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Remembering Bluie West One

In the 1930s, with admirable foresight, the U.S. Navy bestowed a code name on virtually every spot on earth, in case it might someday be required to do business there. The monikers ran through the alphabet from Aaron (on the South Pacific island of New Britain) to Zouave (in the Yukon Territory of Canada). So it was that Greenland became known as Bluie.

I have a ball cap with the legend: Greenland: coolest place on earth. It is indeed a fabulous country, except that it's not a country but a Danish colony. It's a European possession that, geographically speaking, belongs to North America. If it were a nation, it would be one of the smallest--smaller than Andorra, and a lot smaller than Luxembourg. At the same time, Greenland is the world's largest island, one of its oldest landscapes, and the site of the first European settlement in the New World.

Site of Erik's longhouse at Brattahlid in Greenland
Site of Erik the Red's longhouse at Brattahlid. The photograph looks down Eriksfjord toward the sea. American bomber and transport pilots flew up that fjord to Bluie West One, off to the left of this picture. (Photo by Hamish Laird)

I've read dozens of stories by American airmen, soldiers, and sailors who passed through Greenland during World War II and the early years of the Cold War. A few mention the "Eskimo" settlement across the Eriksfjord from Narsarsuaq, practically under the final approach to Runway 07. But not one seemed aware that this was the site of Brattahlid, where Erik the Red built a longhouse toward the end of the 10th century, and where his descendants lived for longer than any European family has been in the U.S. They disappeared toward the end of the 15th century, the victims most likely of climate change: global cooling!

So the island was Bluie to the U.S. military, and a Danish colony, when the German army marched into Copenhagen on April 9, 1940. That not only left Greenland an orphan, but Iceland as well; worse, it left Germany in a position to assert some sort of step-fatherly interest (perhaps abusive boyfriend is a better term) in both islands. If you lay a string on a globe, in search of the shortest route between the U.S. and Britain, it runs from northern Maine to the western isles of Scotland. En route, meanwhile skimming the shores of Labrador, Greenland, and Iceland. If planes were to fly from American factories to British airfields, this was the route they must take; and for them to refuel, there must be airfields in all these places.

In addition to its potential as an Arctic aircraft carrier, Greenland had two other attractions for countries at war. Ivigtut, not far from Narsarsuaq, boasted a cryolite mine, and cryolite was needed to make aluminum. Finally, Greenland was a weather breeder for Europe: observers there would be of immense value to the combatants, both British and German.

So it was that British marines seized control of Iceland in May 1940, and that a month later the U.S. Coast Guard began a survey of Greenland. The cutter Duane carried a Curtiss SOC Seagull and two pilots, Julius Lacey of the Army Air Corps and W. D. "Doc" Shields of the Navy. As Capt. Lacey's son-in-law, Guy LaValley of College Park, Md., explained his assignment in an email: "He was chosen due to the fact that he had a master's degree in meteorology [from MIT in 1936] and was qualified to fly seaplanes. Apparently this was a rather rare combination of skills at the time. The mission was so secret that even his commanding officer was not notified of his whereabouts and he was declared AWOL."

While the Coasties charted Greenland, Lacey and Shields took turns flying their biplane with its big central float and 600 hp Wasp engine, a combination that gave the Seagull a cruising speed of 133 mph and a range of 675 miles. Scouting from Disko Bay above the Arctic Circle to Cape Farewell in the south, they found eight sites for military bases on the comparatively hospitable west coast. Navy codemeisters would designate them Bluie West One through Eight. Meanwhile, the cutter Northland did similar duty along the eastern shore, finding three sites worth exploiting.

Of them all, BW-1 at Narsarsuaq was the standout. In the Inuit language, the name means "Great Plain," which by Greenlandic standards it is: a glacial moraine two miles long and half a mile wide, conveniently surfaced with gravel. (I spent four days in Narsarsuaq in August 2005 but never got the hang of pronouncing the town's name. Most of the locals seemed to stress the second syllable, while nearly skipping the third: nar-SAR-s'wauk. The spelling likewise varies, and in the 1940s it was usually rendered Narsarssuak)

Diplomatic cover for an American intervention was provided by Henrik Kauffman, the Danish minister to Washington. On April 9, 1941--the first anniversary of his homeland's invasion--he signed an agreement making Greenland a U.S. protectorate. Less than three months later, the freighter Siboney landed construction materials and a few army airways specialists at Narsarsuaq. The troopships Munargo and Chateau Thierry brought in the 21st Aviation Engineer battalion, the 62nd Coast Artillery battery, and service troops, to a total of 469 officers and men. Not long after, at a hemispheric conference in Cuba, President Roosevelt put the world on notice that American interests did not stop at the continental shelf: "The U.S.A. will hold itself responsible for the defense of the Western Hemisphere, and the transfer of any territory ... from one European state to another will not be tolerated." In other words, Germany's occupation of Denmark gave it no rights to a weather station in Greenland, regardless of what Copenhagen might agree to.

