THE ARCTIC CRUISE OF THE U.S. COAST GUARD CUTTER EASTWIND (WAGB-279)

1 May - 19 September 1952

by Benjamin B. Blodget

 

EASTWIND, one of four vessels of her class, was built in 1944, destined for nearly twenty polar expeditions. Her first mission in World War II was to northeast Greenland. There she fought her way through 10-foot ice to rescue two men in a small boat lost from an allied patrol. Proceeding still further northward she sighted a German Weather Reporting Station and during the next 15 days she captured the station, its valuable documents, and a German expeditionary vessel.

At the war’s end she made numerous and varied trips in the Arctic regions until in 1955, she participated in the First Operation Deep Freeze in Antarctica, continuing this duty in subsequent alternate years.

So!  I was aboard a ship with some history behind her. After serving for over two years on the USCGC Yakutat, one of four ocean weather ships based in Portland, Maine, I was ready to go somewhere other than sitting on a ten-mile square in the middle of the Atlantic. However, this was a secondary assignment. I had looked forward to the first at the International Ice Patrol radio station based in Argentia, Newfoundland. Beginning in June of each year when ice bergs begin floating down into the shipping lanes, Coast Guard ships and planes would spot bergs and growlers, radio their position to the base station; and the station would broadcast periodic Ice Warnings to merchant ships.

When a change of orders came assigning me to the USCGC EASTWIND and her preparation for going to the Arctic, the shore assignment at Argentia faded into the background. EASTWIND was docked at Castle Island Terminal in South Boston. USCGC NORTHWIND that had sailed around from Seattle was also there to accompany us.

The primary purpose of these Arctic Cruises was to break a path from the ice line to Thule Air Force Base allowing a convoy of USNS supply ships to deliver their cargos for the construction and maintenance of that installation. We will get back to them later as they did not arrive until 26 June. In the meantime, other duties took up the journey north.  

Leaving Boston harbor, EASTWIND proceeded north past Cape Sable. The ice was beginning to flow down through the Strait of Belle Isle and passage was questionable; whether bucking it rather than going around Newfoundland would save any time. However, moderate to light field ice was reported and EASTWIND made it through. A report was sent to Commander International Ice Patrol:

ICE CONDITIONS BELLE ISLE STRAIT TO 40 MILES NORTHEAST OF BELLE ISLE 2/10 INCREASING TO 9/10 BROKEN ICE FLOES WITH SCATTERED BERGS X NO LEADS X 64 BERGS COUNTED X PASSAGE POSSIBLE TO ICEBREAKERS.

Crossing to the Greenland coast, the first stop was a courtesy call. At 0500 on May 8th, we started getting radio direction finder bearings from Godthaab (OXI) and Faeringehavn (OYU) and at 0700 were off Arsuk Fjord awaiting entrance to Godthaab Harbor. Fog made for zero visibility, but the Danish pilot brought the ship smartly into the dock. Godthaab is the capitol of the southwest sector of Greenland. Air temperature by this time was in the thirties, which was average for the summer months. Some days got up to 40 and some days down in the 20’s.

The native Inuits make up most of the population, plus a Danish governor and a U. S. Consul. A visit to OXI was interesting. Its main purpose is to act as a relay station between Denmark and the United States. There were 10 or 12 transmitters; some RCA and some of Danish make with an output of 15KW. In addition to the four Danish operators, there were several Inuit operators who, it was said, copied CW around 50 words per minute. The key was of the European style with a large knob that the operator grasped in his hand. It was secured on the edge of the operating table where the operator would sit or stand and “bang away.”

During the day, someone had hauled in three small seals. Two women started to cut them up while others hacked away huge hunks of blubber to take home. The next day, inflation had set in. What could be bought for a few cigarettes yesterday, were up to several packs. Some people wouldn’t even take cigarettes; they wanted gum or candy!  For trade there were beads, ivory, and leather goods. They did have handbags made from sealskin; but as urine was used for tanning, there wasn’t much sale.

Captain O. A. Peterson had twenty-four guests aboard for a party, dinner, and late movie; and EASTWIND departed the next morning, May 10th. As the ship proceeded out through the channel, the Captain played So Long It’s Been Good to Know Ya over the bullhorn. We are now in the region, being at 66 degrees North and 54 degrees West, where there isn’t much darkness. Sunset is about 2100 and daybreak about mid-night.

Just before high noon the next day, May 11th, HRH Boreas Rex appeared aboard at 66 degrees North 54 degrees West, bringing with him a company of “Polar Bears” who proceeded to initiate the many “Blue Noses” amongst the crew.

  Captain O. A. Peterson surrounded by Boreas Rex and his court including his Consort, the Royal Baby and the Court Clown.

  Most of the new Polar Bears clipped off their hair tonight so it would grow back in evenly.

 Proceeding along the coast the next day, mountains could be seen in the distance. There were several bergs and patches of ice around. Winding in through the channel, EASTWIND anchored in Egedesminde. Captain Peterson wanted a conference with Kommandorekapt Tegner of the Danish Navy who commands a survey vessel in that area.

As the current had brought ice between the ship and the dock, the Greenland Cruiser was lowered to take Tegner ashore. There were foot and sled tracks in the ice from where we were anchored showing where people had walked across the harbor during the winter freeze-over.

