a steady stream hauling materials and supplies up to be loaded onto the heavy swing for transport to Camp Century. The heavy swing was a group of sled trains pulled by D8 and D9 Caterpillar tractors on 54” wide low ground pressure track pads. There were usually 5 – 6 trains, each with 5 or 6 cargo sleds. One train was the command train, and it consisted of a command “wanigan” plus a barracks wanigan, a mess hall and a generator sled. As the radio operator, the command wanigan was my office and sleeping quarters. It was linked behind the mess hall, and the barracks was ahead of the mess hall. The generator was right behind the Cat.

The trail to Camp Century had been explored and marked previously with poles and green flags. The flags were several hundred feet apart, making it easy to stay on the trail during good weather and daylight. Bad weather, however, brought things to a screeching whoa. Blowing snow obscured vision during storms, so the heavy swing waited until the storm passed to resume travel. That sometimes presented a problem when the sleds' skis would freeze to the surface, and snow would bank against the sides of the trains. That meant every stop of more than a couple of hours would require a Cat with a blade to scrape the snow away from the trains and break each set of skis loose from the surface. Weather wasn't the only reason for delays. Mechanical breakdowns slowed progress as well. The 138 mile trip took a week to ten days each way with weather and mechanical delays.

Since the trains only made about 2 – 3 miles per hour, we often walked alongside for exercise. The dry cold was quite comfortable just wearing a long sleeve wool shirt and wool trousers. Sometimes we played football during mechanical breakdowns. We used frozen reconstituted milk in a quart carton as a ball. Missing a pass could be deadly if it hit the receiver in the head.

Speaking of frozen food, our food storage was the roof of the mess hall. No need for a freezer inside, as Mother Nature handled the task very well. The tractor driver whose ineptitude caused more mechanical breakdowns than most was designated as the cook. His cooking skill was a distant second place to his tractor driving skill. One morning as I entered the mess hall, I asked the cook what was on the menu for breakfast. He replied that we were going to have grapefruit, Spam, eggs and toast, except he threw out the grapefruit. I asked what was wrong with it, and he said he cut one open and it was all pink inside, so he figured it was ruined. He had tossed the whole case of Texas Ruby Red Grapefruit off the train a couple of miles back. I was considering the ramifications of lynching him on the spot, but calmer heads prevailed.

Re: Camp Century, City Under the Ice Episode 1Another great episode!
Posted by: Ron J
Date: June 02, 2017 10:26AM
Feel like I was there with you.

Re: Camp Century, City Under the Ice Episode 1Another great episode!
Posted by: olfart
Date: June 02, 2017 12:26PM
Ron J
Feel like I was there with you.

Wow! You got frostbite just from reading?:bouncy:

Thanks again for the kind words.

The (maybe) final installment will be posted shortly.

Re: Camp Century, the Coast Guard
Posted by: Ron J
Date: June 02, 2017 02:32PM
Had a base in Greenland during WWII, due to the Nazies setting up weather stations etc.

Re: Camp Century, City Under the Ice Episode 3
Posted by: olfart
Date: June 02, 2017 02:53PM
The camp commander at Camp Century told me that he dove under his desk every time I keyed up my radio on the heavy swing. It was an ancient BC-610 transmitter that should have been retired at the end of WWII, and it would not stay on frequency unless it was keyed continuously. Therefore I had to tune it several kc above the operating frequency and hold the key down until it drifted onto the correct frequency, then key the message very quickly to keep it there. That resulted in the signal being heard in his office beginning at a very high pitch and descending rapidly before I started sending the CW message. He had served in WWII, and it reminded him of the sound of a German bomb falling toward him.

One day someone decided to check out a Jeep from the motor pool and make a supply run downtown to Thule AFB. I invited myself along for the ride and ended up driving. That made the trip interesting since I had never driven that road before, and there were few if any road signs. Our entertainment on the trip consisted of a pair of snowshoe hares that loped alongside the Jeep for a couple of miles. We were doing 30 mph, and these huge white rabbits were pacing us and not even breathing hard. They looked like they could weigh 40 – 50 pounds each and stood as tall as a German Shepherd.

Finding our way into Thule, we asked directions to the base exchange. That was to be our primary destination as we had a shopping list from a dozen other guys. Our little post exchange at Tuto had a few candy bars, soap and razor blades, but not much more. We took our time shopping, not wanting to get back too early and have to actually work. We loaded down the Jeep with goodies from the list and started back. That's when things got more interesting. Did anyone notice that road as we came in? Is that where we turned? Why don't any of these darn roads have signs? Unfortunately our hare escorts had gone their own way and were not available to show us the way back. The old saying about the Lord watching over drunks and fools has some merit. I don't drink, but He got us safely back to Tuto in time for supper.

