33. Curiosity killed the cat in Greenland during 1903-1976
JUL. 29, 2021
The ice sheets and endlessly dark winters of Greenland are our destination for this episode which finds Ryan investigating the murky world cold-war nuclear accidents, secret military bases and conspiracies that go all the way to the top. The period is 1903 to 1976 (Wright Brothers to Concorde) and the topic is ‘Curiosity killed the cat’. But was it curiosity, or something much more sinister?
Greenland is the world’s largest island, lying in the North Atlantic on the arctic circle. And it is not very green. It is in fact a land of ice, glaciers, eskimos, long nights, polar bears, reindeer, ermines, lemmings, seals, and lumpfish, whose roe, or Caviar, Ryan and Pete dined on by way of an educational appetiser.
Greenland has one massive ice sheet covering 80% of the country, second only to Antarctica’s ice in size and the island extends about 1,660 miles (2,670 km) from north to south and 650 miles (1,050 km) from east to west.
Two-thirds of the island lies within the Arctic Circle and it is less than 500 miles (800 km) from the North Pole and surprisingly only 16 miles from Canada (Ellesmere Island in the North).
The total area of Greenland is 2.16 million square kilometres (836,330 square miles), making it 3.36 times bigger than France. The problem for the locals is that 80% of the land area is covered in ice. At its thickest, the ice sheet is 10,000 feet (3,000 metres) deep.
Average winter temperatures can reach low 20s F (about −7 °C) to −30 °F (about −34 °C) and it has two months of midnight sun during the summer, with correspondingly dark winters.
The total population is around 57,000 people, with nine-tenths being Inuit (Eskimo) an the remainder being Danish, because Greenland is in fact part of the country of Denmark.
Wright Brothers to Concorde
The period covered by the podcast is from the Wright Brothers to Concorde. Wilbur and Orville Wright are famously the fathers of aviation, Two brothers born in America in 1867 & 1871.
Initially they started a cycle company, but they are remembered for their piloted glider called ‘Kitty Hawk’. In 1903 they achieved the first powered, sustained, and controlled airplane flight, which flew for 12 seconds in North Carolina.
From here, aviation really took off. World War One saw guns, bombs and cameras are added and after the war was the evolution from low-powered biplanes made from wood and fabric to sleek, high-powered monoplanes made of aluminium.
By 1962 things were unrecognisable in the air - Britain and France agreed to share the production of a subsonic commercial passenger plane - the delta-wing Concorde, with a max speed of 2,179 km (1,354 miles) per hour, or Mach 2.04.
Curiosity Killed the Cat
This is a saying that warns about the dangers of being too inquisitive, and how it can sometimes lead to danger or misfortune, but this saying started life as "Care killed the cat" meaning "worry".
The Modern variation was found in an Irish newspaper in 1868 and the proverb spread quickly. It was eventually used as a headline in The Washington Post on 4 March 1916 which told the story of Blackie the cat that got stuck in a chimney, it broke its back and died
The Thule Incident
The topic, time and location all came together in the fascinating story of the Thule Incident.
The roots of this can be found in the Nazi occupation of Denmark, when the Danish ambassador to the US makes an agreement “in the name of the king”, authorising the US to defend Danish colonies from German aggression.
But it’s too late.. the treaty allows the US to operate military bases in Greenland “for as long as there is agreement” that a threat to North America exists. Consequently the US Coastguard and War department quickly establish weather and radio stations on the island.
After World War II, the conflict shifted into the Cold War, between the West and Soviet Union.
In a mutual defence pact in 1949 the US and its allies formed a military force to resist any Soviet presence in Europe – this was the birth of NATO - North Atlantic Treaty Organization.
Denmark signed up to the NATO club and the Cold war developed into a Nuclear stand off.
In the subsequent arms race, the the USAir Force built around the globe for nuclear retaliation, and Greenland was considered the perfect location thanks to its Northern location, proximity to the USSR and ability to be resupplied by ship.
So, in 1951 with plans approved by President Truman, the USAF built a base in the north-west corner of Greenland in total secrecy.
Originally called Umanaq ("heart-shaped") by the nomadic Inuit who lived in the area, the area was now better known as Thule since 1910 after Ultima Thule, a Latin and ancient Greek phrase meaning "farthest land north of the borders of the known world"
Under the name ‘Operation Blue Jay’, the construction of Thule air base was completed in total secrecy. On 6 June 1951, 120 ships left the US in an armada towards Greenland with 12,000 men and 300,000 tons of cargo.
The Nuclear problem
At this time, there was an increasing opposition to nuclear weapons, with protest marches across the country of Denmark. H.C. Hansen, prime minister of Denmark in a televised interview said… “It is a matter of principle. As regards the new weapons, Denmark’s position is clear. We do not believe that Denmark should have these weapons.”
This meant although they had a base, the Americans were not allowed to have nuclear weapons on the base, or even flying over it.
