B-52 With 4 H-Bombs Crash At Thule

 

On January 21, 1968, about 4.30 p.m., I was going up the stairs to the officers’ messhall and heard a crash sound to my left.I quickly looked around and saw a ball of flame on the sea ice several miles out on North Star Bay. Then I felt the shockwave reach my feet and I knew this was no minor event.

I went directly to our communications squadron building, where my telephone was ringing as I entered my office. I picked it up, and one of my telephone switchboard operators said he had someone on the line from a crashed B-52! The operator connected me to a phone in one of the hangars where there was an aircrewman on the line. He said he had bailed out to the B-52 aircraft and landed on the runway in front of a hangar. He found it empty of personnel but filled with snow-removal equipment. He said he didn’t know where on Thule he was, but he was cold and could someone come get him. I immediately notified the base headquarters with the clue to which hangar he was in.

He was one of two crewmen who parachuted onto the base and found their way quickly to shelter. There were seven crewmen on board the aircraft. The weather conditions and lighting could not have been much worse, but rescue operations started immediately by the Air-Sea Rescue personnel, and other base personnel.

The sun was always below the horizon until February 14, and now there was only some twilight for a short while just at noon. At this time, the search crews were looking for the crewmen in total darkness with no clues in which direction to look.

Additionally, the temperature that evening was -23 F. degrees (-31 C) with a 7-knot wind producing a chill factor of -53 F degrees. And the crewmen were in their flight clothes suitable for their home base in New York but not the Arctic!

The representative of the Royal Greenland Trade Department was requested to get the local Greenlanders with dogsleds to help search in the off-road and sea ice areas, and to stay away from the hazardous crash site.

Three of the crewmen landed about 1.5 miles off base and were rescued after about 2 hours. One other crewman landed about 6 miles from the base and was not rescued for 21 hours. He had hypothermia but survived by rolling up in his parachute. One crewman did not survive leaving the aircraft.

One of the first challenges after rescueing the aircrewmen was to get out to the crash site 7.5 miles out on the sea ice. No one knew if any vehicles could travel safely on the ice, so the Greenlanders’ dogsleds were used as the first transporters to the crash site for several days. It was ironic to depend on the 4000 year-old dogsled as the first available tool in this modern high-technology accident.

As soon as the first FLASH priority message on this incident reached SAC Headquarters, an automatic plan of action, called Broken Arrow, was activated. Well-developed action plans immediately sent a flood of FLASH priority messages worldwide to all concerned government, civilian, military, and foreign agencies.

The Broken Arrow Control Group departed for Thule on a KC-135 aircraft with special equipment to assess the extent of the disaster. The team arrived at Thule by 3 a.m. the morning after the crash. The Group was divided into two teams working 12-hours each. They had the authority to order any tools, equipment, or personnel needed from anywhere in the world and have it flown to Thule. One of the first of many things they ordered was an “ice expert’ to assess possibility of working on the ice with heavy vehicles. It took several days for him and his team to arrive from Alaska.

This incident was in the world newspaper headlines the next day after the crash and an SAS airliner was headed to Thule from Copenhagen with reporters and Danish government officials. Our government administration had said publically that we will not fly nuclear weapons over foreign territory unless in war. And now the fact was, there were four of our H-bombs scattered on Danish territory (Greenland was Danish territory). The U.S. military may have scattered the radioactive elements tritium, uranium, americium and 13 pounds of plutonium, into the water, air, and soil of Denmark. This was a U.S. diplomatic nightmare!

While waiting for the “ice expert” to arrive, the Broken Arrow team measured how big the radiation hazard zone was. Their actions were slow because dogsleds were the only means of transportation for the 7.5 miles from and to the base. Also there were periodic storms. The average temperature was minus 25 degrees Fahrenheit and there were periodic winds up to 80 mph.

The “ice expert” arrived in a couple days and declared that the sea ice was safe for any of the base vehicles, so three roadways were marked out to the crash site. That allowed an immediate expansion of activity as vehicles delivered needed supplies and personnel. “Camp Hunziker” was setup at the crash site starting with a 92x18 foot command post building, several 8x16 foot buildings, a decontamination trailer and a latrine building. More came later. Most were heated and lighted with generators running 24-7. All this on frozen sea ice over 770 feet deep water!

General Hunziker’s staff requested from me the telephones, radios, and teletype service to operate a command post 7.5 miles out on the sea ice!

