The North Pole: Part Three -- The Escape
This is the article that appeared in Ebony Magazine in the 1950s
For parts I and II, please see the tabs under Adventure Stories
Airial view of Thule Airforce base in Northern Greenland
Prelude to crisis
The daily life at the north pole for the crew of Drifting Station Alpha was busy and dangerous enough without the unexpected showing up. Things did not always go as planned. Even at the nearest Air Force base, in Thule, Greenland, about 1000 miles south of the North Pole there is constant warnings to personnel that the weather is unpredictable. And that is on land. And a stark barren and isolated land it is. Land it is. Sort of. Green it is not. Not At Thule. A distance of 1000 miles of ice and snow and frigid waters. Not a walk in the park. Not even for a nuclear submarine traversing the ice pack.
Working in very cold weather was and is still a challenge. Even when the temperature was not at the lowest point, the negative effects of low temperatures on machinery such as clocks would cause some experiments to fail because of lack of adequate synchronization. Nonetheless, much work was accomplished. Many contributions were made to science and are now included in textbooks on science. But as the cumulative effects of multiple storms at sea rose ever higher, the risks to "life and limb" of the human beings became ever greater.
It was getting darker and darker as the Sun prepared to disappear from the sky for many months in the Arctic "winter season". This land of the "midnight sun" was now seeing total midnight darkness at "noon". It was dark 24 hours each "day". The sun had set. For months. It would not rise "tomorrow". Not even 48 hours from tomorrow. Nor next week.
In the midnight darkness the storms took place at seas unseen. Distant storms at sea would cause grinding changes in the ice floes around the Drifting Station. Pressure ridges and lees would develop and change the "landscape." These piled up ridges of crushed blocks of ice and these areas of open sea water would threaten the structural integrity of the camp and sometimes caused a hasty and risky relocation of the camp property.
Dangers right now
The Drifting Station was battered but functional after one year of exposure to the hazards of the frigid North. But winter was coming on fast and it would be a long hard winter.
Oh! and then a wild sea storm rolled on
In cracking and tearing
Great risks it was bearing
For Ice Station Alpha
And our brave family man Raymond
Those who gave orders from central command knew that if any further delay took place that the entire crew would soon be lost to the two-mile-deep Arctic Ocean. The word was given. Get those men out of there, NOW!
Yes, but how? No ship could reach them. What is the range of a helicopter? (Not far enough then (and barely far enough even now 60 years later) for the best available.) Where is a nuclear submarine when you need it? Probably too far away for the essential NOW. How in the world are you going to land a plane on a broken up runway? In the dark. Oh yes and the cold. And yes, thin ice.
Well, the plane did land and take off successfully without killing any one, this time. Thule, Greenland has a U.S. Air Force Base (of sorts). It is not your usual Air Force Base. It is barren and cold. There is no local town or even village. It is in a good position "near" the North pole so that it can watch the Russians militarily in case they launch intercontinental ballistic missiles, or try any other sneak attacks over the North Pole. But it is 1000 miles from the North pole. Yet they still call it the Top Of The World. Most of the year it can only be reached by air. But it is on solid land. Sort of. The buildings have to be supported above ground otherwise the heat from the buildings melt the ice underneath and causes them to sink. The rescue plane came from Thule.
After arriving at Thule, AFC Raymond and the crew of the floating station were taken to Alaska where they were debriefed.
But how did that plane land at broken up Ice Station Alpha? Well, it was 24 hours a day of night-time at the ice station. So, the brave men had to set fires to light the path for the airplane to see the "runway." Yes, the runway was made of ice. Yes fires produce heat which melts ice even at the North Pole. It had to be a quick landing and take off.. Yes, there was a two -mile-deep ocean below the fire and ice.
So, a plane from Thule was the only way that Raymond got away. How that plane landed on the marginal air strip that had gotten separated from the rest of the ice station in the Arctic Ocean was a miracle. And it occurred just in time.
Later would come the stories and the the pictures for Ebony magazine and Jet magazine. Even later would come the awarding of the military medals. But the most important thing to come would be the safe re-union with his family.