Top of the world

Top of the world

The motto of the 821st Air Base Group at Thule Air Base in northern Greenland is Venimus conglaciati vicimus – “we came, we froze, we conquered.” The words resonate for first-time visitors within minutes of stepping off the plane.

Just how far north is Thule? If you want a good view of the aurora borealis – the famed northern lights – you have to hope for a clear evening and then look to the south, because it is significantly closer to the equator. Magnetic north? From Thule, the compass will point just south of due west.

Thule is located in the Qaasuitsup municipality in northwest Greenland, which in the native Inuit language means “place of polar darkness.” It once had a village of fewer than 20 huts, named Pittufik (“the place where the sled dogs are tied”). To the north is Wolstenholme Fjord, the only spot on earth where three active glaciers join together.

The closest neighbors to Thule Air Base are four villages of the Qaanaaq region, roughly 100 kilometers away. Three of those villages have fewer than 50 people, while the other has about 400. In fact, the entire population of Greenland is only 63,000, or roughly half the population of Kenosha, Wis. The capital of Greenland, Nuuk, is some 1,500 miles south of Thule Air Base, accessible only by dogsled or air.

But this barren landscape belies the importance of the air base and the vital strategic mission it has played since the start of the Cold War. Located between the northern reaches of Canada and the more volcanically temperate climes of Iceland, Thule is almost exactly halfway between Washington and Moscow, which accounts for its geostrategic importance, especially in the decades of nuclear-missile posturing between the two major superpowers of the 20th century’s second half.

For such a desolate and unwelcoming place, Greenland has a long and storied history. Prehistoric Paleo-Eskimo immigrants are thought to have first arrived in Greenland from North America. The first settlement archeologists have confirmed was Saqqaq, in the west-central area of the frozen island, about 2,500 B.C. The Inuits who staked those earliest claims on what would become Greenland never thrived, due to the extreme temperatures, vast expanses of icy terrain and a profound lack of arable land.

But in the 10th century, a new group of immigrants arrived from the east: the Vikings. Oral tradition and Icelandic sagas tell the tale of Gunnbjörn Ulfsson, who landed at Greenland after being blown off course by a storm. But mass colonization wouldn’t occur until a man was exiled from Iceland after a murder conviction. He went to the eastern coast of the unnamed arctic island and lured others to follow. That man was Erik the Red.

The Íslendingabók – “Book of the Icelanders” – recounts how “the country called Greenland was discovered and settled from Iceland. A man from Breidafjord called Erik the Red went out there from here, and took possession of land in a place that has since been called Eiríksfjord. He gave a name to the country and called it Greenland, and said that it would encourage people to go there if the country had a good name. They found signs of human habitation there both in the east and west of the country, fragments of skin-boats and stone implements, from which it may be deduced that the same kind of people had passed through there as had settled Vínland and the Greenlanders call Skrælingar.”

Greenland might have been significantly more verdant during this medieval warming period, when global temperatures were higher. In his book “Collapse,” author Jared Diamond suggests that a number of factors contributed to the fall of the Greenland colony established by Erik the Red, including environmental factors and disputes with the Inuit. Undisputed, however, is that the history of Greenland between the Norse leaving and the Danish recolonization is largely unremarkable. Under the Treaty of Kiel, which ended the Napoleonic Wars in 1815, Greenland became a Danish protectorate. That declaration did not open a floodgate of immigration from Europe. Even today, Greenland’s population is roughly 89 percent Inuit.

In the early 1900s, Danish explorer Knud Rasmussen named the area around Mount Dundas “Thule,” a term used generically on medieval maps to denote any distant place beyond the borders of the known world. Greenlanders have always felt a spiritual tie to Mount Dundas, which towers over the air base and the frozen icebergs in the bay.  There, Rasmussen established a trading post and used it to launch various scientific expeditions into the northern Arctic.

Greenland’s identity changed during World War II, as it became a strategically important safe haven from German U-boats patrolling the North Atlantic. After Germany seized Denmark in April 1940, Danish ambassador to the United States Henrik Kauffmann independently signed an “Agreement relating to the Defense of Greenland,” which authorized the United States to protect the Danish colonies on the island. The U.S. military has been in Greenland, now an independent country within the Kingdom of Denmark, ever since.

‘Hard work and plain guts’ Thule Air Base was secretly constructed in 1952 in a Denmark-supported mission known to a select few as “Operation Blue Jay.” The endeavor would go down as one of history’s largest and most daunting construction projects, conducted in the most inhospitable location imaginable. Temperatures here regularly drop to 50 degrees below zero Fahrenheit, and winds can howl at 150 mph. The brewing Korean War required the United States to find a northern route for long-range bombers that would significantly shorten the distance around the planet. The Department of Defense settled on Thule as the way station between east and west.

