In September 1998 I received a message from Bill Mac Dowell, telling about his trip to Thule Air Base in 1949 when the base first began:
Maybe you are interested in the real beginning of the base. I was a 19 year old sailor on the USS Wyandot, AKA 92 (Cargo ship) when we entered North Star Bay in 1949.
There was absolutely nothing there except eskimos, the Danes and a few weathermen. The Wyandot's mission was classified Top Secret and called "Operation Blue Jay". We brought somme of the first material to start the base. There were no hangers for airplanes and equipment and food stuffs were under tarpolins. We had to examine each and every eskimo for TB and other problems and more important, if anyone of us had a cold we were restricted from going ashore.
When the Wyandot left the states for Greenland our first stop was Halifax. Spent a few days there and off we went to the arctic. The ship had about five hundred sailors, marines, weathermen and seabees aboard. We couldn't see the waterline because we had so much cargo aboard and believe me, there wasn't a man aboard, including the officers, that didn't have their doubts about staying afloat. When we hit the North Sea the storms were ferocious. We had to lash ourselves into our canvass sleeping bunks in order not to roll out. There wasn't a day went by that something didn't break loose on deck. The seas were so rough at times that I remember the ship taking a dive so deep that we thought she would never come up. The ocean hit the Bridge and smashed against the windows hard enough that we thought the ocean was going to come in on us.
Crows nest duty was the ultimate watch. While the ship was rolling back and forth and taking humongous dives into the sea one of us who had the crows nest watch had to climb an icy, open (no protection from falling), steel runged ladder that you entered into the nest. There was a wooden crate to sit on and about a three to four inch slit to look out of. If you were prone to sea sickness that was not the place to be. When I pulled the watch (12 midnight to 4am), the guy before me heaved all over the nest. So I had to sit in puke for all those hours and became pretty sick myself until I was relieved. Do you think I was believed when I told my relief it was the guy before me who dumped all over the nest?
We were caked in about six to ten feet of ice for about a week. Three icebreakers circled us for twenty four hours at a clip in order to free us. They finally broke up enough ice for us to continue. Once the fog rolled in and we days into it without seeing the hand in front of your face. Everyone was on a watch detail (except the ones who had already had their watch) and all eyes were bugged out of their heads looking for icebergs. At one time we heard that there was approximately one hundred and seventy (all sizes) icebergs out there and we couldn't see them. Pretty frightening! But not as awesome as when the fog finally lifted and we saw them. What a sight!. Icebergs all around us and we had to zig zag through them. All in all, it was quite an experience and trip to North Star Bay. The trip back wasn't as hairy and after working 12 hours on and 12 off we deserved a "pleasant cruise" like all the glory ships enjoy.
To get ashore at Thule we used M-Boats. We also worked 12 hour shifts in order to beat the ice flow. The Wyandot was a sailor's nightmare. All we were was glorified stevadores (those of us who were on the deck force). It was work, work and more work. At nineteen I learned how to operate the booms and how to bring up cargo and swing it into the holds and also drop it into the waiting M-boats. Hated every minute of it! Looking back on the experience now, I wouldn't trade it for anything. At nineteen, "I felt like a MAN!" And by God you had better have acted like one for that kind of duty.
One story I like to tell to my friends is the one about how the eskimos tanned their hides and what we aboard the Wyandot experienced on the way back from Thule. By the time we were finished unloading the ship, we had collected everything we could from the eskimos. Their clothing, ivory, scrimshaw, etc. One of the Bosun Mates even had a kayak on the deck, lashed down for the heavy north seas we encountered. When we hit the warm zone the ship started stinking from stem to stern. "What the hell was the stink", the captain asked his officers. Finally the answer came via the Chief "pecker checker" (pharmacist mate), as we called him. The eskimos, and we saw them, used to urinate all over the skins they were going to use for clothing, and then, when they dried, they chewed on them. Every man, woman and child had the duty. That's why the eskimo's teeth were so worn down. Some of the old men and women just about had no teeth in their mouths at all.When the ship was in the warmer zone, the urine started seeping out of the skins (clothing) and gave off the most horrendous stink you can imagine.
When the Captain heard about the cause of the smell, he ordered every item that was of a urine tanning nature to be thrown overboard. We were give a matter of less than an hour after the word got out to get the articles overboard or suffer the penalties and punishment for disobeying orders. All our small fortunes went up in smoke, or should I say, down into the bottom of the sea. Our guys were very entrepreneurish. They even tried to scoop up the whale puke that was atop of the sea. You know, of course, that whale's puke is the main ingredient for perfume. That of course was stopped by the captain immediately when he got word of our eventual business opportunity.Well the stink was finally gone but all of us swabbies came back without our booty.
Here is a snapshot of me as a 19 year old sailor aboard the USS Whitewood AG129. It was an ice breaker we decommissioned because (like the Titanic) it hit an iceberg, ripping a hole in its side. It almost did not make it back to the states. When we decommissioned the ship, the crew went to the Wyandot. The strange thing about the Wyandot was that we spent agreat deal of time travelling the southern route, Panama Canal, Trinidad,the islands, etc. Our blood was thinned out and 70 degrees was cold to us. As soon as we got back we loaded up for Greenland and the Baffin Islands. The cold really got to us. But that's the Navy for you. Best Regards. Bill
© Copyright 1999, revised 2014 by Lawrence Rodrigues
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