Fighting the Cold War from the top of the world

In 1951, during the height of the Cold War, Omaha's Peter Kiewit Sons' Inc. led work on one of the most ambitious building projects in military history. The task: Build an airstrip in frigid Greenland in just 100 days.

A seaman directs a landing craft through an iceberg-filled bay in Thule, Greenland, during a 1951 Kiewit-led building blitz to construct an air base in just 100 days. (NATIONAL ARCHIVES)

By Steve Jordon / World-Herald staff writer

Sunday, July 5, 2015


Why 'Operation Blue Jay' name?

“The Order of the Blue Nose” is a no-brainer.
Cross the Arctic Circle and you earn that honor in recognition of surviving the frigid climate.
But “Operation Blue Jay”?
That’s a mystery.
It was the code name given to the 1951 construction blitz of Thule Air Force Base by the Army Corps of Engineers, which hired Peter Kiewit Sons’ Inc. of Omaha and other contractors for the job.
True, Omaha is the home of the Creighton University Bluejays, but there’s no reason to believe that the college mascot is the namesake of the operation.
Such military code names typically are picked by someone in a planning role who is looking for something simple that won’t be confused with another code name. Some references list the name of this operation as one word, but the most authoritative use two.
If you know who hatched the name “Blue Jay” or why, let us know.

In June 1951, one of history’s great flotillas of men and material set sail for a polar region that was emerging as a theater of the Cold War.
Omaha’s Peter Kiewit was the prime contractor for the Army Corps of Engineers on the project, which cost $2.4 billion in today’s dollars and was code-named Operation Blue Jay.
The goal was to build a new air base for Omaha’s Strategic Air Command in Greenland, scratched into the rocky soil at a village called Thule 750 miles north of the Arctic Circle, 946 miles from the North Pole and 2,300 miles from Moscow. Most commonly pronounced “TOO-lee,” the name of the base became famous as SAC’s most remote outpost, yet a vital one.
The airstrip had to be ready for the largest military aircraft in just one 100-day Arctic construction season, to be followed by two more summers of building activity to finish the base and a dozen more years to construct vital radar installations and other improvements.

The engineering adaptivity, military strategy and sheer logistics involved have been called second only to building the Panama Canal, only faster — and colder.
This year, a sailor, a Kiewit engineer and an airman, all now living in the Omaha area, met for the first time and swapped stories about their northern experiences. The three worked in different roles as young men in the 1950s at the bleak base.
During the 1951 construction blitz, 82 merchant marine and Navy ships arrived in the bay outside Thule after Coast Guard icebreakers crunched a pathway through the Davis Strait and Baffin Bay.
With the 24-hour sun lighting the way, sailors and stevedores offloaded cargo, everything from lumber to lumbering earth-movers. The 5,000-man Peter Kiewit Sons’ Inc.-led construction team of Midwesterners excavated, filled, compacted, assembled, welded and installed.

By the end of the construction season, SAC Commander Gen. Curtis LeMay landed at Thule for an onsite inspection. The landing strip was ready.
Life magazine’s Sept. 22, 1952, issue called the first year’s construction of Thule Air Force Base “the biggest secret operation since D-Day.” But the Soviet Union no doubt knew about the project because it was building its own Arctic air base at the same time and for the same reasons.
Today there’s renewed military attention at the top of world.
Russian President Vladimir Putin plans to reopen 14 Soviet-era bases along Russia’s Arctic seaboard. Four nuclear-powered submarines are being built in a coastal shipyard. Russian bombers, and fighters from northern bases are flying more missions over international waters than usual, prompting tracking by the U.S. military.
America’s response so far includes flying strategic bombers over the Arctic for the first time since 2011 and planning to station next-generation F-35 fighter jets in Alaska next year, the Chicago Tribune reported recently.
Thule now is maintained by the Air Force’s 21st Space Wing with tasks that include monitoring satellite command and control, missile warning systems and space surveillance.
But the time could return when aircraft with weapons and eavesdropping electronics again dominate Thule, a remote outpost built and used by these Omahans so many years ago.
Contact the writer: 402-444-1080, steve.jordon@owh.com

Lapped by the frigid waters of an Arctic bay, Thule Air Base sits on the northwest coast of Greenland, a remote but crucial outpost for Strategic Air Command during the Cold War. Starting in 1951, an operation led by Omaha contractor Peter Kiewit took three summers to complete the construction of SAC’s most remote outpost. (COURTESY OF NATIONAL ARCHIVES AND PETER KIEWIT SONS' INC.)

