AN ARCTIC “CRUISE” TURNED TREACHEROUS

  By Bruno Yoka

The Icebreaker WESTWIND has an adventure to forget..

This was a joint operation of the Coast Guard icebreaker WESTWIND, on loan to the Navy for operations with the Air Force. While preparations were being made dockside at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, a variety of people began to arrive—an Air Force mapping group from Miami, a Navy Underwater Demolition Team, a representative from the U.S. Weather Bureau, and a Navy aviation maintenance crew to keep our helicopters flying. Last, but not least, was a Walt Disney camera crew.

Food and supplies were being loaded to last at least five months, during which the ship would break ice for an early supply entry into Thule Air Force Base, in Greenland, and assist in resupplying stations at Alert, Eurke and Resolute Bay.

On June 2, 1954, with the Navy band playing the Coast Guard song Semper Paratus, we departed New York. Passing the Statue of Liberty, a Coast Guard helicopter on harbor patrol touch landed on the ship’s flight deck, amusing the curious passengers on the Station Island ferry.

Two Navy HTL helicopters from Lakehurst, New Jersey, then joined the ship as it cleared the harbor and set a course for Newfoundland.

A short stop at the Argentia Naval Base allowed a briefing with the pilots providing long-range ice reconnaissance with Neptune aircraft.

During a second short layover at St. Johns, Newfoundland, we were joined by an Air Force HO4S helicopter from Ft. Pepperell, and a Canadian Mountie who came aboard for transportation to Franklin Bay on Ellesmere Island . . . thus setting the final stage for our northern trip.

The first ice-breaking operation of the season began on June 10 in HAMILTON Inlet, the entrance to the air base at Goose Bay, Labrador. Several trips up and down the bay released the pressure and, with the tidal force, ice began breaking up and flowing out to sea. The ship then headed for Greenland. The only green on this giant island being in its southern protected areas, well inland from the stormy wrath of the North Atlantic. We visited Bluie West One Air Base of World War II days, now known as the Narssarssuaq International Airport. Its many wartime barracks being converted into a TB sanitarium by the Greenlanders at the time.

Still heading north, the ship paid a courtesy call on the Danish Naval Base at Grondal, opposite the cryolite mining town of Ivigtut. A lone PBY Catalina flying boat comprised the base’s air group. Heavy outdoor construction equipment left behind by the Army Engineers were usually moved indoors during the long winter days, dismantled, cleaned and painted to a like-new condition. The Danes proved quite frugal in their ways.

Reports reached us that the Sondrestrom Base was out of fresh provisions, and the ship began in earnest doing what it was supposed to do—breaking the ice up the 80-mile fjord. This was an alternate emergency base during World War II, then known as Bluie West Eight. Midway up the fjord we crossed the Arctic Circle. King Neptune with his full court held initiation ceremonies for the new arrivals. Traveling ever northward, Ellesmere Island and Greenland soon appeared on the radar screen, and we discovered from the radar plot that the old navigation charts of the late 1800s indicated a ten-mile error between the two islands. Other icebreakers later confirmed our discovery.

Entering Mellvile Bay the ship encountered heavy ice. Our problems seemed to begin when one of the Navy HTL helicopters crashed on June 24. The Navy pilot was killed and the Coast Guard officer flying as an observer was immersed in the frigid water for more than 12 minutes suffered hypothermia as a result and could not be revived.

Meanwhile, a sister ship, the EASTWIND, was caught in pressurized ice, with strong winds forcing her to fight her way off the rocky coast of Ellesmere, but in ramming her way free the EASTWIND holed her cargo hold and broke one of her propeller blades. To make matters worse, one of her helicopters made a forced landing on the ice, fortunately without any injuries to the crew. This second mishap resulted in the Navy grounding its entire fleet of HTL helicopters.

As the WESTWIND continued her way north the days became longer. Crewmen were issued sunglasses—to be worn at midnight because of the low angle of the sun’s rays reflecting from the mirror-like sheets of ice. Reaching Thule in late June, we transferred our wrecked chopper and the remaining good helicopter, along with the Air Force chopper, to the air base for inspection. The remains of the two officers were piped ashore with full military honors, to be flown back stateside.

The De Long pier at the base became a home-away-from-home, complete with mail service from the States. We paid close attention to the inverted iceboxes that served as living quarters at this northernmost base. Three panes of glass were used for windows to keep out the Arctic winters. The permafrost changed the way men lived in these northern latitudes, where temperatures constantly averaged a low of 50 to 60 degrees below zero. Water had to be trucked about the base, as well as sewage.

Being the back-up for the EASTWIND, the WESTWIND fueled to capacity and departed for Robeson Channel to rendezvous with the damaged icebreaker, and to relieve her of cargo and supplies for the Alert weather station.

The Walt Disney crew making the 90-minute documentary began discarding its travel log script and just went along with the events as they began to unfold. This was the beginning of Men Against the Arctic sequel.

Being handicapped and without helicopters, we had to depend on the Navy’s Neptune planes for ice reports.

While looking back at the channel track left behind us in the ice, we saw Arctic fox and an occasional polar bear rummaging through the garbage we dropped overboard onto the ice. The season was late and progress proved to be slow. Upon entering the Lincoln Sea, bordering the Arctic Ocean, pressurized ice practically slowed the ship to a halt. Three tantalizing miles to go and within sight of the orange fuel tanks at Alert, the decision was made to abort the trip when a blade broke on the port propeller. With no further progress and a chance of wintering over in this polar trap, we made an attempt to extricate ourselves and change course for Thule.

With temperatures hovering at 48 below zero and winds continually blowing from the polar regions, we found ourselves listing about ten degrees from the pressure being exerted on the ship. The Navy icebreaker Atka was dispatched to the edge of the ice field to provide possible assistance. A new task group was then formed just to free the WESTWIND from her ice trap. Through the many radio messages, the words “air evacuation” began to appear as the Navy icebreakers Staten Island and Edisto were ordered to join the relief operation. The assisting ships were ordered to standby and avoid any possibility that they, too, become trapped in the ice.

The chances of wintering in the Arctic became very real. Many of the crewmembers didn’t wait for Sunday to hold a prayer vigil . . . praying openly, as if only through the power of prayer could the Almighty spare them from this polar trap.

On September 9, Mother Nature provided the necessary ingredient to release the WESTWIND. The wind blew continuously from the south and southwest for 12 hours, with the crew anxiously looking for any sign that the ice was relaxing its pressure. The ship then came to life, throbbing with vibrations as all of its six engines turned on line, ramming the ice. The gigantic ice floes, with the WESTWIND encased, had drifted dangerously close to the rocky coastline. These were uncharted waters, and it was a calculated risk to just turn the ship around. Four agonizing hours of ramming a channel to the first open water seemed like an eternity. Just in time, as the ship made progress, the lead behind us closed in as we continued to the edge of the ice to join the Atka.

The WESTWIND tied up at the Brooklyn Navy Yard on September 30, 1954, finishing a 121-day, 12,000-mile odyssey. But the longest part of the journey was those four miles through the rapidly closing lead on our way to open water.

 

 

 

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