Gerrit’s Travels, Part 1 – Thule Air Base, BMEWS

Missiles in Greenland, war in Vietnam, problems in Persia…..

During my teens in the early ’80’sof last century I got to know Gerrit. He was an acquaintance of my parents. He had stories and photo’s of countries and places where nobody else I knew had ever been. He was a bit of an adventurer so there was much to tell. Being only a kid much of this information was lost over time. After Gerrit passed away I helped his widow some years later to sell some of his collections and I got many of the photo’s and items which had interested me so much in my youth.

In this small series of blogs I will share some of these photo’s and items from his travels in the 60s, mainly his life in Greenland and Vietnam. In both locations he was working as a civilian contractor for the US military.

Gerrit wearing a USAF cold weather parka in Thule, Greenland

Gerrit was born in 1929 in Deventer, Holland. In the early 50s he studied Hotel Management in Switzerland and soon after emigrated to the US where he became a citizen, after his retirement he returned to Deventer in the Netherlands our mutual home town. During his period in the US he studied medicine but it remains unclear if he actually became a MD as he later claimed.

To be honest much of his life remained unknown which probably added to the “mystique” around his travel and activities abroad. He always seemed to work in troubles locations. After Vietnam came Persia and after that Congo just before the local revolutions happened that ended in changing the names of these countries.

The Cold War

In the ’50s and ’60s of last century the tension between the western world and the east, especially the Soviets was building up. The war in Korea, the Cuba crisis and later the Vietnam war were al very visible examples of this. The cold war was also one of fear for a Nuclear war with Ballistic Missiles flying over the oceans. If you could stop the enemies missiles you could win this potential war….

BMEWS – Ballistic Missile Early Warning System

In order to find and after shoot down enemy missiles the US started the BMEWS project in 1959 which was completed in 1964. The main contractor for the entire project was RCA, short for Radio Corporation of America. The contract was close to 500 million USD initially. They were building enormous radar sites with linked computer systems. There was a total of 12 radars at several sites, Thule being the biggest with 5 of these radars the location was known as the J-Site. Next to the Radars there were jets for interception and NIKE missiles but I will get back to that later.

Gerrit in front of the BMEWS Radars in Thule

In the years that Gerrit worked in Thule (63/64/65) everything was aimed at completing the project as soon as possible in order to guarantee the USA a higher level of safety against the Soviet threat….

As mentioned he worked for RCA in the field service, probably in the role of facility manager (he later had several more of these type of roles in other locations).

Here his address at the time as stated in the postcard also seen at the top of this blog.

And here a folder for new RCA arrivals at the Thule BMEWS project. On the inside he describes the location of his sleeping quarters in spring so this is probably from 1963. The location of the dot on the inside corresponds with the map on the outside.

Thule Air Base – 4683rd Air Defense Wing

thumb_img_4209_1024

Obviously Thule was an Air Base next to the BMEWS radar station. In the period Gerrit lived here (’63/’65) the 4683rd Air Defense Wing was stationed there. This unit was formed in 1960 and discontinued in 1965 so Gerrit witnessed most of its lifetime.

Thule Times of 1964 with the Wing Commander and the Base commander

They flew with the Convair F-102, Delta Dagger as pictured below in Thule.

NIKE Missile base

I am not sure how secret these things were back in that period but Gerrit was always proud of his Security Clearance (he said the highest a civilian could get). I did not see any of the NIKE missile pictures until after he passed away and I received his box of Greenland pictures….

Several pictures of the NIKE Hercules missiles, ready for action…

Next to the Jets and Missiles there were other planes….

People had to be brought, supplies had to be brought so plenty of other planes on the Air Base like these:

DC3 and it’s big brother, a C137 Stratoliner

On ski’s

Or Danish visitors:

thumb_img_4308_1024
Probably a Catalina, adapted with ski’s.

And of course the Fire Brigade in case of problems….

thumb_img_4307_1024

And there were helicopters too!

thumb_img_4262_1024

A HH43 – Huskie Helicopter

Prized possessions of an Arctic Traveller

Gerrit lived as a civilian on the Air Base. It seems that in his role he had acces to military supplies and also to the military shop, the so called Base Exchange (BX). A place it seems were also luxury items like Omega watches could be bought or ordered.

thumb_img_4204_1024

Next to the photo’s I have some of his most prized possession of that time, his parka, knife and watch. I will discuss them here as they are quite unique…at least to me!

thumb_img_4316_1024

In most photo’s he can be seen wearing his N3B US Air Force cold weather parka. Next to the Parka I have the matching trousers and a pair of aviators fur lined boots…

He also had a Marbles Jet Pilot survival knife that he kept on using in the Vietnam war. Marbles designed the knife but they did not get the Defense Contract. So probably this is a private purchase from the Base Exchange. In any case it is a rare knife by now.

thumb_img_4326_1024
jet_marble_rtn800

And here is Gerrit wearing and using the knife! First in his dormitory with the parka on the chair, the knife on the table, used to open a can? And plenty of Kodak films in the drawer…

thumb_img_4272_1024

And here worn on the belt during his trip to Dundas

thumb_img_4304_1024

And my personal favorite, as it can still be used, his Gold Omega Seamaster. Bought January 1963 on the Base Exchange!

Dundas Mountain

Gerrit somehow got the opportunity to make a trip with the local inhabitants, the Inuit or as they often were called in that time Eskimo’s. Today there are companies offering dog sled tours in that area but looking at these photo’s it was not a commercial business yet in the 60s. Dundas mountain is quite near to the Thule site so it appears on many pictures. As the picture below show the trip started from BMEWS itself, four of the five radars can be seen here and of course the dog led sled!

thumb_img_4303_1024

As I have no details on the trip itself from Gerrit it was good te see that on some pictures he made captions of what we can see!

The caption reads: An Eskimo from Dundas with gun and screen for the seal hunt

thumb_img_4232_1024
It seems he made the trip with some unknown friends from the base.

He mentions one of the dogs by name and says he often took it into his truck

thumb_img_4244_1024
Probably this one?

Two photo’s of “locals”, really love these, they could be in a period National Geographic…

Also during his time in Vietnam Gerrit always had good relations with local people. Not being in the military himself probably gave him some more possibilities for this.

thumb_img_4254_1024
thumb_img_4255_1024

The family that took him on the trip?

thumb_img_4241_1024
Skinning after the hunt, pole fox?

Dundas from the seaside…

thumb_img_4300_1024

This wildlife booklet must have helped, he studied it well. He brought even some items with him that are no longer here like a Narwal tooth, from the unicorm of the seas…

thumb_img_4206_1024

Life on the base

In the years Gerrit was in Thule the base was still quite new and still being built. It was not a place of luxury but of a very simple life, work, eat, sleep, repeat….

Here some pictures of that simple life in the harsh conditions of the Arctic.

Construction still ongoing!

As on any base there was also a Chapel for the churchgoing part of the staff. And of course Xmas specials on the menu.

Dormitories were quite simple with small rooms. Not sure if private rooms were available to all personnel?

thumb_img_4237_1024
The barracks in summertime, looking very new

Outside of the dormitory and inside.

Just enough place for a bed, a small table and some personal belongings…

Weather conditions were very harsh, even in spring and summer

Describing weather conditions and leaving his Jeep near the other Barracks for better protection against the snow.

thumb_img_4249_1024

And of course US Mail!

Later after the 1968 accident with a B-52 there was radiation but no idea what the radiation could have been before 1965?

thumb_img_4301_1024

And the ubiquitous sign post found on every base far from the States!

thumb_img_4211_1024