Fortuntely the US had another plan for their nukes… the “Chrome Dome”
Chrome Dome was an airborne alert program which started in 1960. The idea was to arm 12 Boeing B-52 Stratofortress bombers with nuclear weapons and fly anti-clockwise around North America, refuelling in mid-air with a KC-135 tanker plane.
The bombers gave an offensive capability in the event of a Soviet first strike and provided a significant Cold War nuclear deterrent
Not long after this was implemented, a B-52 collided with a tanker whilst refuelling above the Mediterranean and it exploded, showering the small Spanish fishing village of Palomeres with one square mile of radioactive plutonium. Still they pressed on with Chrome Dome, albeit with reduced numbers.
In fact eventually just one aircraft was assigned to monitor the airspace near Greenland, overlooking the base and providing surveillance over their early warning systems
This worked. Until 21 January 1968, when Captain John Haug boarded the B-52 with his crew.
Before take-off, the third pilot (Major Alfred D'Mario) stowed loose objects, so among other things he takes three foam cushions and placed them under the navigator's seat in the aft section of the lower deck.
During the flight, the crew become uncomfortably cold. The heaters are on full, so D'Mario opened an engine bleed valve to draw hot air from the engine into the heater.
The problem was that the pillows that D’Mario had stowed under the navigator’s seat were on a vent for this very hot air – and they burst into flame - he’d stowed them on top of one of the heater grates!
The crew start smelling burning rubber, and eventually find the fire. Two fire extinguishers were used trying to put it out – but it was not enough.
90 miles (140 km) south of Thule, an emergency was declared. Thule air traffic control were told of the fire and grant permission for an emergency landing at the air base. Just in time – with all fire extinguishers depleted, electrical power was lost and smoke filled the cockpit to the point that the pilots could not read their instruments. So the Captain made the hard decision and advised his crew to abandon the aircraft using their ejector seats.
The crewless aircraft continued flying until it crashed onto sea ice, 7.5 miles (12.1 km) west of Thule Air Base
Capt. Haug and D'Mario got lucky, with both of them parachuting directly into the air base itself. Staff were mustered to search for the remaining crew members and three more were found 1.5 miles (2.4 km) from the base and rescued within two hrs.
Captain Criss, who was the first to eject, landed 6 miles (9.7 km) from the base. He was lost for 21 hours in the −23 °F (−31 °C) temperatures, and only survived hypothermia by wrapping himself in his parachute.
That was the good news. The bad news was that Capt Haug had to explain that the aircraft was carrying four nuclear weapons. In addition, the design of the bombs meant that explosives in the four 1.1 megaton B28FI thermonuclear bombs would detonate, a deliberate design that prevented a full nuclear explosion.
Unfortunately, the nuclear payloads are ruptured in the process and radioactive material was sent flying across a 3-mile (4.8 km) area. So much for nuclear-free Greenland.
In fact the heat generated by the burning of the jet fuel melted the ice sheet into a 160 feet (50 m) diameter hole, meaning the bombs bored down into the frozen seawater and down to the ocean floor.
The US and Danish governments classified the crash a ‘Broken Arrow’ scenario (i.e., an accident involving a nuclear weapon which does not present a risk of war) and they told the world that all four bombs were destroyed in the crash and the situation was now under control.
Up to a point. The governments launched an intensive clean-up and recovery operation called "Project Crested Ice" (also known as "Dr. Freezelove") with the aim of completing clean-up before the sea-ice melted in the spring, allowing more contaminants out into the sea.
Hundreds of Thule workers were sent to go clean-up the disaster zone, working in the eternal dark of the freezing Arctic winter in average temperatures of −40 °F (−40 °C), at times dropping to −76 °F (−60 °C).
Eight months later, 93% of the crashed aircraft and plutonium-contamination was gone, and more than 550,000 US gallons (2,100 m3) of contaminated liquid was collected, at a cost of $9.4 million ($70 million as of 2021).
As a consequence of the Thule Incident, "Chrome Dome" operations were discontinued, safety procedures reviewed andmore stable explosives developed.
In addition, in 1971, Russia and the US signed the "Agreement on Measures to Reduce the Risk of Nuclear War", with each party agreeing to notify the other immediately in the event of an accidental, unauthorized, or unexplained incident involving a nuclear weapon that could increase the risk of nuclear war
Or is it?
The cat that re-opened the case
Twenty years after the crash in 1986, a Danish radio journalist called Poul Brink receives a story lead. A former worker at Thule called Ruben Eriksen has fallen terminally ill with lymph cancer, horrific lesions all over his body. Eriksen told Brink that his cancer is a direct consequence of clearing away the plutonium-contaminated snow following the plane crash in 1968.
Brink decided to interview the research scientists responsible for the testing of the Thule workers. They claim the cause of Eriksen’s cancer was alcoholism caused by lonely working.
Brink is not convinced. In fact he called this excuse “as polluted as the snow the Thule workers had removed”.