Regis Urschler, a retired one-star Air Force general, dons the parka he wore while serving as a reconnaissance pilot out of Thule, a place that forced the Russians “to protect their entire northern border.” (RYAN SODERLIN/THE WORLD-HERALD)

THE AIRMAN: Regis Urschler

As a member of an Air Force reconnaissance crew, Regis Urschler endured the harshest of conditions — ‘There was nothing fun about it’ — to help keep America safe from a Soviet attack

Urschler

It was August 1957 when 22-year-old Regis Urschler climbed in the back seat under the canopy of an RB47-H and flew from Topeka, Kansas, to Thule, Greenland.
The six-engine Stratojet was the nation’s first all-jet bomber. Instead of bombs, the RB47 — “R” for “reconnaissance” — was packed with radar-detecting electronics and other top-secret gear. Urschler’s crew and others had 90-day assignments to probe the radar defenses along Russia’s northern coast.
Reconnaissance crews of the Air Force’s 55th Wing, then based at Forbes Air Force Base in Topeka, flew similar missions from Strategic Air Command bases in Alaska, Turkey, Japan and England.

Their information, forwarded to SAC headquarters at Offutt Air Force Base, was used to design flying routes to give Air Force bomber crews the best chance to make it through the Soviet Union’s air defenses to their targets if war was declared.
Bomber crews also rotated temporary assignments at Thule and the other international bases, and were on alert status to fly from bases in the United States to the Soviet targets.
As Urschler’s crew arrived in Thule, the war was “cold,” and the Arctic winter, with its 24 hours of darkness, was approaching.
A squadron of 15 KC97 refueling planes was stationed in Thule for midair refueling that would give the RB47 enough range for its 12-hour missions. A squadron of F89 Scorpion fighter jets was stationed there, too, starting in the early 1950s, to intercept Soviet bombers if war broke out.
The reconnaissance crew and the tankers soon headed over the North Pole, guided by celestial navigation.

An RB47-H jet similar to the one Regis Urschler flew out of Thule Air Base twice a week to probe Russia’s radar defenses. (U.S. AIR FORCE)

Three “crows,” or electronic warfare officers, sat in the windowless belly of the jet, ready to record the Soviets’ radar signals and send the results to Offutt, where targeting teams would plot potential bombing routes.
American reconnaissance planes from Thule were becoming familiar with Russia.
In 1956 a 21-aircraft fleet of RB47s based at Thule flew the length of Siberia 156 times for Project Homerun, photographing and mapping missile sites, airfields and other military and industrial locations — and drawing angry complaints from the Soviets.
At the time, the U.S. government attributed the over-land flying routes to “navigational difficulties.”
The 47s were too fast, flew too high and carried too much fuel for Soviet fighter craft to intercept effectively. Most times the enemy fighters would simply run low on fuel and have to head back to base before engaging.


“We were up there for three months. It seemed like three years. I wouldn’t want to repeat the experience like it was then.” -- Regis Urschler


Occasionally fighter aircraft from the Soviet Union, North Korea or China would fly alongside, close enough that pilots could exchange gestures, friendly or otherwise.
During the Cold War, more than 250 U.S. servicemen were killed when their aircraft were shot down by these “escorts.”
“I would tell the guys, ‘If they want us, they can have us,’ ” Urschler said.
For Urschler and others in his crew, Thule was not the sort of place to be enjoyed.
“It was miserable, cold, boring, empty,” he said. “There was nothing fun about it.”
The only good aspect was that their assignment was for 90 days. Many others, including the fighter pilots, had full-year assignments.
The flight crew lived in the “meat lockers” built in 1951. As the cold worsened, their parkas, mukluks and heavy gloves came in handy. Trucks delivered fresh water, which was first used for drinking, then washing, then waste disposal.
“Then I understood what my mother was trying to teach us about wasting water,” Urschler said.
The RB47 flew the logistically complex missions twice a week.
“We were up there for three months,” Urschler said. “It seemed like three years. I wouldn’t want to repeat the experience like it was then.”