This is about the beginning of the southern ice limit. Both EASTWIND and NORTHWIND have 2 helicopters aboard, a Bell and a Sorkoski. Radio tests were made at this location to find out the effects of transmitting between both ships and their planes over ice. The thickness of the ice in this area was from three to feet.

Also shown is the “Greenland Cruiser“. An LCVP was stored on the port side for use in personnel and cargo landing.

Light snow that has to be continually removed is almost a daily routine. Captain Peterson frequently accompanied the pilots on their reconnaissance giving him enough flying hours to qualify for flight pay.

(From the USN Hydro. Office Pub. 46091 about ice)  The first sign of freezing is an oily or opaque appearance of the water caused by the formation of ice spicules and ice crystals in the form of thin plates. These consist of fresh ice free from salt and increase in number until the sea is covered by slush of a thick soapy consistency. Ice crust is the next state. Newly formed ice is weak and plastic in consistency and does not accrue its strength and brittle nature until it has been cooled below 16F. YOUNG ICE is hard and brittle. It frequently has some slight degree of transparency and is generally two to eight feet thick. POLAR ICE is the thickest and heaviest form of sea ice more than a year old. This is commonly called “blue ice” and averages about  12’ thick.

Both ships neared Rifkol Island, now in open water, where both the Greenland Cruiser and the LCVP were put over the side to make ice observations along the shore. On 15 May, we were anchored off Satut Island about 5 miles north of Rifkol Island. A shore party from both ships went ashore to make hydrographic and topographic surveys. The next day, a large berg drifted down rapidly, hit NORTHWIND, bounced off and headed toward EASTWIND. An attempt was made to swing around on the anchor, but the berg scrapped along one side before we could get out of its path.

Surveys were continued on Satut Island. The land itself is bare and rocky with no vegetation. There is an old native graveyard on one side of the island. It was surprising to see a two-man kayak and another small boat circling around during our stay. Leaving NORTHWIND to take more observations along the coast, EASTWIND headed west for Clyde on Baffin Island running through ice. A seal was sighted off the port bow. The ice here varies in thickness from three feet to six inches. In places it looked as if a path had been broken recently. At 1600, we got stuck!  The engines were left in Full Astern for half an hour, but we didn’t budge. The helo made a reconnaissance flight ahead to look for an opening in the ice. By shifting the ship’s ballast around in the heeling tanks, EASTWIND managed to get free between 2000 and 2100 and proceeded ahead.

Underway the next day, May 18th, helicopter flights were made to look for leads in the ice as no opening in the ice could be seen from the ship. A range of mountains on Cape Aston became visible about 1600. A Commander Tinsler of the Royal Canadian Navy had aerial photographs of this section that were used to help locate the ship in relation to the coast.

Heading for Clyde River, present position at 0800 is 69.9 North 67.0 West. The helo was up again for a look ahead as we were approaching ice again following along the edge of it. Clyde River Radio informed EASTWIND that the ice usually doesn’t begin to leave the river until the middle of July. They have dog sleds available if we want them to reach the shore. They advise that the water is shallow within a mile from the beach making it impossible to take the ship in close. At 1110, we entered the ice to go into the town. Twenty minutes later, EASTWIND hit a pressure ridge. After backing down and ramming into it several times, we stopped right there.

The large 3-man helicopter took off for Clyde at 1400 with one of the Army Engineers and a Coast Guard Observer returning around 1630. Either we were unable to or it was not advisable to push the ship any farther through the ice, so we remained in our present position. At this point, we were about twenty-five miles from Clyde. Five dog sleds were requested from the Clyde Air Base. They expected to reach the ship at 0200 the next day, the journey taking about eight hours. The shore party expects to be ashore for four days doing survey work. Volunteers were asked for, but only two taken,  No radiomen were allowed to go anywhere!

River Clyde, as the air facility is called, is operated jointly by the United States and Canada. There is also a radio telegraph station operated by the Hudson Bay Company. The next morning at 0400, the dog teams had not yet arrived!  Also, the open water around the ship had frozen in. Helicopters went up several times to guide the party in and found that they had gone in the wrong direction!  They hadn’t realized that the distance was so great. Nevertheless, three sleds with about six men arrived at 0900, followed by two more sleds an hour later. This made a total of four Canadians and ten Eskimos including two boys. They were fed as soon as possible as they had not eaten since starting out. The last group was delayed because they had stopped to kill a polar bear. They had the skin on one of the sleds.

The dogs were curled up in a ball in the snow. Then a GI can of old meat was put out for them, and they really dove into it. To eat, the dogs had been unleashed from the sleds. After they had finished, one of the dogs got a whiff of the rubbish that had been thrown off the fantail. He started in that direction with all the other dogs after him. It was a mad scramble as they jumped on top of each other, digging at the pile and fighting over bones.  They still had their pulling lines attached to their collars. What a time the drivers had trying to untangle them and from the dogs’ legs!  One of the men told us that for feed on the trail, two or three seals are caught and split open. The dogs eat everything including the teeth

That night at 2030, the shore party with their sleds loaded with the supplies and gear shoved off to be gone approximately four days. The sleds had anywhere from twelve to twenty dogs each with a lead dog out front. The whips that the drivers used are twenty-five feet long, and the drivers roll them out over the heads of the dog team exactly the same way as casting a fishing line. The next morning, the helicopter took off to check on the shore party. It was reported to have traveled about fifteen miles, which would be almost one and four-tenths miles per hour; pretty good for walking through snow.

