Momentarily Alone In The Arctic
By Don Opedal
The year was 1976. Following a demanding season of icebreaking on the Great Lakes (we ran from Duluth to Buffalo) the Westwind embarked on her first Arctic East cruise in several years in. Each summer a Coast Guard icebreaker would travel to Greenland on the “Arctic East” expedition. The Arctic East is bound by Northeastern Canada and Northern Europe,and included Greenland and the Arctic Ocean. The primary mission of the Arctic East was to re-supply coastal military installations in Greenland, such as Thule AFB, and to preserve the security and safety of sea lanes across the North Atlantic. Scientific research
was also performed.
One other duty involved
installation of navigational aids at the entrance to Sondestrom Fjord to help
the supply ships. One on side of the entrance is Cruncher Island with a diameter
of about six miles and located just above the Arctic Circle. Here we were to
install a battery powered radiobeacon. Cruncher Island was once the location of
a manned installation but now only has a helipad, a small hut for the
radiobeacon, and lots of old batteries. Being old even in 1976, the "radiobeacon
beast" is relatively large and has a curious device that winds up a weight
on a string and then uses gravity to pull it back down to operate.
(A Rube Goldberg device, probably purloined from the USLHS.) We
also transported all of the batteries to operate the radiobeacon over the
On the other side of
the entrance is another island where we were to install a racon. This is much
smaller and has fewer batteries. (For readers that don’t know, a racon is a
“RAdar beaCON” or transponder. When hit by a radar beam it will respond with
a signal that is seen on the radar display. This provides a more accurate and
effective radar signature than the land or a smaller object.)
The plan used the
helicopters to transport everything to each location. We took some survival gear
(e.g., sleeping bags, food) in case the helicopters can’t return for some
reason. ETCM Bill Weisheit and I went first to install the racon while the other
ETs (ET2 Mark Tranor, ET1 John Patterson, and ET1 Hank Puckett as I recall)
followed and started on the radiobeacon. Bill
and I came later to help. The ship remained offshore but in radio contact.
I am lowered from the
first helicopter followed by the survival gear and Bill. As the helicopter
departs Bill immediately digs into the food for a snack.
I had never installed a
racon before but the process seemed simple enough; bolt it to the top of the
existing tower and connect the battery to the existing cables. At some point we
discover we need some additional parts. We radioed back to the ship. The
radioman responded saying he’ll have someone “get this shit for us.”
(Although we are virtually alone in the area I’m told the CO listening
on the bridge was not pleased with the language on the radio.)
I tried to match the holes on the tower to those on the racon and connected
battery cable. I also noted a mark on the racon that seemed to indicate the
direction the racon should point.
Bill confirmed my
observation and we have to cut the cable loose in order to re-route it to
connect it to the racon in the proper orientation. I later hear that was the
first summer the racon worked. Hmmmm.
With the racon
installed, Bill and I are flown to Cruncher Island to help with the radiobeacon.
The major task here is unloading the batteries and water needed to activate them.
Everyone is wearing survival suits so we all look the same. Bill notes the
aircrew is standing around and promptly, as a Master Chief is wont to do, puts
them to work hauling batteries. I later
point out that one of them is the pilot and senior to us but Master Chiefs
are also not repentant.
Inside the hut I noted names of previous crews inscribed and written including that of Mike Cook who had been the Assistant Electronic Schools Chief when I left to go to OCS and would later be my boss. Eventually everything was connected and working and we returned to the ship.
The helicopters then
depart to visit Sondrestrom AFB base. I have the 2000-2400 watch when the
helicopters return. The direction finder on one of the helicopters is not
working and despite turning on all of our lights the pilot cannot locate the
ship in the fog and is now running low on fuel. Fortunately, he is now familiar
with Cruncher Island and flies there to land. The other helicopter returns to
the ship and ferries fuel back to Cruncher Island and eventually everyone is
Aids established, crew returned, we headed further north.
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