Top of the World

Thule AB Airmen support AFSPC mission, adjust to Greenland’s unique climate

Story By Randy Roughton
Photos By Joint Hometown News

Airmen enter the Ballistic Missile Early Warning System building at Thule Air Base, Greenland.

Airmen enter the Ballistic Missile Early Warning System building at Thule Air Base, Greenland. (Department of Defense photo/EJ Hersom, JHTN)

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Even though she was bundled up in a heavy coat and clothing, Tech. Sgt. Charriot R. Moody braced against the biting wind as she stepped off the plane and into the arctic atmosphere at Thule Air Base, Greenland.

A glance at her surroundings offered little hope the freezing weather would change anytime soon. In the distance, icebergs and snowdrifts dotted the landscape, revealing cold, harsh terrain.

Cold or not, this would be home for the next 12 months. It would just take some adjustment.

“My first thought was ‘What did I get myself into?’” said Moody, the 821st Support Squadron Surgeon General’s patient administration NCOIC. “Coming from Hawaii, I was not prepared for this.”

When Capt. Gregory Tengco, the 12th Space Weather Squadron operations support flight commander, arrived a month before Moody, he looked forward to Greenland’s three-month dark season. But Staff Sgt. Brett A. Mattmiller knew exactly what to expect when he voluntarily returned for a second remote tour as a security forces member.

Few arrive at Thule AB prepared for northwestern Greenland’s temperatures, which average minus-25 degrees during the winter months, winds reaching hurricane strength, and months of around-the-clock darkness or light.

ech. Sgt. Charriot Moody walks to the base hospital during a chilled morning.

Tech. Sgt. Charriot Moody walks to the base hospital during a chilled morning. She’s the NCO in charge of patient administration at 821st Support Squadron. (Department of Defense photo/Marvin Lynchard, JHTN)

Still, Moody isn’t here for the weather or to see the sights. She’s here for a one-year remote tour to help Thule AB support important space missions.

The base is located about 700 miles north of the Arctic Circle and 950 miles south of the North Pole, but also halfway between Washington, D.C., and Moscow, which was one reason it was built during World War II and expanded during the 1950s. During the Cold War, the Air Force looked north for the front-line of defense against the Soviet Union. Thule AB was chosen as a base for intercepting bomber attacks from the northeast and for refueling U.S. long-range bombers directed at the Soviets.

In the 1960s, the base population reached as high as 10,000. Today, about 150 Airmen work with as many as 400 civilians during the winter at the Department of Defense’s most northern base.

The 23rd Space Operations Squadron’s Detachment 1, more commonly known as the Thule Tracking Station, located 3 ½ miles northeast of the base, is one of eight Air Force Satellite Control Network tracking stations that relay satellite performance and mission data between polar-orbiting satellites and agencies, including the DOD and NASA.

“You can probably think of us as a very focused Internet service provider,” said Maj. Austin Hood, Detachment 1 commander. “We provide our customers the ability to access their space vehicles to expertly perform telemetry, tracking and commanding of their satellites. We will typically average 20,000 contacts a year and 15 to 20 minutes per contact on a space vehicle. This is why Thule is important, and why we physically have to be here to do this job. It’s because for these polar orbits, this is one of the few places on the planet where you can access them.”

Tech Sgt. Bryan McEvoy climbs a ladder inside a radar dome at Thule AB.

Tech Sgt. Bryan McEvoy climbs a ladder inside a radar dome at Thule AB. (Department of Defense photo/EJ Hersom, JHTN)

About 13 miles northwest of the main base, the 12th Space Warning Squadron’s Ballistic Missile Early Warning System provides early warning detection of intercontinental ballistic and sea-launched ballistic missile attacks against the United States and Canada and tracks polar-orbiting satellites. In 2009, the detachment under the 21st Space Wing upgraded to its current early-warning radar system, which can detect softball-sized objects more than 3,000 nautical miles away.