During this time those who wanted to could go out onto the ice and ski or snowshoe. Also, there would be igloo building under “expert” instruction. When I looked later, Captain Peterson had built himself a house and was starting on a second one.

By Saturday, May 24th, the shore party was on its way back to EASTWIND. Flights kept checking on them and took out some hot soup. They arrived back at 1300. The trip on Tuesday took eleven hours, but twelve sleds were used on the return trip allowing everyone to ride; and they made it back in eight hours. Along with them was a Hudson Bay Company Post Manager with two Eskimos and a dog team. We are giving them a lift to a place they want to go on Northern Baffin Island.

During the days the shore party was gone, EASTWIND started breaking her way in toward the shore. Not getting very far, she went back to open water and tried at another point. The field ice was up to three feet thick making it necessary to keep backing down and ramming. At times, we didn’t advance more than the length of the ship. All this maneuvering only took us a mile closer to shore, but in the new position the ship had turned around and was headed for open water. The direction of the wind makes a big difference in the ice. A north wind will move icebergs south clearing the sea, but a south wind will drive the ice pack northward jamming up the channels.

Departing from River Clyde, there were areas of open water then a pressure ridge where the ship got stuck. The helicopters went up looking for leads, while the ship freed herself by rocking side to side using the heeling tanks. A little later, the ice was three inches thick which did not impede EASTWIND at all. As we were heading north, more ice was encountered. It was the thick blue ice requiring the ship to back down and ram to get through. Then scattered lakes that broadened into open water. This was the situation for the next few days with the helicopter flights looking for open leads in the pack ice, going through pressure ridges and making time through three to four feet of ice.

On Friday, the 30th of May, Kap Atholl was in sight and EASTWIND proceeded into Wolstenholme Fjord. NORTHWIND had proceeded us, and we continued making good time after finding the path broken in the three-foot ice by our sister ship. We were finally at Thule in North Star Bay!  Position:  76.30 North and 69.36 West. NORTHWIND had docked, and we had to push some ice chunks out of the way before tying up to her outboard side. The dock here is made of five or six steel barge hulls, approximately 250 feet long, set up on steel pilings. These pilings were circular in shape some four feet in diameter.

Upon entering the harbor, one sees a huge plateau dead ahead. Behind is the Eskimo village of 180 people and to the right is the Danish settlement. The US Air Force Base is on the right-hand side of the harbor. Two construction companies, one from Nebraska and one from Minnesota have the contract for construction work.

Only a few minutes after docking an Air Force truck arrived with nine bags of mail. It was quickly sorted and passed out after which liberty was granted to the Second Section. Being side to side with NORTHWIND, we could alternate radio guard daily giving us a break from watch standing.

There are two radio stations in Thule operated by the Polar Broadcasting Company, KOLD on 1450 KC and KBIC on 1600 KC. They rebroadcast AFRS programs as well as disc jockey programs, local items and chaplain talks. The crew was interviewed once by an announcer at KBIC getting impressions of the trip up that was broadcast that evening. Also there is a Danish station, OZZ, operated in connection with their weather observation station. They broadcast the weather for this area, most of which we copy during the time we are in the Arctic Region.

Until the 12th of June, both ships were pretty much in port giving the crews time to paint and do maintenance before making another run south along the Greenland shore. The supply convoy was at sea but had not arrived north as yet.            

Sunday, the 8th of June was a beautiful day.  There was an opportunity to take a hike up to the ice cap, which is behind the Air Force Base. After checking out with the Recreation Officer, a party of about thirty EASTWIND men, the same number of Airmen, plus ten crewmembers of an RAF plane that was in, struck out. We were loaded into four trucks that took us across the airstrips and onto roads that were still under construction.

Driving as far as they could, the trucks left us off to hike across a large field. From where the group was standing with our backs toward the Base, the ice cap was straight ahead with a mountain and several smaller peaks to the left. The field was covered with small blue flowers in among the dead grass. Nothing grows much as there is little rainfall.

The base of the mountain was about a half-hour walk away, and we started climbing. In the moist spots and near patches of snow, the same blue flowers grew, along with pussy willows no higher than an inch from the ground. Some were in full bloom; some had turned to seed. Any number of large chunks of quartz could be seen as the mountains on this side of the harbor are made of it.

As we could see a large cliff to the left of the summit, the group veered over that way and found it to be a sheer drop-off of some thousand feet. At the bottom, a grassy area extended outward to the fjord. A second ice cap with its glacier flowing down the cliffs could be seen. Low fog and clouds started to roll in at that time, making it impossible to take pictures of the skyline.

The summit was reached about 1530. From there, looking at the nearest ice cap, we could see where its glacier flowed around in back of the mountain and down into the fjord. On the way down, I glanced at the ground and was surprised to find two caterpillars  --- the brown furry kind that we have in Maine.

At the foot of the mountain, we came to a road leading around to the other side of the mountain. To avoid crossing the wet field, some of us decided to get as near to the trucks as we could by walking on the road. Before going fifty feet, however, a pick-up came along and gave us a lift. After a half-hour ride that nearly bounced us out onto the ground, we arrived back at the Recreation Hall, signed in and hitched a ride back to the dock. As evening chow was over, three of us raided the icebox and made sandwiches.

This afternoon ashore made quite a break in the routine. The chance to exercise our legs and feel land under our feet was most welcome.