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I was the 1983d AFCS Communications Squadron Telecommunications Officer and had control of mobile radios, telephones, communications center, and aircraft radio operations at Thule. Most requests could have been satisfied without too much effort and equipment under normal conditions. But where the crews had to install and operate equiment was in one of the world’s most extreme environments, so there were many  problems.

Batteries failed in minutes, vehicles and generators had to keep running all the time or they would freeze and won’t start. Wire insulation cracked and fell off wires, ice formed on antennas blocking receiving and transmitting or were blown away by high winds. Also, technicians were dressed in their Arctic clothes and could hardly operate tools and equipment.

The telephone system to the U.S. from Thule was always minimal, and each call required manual handling through the switchboard operator. The newly arrived personnel with expectations for top priority, near instant service back to their offices were greatly disappointed. Increasing our on-shift workers and making some procedure changes helped increase telephone services to meet the demand better, but it was very limited service.

I had only two Danish contract technicians for installing mobile radios, and it took 6 hours to install each radio in a vehicle. The General’s staff requested dozens of vehicles be equipped with mobile radios as soon as possible. I organized an assembly line for installing mobile radios that resulted in the installation time being cut to only two hours for each installation.

When we exhausted all the mobile radio mounting hardware, I led a search party out in the abandon vehicle salvage yard for all the mobile radio hardware we could find. It was dark and -30 degrees F. with a nasty wind blowing. However, we recovered nearly everything we needed to finish all the radio installations. I did not see a bed for 36 hours.

The base population increased daily with scientists, civilian and military specialists, plus news-media reporters. There were many concerns by official agencies from around the world about safety, environmental damage, and politics.

The cleanup operation was named “Project Crested Ice”. Danish workers did the majority of work collecting and removing the contaminated ice and debris with shovels, roadgraders, and trucks.

The main challenge was to remove all contaminated ice, water, and debris from Danish territory, as requested by Danish officials. Cleanup and containment in steel tanks on land had to be done before the sea ice melted in Summer. Removal of everything to U.S. territory had to be done before the harbor froze again in Fall.

U.S. nuclear “experts” had told everyone at Thule that the most hazardous material was the alpha particales from the four unexploded H-bombs, and alpha particales would only hurt you if swallowed.

A decontaminate station was set up to check everyone leaving the contaminated area. This was a big challenge because there was so much traffic to and from the “hot” area. It took much effort to prevent new “hot spots” from forming on-base. So Barracks 773 was converted to a second decontamination station on the base operating 24-7.

Project Crested Ice terminated September 13, 1968, as the last of sixty-seven 25,000 gallon steel fuel tanks were welded shut and loaded on a ship headed for the U.S. with 500 million gallons of contaminated melted ice.

Many tests by both U.S. and Danish researchers have been on-going since the crash in 1968. No major damage or hazards to local inhabitants, animals, or the environment have been found. The Crested Ice Project cleanup was officially considered successful by all parties concerned.

However, in Danish studies over the years, it appears that those who worked manually on removing the radioactive debris have developed long-term health problems with an approximately 40% higher rate of cancer than people who were not exposed to the crash debris.

A final comment illustrating two of the unusual details of this massive operation:

During the first few days after the crash when the local Greenlanders were hired with their dogsleds for transportation, one of the locals wearing polar bear pants picked up some radioactive snow on his pants. The decontamination team that checked everyone leaving the crash area found his polar bear pants were dangerously radioactive and could not be decontaminated. As with all such cases, he had to immediately remove his pants, and they were sealed in a 30-gallon steel drum.

The Danish liaison officer insisted that no military clothing was acceptable, and it was the responsibility of the U.S military to provide this Inuit a pair of polar bear pants!

So along with the many top-priority orders for special equipment for this operation went an order for three polar bear skins, enough to cover making one or more pairs of pants should this happen more than once!

After a couple of days, the SAS aircraft from Europe brought the polar bear skins, sent from the U.S. Embassy in Oslo, Norway!

Also during the time while working for the Disaster Control Team 24-hours a day, the Greenlanders could not hunt and obtain food for their dogs. By direction of the Danish representatives, the dogs had to be fed four pounds of veal or horsemeat a day. The Thule Commissary ordered veal and horsemeat by PRIORITY order, as was everything used in Project Crested Ice! That was probably never done before through the military supply system and shows how resourceful the people were working on Project Crested Ice.

After I left Thule for my assignment in Germany, I received the Commendation Medal for my work providing communications to Project Crested Ice.

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© Copyright 1999, revised 2014 by Lawrence Rodrigues
All rights reserved worldwide.