“The mission at (the BMEWS) has been fundamentally unchanged since 1961,” said Lt. Col. Gregory G. Karahalis, the 12th SWS commander. “What we can provide hasn’t changed, except we can now track smaller objects at a greater range than the system that was here before.”

Airmen at Thule AB rely on each other, preparation and various tools like sun lamps to help prevent seasonal affective disorder and get through Greenland’s winters — especially the three-months of 24-hour darkness. They hold game nights, movie marathons and other activities to avoid isolating themselves in their rooms.

The base traditionally marks the beginning of the 24-hour dark season with a tree-lighting ceremony in mid-November, followed by gift-wrapping for Operation Julemand, which brings presents for children in villages like Qaanaaq, about 75 miles from Thule AB.

Some of the more daring people assigned to the base even venture out into the cold and dark to go “Thule-tripping.”

“Unlike other facilities and installations, there’s no off base in the sense that you can go downtown and grab dinner or go shopping,” Moody said.

“During the dark season, when it’s cold, and you’re confined, it gets kind of claustrophobic,” she said. “To combat that, we got a group of friends to climb Mount Dundas or check out Dundas Village. We went sledding and ice skating in (30-below-zero) weather.”

However, there are times when leaving the base simply isn’t an option. Arctic storms often blow through the area, the high winds and blowing snow making it impossible to leave.

Tengco has experienced these infamous storms, which sometimes force Airmen and security police to remain at BMEWS for hours and occasionally days.

“I was stormed in for 36 hours in February,” he said. “We had snowfall the entire week, and it had accumulated and was blowing around in 70-knot winds. You couldn’t see anything outside. I was working 12-hour shifts, and we saw the storm coming, but there was nothing we could do about it.

Airmen watch football on multiple screens in the NCO dorms.

Airmen watch football on multiple screens in the NCO dorms. The NCOs cook their own dishes to share with each other and chip in for extras during the sporting occasions. (Department of Defense photo/EJ Hersom, JHTN)

“I prefer being stormed in on site, though, to being in the dorms because we have everything we need here,” he said, referring to the site’s gymnasium, game room, dining hall and other amenities.

After three months of continual darkness, the sun eventually does return to Greenland, which Thule AB marks with the annual first light festival in February. When the light returns, northwestern Greenland receives 20 more minutes of sunlight each day until “White Nights,” when the sun is up 24 hours a day for about four months. During this time of year, it’s not uncommon to see Moody, Tengco and their friends viewing Wolstenholme Fjord, the world’s only place where three active glaciers are connected, or climbing Dundas and following the tradition of taking a rock with their names to leave on the mountaintop.

“I’d go hiking or climbing about 10 or 11 at night, and it would be 3 or 4 in the morning before we’d even look up,” Tengco said. “If you didn’t have a watch on, you’d have no idea what time it was. You’d never sleep.”

Thule’s seasons sometimes require a second adjustment to life on the base when the sunlight returns, and Airmen can see Mount Dundas, the glaciers and radar sites and other sights for the first time.

“Because I got here in the darkness, when it came to the light season, I had no idea about landmarks on base,” Moody said. “It looked completely different. I had to reorient myself to the base because I’d never seen it.”

Some Airmen like Mattmiller not only don’t mind the drastic changes the seasons bring, but they also use them as a type of natural calendar.

“I use the seasons for milestones,” he said. “You’re going to get here either when it’s dark and wait for it to turn to sun, or the opposite. I got here in the light, so I’m waiting for it to turn dark, then once I see the sun start to come back, I’ll know it will soon be time for me to leave.”

Staff Sgt. Siddharth Sunny and his wife, Shauna, and daughter, Clara, enjoy take a walk at Thule AB. Although a visiting dependent is not rare, Clara is believed to be the youngest dependent to visit the base.

Staff Sgt. Siddharth Sunny and his wife, Shauna, and daughter, Clara, enjoy take a walk at Thule AB. Although a visiting dependent is not rare, Clara is believed to be the youngest dependent to visit the base. (Department of Defense photo/Marvin Lynchard, JHTN)

About four months after Tech. Sgt. Siddharth Sunny arrived at Thule AB and the 821st Support Squadron, his wife Shauna came for a visit, bringing their 2-year-old daughter Clara. Clara was instantly popular with Sunny’s co-workers and other Airmen because she’s the first young child anyone can recall on the base.

