Camp Century Greenland

(1962 - 1964)


Being a lightly edited version of emails on the Class of 1955 Net 9-17 June 2013.

[McKinney] After being asked if any of the remaining material in this saga was classified, Lee McKinney replied: There have been some documentary films produced, a couple by the Army-one on the construction of Camp Century (omits discussion of the classified reason for putting the nuclear plant in), and one about the removal of the PM-2A Nuclear Power Plant (again, omitting the major reasons behind that and semi-closure of Camp Century). I was the Technical Advisor on that one. It's really a story of American soldiers' ingenuity and professionalism, and I'm talking mostly about the splendid NCO's in the Nuclear Power Program, without whom Joe and I could never have successfully operated the plant and then shut it down, hauled it across the Icecap and loaded it onto the Victory ship at Thule AB. A lot of the story must go untold, for several reasons, and I think Joe will agree. It was a great experience, and I felt privileged to have been a part of it. One thing I took away was a burning desire to never see snow again.

The classified portions involved the AF original plan to put the initial Minuteman missiles in silos in Greenland, with resupply from Thule by rail-this fell thru when the AF discovered that the icecap wouldn't support a railroad (go figure on that one). The Army had a first-of-its-kind "portable" nuclear power plant coming out at ALCO, and offered to put it in Century to demonstrate that Nuke power could do the job for missile bases-eliminated need for beau coup diesel fuel, which couldn't be supplied to icecap bases in those quantitates. Then, the decision to shut down the PM-2A was at least partially driven by a serious, classified Navy problem with all their Nuclear subs reactor pressure vessels. Our NCO's had figured out a work-around and we ran the plant successfully, setting a world record for continuous power run for any land based nuke plant. The Navy doubted our solution (during my meeting with the Navy Research Lab geniuses), so the shut down and removal allowed the reactor pressure vessel from the PM-2A to be returned to Idaho and destructively tested, validating our solution. This enabled the Navy to keep their subs on line and only return when due for normal overhaul and have the pressure vessels replaced. It was somewhat more involved, but this part was kept quiet for obvious reasons. Interestingly, none of these accomplishments showed up in either of our ER's, naturally. The other interesting fact was that Joe and his crew did such a great job cleaning up the reactor site (the US Agreement with Denmark required the US to leave the area with radiation levels no higher than before the plant was installed-the Danish AEC sent up their top guys and they couldn't believe it had been done, especially by a bunch of soldiers, led by a young Captain). We did receive some interesting Letters of commendation from the Danish Government, which took over two years to make it thru all the endorsements and channels between their government and lowly Joe and me. I think everyone but the local tax collector endorsed it. It ws a great ride. [McKinney]


[Franklin] Wow! I sat down today and found this remarkable message from Lee, wherein he has described the after-action reports on our Greenland Icecap mission some fifty years ago. One other name that should be included is Lou Arnold, USMA '52, from whom I took the reins at Camp Century for the shutdown and disassembly of the reactor. Most importantly, however, Lee and I will both tell you that we had arguably the greatest collection of NCO's the Army ever assembled for this one-of-a-kind operation. I can tell you story upon story about opening those snow tunnels and finding "leftovers" from the initial construction of that unique project. And then the residual radiation levels we found were well beyond anything forecast by our stateside experts, so you will have to stretch your imaginations well beyond limits to envision what our crew did to clean the place up. The Chief of the Danish Atomic Energy Commission visited us; a great guy, Lee can tell you more about him. He took his detectors all over the camp looking for residual radiation. His final report included the words: "I felt the Captain was daring me to find radiation; I did not succeed." (The only thing I did which Lee escaped was to set off the whole-body-counter at Bethesda Hospital when I finally returned.)

And Jim, I already wrote one book after being harangued into it. "Building Leaders the West Point Way" does include some Greenland vignettes. Don't we all think a senior member of our Class (83 years old!) should be the one here who puts pen to paper here, or in the modern vernacular, puts fingers to keyboard? Well, my apologies, folks, didn't mean to clutter your inboxes with long-ago reminiscences. I'll blame Lee for setting this off. God bless our soldiers and Go Army! Best to all, Joe [Franklin]


[Pace] In my view, although we are not the "greatest generation," all of us who were born during the depression, lived through the Cold War, and two or three "hot ones" thereafter, have an obligation to record salient points of our lives for our progeny. Our country's history is being rewritten by the progressives a la 1984 and it will be the accumulation and preservation of the stories of the lives of individuals like us to keep it honest - no matter how biased our viewpoints might be. [Pace]