Thousands of tons of ships, pre-made construction materials and workers were dispatched to build the air base. Recruits came from places like Rosemount, Minn., in hopes that military personnel from that region of the United States would be better suited to endure the bitter climate and more adept at cold-weather construction. On June 6, 1951, an armada of 82 ships carrying some $125 million in cargo steamed north out of Norfolk, Va. With the ships went about 1,000 seamen and 4,000 members of the construction crew.  

Twenty-eight months later, Thule workers had constructed a 10,000-foot runway capable of supporting heavy aircraft on the frozen landscape. They also built seven large hangars and several smaller ones for fighter aircraft. Near the center of the base were 125 barracks, six mess halls, a gym, service club, hobby shop, library, base exchange, post office, theater, chapel and hospital. There were also 63 warehouses, a laundry facility, a bakery, and plants for generating heat and power. Most of the original structures are still in use today.

When Operation Blue Jay was declassified in the 1970s, DoD released a nearly 30-minute video documenting the extraordinary feat of military engineering and construction. (Watch the video here.) As the narrator states, “the greatest engineering operation ever undertaken in the far north has been rushed to successful completion ... there is nothing, absolutely nothing, impossible to American resourcefulness, hard work and plain guts.”

During the Cold War, Thule was home to B-36 Peacemaker and B-47 Stratojet reconnaissance aircraft, as well as four Nike missile systems and a Ballistic Missile Early Warning System (BMEWS) radar. Although Thule was not considered a plum assignment for anyone in the Air Force, many came and went over the years and, as veterans, reverently reflect on their time there.

One is Jim Lucas-Dreiss, who served in the Air Force and later as a civilian contractor at Thule during the 1980s. “As Alzheimer’s advanced and he didn’t remember his family, he was still able to articulately describe his adventures while at Thule, and all he wanted to talk about was his time at the North Pole,” says his daughter, Sara Lucas-Dreiss Schwille. “He really felt proud about what he had done there and wanted to have his ashes spread on the site after he passed.”

Today, Thule is home to the 821st Air Base Group, which has its wing headquarters at the 21st Space Wing in Colorado Springs, Colo. The 21st provides missile warning, space surveillance and space control to North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) and Air Force Space Command; the 821st is responsible for air base support within the Thule Defense Area, for the multinational population known as “Team Thule.”

“Our mission here is essentially threefold,” says Col. Joe Prue, commander of the 821st. “Perform air and sea sustainment operations to enable space capabilities, resupply missions, and scientific research in defense of our nation and its allies. My vision is to have America’s most innovative and disciplined air base group – driving excellence today and tomorrow in a demanding arctic environment.”

According to the National Strategy for the Arctic Region, issued by President Obama in 2013, the mission in Greenland and other arctic areas of operation includes efforts to “seek to maintain and preserve the arctic region as an area free of conflict, acting in concert with allies, partners and other interested parties.” Other aims are to support and preserve international legal principles of “freedom of navigation and over-flight and other uses of the sea and airspace related to these freedoms, unimpeded lawful commerce and the peaceful resolution of disputes for all nations.”

The Kingdom of Denmark’s arctic strategy today likewise recognizes the importance of Thule not as a relic of the Cold War but as a vital strategic position in global security going forward. “Thule base may play a larger role in regard to the tasks of the armed forces in and around Greenland in cooperation with other partner countries,” Denmark states in the strategy document. “Thule Air Base is, with its deep-water port, airport and well-developed infrastructure (including tank and storage capacity, workshop, hospital, quarters, support and office facilities), a unique capability in the arctic region north of the Arctic Circle. Collaboration on the logistical facilities in Thule could thus eventually include assignments and emergency preparedness in relation to the maritime environment, a base for exercises in connection to joint procedures such as search and rescue services, and also be a platform for joint research in the Arctic.”

The 12th Space Warning Squadron plays a key role. “Our mission,” Lt. Col. Kelly Easler explained last year when she had the command, is to “conduct continuous, real-time missile warning and missile defense vital to the security of North America, detect and track earth-orbiting objects in support of space situational awareness, and care for and develop disciplined and innovative airmen.”

The Thule Site 1 dual-faced phased array radar receives the trajectory of incoming objects, processes the information and forwards it to units that can intercept the threat. The unit provides tactical warning and attack assessment should a ballistic missile strike be carried out against the continental United States and Canada. Located at the northernmost U.S. military installation, the unit also provides attack assessment and detection in the event of a sea-launched missile attack. This information is forwarded to the Missile Warning Center at Cheyenne Mountain Air Force Station in Colorado Springs.

Also based at Thule is Detachment 1 of the 23rd Space Operations Squadron, whose mission is to “perform telemetry, tracking and commanding operations for U.S. and allied satellite programs in support of national defense,” explains Maj. Joel Neuber, detachment commander. While most people think of satellites as geosynchronous, or traversing roughly along the earth’s equator, many of our satellites have polar orbits, making Thule the optimal place from which to control them.  