“She’s a celebrity everywhere we go,” her mother said. “I was thinking when (Sunny) mentioned we could come over here, about what it was like to be deployed, and what it would have meant to have seen a child when I was deployed. This was going to be great for people to see a young child because they probably haven’t seen one in a while, and with six months of winter ahead, it gives them a little something to hold on to.”

Along with the winters and light and dark seasons, Thule AB is an extremely remote base, unlike any other Air Force installation. It also has no base gate, paved roads or off-base civilization, with the nearest village about 75 miles away. What it does have is a unique environment, partly because of the relatively small active-duty population in an extremely remote location.

“Typically, at a stateside base, I think you get close to people in your squadron, but not necessarily with the support group, the medical guys and (civil engineering) guys,” Tengco said. “But here, there are so few of us that we have to interact with each other. I don’t know if I’ll necessarily miss Thule, but I will miss the guys I worked with. We worked 15-hour days, and there were times when we slept at the radar site so we could go to bed, wake up and do it all over again.”

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  • Jim Smith

    Back in the 50s we were told Thule was the worst place possible to be stationed. Being stationed at Kincheloe, we dreaded when assignments came out. It was -40 to -60 all winter long at Kinch. If Thule was worse, Levenworth didn’t sound that bad! Loading missiles and rockets on a F-106 was an outside job and during a mass load it was three or four hours out there. Years later, finally talked to someone that had been there. He said if one didn’t want to, they didn’t have to go outside for anything. All buildings were connected by passageways and hanger doors were opened only after the engines were going.

    • Joe

      I spent almost 4 years at Kincheloe, too. No such thing as passageways. I was a sky cop so the flight line was no stranger to me nor the Ammo Dump and being posted along the Weapons Convoy route could get really bad in Winter. Guarding the C-124s when they came in was a real challenge. 2 miles of runway and only a tire to shield you from the hawk. (60-64) My first posting was a walking post at the Back Up Pods (in 30 below temperatures) and they never had the doors closed. I don’t remember (getting old) any doors back then but I guess they did. I first arrived in Dec. 1960 and can still remember the snow banks along the streets were so high a person could work on the power lines w/o a ladder. I remember the Thule line. I think everyone thought Levenworth sounded good compared to KAFB. Still can see Katzenberger in my minds eye (KP Pusher) Didn’t he get sent to Thule?

      You carried your swim suit with you once the snow melted – you didn’t want to miss Summer when it came by. Summer was really nice if you liked camping and fishing. The locals all had snowmobiles to use during the 6-7 months of winter.

  • Ron Nidetch

    I spent two tours at Thule seven years apart with seven years spent at Patrick AFB in Florida. I worked at the Hospital and a second job at the club. On my second tour I again worked the club and put in 16-20 hours as a dj on AFRTS. I also worked the Danish FM radio for. 4 hours a week. By keeping busy the time passed very quickly. During the second tour I was the head bartender and maiter de in the club dining room. I was a TSgt at the time and earned over $12,000 at the club. The first tour we had fighter jets and Army missle in the hills surrounding the base with approximately 9000 personnel. On the second tour we had about 200 military with the hospital having the most personnel. We had one helicopter and a C-54. I retire in1980 as a MSgt with my last duty station at Camp New Amsterdam. 35 miles from Amsterdam. I settled in Dayton Ohio and worked as a civilian supervisor for 21 years at Wright-Patterson hospital finally retiring in 2003. I would love to wee Thule one more time.

    Ronald Nidetch
    Ret AF MSGT

    937-477-5258

  • Will

    Chief Thompson went twice. I have to be impressed. Once would have been enough for me. Twice in Misawa was enough (for me too).