As with any military base in those days, everyone had to pull work details. There was KP (kitchen duty) and latrine duty (sh*t detail). Of the two, everyone preferred KP. As mentioned previously, we had several 6-hole outhouses scattered around Tuto. Each of them had half of a 55-gallon drum with handles welded on two sides sitting under each hole. Latrine duty consisted of checking a deuce-and-a-half (2.5 ton truck) out of the motor pool, picking up 6 empty barrel halves, and swapping them for six full ones. Then we hauled the full ones to the dump, where we kicked the barrels off the back of the truck, praying they'd land upside down to knock the frozen contents out. With a little practice, we got pretty good at that. The incentive was very powerful, as the alternative was chipping the stuff out of the barrels with an entrenching tool. Then we loaded up the 6 empties and went to the next outhouse. After servicing all of the outhouses and dumping all of the contents, we poured a 5-gallon can of gasoline over the frozen pile, climbed aboard the truck and tossed a lighted match. The resulting conflagration could remove eyebrows at 30 feet, so we moved rapidly. On the way out of the dump, we drove through the smoke from the flaming poop pile. It smelled exactly like cooking liver. To this day I cannot look at a piece of liver without gagging, and my wife has been instructed never to cook liver in our house.

One interesting sidelight of the dump trip was the Arctic Foxes. They are tiny, not much bigger than a Pomeranian dog, and cute as a button. They come in all colors. I saw black, white, red and grey, but I never saw any with mixed colors. I could only wonder whether the foxes ate the rabbits or the rabbits ate the foxes. No matter how cute they are, the fact that they carry rabies and hang around the poop pile in the dump kept me from wanting to pet one.

My first 90-day tour in Greenland ended on 4 July, 1960. I recall snow falling on me as I waited to board the C-118 transport at Thule. This was first class accommodations compared to the C-124 that carried us up there. It had actual airline-style seats, other than the fact they faced the rear of the plane. The crew was Navy, and our stewardess (actually a gay male flight attendant) pranced up and down the aisle keeping us amused. We landed at Goose Bay, Labrador, for a fuel stop. As we taxied up in front of the terminal, our stewardess stood at the rear door waiting to open it until the engines stopped turning. We were unbuckling our seatbelts when the nosewheel collapsed, flipping the stewardess over two rows of seats and into the laps of the guys in the third row. Once we determined that we were not all going to die as a result of the nosewheel, we couldn't stop laughing. We stayed overnight in the VOQ (Visiting Officers' Quarters) at Goose Bay waiting for a replacement airplane. Those Air Force guys have it made! I've stayed in much worse hotels since then.

Back in the States, my first priority was how to get home on leave. I'd heard about getting hops on military aircraft, so I caught a bus to the AFB and put my name on the list. After waiting for what seemed like forever, I heard my name called on the PA system. I reported to the desk and was told that they had a flight to Texas with space available, but it was not going to Dallas. I said I'd take it and worry about a bus home from wherever they dropped me. I carried my bag to the gate and was stunned to see a C-47 sitting on the ramp. These things have been flying since the 1930s, and this one probably had a few million miles on it. I went to the door and tossed my bag inside, then climbed the ladder and stepped in after it. It was an uphill walk toward the front of the plane, and I settled for sitting over the right wing. The seats were rows of metal benches down each side with butt imprints stamped into them. The engines roared to life, and we took off headed for Texas. That was one of the longest, loudest, roughest flights I've endured other than the C-124 trip to Greenland. I was thrilled and delighted to set foot on the ground in San Antonio. The bus ride home wasn't much better. I bought a ticket on a bargain bus line and found myself on an old retired city bus for the 260 mile trip. No restroom, no air conditioning, and stops at every podunk town on the way. At that point I'd have walked home if I thought it would be faster.

Leave time over, my folks took mercy and bought me a ticket on Braniff back to DC. That flight spoiled me for any military flights. Comfortable seats, free snacks, leg room, all I could have wished for.

Back at Ft. Belvoir, things fell into a relaxed routine. Lounging around the post, chatting with buddies at the com center, talking to home on ham radio, life was good. Weekend trips into DC kept things interesting. Historical stuff everywhere you look! I climbed the Washington monument's stairs, took pictures of the White House, visited the Smithsonian, Lincoln and Jefferson Memorials. I turned 19 just before heading back to Greenland in September.

Stepping off the plane at Thule, it was late afternoon… at 8:00 PM. When I left in July, the sun had been making tiny circles directly overhead, never setting. Now it was back to circling just above the horizon again in its journey toward the south pole.

Tuto was much the same as I had left it, a few patches of bare dirt showing through the dirty snow. A few tiny flowers were beginning to wither after their brief summer life. As days passed, the sun sank lower and lower on the horizon, bringing dark winter to the camp.

Camp Tuto was to remain open through the winter to support Camp Century as engineers and technicians worked to get a nuclear reactor operating to provide Camp Century's power needs. One of the primary missions of Camp Century was to determine the practicality of using a nuclear reactor in an arctic environment. This mission would require heavy swings to make periodic supply runs to Camp Century hampered by darkness on the trail. With darkness and winter came increasingly intense storms. By November we were recording temperatures in the 50 to 60 degrees below zero range.