[McKinney] The original plan, was not built out. No gym or theater, and all of the air cooling was never built, which caused the ice buildup problems on the tunnel ceilings and walls. This required the efforts of the larger share of Camp EM, who spent much time with chain saws, cutting back the ice buildup, to keep from crushing the buildings. We did have an NCO club, which was the cause of a mini-rebellion against the Camp Commander, who announced he would shut it down, because "they were drinking over there". This resulted in my being routed out of bed, New Year's Eve by my Plant Supt., telling me I had to stop the guys who wanted to throw him down the abandoned fresh water well (a 275' hole in one of the tunnel floors). Reason prevailed. We also discovered, when a Polar Bear wandered into our main tunnel, that the Camp CO had removed the firing pin from our M-1, the only weapon in Camp-this was to prevent some soldier who might go stir crazy from killing us. Safe to say, we had a slight "personality" conflict. Even tho he was not in my chain of command, he wrote a letter for my rating officer, who remained back in the US the whole 6 months. Neat setup.

I've considered starting to write a book, using a paper I wrote on the removal of the PM-2A as a part, but when I'd seriously consider it, I quit, thinking most people would think I'd made up too much of it. Sometimes, I wonder if I really did experience some of the events, or if my memory is playing tricks on me. One thing I am certain happened-I assisted the Camp Surgeon in an emergency appendectomy, since that's highlighted in my ER for the 6 month period during which my NCO's set a world record for the longest continuous power run without a shutdown, for any land-based nuclear power plant, which was not mentioned. [McKinney]

[Dugan] Are these questions classified? Why did they build Camp Century in the first place, then why did they shut it down? [Dugan]

[McKinney] It was built for a dual purpose-Polar/Arctic R&D and to demonstrate that you could operate out on the Greenland icecap in tunnels, with a nuclear power plant, and install Minuteman missiles in silos. The AF learned that they couldn't build a RR across the icecap (the unused rails, ties and ballast were stockpiled still at Thule AB when I departed in August 1964). Nuclear power was essential as the power source. We proved the feasibility of nuclear power in that remote, hostile environment, but the cooling of the tunnels to prevent ice buildup was a problem, even in temperatures ranging from 15 above to 65 below F. Also there was a classified site in one of the tunnels to detect Soviet nuke explosions. I t was closed for several reasons, the main one being an apparent decision, for whatever reasons, not to install the Minuteman missiles. This then freed the Army to close the PM-2A NPP, which allowed the reactor pressure vessel to be shipped to Idaho and destructively tested to validate our solution to the Nil Ductility problem in the pressure vessel steel, which was identical to those in the nuke sub reactors and presented a major problem for one leg of our nuclear capability (problem was that in this type of steel the nil ductility transition temperature was such that, if there were any flaws in the metal, at a critical pressure-temperature point, there would be a major failure in the steel vessel. The NDTT changes under extreme radiation levels and moves into the operating range of the nuclear reactor. If this happened, it would change your whole day. This caused many of the sinkings of our ships during WWII on the Murmansk run , carrying lend lease war supplies to the Soviets. They were unaware of it at the time. It was difficult for the Navy to accept that a bunch of Army guys had solved the problem with a work-around, when their scientists had not. There were other problems just doing anything in that environment, but if it had to be done, it could be done with extra effort and money. Ice buildup on the tunnel walls and ceiling was a big problem, as left uncut back, it would crush the buildings. This was a constant battle, and the Army probably decided it, and the other problems/factors just wasn't worth it. Hope this helps. [McKinney]

[Pace] When you write a biography - as I have done for the first ten years of my life - separating fact from fiction is sometimes difficult. However, just include a simple paragraph upfront stating that these are the facts as you know them. Some of the "facts" may be lies that you have told or been told so many times that they have become facts. If you took a lie detector test, you would pass as you believe them true. Anyway, who cares if it advances the story and there is no harm done to anyone. Often, these stories make the book worth reading. I always say, "If you don't think something is correct, write your own damn book." Memoirs of famous politicians, generals, etc., when covering the same incident, often face this problem. If you are worried about the facts, write it as an historical novel. It seems to me that you definitely have a story to tell that from an historical and human interest point of view is worth telling. You best stop "considering" and start writing. In case you haven't noticed, time is running out. [Pace]

[Franklin] Concur with all. As I have previously suggested, our more "senior members" should lead this expedition. Go get 'em, Lee!!! J BTW, were you in camp when I had the crew lower me down into the potable water well to measure the size to which it had grown with the years' water withdrawals? That was a really unique adventure, which we did NOT tell anyone about for obvious reasons.