By September 1941--three months before the United States was catapulted into World War II--Narsarsuaq was a town of 85 buildings, mostly of wood and tarpaper construction. A runway was roughed out, and a pier built a short distance down Eriksfjord, with water deep enough for ocean-going ships. A three-mile road ran from the harbor on the west, past the future airfield, to the high ground on the east. Very likely this was the longest road in Greenland, which even today has almost no land links from town to town.

Nor was the U.S. military the only one to come ashore. On Sept. 12, on the east coast of Greenland, the cutter Northland intercepted a Norwegian trawler. The fishermen explained that they'd just dropped off a 12-man German weather party with a radio transmitter. (Norway too was under German occupation.) The Coasties took up rifles, went ashore, and captured three Germans and a codebook, which they sent back to Boston for examination. For the next four years, a low-grade and frigid war would be fought on the east coast of Greenland: American sled-dog patrols, helped by long-time Danish residents, vs. German landing parties abetted by Norwegian and sometimes Danish hunters and fishermen.

Several hundred miles north of Narsarsuaq, at what is now Kangerlussuaq, another party of Americans began construction of Bluie West Eight as an alternative landing field for days when BW-1 was socked in. A third field, Bluie East Two, would eventually be built on the east coast.

At the end of that first summer of 1941, civilians in the employ of McKinley Dredging Co. arrived to finish the runway at Bluie West One. It would be 5,000 feet long and 145 feet wide, with a base of pea-sized gravel and a surface of pierced-steel planking--perhaps the first use of PSP by the U.S. military. The compass direction is pretty much west to east: 07 and 25. However, the magnetic deviation in south Greenland is 30 degrees, so the direction actually runs from southwest to northeast. At the southwest or fjord end, the altitude is 12 feet above sea level; it rises 100 feet in about half a mile, then levels off as it nears the glacier.

"If you haven't landed at BW-1," writes army pilot George James of his ferry flight in a twin-engined B-26, "you have missed one of life's biggest thrills. We were briefed for hours with talks, movies taken from the nose of an airplane, and a topographical model. The reason for what might seem like overkill is that BW-1 is 52 miles up a fjord with walls several thousand feet high, numerous dead-end offshoots, no room to turn around, and usually an overcast below the tops of the walls. You had to get it right the first time."

Pity those engineers and civilians, marooned on a glacial moraine through Greenland's awful winter! On Dec. 11, when their work was legitimized by Germany's declaration of war on the United States, the sun rose at 9 a.m. and was gone six hours later. There were back-to-back days when the thermometer stuck at that magic figure where Fahrenheit and Celsius agree: 40 degrees below zero. And the wind! The civilians kvetched in one report that the wind funneling down the glacier reached 141 mph, though the military that day recorded gusts of merely 75 mph. I'm willing to believe either figure. On a summer day in Narsarsuaq, I was buffeted by 50-knot gusts, obliging me to take shelter in the lee of the old headquarters building, now a museum. There I found the port landing gear and a Twin Wasp engine from a DC-3 or C-47, which the museum's founder had salvaged from the dump. The Gooney Bird had been picked up by a gust of wind and slammed down so hard that it shattered, not the only plane destroyed by the wind at Bluie West One.

Bluie West One in
Bluie West One, in a photo probably taken just before the ice went out in the spring of 1942. Landing at Narsarsuaq is always done from west to east, with takeoffs in the other direction, so as to avoid the mountains beyond.

Housed in tarpaper shacks, with no movies or radio programs to divert them--don't even ask about women!--they had the job done soon after the New Year. On Jan. 24, 1942, a Grumman Duck amphibian off the USS Bear made the first landing on Runway 07. And on March 3, a Lockheed Lodestar of the Royal Air Force transport made a test flight from Goose Bay, still being carved out of the Labrador wilderness by U.S. and Canadian engineers; the Lodestar returned to Goose the same day, having proved that Bluie West One was open for business.

Maj. Gen. Carl Spaatz was given command of U.S. air forces in Europe, hence the job of getting them there. On June 10 he flew 353 nautical miles from Washington to Manchester, N.H., probably in a Boeing B-17E Flying Fortress, latest and best in the USAAF inventory. I don't think it was a coincidence that the lads at Bluie West One put in an emergency request that same day. They urgently needed 11 loudspeakers, a 3 kilowatt radio transmitter, a weather forecaster, 5 weather code and cipher clerks, 10 Morse operators, and "12-15 good cooks."

Next day was an easy one for Spaatz, 268nm to Presque Isle in the potato country of northern Maine, but there he was stuck by weather. In a bit of a snit, he radioed Washington: "I recommend that the best airlines communications expert in the U.S.A. be sent here ... immediately." On June 14, he flew 495nm to Goose ("Very poor food at seemingly exorbitant prices"), and next day 676nm of black North Atlantic ocean, salted with icebergs, to land at Bluie West One. He found no fault with "Onoto," as he called it--a code name for a code name! But he did note that "Bodkin [BW-8] not ready with food or bedding." From Narsarsuaq he pushed on to Reyjkavik in Iceland (670nm) and Prestwick in Scotland (734nm), eight days en route from Washington.

continued in part 2