Despite the hardships, Thule had an important impact.
“What Thule did was to force the Russians to protect their entire northern border,” said Urschler, now 80 and a retired one-star Air Force general living in Bellevue.
If the Soviet Union launched its nuclear missiles at the United States, he said, “there was no response except mutually assured destruction.” SAC’s job was to provide a “credible deterrence” that would stop Soviet leaders from ordering an attack.
In 1961 Thule became part of the Air Defense Command rather than a SAC base. It transferred to the Space Command in 1982.
Thule, the cold, barren, miserable outpost carved out and equipped by those Midwestern workmen, had a role described by the narrator of an episode of “The Big Picture,” an Army Signal Corps documentary, in the dire language of the time:
“American ingenuity and daring have built a new outpost in this country’s defense, a giant air base on top of the world. ... Blue Jay will be kept ready for action as long as the threat that drove us to build it exists.
“We cannot read minds of those dark and shadowy figures who brood on war and conquest, but perhaps the thought of the colossal air base has caused them to falter in their plans for aggression.
“Perhaps they have read a different kind of warning in the miracle of Blue Jay, the warning that there is nothing, absolutely nothing, impossible to American resourcefulness, hard work and plain guts, that there is no problem or enemy, natural or man-made, that this country cannot defeat in its stern resolve to protect its freedom.”

Frank Watt was hired in 1957 to test building materials for construction at Thule. He had missed Thule’s initial construction, but he wound up spending 30 months there over six years. (RYAN SODERLIN/THE WORLD-HERALD)

THE ENGINEER: Frank Watt

At first, Greenland was just a summer job for the young Frank Watt, but the engineering student played a key role in the Kiewit-led construction project, and then went on to a long career with the company

Watt

The guys around the dormitory at the University of New Hampshire were dreaming of the ideal summer job: good pay, at least 100 days of work, free housing if you could find it.
“We didn’t care what we did,” said Frank Watt, a chemical engineering student. “We just wanted money.”
Someone heard about a building project in Greenland that offered lots of hours, excellent wages, nothing to spend your money on, and free room, board and transportation.
“In those days, Greenland was like the last resort,” said Watt, now 78. Hired in 1957, he flew to Thule on a military plane as a laboratory technician, testing soil, asphalt, concrete and other building materials for the tricky Arctic construction process.
Watt had missed Thule’s initial construction, but he spent 30 months there over six years. He gained a firsthand view of the job from the perspective of North American Contractors, the construction group formed by Peter Kiewit Sons’ Inc. and Condon-Cunningham Co. of Omaha, along with S.J. Groves & Son Co. and Al Johnson Construction Co. of Minneapolis.
The original workers in 1951, all nonunion, went to a Kiewit-run camp in Rosemont, Minnesota, for sorting and training, then boarded trains for Norfolk, Virginia, and ships for Greenland. Men, ships, 250,000 tons of materiel and equipment — it was a coordinating nightmare with plenty of uncertainty.
Wages began at $1,500 a month — 4½ times the usual pay for laborers — plus overtime. Shifts lasted 10 hours a day, seven days a week. The company doled out $20 every two weeks for spending money, saving most of the workers’ wages for them.
Not only that, but Kiewit put aside 25 percent of each worker’s gross earnings until it totaled $360, which was “return travel fare.”
“It was a good tool in terms of calming people down,” Watt said. “People didn’t want to get in trouble and risk losing the travel fare.”
The base bar sold no hard liquor. You bought one beer at a time, and then had to go to the back of the line. It was an all-male crew.
“That was the philosophy,” Watt said. “Money’s going to cause problems. Booze is going to cause problems. There were no women — women are going to cause problems.”

Primitive huts sit exposed to the bitter Arctic conditions at Thule. Some men worked for 100 months at the air base.