On the trail with the heavy swing, we traveled even slower than before due to difficulty navigating the trail in darkness. The Cats had high-intensity lights to help see the trail flags, but a slight breeze would kick up blowing snow, producing a fog-like glare. We had little warning of approaching storms. When the winds kicked up and the snow started falling, we knew we would be sitting still soon.

The heavy swing carried all of the food and fuel we could possibly need, but water was hard to store without freezing and bursting a tank. Therefore we had a snow melter aboard the command train, and every time we stopped someone had to shovel snow into the melter so we would have fresh water. The problem with that is that all of the Cats run on diesel fuel. Sometimes diesel fuel gets spilled or leaks, and it gets into everything. You haven't lived until you've consumed water tainted with diesel fuel. Just the tiniest trace is all it takes to cause havoc. There was only one bathroom in the command train and one in the barracks wanigan. Do I have to draw you a picture?

The hazards of cold weather require constant awareness to avoid injury or death. A tractor driver walked out of the barracks wanigan toward the mess hall without his gloves on. He grabbed a steel handrail and discovered he couldn't release it. He was stuck to the rail yelling for help for several minutes before he was discovered. They had to stop the train and bring an oxy-acetylene torch to heat the rail and get him loose. He was relieved of duty for his carelessness and was airlifted back to Thule for treatment. Getting an airlift was not something done casually in Greenland's winter. The H-34 helicopters couldn't handle the high winds and poor visibility associated with the storms. We had very limited medical capabilities on the heavy swing consisting of an enlisted medic and a first aid kit. Even a minor injury could become life-threatening with no hope of evacuation to a hospital.

During a return trip from Century, we encountered a severe storm that produced conditions deemed “Phase 3”, or 60 mph winds and zero visibility. I had been in radio contact with a “Polecat swing”, a couple of people transporters consisting of a powered front unit with an articulated passenger unit. The driver and radio operator occupied the front unit and 6 passengers rode in the rear unit. The Polecat was the express train of the ice cap, managing speeds of 15 to 20 mph. The Polecat swing had left Tuto a few hours earlier and had encountered the storm without warning. The radio operator, Ski, said they had to stop due to no visibility and were concerned that an extended stop might leave them buried in snow. He asked if we were still moving, but of course we were not able to see either. An extended storm delay for us was nothing out of the ordinary, and we had plenty of fuel, food and water to remain safe. The Polecats, however, carried limited fuel and only emergency rations and water. They were heated by gasoline-fired heaters, and an extended stop could leave them without enough fuel to complete their journey. The storm would prevent any help from leaving Tuto, and we were their best hope for survival. I stayed on the radio with Ski for 36 hours until the storm let up and we were able to travel again. He said they were nearly out of food, water and gasoline. When we got to them, we were greeted like long-lost family. We got them into the mess hall and fed them a good meal while a crew refueled and restocked food in the Polecats, then we all resumed our journeys.

I love a happy ending!

Re: Camp Century, City Under the Ice Episode 3,
Posted by: Ron J
Date: June 03, 2017 02:26AM
Thanks for posting. Quite an experience you went through. Does this place still exist?

Re: Camp Century, City Under the Ice
Posted by: olfart
Date: June 03, 2017 07:29AM
I think it was closed in the 70s due to the nuclear reactor never operating as they planned. I've looked at Camp Tuto on Google Earth, and it appears to be inactive. Couldn't find Camp Century, of course, because it was under the surface in 1960, and it's probably WAY under the surface now. The Greenland ice cap is over 10,000' deep, and things tend to settle into it and be covered by additional snow. The aircraft that landed on the cap during WWII were found a few years ago more than 100' down.

What a cool story... :D: Pun not intended
Posted by: Mikie
Date: July 26, 2017 06:09PM
But somehow, I do not think that I would have had the nerve to just, jump off into the crevasse.. :):


"There's no present like the time"

"A dog is better than me, for she has love and does not judge"

"Sometimes the things that may or may not be true are the things a man needs to believe in the most; That people are basically good; that honor, courage, and virtue mean everything; that power and money, money and power mean nothing; that good always triumphs over evil; and I want you to remember this, that love... true love never dies. You remember that. Doesn't matter if it's true or not. You see, a man should believe in those things, because those are the things worth believing in"

Re: Camp Century, City Under the Ice
Posted by: olfart
Date: July 29, 2017 07:20AM
After seeing a couple of other folks do it, there was nothing to the jump. In fact it was fun. But when you're 18 years old, you'll do a lot of things you wouldn't do at 50. :crazy:

Now that is an interesting story, much like the
Posted by: Royal
Date: January 27, 2018 10:15PM
storys so many posted here for years! :D I loved it


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