Thule also houses a small contingent from the National Science Foundation (NSF), which uses the base as a jumping-off point for its “Greenland Inland Traverse.” This nearly two-month-long, 1,400-mile round trip involves transporting thousands of pounds of equipment, fuel and supplies to Summit Station, situated at the peak of the Greenland ice sheet. Along the way, they battle harsh conditions, forge new routes through crevasse fields and test new cargo-transport designs. At Summit Station, NSF scientists monitor the growth or recession of ice on the polar sheet, changes in the atmosphere, and the interactions between the atmosphere, snow and sunlight. Each year, several NSF-funded research projects based out of Thule study arctic ecology and access the ice sheet.

“Our main mission is to support fundamental research at the forefront of understanding the Arctic, including its human and natural components and its global linkages,” says Jennifer Mercer, a contracted projects manager of the NSF Division of Polar Programs. “The scope includes research targeting basic processes through to system scale studies and linkages to global questions.” The NSF is providing planning and logistics support for the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory’s installation of a 12-meter radio telescope near Summit Station. When completed, it will work in conjunction with telescopes located in Hawaii and Chile. These three sites are located where they will increase the effectiveness of the combined instruments to allow scientists to image, for the first time, a super-massive black hole and test Einstein’s theory of relativity. 

Prue has roughly 600 personnel in his command, split between active-duty military and contractors. Danish and, to a smaller extent, Canadian military forces also serve and work there. 

‘Seven full minutes of daylight’ The Danes have two vital missions linked to Thule. An elite Danish naval unit called the “Slædepatruljen Sirius” or “Sirius Sled Patrol” conducts long-range reconnaissance patrolling and enforces Danish sovereignty in northern and eastern Greenland. While the Sirius mission is not headquartered at Thule, resupply missions are. With their dog sleds, the two-man teams can go months without human contact. It’s widely regarded as one of the most grueling missions known. 

In 2012, National Geographic magazine profiled Jesper Olsen, a Sirius recruit who was required during the eight-month training and selection process to “leap into icy water to simulate a sledding disaster, then live for five days with only a small bag of emergency supplies, sleeping in a snow cave he dug with a tin cup and hunting arctic hare or musk ox to eat.”

The Danes also provide the local police force for the communities located relatively nearby. Thule doctors often accompany excursions to help the inhabitants of the communities. On a recent occasion, a Danish surgeon from Thule went with the police to the village of Siorapaluk, where reports indicated that many individuals were ill. Apparently, a local delicacy involves shoving native sparrow-sized birds into the bladder of a dead seal and burying it for several months before consuming it in a large village celebration. Somewhat predictably, the tradition resulted in an outbreak of botulism, which resulted in at least three deaths and the evacuation of three other villagers back to Thule and later to Copenhagen.

Interaction with the locals is not restricted to police protection or medical emergencies. Since 1959, Thule Air Base has held its annual gift-giving program for local Greenlandic children known as “Julemand,” which is Danish for “Christmas man,” the local equivalent of Santa Claus. A joint effort of U.S., Danish and Canadian military and civilian employees at Thule, the gesture promotes good will to the Greenlandic people, who have received new playgrounds, educational materials and other gifts from the base personnel.

On Feb. 21, 2014, personnel gathered in the frigid air to greet a visitor unseen for nearly four months: the sun. Because Thule is so far north, winters are almost entirely dark, while summer daylight can last 24 hours. Such extremes of light and dark are often more than just an annoyance for military personnel stationed there.

“It can be really, really tough in winter,” one high-ranking officer on the base confided on the day the sun was to appear. “You go through these months in the winter eating your vitamin D pills and sitting under the lamps that are supposed to make up for the lack of sun, but they only work to varying degrees. Both literally and figuratively, I went through some dark times. So no one on the base is more eager than me for the seven full minutes of daylight we’ll get today.”

The condition known as “seasonal affective disorder” is a real threat to U.S. servicemembers who serve in northern Greenland, causing symptoms from extreme lethargy to depression. While the base and command take all possible measures to alleviate the problem, there is no substitute for daylight.

“Today, we reassemble after months of dysfunctional sleep cycles, cases of vitamin D, numerous hours for many in the tanning bed at the fitness center, and several attempts to convince ourselves that our happy lamps are just as good as our sun,” Prue declared at the Feb. 21 “first light” ceremony. “Today, that all changes. At 1304 Thule time, our true sun, the very sun that has garnered worship for centuries by our ancestors, now garners worship from us.”

Despite the frigid, isolated conditions at Thule, most of the personnel genuinely appear to be happy there. “It’s really a bit of a hidden gem here,” Neuber says. “Because we do have such a small contingent, there’s a bit more of a sense of community.”

That sense of community was evident at a pirate-themed party following the few short minutes of daylight. As a Danish band played punk-rock music and revelers enjoyed numerous adult beverages, most of the talk centered on the return of the sun. 

Light had finally returned to Thule, and the entire base – Americans, Canadians and Danes alike – rejoiced, knowing they’d made it through another long winter at the air base at the top of the world. 


Mark Seavey is editor of The Burn Pit, The American Legion’s national blog site, and a writer for The American Legion Magazine