In addition to the wages, the work had a patriotic attraction because of the mission. Everyone knew the Cold War was on. By midsummer 1951, word had leaked that the Soviet Union was building an Arctic base on Franz Josef Land, an archipelago along the Russian coast.
Once on the scene, Kiewit and the other contractors tackled the problems of Arctic construction. The top 6 to 8 feet of rocky dirt is the “active zone” that freezes solid in the winter but turns to mush in the summer. Ordinary foundations wouldn’t work; buildings would settle, and roads would buckle and collapse. Laying a runway on the surface? Forget it.
For buildings, the technique was to “drill and shoot” wooden beams deep into the ground, reaching the permafrost below. “Once it freezes, it’s as solid as concrete,” Watt said, no matter whether the surface layer melts in the summer. Floors were suspended 3 feet above the surface.
For the runway, workers removed the unstable layer and hauled in at least 12 feet of “nonfrost-susceptible” material. Cement from Norway, crushed rocks, sand and other materials created a runway that would handle the expected traffic.
The first housing structures were temporary Atwell huts — essentially tents snapped into place for a bit of shelter so workers could move from the ships to the land. The “permanent” buildings were created using more than 300,000 Clements panels, invented by Macmillan Clements for room-size freezers: a sandwich of aluminum, then insulation, then plywood, then more insulation, then aluminum. Clamped together into walls, floors and ceilings, the panels kept out the cold.
Thule workers got their news from a 5,000-watt Air Force Radio Service station with the call letters KOLD. But Peter Kiewit was opposed to radios, Watt said. “He thought they distracted people and kept them from working hard.”
Kiewit Co. received an award in 1953 for its safety record on the project, which saved the government at least $830,000 in returned insurance premiums.
A World-Herald story said heavy construction above the Arctic Circle, “once considered nearly impossible, has become routine with the engineers and Omaha contractors.”
By the time that Watt, working for the Boston engineering firm Metcalf & Eddy, arrived in Thule, much of the airfield construction was done. His lab work helped build a unit of the Ballistic Missile Early Warning System. The high-tech radar could “see over the horizon” into central Russia.
Radar positioned on P Mountain, about 20 miles inland, could pick up the launch of a Soviet rocket and within 45 seconds predict its target by calculating the missile’s speed and direction.
In 1962, Watt was stuck in Thule for a few weeks during the Cuban missile crisis, a reminder of the seriousness of the work. “We didn’t know if we were going to get blown away up there,” he said. “Everybody thought they were vulnerable if a nuclear attack came.”


Being stuck in Thule during the 1962 Cuban missile crisis offered a reminder of the seriousness of the work. “We didn’t know if we were going to get blown away up there.” -- Frank Watt


Some men worked 100 months at the remote location. Time away from home and poor communications took a personal toll: Almost every married man was divorced at least once, and one manager had been married five times, twice to the same woman.
“In the early days it would be about impossible to resolve any personal problems that came up,” Watt said.
In 1960 he married Jody Forssen from East Sullivan, New Hampshire, where they both grew up. He went into business with his father in New Jersey, but the venture didn’t work out.
“I needed the money, so I went back to Greenland,” he said, joining the Kiewit crew for two summers and later moving to Omaha.
In all, Kiewit-led crews returned to the site for 15 years. Watt retired in 1995 after 34 years with Kiewit. He and his wife have two daughters and two granddaughters.
In 2001 he revisited Thule as one of six guests of the Air Force for a 50th anniversary celebration.
The concrete poured in 1951 showed little deterioration. The freezer-style barracks were in “amazingly good shape,” he said. “You could take a piano wire and stretch it along the rooftops of those buildings. They haven’t moved.”
The original hangars are used for storage. There’s another, bigger runway.
At one time, 10,000 people worked at Thule in the summer, with military activity the main focus. Now there are fewer than 1,000, most of them civilians using the radar equipment to track satellites and orbiting debris or to study the impact of sunspots on communications.
For Watt, “It’s a city that’s frozen in time.”