On June 12th, EASTWIND left Thule to meet the NORTHWIND that was now farther south. Both ships were to do some ice and glacier observations along the Greenland coast. Four days later, we headed into Karrats Fjord at position 71.24N 54.30W.

Proceeding into the Fjord, Svartenhick is on the Port side and Ngatsiag Island to Starboard. All around the entrance were scattered the largest bergs encountered to date. The fjord was pretty well covered with ice, but it was only rotten ice six inches thick. A few seals were seen along with many of their breathing holes. The ice kept getting thicker as we proceeded in, up to a foot but still rotten. After weaving in around the mountains and encountering several ridges and hummocks, we reached the point where Rinks Glacier flows down into the fjord about 1940 that evening.

The mountains rise straight up from the fjord, some to a height of 3000 feet. There were so many peaks in the background that they reminded me of a flat of seedlings, each trying to find a space through; but being crowded out by the others.

Both ships tied together for the night and next morning got underway to proceed out of the Karrat’s Fjord. Much better time was made, of course, as the path that was broken through the ice yesterday was still open. At 0945, we came upon an Eskimo hunting party. One man and a boy stood on one side of the swath in the ice and a lone man on the other. It must have been a mystery to them what had made that wide cut right up the middle of the fjord!  The ships stopped and the lone man was motioned to come to the ship and cross over to the others; but all he did was to shake his head and point to the other side. Like a bridge out, he had to wait until the water froze over. Sorry about that!

NORTHWIND returned to Thule to work on one of her main generators, and EASTWIND continued southward passed Unamak Fjord. The next day in the vicinity of Disco Island, a huge berg was seen. The Captain wanted to get pictures of this one, so the LCVP was lowered to take the ship’s photographer loaded with two movie cameras and a graflex to take the famous picture of EASTWIND showing through the arch.

By 2030 that night, EASTWIND had arrived at the small town of Jakobshavan. The governor came out in a powerboat and there were the usual native boats surrounding the ship. Laying off shore for the night, the next day we continued northward between Disco Island and Nugasuaq. Captain Peterson had wanted to have another talk with Kommandorkapt Tegner on his ship the Hejmdel, but after trying to locate him by asking all the radio stations on the west coast, we received a message from him saying that he would be at Sukkertoppen cleaning his boilers for the next ten days with no possibility of moving.

By June 20th, our position was almost back to Thule. The first radio contact was made with the Navy convoy, and we were more or less just cruising around observing ice conditions and planning the best route for them through the ice. NORTHWIND caught up with us again just south of Cape York, bringing mail then continuing south to meet the convoy.

Finally, on 27 June, the 58th day since leaving Boston at position 74.06N 59.00W, the Navy Task Group Flagship came up and stopped off our port beam. They sent two small boats over to EASTWIND bringing half a dozen Army and Navy photographers. Captain Peterson went over to make a call on the Admiral, the Task Group Commander. The eyes of all hands were on him as he climbed the Jacob’s Ladder to the deck of the flagship!  The “Blue Jay” flag, a white flag with a blue jay in the center, was hoisted, and we began our active participation of “Operation BLUE  JAY.”

Since my job was now operating the radio facsimile machine for receiving weather maps, Technical Minds might be interested in how it worked. It was a little more complicated in the Nineteen-fifties than present day FAX!

Facsimile equipment is used to transmit from one point to another fixed images over an electrical communications system such as a wire or radio circuit. On the transmit side, an exciter lamp is used to detect the brightness of each small elemental area. The copy to be transmitted is clamped on a drum. An image of the copy to be transmitted is focused upon an aperture plate which is located immediately in front of a photocell. The photocell is used as a valve in a modulation circuit to control the amplitude of the carrier frequency or tone. When a dark area of the copy is seen, the photocell allows a maximum signal to pass. When a white area is seen, a minimum signal is allowed to pass. In order to scan each elemental area of the copy to be transmitted, the drum is rotated and at the same time; the optical system moves sideways by one elemental area per drum revolution. When the optical system has completely scanned the copy, all of the elemental areas on the copy have been seen by the photocell and a corresponding amplitude signal has been transmitted for each elemental area.

The facsimile recorder merely amplifies this received facsimile signal and converts it back into corresponding density variations on the record sheet. The signal is applied to a small stylus needle, which is in contact with the recording paper on a drum similar to that of the transmitter. The recorder drum rotates at the same as that of the transmitter so the two drums are always in the same relative position. When a maximum amplitude signal is received and seen by the photocell, the electrical voltage on the stylus prints out maximum density (black) by burning it into a specially coated paper. When a white area is seen, the signal passed by the photocell is so low that no signal records leaving the paper untouched.

When the entire picture has been scanned, the same picture (maps, photographs, sketches, typewritten printed text or handwriting) has been copied on the recording paper at the facsimile recorder. One page takes about twenty minutes.

In tuning around the high frequency bands, I discovered that the news agencies transmitted news and comics daily. When I mentioned this to the Chief Radioman, he said, “Oh don’t show those; the crew will want them every day!”  So, this was left to my own diversion and amusement.

For the next twenty-six days, EASTWIND, NORTHWIND, joined by three Navy icebreakers, the USS EDISTO (AGB-2), the USS ATKA (AGB-4), and the USS STATEN ISLAND (AGB-5) made escort runs between Thule and the southern ice limits.