So, Brink used his radio show to appeal to any other former workers involved in the clear-up to come forward. The phone didn’t stop ringing for days.
Eventually, Brink met with 25 men, each with similar symptoms. This is a story and Brink knew it. He decided to launch a full investigation.
He tracked down Marius Schmidt, the ex-fire chief at Thule who was in command of the fire fighters and civilians after the crash. Schmidt revealed that there are many more sick men, but they needed proper scans to reveal the extent of the damage to the workers.
Brink tried to get the money for this from the radio station, but they refuse and Brank was warned off getting involved in the case.
So, Brink paid for the scans himself.
When the scans come back, they revealed a pattern among the workers indicating poisoning, reporting, “The number of sick workers is remarkable; I believe the workers deserve to be examined properly”.
Despite this, the Board of Health continued to evade requests for an interview, announcing their own investigation.
The Board of Heath investigation finally reported the workers health check reveals “No signs of radiation have been found” and that the snow samples from the US are unable to be obtained for examination.
Brink was unconvinced by any of this.
And he was right to be. A whistleblower later leaked an internal memo to Brink showing that the snow samples never left the US because they were never there - they were in Denmark all along!
So Brink continued to chase the truth. Eventually he was invited to meet with the ex-Thule airbase manager. From him, he learns that the Americans brought a submarine (called the ‘Star 3’) to the base and used it to search the sea floor - for an object he recognised as one of the four bombs. So not all four bombs had been destroyed.
Ever more convinced of the story, in 1992, and Brink left his job at the radio station to travel to the US. In the National Archives in Washington he discovered that many files for Project Crested Ice have been declassified (with some redaction) and he finds references to the ‘missing object’ they had been searching for.
Now working for TV news, he applies pressure to the National Health Board and gets them on air to agree to investigate the ‘missing object’. But again, they said they failed to find anything.
Tensions continued to rise, and the US Ambassador in Denmark confronted Brink, insisted there was no missing bomb and suggested strongly that he should back off.
He did not back off.
Soon an insider from the National Health Board came forward to Brink to confirm that they have been lying to the public and the government for years about the Thule incident.
Then another whisteblower came forward with a copy of a secret agreement signed in 1957. This agreement proved that the prime minister H C Hansen gave the Americans permission to not only fly over Greenland with nukes, but to hold and store the weapons at Thule air base.
This was not what they had said at the time. In fact Paul Sogard, Foreign minister in 1978 said: “Yes, The Americans know and respect our nuclear policy, so I deny the existence of overflights in Greenland, neither are there any nuclear-weapon carrying planes stationed in Greenland.”
The weight of evidence was too much. Unable to keep the secret agreement a secret any more, the ministry of foreign affairs confirmed that there was indeed a document, an agreement.
Brink demanded to see a copy of it, returning to the archive everyday, bringing tv cameras with him, filming himself outside the building waiting to be let in to see them.
Finally he was offered the opportunity to read the documents, but on the condition that he did not report the entire contents.
Brink agreed – then proceeded to read the entire document live to camera, revealing the lies that the government had been telling everyone for forty years. The Danish government had given the United States the go-ahead to store nuclear weapons at Thule.
The truth comes out
Brink was reported to the police for breaching his agreement and reading the letter in its entirety, but the police later drop the case.
The Danish government paid 50,000 kroner to each of the 1,700 Thule workers in compensation and the Thule tribe was awarded damages of 500,000 Kroner for having been relocated to build the airbase.
A report was commissioned to determine the history of US nuclear overflights of Greenland and the role of Thule Air Base and a two-volume work was published in 1997 confirming that the nuclear-armed flights over Greenland were recurrent.
The report blamed Prime Minister H. C. Hansen for intentionally introducing ambiguity in the Danish–U.S. agreement and also confirmed that the United States stockpiled nuclear weapons in Greenland until 1965, contradicting assurances by Danish foreign minister that the weapons were in Greenland's airspace, but never on the ground.
In fact, the report went further, revealing details of Project Iceworm, a top secret US Army plan to build a system of tunnels under the cover of Greenland's ice sheet 4,000 kilometres (2,500 mi) in length, to be used to deploy up to 600 nuclear missiles, that could be ready to reach the Soviet Union in case of nuclear war.
The plan, whilst ambitious, was a failure because of the fast moving ice-floes which contorted and disrupted the tunnel systems
Vindicated, Poul Brink wrote a book on the case called ‘Thule Case – the universe of lies’ and in 1997 won the most prestigious prize for Danish Journalists – the Cavling Prize .
Sadly, 5 years later, on October 23, 2002, Poul Brink was out running when he died suddenly of a heart attack. He was 49 years old, and left behind his wife and son.
But at least he lived long enough to uncover the truth, and his determination in the face of lies, threats and power are remembered in Christina Rosendahl’S film adaptation of his remarkable story, Idealisten, or in English, The Idealist.