Frank Robb went from driving a truck in the Navy to commanding a landing craft that loaded and unloaded the cargo that would build the enormous Thule air base. (RYAN SODERLIN/THE WORLD-HERALD)

THE SAILOR: Frank Robb

Frank Robb’s craving for adventure was answered when he joined the Navy at 17 and, before long, he was at the helm of a landing craft taking part in the building of an extraordinarily ambitious U.S. base

Frank Robb

From the coxswain’s perch, Frank Robb maneuvered the landing craft between floating ice chunks toward the makeshift loading dock, where a crane would snatch his cargo so he could loop back and reload at a merchant marine ship.
It was tricky. A jagged bit of unseen iceberg could easily rip the metal skin of his Landing Craft, Mechanized, or LCM, and send him and his three crew members into the frigid saltwater.
Robb was cold and wet but happy.
He had found the adventure he craved when he enlisted as a 17-year-old and traveled from his native Missouri to San Diego for basic training.
There, the drill instructor spotted a limp, a remnant of being shot in the foot in a hunting accident. He begged to stay, explaining that he was an orphan with no other place to go. The Navy finally agreed, sending him to Pensacola, Florida.
Not content with his job driving a truck route for the base post office, he began putting in requests for sea duty.
In March 1951 he got the order he wanted: Report to the Naval Amphibious Base in Little Creek, near Norfolk, Virginia, for training in amphibious operations.
“That was a good day for me,” Robb said. “I was going to finally become a real part of the Navy.”
History had intervened in Robb’s Navy service.
Army Col. Charles J. Hubbard, chief of polar operations for the U.S. Weather Bureau, advocated a network of Arctic stations manned by the United States and Canada, including one main base in Greenland, a Danish island.
Hubbard, who died in a British airplane accident in 1950, had weather stations in mind at first, but the plan broadened into a military base.
Thule was not a complete wilderness. The land had been occupied for about 900 years and was “discovered” by William Baffin, the first European to arrive, in 1616.
Explorer Robert Peary started his polar expeditions there between 1892 and 1909. The U.S. Army set up a weather station there in 1943, operated by Danish personnel, and added a gravel air strip in 1946, but it wasn’t adequate for a modern military base.
In 1950, Lt. Gen. Lewis A. Pick, chief of engineering for the Army Corps of Engineers, met in secret with Peter Kiewit of Omaha, whose company had built military bases during World War II, and other contractors to discuss the Thule project.
In a movie re-creation of the meeting, Pick said, “I asked you gentlemen to come down here today to discuss a project which we have to build, to ask you to help the Corps of Engineers with this difficult job in the far north. ...
“I understand that it may be possible to get boats into the area during the short season, probably four to six weeks, in the summer. This job must be built by the first of November. If that can be done, the construction industry and the Corps of Engineers will have broken the iced waste of the far north.”


Seven days a week, the LCMs loaded and unloaded. “The level of activity was very intense ... We were wet a lot. We were cold a lot. We were not eating well.” -- Frank Robb


The movie was “Operation Blue Jay,” a 28-minute episode of “The Big Picture,” filmed by the Army Signal Corps, broadcast on ABC in 1952 and nominated for a 1953 Academy Award as a short documentary.
Robb’s sea-duty request fit into the plan. The Navy was re-outfitting some mothballed World War II ships for the Thule mission. Robb was assigned to an “attack” cargo ship named the USS Vermilion. It joined the ships assembled in the waters off Virginia.
His truck-driving experience, coupled with two weeks of training, an eagerness to learn and a surprising knack for handling a boat, won him a spot driving LCM No. 1.
The Vermilion was Robb’s ride across the sea to where he would command his own tiny vessel, even if he did have to help with repainting. When the Vermilion began heading north on June 6, 1951, he didn’t even know the destination.
Instead of the planned two weeks, the ships had to wait for Coast Guard icebreakers and didn’t make it through Baffin Bay and up a fjord to Thule until July 9. The water was too shallow for the cargo ships to pull close to the shore.
For Robb, the unloading task became routine. Seven days a week, 12 hours on and 12 hours off, the LCMs circulated the bay in a loop. When a load was ready for pickup, he would get a signal, slide up to the larger ship, hold fast for the loading and then head for the shore. After unloading, he’d rejoin the loop.
Sometimes he used his LCM to push icebergs out of the way so the unloading could continue.
“The level of activity was very intense and continued around the clock,” Robb said. “We were wet a lot. We were cold a lot. We were not eating well.”
Robb remembers the day his cargo included cases of Pabst Blue Ribbon beer and Ballantine XXX ale. Somehow a case made it into the LCM’s storage compartment. “Keep one, but don’t get us in trouble,” a friendly officer warned.
Occasionally the merchant mariners would share food with Navy men to supplement the military chow. It was a welcome relief for the sailors, Robb said.