(Author’s Note:  The five icebreakers that the Navy operated were transferred to the Coast Guard in 1966, thus making the Coast Guard the sole ice breaking service.)

When breaking for the convoy, the icebreakers back down if necessary to clear the broken pieces of ice out of the break. This also gives the ships a chance to catch up, as they slow down to almost no headway inching through the ice filled channel. (A later Navy hydrographic study on safe ice navigation stated that 33 of the 37 supply ships suffered some damage during this operating of 1952.)

Although fog was not a hindrance to the inactive ships in Dumb Bell Bay, it caused some excitement in the approaching convoys. One example is these messages on July 11th:

From EDISTO:  112000Z -- LYING TO IN THICK FOG POSITION 76.20N 69.45W X MISSION BUENA VENTURA HAS JUST DAMAGED STB SIDE FORWARD AND IS LEAKING AVGAS CARGO X REPORTS LOSS OF 4000 BBLS X HAVE REMOVED ALMA VICTORY TO SAFE DISTANCE AND WILL PROCEED WITH BOTH SHIPS AS SOON AS VISIBILITY PERMITS

And at 112340Z -- FOLLOWING FROM SS MISSION BUENA VENTURA QUOTE NUMBER ONE TWO AND THREE STARBOARD  WING TANKS DAMAGED X HOLES THREE AND SIX FEET BELOW WATER LINE X FIVE HOLES OR MORE IN THE VICINITY EXACT LOCATION UNKNOWN X LOST QUITE A BIT OF CARGO UNABLE TO SAY HOW MUCH UNQUOTE X CASUALTY OCCURRED APPROXIMATELY 1425R X NO OTHER INFORMATION

CTF 118 immediately requested full details. The visibility remained zero throughout the night as the fog failed to lift. The next day, the following amplifying report from EDISTO filed at 0640Z.

PRIOR TO DAMAGE TO BUENA VENTURA CONVOY HAD BEEN PROCEEDING AT 10 KNOTS THROUGH AREA OF ROTTEN SLUSH ICE AND OPEN WATER MIXED WITH MANY BERGS AND A FEW HARD PIECES X WITH GOOD VISIBILITY THE GOING WAS EXCELLENT X AT 1400 VISIBILITY REDUCED TO 8 KNOTS X AT 1415 MISSION VENTURA CALLED ON CHANNEL EIGHT AND REQUESTED THAT WE STOP SO SHE COULD INVESTIGATE HOLE ON STARBOARD BOW THROUGH WHICH GASOLINE WAS LEAKING X CONVOY STOPPED AND EDISTO TURNED BACK TO STAND BY IN CASE ASSISTANCE WAS REQUIRED X AT SAME TIME VISIBILITY REDUCED TO ZERO X 1446 RECEIVED ORAL REPORT FROM BUENA VENTURA THAT SHIP WAS WATERTIGHT BUT CARGO WAS LEAKING OUT SO ESCORTED ALMA VICTORY AHEAD AND TO WINDWARD A SAFE DISTANCE X 1612 VISIBILITY IMPROVED SOMEWHAT SO CONVOY WAS FORMED WITH BUENA VENTURA LAST AND PROCEEDED AT SIX KNOTS X IN LATER RADIO CONVERSATION WITH CAPTAIN OF BUENA VENTURA DETERMINED THAT HE HAD APPROX 5 HOLES CAUSED BY STRIKING A HEAVY PIECE OF ICE AT THE TIME AS VISIBILITY WAS SUFFICIENT TO AVOID SAME X BUENA VENTURA WAS APPROX 700 YDS ASTERN OF EDISTO AND SO FAR AS IS KNOWN WAS IN HER WAKE X POSSIBILITY EXISTS THAT DAMAGE WAS CAUSED BY A PIECE OF ICE RAFTED UNDER SOFTER AND MORE ROTTING ICE AND RELEASED BY THE MOTION OF THE SHIPS PASSING X THERE WERE NO BERGS AT THE IMMEDIATE SCENE

    Aerial View of Thule Air Force SAC Base and North Star Bay

Here I will insert information obtained from other sources about Thule and Operation Blue Jay.

Following World War II, the US studied the possibility of establishing a major operating base in Greenland when it became clear that round trip flights of planes carrying atomic bombs between US and Canadian bases and European objectives were impractical. The shortest route from the US to the Soviet Union’s most important industrial areas was over the North Pole and Thule is at the precise midpoint between Moscow and New York.

Thule Air Base was constructed in secret under the code name Operation BLUE JAY. Construction began in 1951 and was completed in 1953. The construction of Thule is said to have been compared in scale to the enormous effort required to build the Panama Canal. The Navy transported the bulk of men, supplies and equipment from the naval shipyards in Norfolk, Virginia. On June 6, 1951 an armada of 120 shipments carried 12,000 men and 300,000 tons of cargo. They arrived Thule July 9th.  The Kiewit Company had the contract for doing the construction work for the SAC Air Base.

A US Army company maintained ship-to-shore amphibious DUKS and all other vehicles. Twelve hours on and twelve hours off seven days per week in the 24-hour daylight. Thule is locked in by ice nine months of the year. The bay is frozen in again by mid-October. The Thule area is barren most of the year; although from June to September, the snow melts and arctic tundra plant life such as poppies, cotton, and mosses bloom. Around the base, one is likely to see arctic fox and hares and several varieties of birds in the summer time. Polar bears, caribou, seals, musk ox, and peregrine falcons also inhabit the area.

