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A meeting at a San Diego wedding captivates Front Royal guest

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An overhead view of Camp Century under construction. / Photo Wikimedia Commons

(Message to readers from our Contributing Writer: This is not a local story. It came from a fellow guest at my god-child’s wedding reception in San Diego a few weeks ago – many miles from the Royal Examiner’s ‘circulation’ area. I offer it to our readers because, since the July wedding, I have asked a score or more FroRo residents if they are aware of what was happening at the North Pole 50 years ago, and, moreover, its lasting effects in future years. None were. If you feel you might enjoy pieces of formerly classified history, read on.)

At age 22, Robert Michele of Phoenix, Arizona, told me he was drafted into the U.S. Army 52 years ago (Sept. 9, 1964) anticipating a Southeast Asia assignment as the Vietnam War began gathering steam.

Instead, he was sent to an American military base close to the North Pole!

Now 74, and retired after 21 years with the Nassau County, NY, police department, the former police sergeant (and Army Spec.4) exchanged police and service stories with me over the wedding celebration dinner table. I asked about his military service (I did a three-year hitch in the Royal Air Force from age 18 to 21) and his police work (early in my journalism career I’d covered police beats in England, Canada and the United States) he surprised me with the statement that he’d spent his two-year army stint at Thule Air Force Base in Greenland – about 800 miles south of the North Pole.

Thule itself was, well, despite 30-to-40 degree below freezing temperatures, 125 mph winds and blinding snow, your regular air force base (I know a few since our son recently completed 10 years of USAF service) but Bob’s duties occasionally took him to a nearby covert base dubbed “Camp Century” where scientists supposedly did studies of a non-military nature. According to the U.S. Defense Department, the official purpose of Camp Century was to test various construction techniques under Arctic conditions.

Wrong!

As my table companion discovered long after he completed his two years of service, Camp Century, was actually a system of tunnels beneath the ice sheet that would be used, if necessary, to deploy nuclear missiles on the Soviet Union at the height of the Cold War. I asked Bob to describe what he saw when on his first assigned task at the “camp.”

He said he entered a “main tunnel, 30 to 40 feet wide” then descended about 50 feet down to an array of structures including Quonset huts, a movie theater, mess hall, and other accommodations consistent with a military base. “The only things visible above the ice sheet were exhaust stacks,” was Bob’s recollection. I gleaned other information from Wikileaks that indicated Camp Century had its own nuclear power plant, scientific laboratories, a library, a chapel, and a barber shop.

Bob said he “wasn’t thrilled in going to the Pole.” He questioned “Why me? One in a million…” then volunteered for duty in ‘Nam. Denied, said his senior officer. His was considered a “hazardous duty” assignment that one cannot volunteer out of, the officer told him.

And so began his two-year experience traveling to and from the ice cap. Four months was the maximum for soldiers at the ice cap. Then they would be returned to the U.S. (in Bob’s case, to Virginia’s Fort Belvoir) for four months duty stateside. He was rotated three times.

74th Fighter-Interceptor Squadron F-89s, Thule Air Base, Greenland, 1955 / Photo Public Domain; Image source listed as United States Air Force

What Bob drew to my continued attention over dessert was the discovery he made well after he began his career with the Nassau County PD (he was actually born in Queens, NY). While he was unaware of Camp Century’s actual mission while at Thule, he did become aware of what was left behind after the Pentagon closed the facility in 1966, and what is now a continuing concern to our government and the country of Denmark, to which Greenland belongs.

According to the Smithsonian Institute in Washington D.C., advancing climate change could uncover toxic and radioactive waste at Camp Century as early as 2090. A paper reported on by a Ben Panko of Smithsonian.com two years ago was titled “A Radioactive Cold War Military Base Will Soon Emerge From Greenland’s Melting Ice” and subtitled: “They thought the frozen earth would keep it safely hidden. They were wrong.”

Bob was familiar with the dilemma but told me to go to Wikipedia for details. I did, which is where I found the Smithsonian story. The bottom line of this is that when Camp Century was closed 50 years ago, no one had figured there would be a change in the world’s climate so severe that the 115 feet of snow and ice would eventually disappear, leaving exposed an estimated 9,200 tons of toxic materials and 53,000 gallons of diesel fuel to be exposed and carried toward the ocean by meltwater, along with radioactive water from Camp Century’s nuclear power plant, and carcinogenic toxins and other dangerous materials.

It wasn’t until 1995 that the Danish government discovered the true nature of Camp Century, and perhaps well after that what the future held in store. This story will be continued well into the future.

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