  • http://www.facebook.com/mike.j.monti Mike Monti

    Was at Thule and was the GM for the Top of the World Club in 2005-2006. I’d go back in a heartbeat because the people are fantastic and the location one of the most interesting in the world!

  • Mads Brønden

    Was ther in ’98, working for Greenland Contracters. One of the best places i have worked. All the people up there was amazing, every body did what they could, to make you feel welcome…

  • http://www.facebook.com/bryan.burgess.336 Bryan Burgess

    my dad was stationed there around 1960. still have a lot of black and white pictures of the base and iceburgs

  • BDT

    I know a guy who volunteered for Vietnam to get out of Thule, although I am sure amenities have improved since then.

  • http://www.facebook.com/bryon.wingfield Bryon Wingfield

    I was there in 2000. Very isolated but interesting tour. Following my mid-tour I moved out of the 3-story “high rise” dorms into one of the “flat tops”, which were much better living quarters. I’d still go back in a heartbeat, as long as I could stay in a flat top again! lol

  • Rudy Ridolfi

    Was there 99-00 and loved every minute of it! Best people, Best times.

  • http://www.facebook.com/john.tillman.50 John Tillman

    Was there 93 – 94. One of my most memorable assignments.

  • Carol

    God Bless each and everyone of you! Thank you all for keeping us safe and to be able to write this to you. We all have a lot to be thankful for and you make it all possible for us to be thankful. May you be safe.

  • Tim

    Eielson is not much different than this, and got stuck here for three years, -30 to -60 all winter long. Only thing different is there is some civilization, but the environment is just as bad. I would take a short tour there any day as compared to being at Eielson 2.5-3 years in.

  • angie herron

    my Dad,SR.MSGT. JE PORTER was ststioned at Thule in 1960 s for 13 months. This article has helpef me have a beyter picture and underdtsnding of this base at yhe top of the world! thNk you so much!

  • Tony

    I heard there’s a girl behind every tree

    • butch baucom

      yea never did find that ytree haha that was 1958

  • http://www.facebook.com/fred.bliss.35 Fred Bliss

    It was a good assignment, stuck between Davis-Monthan Titan II and a stint at Johnson Space Center. Then on to the 4th SCS in New Mexico.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Randall-Stephens/1200586659 Randall Stephens

    The USAF was my best move.

  • http://www.facebook.com/wxfcstr2005 Dana Becker

    I spent 7 months up there working for Greenland Contractors as a weather forecaster. Forecasting the weather in Thule is probably the hardest job I ever had. I did meet some great folks and I miss the camaraderie, but I have stayed in touch with my closest Danish friends and they have even been to visit me stateside.

  • Wesley Lively

    I was a SSgt computer tech at PAVE PAWS West when I got out in ’85. Four days after leaving Beale I was at J-Site working as a civilian contractor in the MIP. I stayed until August of ’89, then went back to Beale as a computer tech at PAVE PAWS again, where I still work.

    I’d like to go back to Thule as a tourist with the time to explore that I didn’t have when I was working 12 hour days, seven days a week there.

    Does anyone know where the photo gallery for this article went? It vanished from FLICKR.

  • gopomo

    I was at TAFB and BMEWS working for RCA in 1961-62. It’s a very special place and the early tracking radar was the most magnificent electronic and mechanical system I have ever seen. I’m priveleged to have been there.

  • Chuck

    I was stationed at Thule from 1967 to the spring of 1968 after spending 2 1/2 years at Kincheloe as a medic. My shipment was as a result of backing into the hospital commander’s black VW bug a dusk, he did not have his lights on. My shipment came down 2 weeks afterwards, name, rank & serial number. Not much to do there, we did have a B52 crash on the ice cap tho, was hushed up very quick, in fact I found out more about what happened from a newspaper article a few years ago than we were told up there.

  • Ted Robinson

    Made two trips there in 1959 ,1960 on Navy Ice breaker USS Edisto. Spent a lot of time in the E M club. The second time the E M club was closed ….frozen ,spent time in the gedunk Ted (Robbie)Robinson….