Photographers who had come aboard yesterday on the 27th of June in Thule started shooting movies of the ships from the flight deck and helicopters. They said they had 17,000 feet of film. Many shots had been taken of the loading operation in Norfolk, and they are going to cover the unloading in Thule.

After the first pickup, the next several weeks saw many runs back and forth, meeting the loaded ships and escorting the empty vessels back south to open water. North Star Bay was filled with anchorages, docking, unloading, and shifting berths. Helicopters were in the air sighting out leads through the ice pack. EASTWIND’S final run was 18-19 July escorting the USNS San Jose (T-AO 125) northbound. This was a record run as there being no ice or low visibility to hold us up. We look forward to the next assignment.

A list of some of the vessels EASTWIND escorted follows:  

SS Greece Victory

USS Enoree (AO-60)

USNS Soubarissen (T-AO 93)

SS Eastport Victory 

SS Monroe Victory 

USNS Mission Buena Ventura  (T-AO 111)

SS Lawrence Victory

USNS Bondia (T-AF 51)     

SS Merrimack

USNS General W. G. Haan (T-AP158)  

USNS Seaton Hall      

SS Enid Victory

USS Ashland (LSD-1)

SS Mayfield Victory

July 29th saw a Lt. Jones from the Office of Naval Research and eight civilians reported aboard with 700 pounds of luggage and 5000 pounds of scientific equipment. Their operation will be coming up soon.

On August 2nd, EASTWIND was dismissed from Operation BLUE JAY and reported to CTG 49.2 on Operation NANOOK. The USS Wyandot (AKA-02), a veteran of trips to Thule, had entered North Star Bay with supplies destined for Alert, the joint US-Canadian weather station on the Arctic Ocean at the top of Ellesmere Island. Transferred to EASTWIND were a Jeep, Arctic diesel oil, a large underground oil tank, wooden construction materials and fifty or more tanks of helium.

August 4th was a necessary working morning in spite of today being Coast Guard Day. However, the ship was full dressed in the afternoon to celebrate the 192nd anniversary of the Coast Guard. Captain Peterson invited some of the other ship commanding officers to dinner in his cabin. A ration of two cans of Blue Ribbon was issued to the crew. He is being reassigned when EASTWIND returns to Boston to be Captain of the Port in that city.

Captain Bowerman who will be the next CO of EASTWIND was supposed to arrive to make the remainder of the cruise to become acquainted with the ship. For some reason, he was delayed; so departure for Alert was postponed for a day. Not having arrived by 1800, we got underway without him on August 6th proceeding north along the coast in open water filled with many bergs.

On the afternoon of the 7th, the civilian technicians have a large balloon ready to launch from the flight deck as soon as the wind is favorable. This balloon will lift a rocket aloft for cosmic radiation measurements at the one point on the globe where the earth’s magnetic field has the least influence on incoming cosmic ray particles. Each rocket carried either a Geiger counter or an ionization chamber to “telemeter” the data back to EASTWIND for recording and analysis. Made by General Mills, the 55 foot balloon will expand with decreasing air pressure which at 55,000 to 60,000 feet will permit a switch to close and fire the rocket. The suspended rockets will fire almost vertically after they have been lifted up through most of the earth’s atmosphere.

Dr. J. A. Van Allen, head of the physics department of the University of Iowa and his group designed the rocket. It was jointly financed by the Office of Naval Research, the Research Corporation of New York, and the University of Iowa. A later Navy news release on October 16th mentioned “The EASTWIND had to race downwind, through iceberg-strewn waters, at the speed of the wind in order to create the no-wind condition essential for launching."

“The 190-pound rocket would carry a payload  of about 40 pounds of light electronic  instruments which would continuously radio data on surrounding conditions back to the ground station. Both the balloon and the rocket would be expendable --- no attempt at recovery would be made. Dr. Allen said that the rockets cannot be used anywhere over an inhabited country, since there is no provision to guide their fall.”

A news item also explains the geomagnetic poles. “Geomagnetic poles are determined by an analysis of the entire surface of the earth. The north geomagnetic pole is in western Greenland south of the Kane Basin, at 78.5 degrees north latitude, 69.6 degrees west longitude. It is about midway between the North Pole at 90 degrees latitude  ---  the axis about which the earth rotates  -- and the non-stationary north magnetic pole. The latter is the region where the magnetic force is vertically downward. At last count  [1952] it had drifted from Boothia peninsula, in the district of Keewatin, Northwest Territory, slightly northward to Prince of Wales Island.”

This is exactly why this particular location was picked for these observations.

At the 100th day out of Boston, EASTWIND was at the entrance of Kennedy Channel at position 80 degrees 36 minutes North, 68 degrees 54 minutes West. We were near the Ellesmere Island shore with open water; but by afternoon, there was consolidated pack ice as thick as four feet. The ship had to start backing down to make any headway at all. There has been a strong southerly wind that does not help the ice to flow out of the channel. It just keeps packing up tighter, so there is nothing that can be done but wait for the wind to change and loosen the ice.

Now in radio contact with Alert who reported that one of the personnel had walked over to Cape Sheriden and observed a good lead next to the shore. The wind has been increasing to 35 knots; and finally, the next day, there was enough open water around the ship to turn in; and we headed over toward the shore. Backing down and following some leads made some progress. As  mentioned previously, on the 6th of June; my duty had been changed from radio watch standing to operating the radio facsimile. This gave me a short working day only needing to receive weather maps from 0745 to 0930 and from 1305 to 1530. So I was having a full night’s sleep with plenty of time to be on deck watching ice operations.