During the six-week unloading process, the sailors came to realize that they were part of something bigger: helping to extend the nation’s defenses. Despite the hours, the cold and the wet, Robb said, “I enjoyed what we were doing and was proud to be personally involved in this very important project. In my life, it was a big deal.”
“Big” was the word.
After several summer construction seasons, Thule’s 339,000 acres eventually had 10 aircraft hangars, seven miles of taxiways, a main runway nearly two miles long and 17 miles of fuel pipeline. There were 90 miles of roads, 122 barracks, fuel tanks that could hold 100 million gallons, a bakery, 63 warehouses, six mess halls, a gymnasium, a hobby shop, a laundry, two primary power plants, a post office, a theater, a chapel, a 50-bed hospital, a library and other services — enough for 12,000 people.
The runway had required 40 feet of rock and earth fill in some places, sprayed with liquid asphalt, covered with fine layers of crushed gravel and mashed by 100-ton compactors.
The crews laid pipelines from the sea to the fuel tanks, building an earth and rock causeway into the bay. The hangar doors weighed 230 tons each.
By the time Air Force Secretary Thomas Finletter landed on Aug. 30, 1951, construction was ahead of schedule, partly because the morale of the workmen was high. Kiewit visited the site, and Gen. Curtis LeMay landed on Oct. 1 as the first year’s construction was nearing an end and the light was fading.
The runway had its top coat of asphalt. The control tower, light cables and runway lights were in place. Ice had returned to the bay, now empty of ships, and the snow and sleet storms of the Arctic winter had begun.
Work crews flew home in batches on military transports.
Seaman Robb and the Vermilion made it back to Norfolk on Aug. 29. He was discharged the following June 10 and carved out a career in business in Kansas City, Minneapolis and finally Omaha, where he and his wife, Jo Ann, live. At age 84, Robb still operates his own grain-sampling materials business.
The Vermilion was decommissioned in 1971. Its final voyage was from the James River to 40 miles off the coast of Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, where it was sunk to become part of a barrier reef.
As for the young sailor of years ago, his work on the Thule air base began and ended on the sea. He never set foot on Greenland.

A landing craft like the one Robb operated pushes away an iceberg in North Star Bay, Thule. During the six-week unloading process, the sailors came to realize that they were part of something bigger: helping to extend the nation’s defenses. (NATIONAL ARCHIVES)

From left: Frank Watt, Regis Urschler and Frank Robb talk about their involvement with Thule. (RYAN SODERLIN/THE WORLD-HERALD)

Ships unload at Thule in July 1951. Life magazine called the first year of the base’s construction “the biggest secret operation since D-Day.” (COURTESY OF NATIONAL ARCHIVES AND PETER KIEWIT SONS' INC.)

Fuel drums are unloaded from LSU 767 at Red Beach in Thule in July 1951. (NATIONAL ARCHIVES)

Oil is pumped from a tanker into drums on a day when the temperature in Thule rose sufficiently for men to work with wide smiles — and without the need for gloves. (COURTESY OF NATIONAL ARCHIVES AND PETER KIEWIT SONS' INC.)

Under a murky Arctic sky, cranes wait to be unloaded from USS Fort Mandan onto a landing ship utility, the successor to the landing craft, at North Star Bay in July 1951. (NATIONAL ARCHIVES)

USS Eastward cuts its way through an ice field in Melville Bay on the west coast of Greenland in July 1951. (NATIONAL ARCHIVES)

Civilian contractors gather to cross a specially constructed platform from the LSM 297, an amphibious assault ship, to the USS General W.G. Haan in North Star Bay. (NATIONAL ARCHIVES)

A cargo ship laden with workers prepares to set off from the short-sleeves weather of the Navy Yard in Virginia for the bundled-up isolation of Thule. (COURTESY OF NATIONAL ARCHIVES AND PETER KIEWIT SONS' INC.)

With icebergs and icepacks looming, the USS Vermilion, USS Tanner and USS Holst crunch a path through the ice in Melville Bay, off the northwestern coast of Greenland, on their way to Thule. (NATIONAL ARCHIVES)

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