We made about eight miles headway in two hours overnight in the Hall Basin. The ice here is old blue Polar Ice varying from ten to fifteen feet thick. It was necessary to wedge between ice cakes and open up cracks. At one point, the demolition team went over the side to blow open a crack with TNT, which was successful ..... this time!

Two days later, on August 11th, we were in the Robeson Channel approximately twenty-five miles from Alert.

That afternoon at 1400, we got stuck again ..... really stuck!  The demolition team planted a charge of TNT off the port bow, which did not do any more than put a small hole in the fifteen-foot thick ice. A second ....... and a third ....... and a fourth blast followed, but no crack was opened. A fifth charge was fired at 1615 which must have done some damage as EASTWIND got underway again, backing and wedging our way slowly. After getting through this thickest pack, we had easy going with plenty of open water. The good lead south of Cape Sheriden lasted only until 2030, when we ran into consolidated ice again. There were cracks, but still much backing down to do. The water is extremely clear. It is possible to see the sides of the ice cakes go down for seven or eight feet and keep on going.

The helicopter took a flight over to Alert as EASTWIND rounded Cape Sheriden going from Robeson Channel into the Lincoln Sea. This was about position 82 degrees 12 minutes North and 61 degrees 06 minutes West. Only about seven more miles to Alert. They reported that they saw us awhile ago and, no doubt could watch us approach all the time after rounding the cape. Air temperature at this date at mid-day was 39 degrees falling to 28.3 at night. Night????  No darkness at this season of the year.

Shortly after midnight, we stopped, as the ice was quite thick and spent awhile washing the ice away from the stern in order to get room in which to work the ship around. The buildings of the station could be seen from here. The heeling tanks were put into operation. By making a cut in the ice, and then another fifty feet or so to one side and breaking out the chunk in the middle, EASTWIND worked her way in toward shore.

 

Around 0230, we were pretty close to the shore, stopping at 0300 just long enough for the helicopter to take off. Getting underway again, we really pounded through this last stretch and dropped anchor in Dumb Bell Bay off the weather station at 0430.

Dumb Bell Bay was all open water, and unloading operations began at 0600 involving all hands.

 

ALERT Weather Station is located at  Lat. 82 degrees 30 minutes North, Long. 62 degrees 20 minutes West. It is one of five stations on Canadian soil, the others being at Eureka Sound, Isachsen, Mould Bay and Resolute Bay. The buildings are located on the top of a hill about one quarter of a mile from the beach at an elevation of 128 feet. After the supplies are landed via LCVP, they are transferred to sleds and hauled up the rather steep hill by bulldozer. In the afternoon, 1500 empty drums were brought out and re-filled with fuel oil to replenish the station supply. By 0230 the next day, August 13th, unloading was completed and return cargo aboard. Alert personnel came aboard for noon chow. We are taking one man back with us.

A group of us went onto the beach at 1330 to visit the station. On the way up, it was obvious what a haul the tractors had to get the laden sleds up over the hill. The main building contains the radio shack, office, galley and recreation room. In addition, there is a weather building, a bunkhouse, garage and storage shed. The buildings are scattered in case of fire and emergency caches are buried in the snow at varying distances from the station. The radio officer held daily schedules with a ham by the name of  J. S. Surber of Peru, Indiana who was a night train dispatcher for the Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad. We all wrote messages to be relayed home. (As an aside comment, my mother returned some stamps to him in appreciation. She was surprised that he sent back the extra ones!  I did not record his call sign nor can I find it. Years later, I read that he had fallen on hard times, health wise and financially; and those who know him over many years were trying to assist in any way they could.)

Thirty-eight years later, in September of 1990, I had a contact with Anne E. OZ1GLN, .. Somehow the subject of Thule came up. She told me that she worked at Flight Ops there from 1976-1983. Becoming good friends with the Canadian Air Crews that made supply runs to Alert, she had been there also. On days off, she would fly up in the C130 planes just for the ride. While at Alert  she worked DX the instant she got on the air from VE8RCS (Real Cool Spot) and also worked pile-ups as OX3AE/VE8. Anne’s comment: What a coincidence to meet someone who has been to Thule and also to Alert!  Anne knew of  EASTWIND and two other icebreakers as their pictures were on the walls.

After having unloaded over 100 tons of supplies and equipment in 18 hours, EASTWIND’s task was completed. By afternoon on August 13th, the helicopter was up looking for a route out of Dumb Bell Bay, the anchor was weighed at 1800; and we headed out into the Lincoln Sea again. Getting out was as difficult as getting in. Little progress was made during the next day and a half. Bucking and ramming and backing down and using the heeling system and stopping made progress slow and difficult. About 1800 the next day, a plate on the forward part of the ship had sprung a little; but not enough to cause any concern.

Following the only possible passage around the pressure ridges, which were twenty-five feet high, we were breaking through fifteen feet of ice. Still going north, EASTWIND passed her 1950 farthest north position. At 2200 on August 16th, she broke the record for being the only ship to go this far north under her own power. When unable to proceed any farther because of the solid polar ice, the position was fixed at 82 degrees 38 minutes 20 seconds North 61 degrees 51 minutes West. which is slightly less than 442 miles from the North Pole.

Heading south once again, Cape Sheriden could be seen off the starboard bow. There were some good leads, but the ice began to close in. Waking up on the morning of the 18th, the ship has a port list caused by ice piling up and pressing against the starboard side. During the night, the ice had closed in tightly all around us even up around the screw. In the afternoon, engineering personnel were over the side working on freeing the ice with a water hose. A large cake was melted in two, which freed the screw enough so that it would turn over. The shaft was initially rotated at 10 RPM that helped move more of the ice out of the way. By 1700, the engines could be speeded up, and the ship started pulling out of the hole. Twenty minutes later; however, the starboard propeller hit a piece of ice that broke five feet off one blade. The shaft is still operable, but attended by considerable hull vibration of the same frequency as the shaft rotation.

The next several days, winding through leads with open water at times so ice brash could be pushed out of the way, EASTWIND passed Cape Sheridan and south through Robeson Channel, through the Hall Basin and into Kennedy Channel. In the Kane Basin, the civilian scientists again sent up their balloons loaded with instruments. The broken propeller is off line, so there is no vibration from it. Captain Peterson plans to use it as little as possible to save the bearing for use on the run back to Boston.

Still jobs to do!  Off Cape Sabine, bearings were taken by several surveyors of Pim Island for a RCMP post. The NORTHWIND departed Thule today, August 22nd, for the US and her home port of Seattle. Captain Peterson had called Captain Dirks and asked him if he would like to make an ice survey of Baffin Bay. Captain Dirks thought that was a great idea. NORTHWIND got underway as soon as possible and will be long gone before her formal release by the Navy!

Finding good leads and using the broken screw, EASTWIND was going along fairly well, until..... at 2115, the ship gave a giant lurch!

When I got up on deck, I found that a piece of ice had punched a hole in the starboard bow. It was in one of the fuel tanks, so 20,000 gallons was lost. Captain Peterson immediately filled the port heeling tank to give the ship a port list and ran up onto the ice. He and the Engineering Officer climbed down to access the damage. The break was nearly ten feet wide and extended from two feet above the water line to a point farther down than could be seen. Only the outer skin of the hull was punctured, so the fuel tank was just flooded with water.

Two days later, we were back in North Star Bay at Thule. Captain Bowerman, who had been waiting for us, came aboard. The scientists still wanted to make observations with their balloons and rockets, so EASTWIND spent a week out in Baffin Bay as “Operation Skyhook” was concluded on 4th September. Back at dockside the next day, 150,000 gallons of fuel was transferred to the ATKA in order to raise the bow to patch the hole in the hull. The Engineer Department started working immediately cleaning out the fuel tank adjacent to the hole. The Greenland Cruiser and the starboard lifeboats were slung from the port side, and the ship was healed to port in order to expose the hole. The ship’s force worked with Base contractors in building a crib on the inside of the hull for a concrete and steel plate patch.

As we did not have much to do with the Navy anymore, radio watches could return to only one man guarding four frequencies. Therefore, I rotated into copying the CW press from WSL in New York, weather from TFF in Reykjavic, Iceland, OZL in Angmagssalik, Greenland and WSL in New York. My working day changed to 2330 until 0330.

Work continued on the hull repair. On September 9th, COMTS released EASTWIND from duty thereby dissolving Task Group 118.4 which was the icebreaker group. We were ordered to report to CIC Atlantic Fleet for operational control. Upon doing so, Captain Peterson advised that the temporary repairs were completed and that EASTWIND would be ready for sea at 0800 the next day. At 1000 on September 10th, mooring stations were set, lines cast off, and we were underway for Boston.

As the ship left the dock, the strains of Semper Paratus, and There Is Nothing Like a Dame blared from the mast bullhorn. The ATKA replied with So Long, It’s Been Good to Know Ya,  All Alone, I’m So All Alone and Please Come Back, Oh Please Come Back To Me. At 1150, CINCLANTFLT released us to the First Coast District and we were out of Navy hands. One can of Blue Ribbon was issued at evening chow on the occasion of us being Homeward Bound.

By the 13th, EASTWIND was opposite the tip of Greenland rolling in a comfortable swell. By afternoon on the 15th, we approached the entrance of the Strait of Belle Isle. On the 17th, the Port-aux-Basque Light could be seen off the port beam. On this day, I became a stranger to myself; I shaved for the first time since May.

Friday, September 19th, the last day of the cruise was a bright beautiful day. The helicopter took off around 1100 as we neared Boston Lightship. The ship stopped at that time as we were ahead of our ETA. Shortly after noon, we got underway again. Castle Island Terminal came into view with many families and friends waiting on the dock.

EASTWIND was back in Homeport, welcomed by a large waiting crowd on the dock.

(Credits:  Except where noted, text from Blodget’s personal journal. Photographs by Chief Photographer Elmo Jones, USCG.)


Final quote:

The EASTWIND, since 1949, has been under the command of Captain O. A. Peterson, USCG, of Winchester, Massachusetts, veteran Arctic commander, who is winding up his third successive year as such, with a wide and varied knowledge of Arctic phenomena. Captain Peterson and the EASTWIND are synonymous and  will be long and pleasantly remembered among the many friends cultivated in the name of the United States, and the Coast Guard in particular, of Canada and Denmark, the Greenlanders and Eskimos.

 

Return To Coast Guard Stories