NB: There is one more participant whose name has not been mentioned: Captain (Dr.) Jim Vernon, who was sent to Camp Century on emergency status when the on-duty doc started to take his own drugs. Jim arrived with cameras et al, and told me he originally thought of signing up for the Air Force but decided not to because there was a slim chance he could be assigned to Thule Air Base. J He and I performed a few "emergency room floor" surgeries in the medical wannigan (sled-mounted ER), including one to re-attach all the fingers on my left hand. We became life-long friends. Sadly, Jim suffered a severe stroke this past winter, so he and I could not join up for our regular golf games in Florida. He is recovering at his home in Boston, and I'm not sure he could participate in a meaningful way, other than to wish us all his very best. A really great guy, as Lee will attest. [Franklin]


[McKinney] During my first 6-month tour from Sep 1962-Feb 63, we were notified that a F-101, I believe, had disappeared in our vicinity, 148 miles East of Thule AB. Since it was 24-hour darkness and bad weather (white-out ice fogs, minus 65 degrees and 35-50 knot winds on the surface, meaning we went up on the surface from our tunnels only to save life), our search ability was very limited, so we found no trace. To my knowledge, he was never found. Wrecks would be covered up and buried fairly quickly at times. As Jack Doyle will tell you, we quit using choppers up there because of such conditions. He might also have a tale or two about planes landing at Thule with their skis still down (not Jack, however). We sure counted on Jack and his guys, who deserve beau coup credit.

What Jack Doyle and his guys did, flying under those conditions routinely, was truly amazing-they were the best.

We experienced at Camp Century-about 3' of snow per month. Our "runway" lights were on 55 gallon drums, and we had to go up every 4 weeks and put new drums on top of the old to keep the light above the ice/snow. It's a challenging part of the world, to say the least.

I deflect the credit, as I'm sure Joe will, also, to the most outstanding bunch of technically qualified, motivated NCO's-who also happened to be superb soldiers-I've ever had the pleasure of serving with. I hasten to add that I've been fortunate and served with many fine NCO's in other assignments.
[McKinney]

[Franklin] My year-plus role was "on site" along with several weeks at Camp Tuto and Ft. Belvoir during the '63-'64 winter. Lee had the key advantage of time on the Hill with all the issues he has related. It was a long time after I emerged from the Camp Century clean -up and shutdown that I learned of those critical details (nuclear Navy, etc.) that Lee has described from first-hand involvement. [Franklin]

[McKinney] Jim, since you met so many celebrities over the years, I thought you'd get a kick out of another Greenland story. When I returned from Century in March 1963, I was surprised to learn the Army PIO had apparently decided to publicize the world record for power run we set and my assisting the Surgeon in emergency appendectomy operations. I assumed it was part of a program to excite and attract young people to join the Army. This resulted in new stories and all, which I didn't give much thought, and then one day, I was called and told to meet with some Army officers in DA Public Affairs. They informed me I'd be the technical advisor on the documentary film and that I would be interviewed by Hugh Downs for his "Young Americans In Action" popular radio program. I thought that would be pretty neat, and my wife and son thought that'd be pretty interesting, meeting Hugh Downs (as did I). So after a few weeks I ws told to meet at Ft. Belvoir to tape the program-looking forward to meeting Hugh, reported and found an couple of Army NCO/Specialists with lots of recording equipment. The gave a script, prepared by some idiot, with a bunch questions that Hugh would ask, and they record my answers. I told the questions were nonsensical, and should be re-done. They conferred with someone on the phone and said, okay, I could write out questions that I thought mad sense, and would cover the essential points, I did, and then recorded my answers. I figured that was all pretty screwy, and awaited the call to meet Hugh Downs and do the show. Nothing happened for several weeks, and one day the mail included a 33 RPM record, which was entitled "Hugh Downs-Young Americans In Action" Thinking that was kind of weird, I played it and found that it began like this=" Good morning, America, I'm Hugh Downs with another edition of Young Americans In Action, and today I'm honored to be with an outstanding young American, Army Captain Leon E. McKinney" Then it had Hugh reading the questions I wrote, and my answering. No meeting with Hugh Downs. Then, for a few years after that, when we'd have people over, some would ask about it, and I'd play the record, and they'd all say, what was he really like and stuff like that, not knowing I'd never met him-then I'd burst the bubble and confess that neither had I, and tell the story. It was a lot of fun for a few years. Oddly, no one in DA eve called me, wrote me or zilch-they just mailed the record with no note. Fortunately, my rating officer was a good guy, and he was kind enough to omit that from my ER, unlike some of the ones I got from the Greenland Polar Research people. [McKinney]

Afterword

More about Joe Franklin

[From his nomination to be a Distinguished Graduate of West Point]

[McKinney and Gay] After MIT, he reported for duty with the Nuclear Power Field Office of the Army's Nuclear Power Program. In this assignment, he led efforts in two unique and pioneering projects: the first was the design of the world's first floating nuclear power plant that could be used for expeditionary or emergency service anywhere in the world; the second was the removal of a "portable" nuclear power plant located on the Greenland icecap and the safe return of its components, many highly radioactive, to the US. He brought both of these unique tasks to a successful conclusion. [McKinney and Gay]


[McKinney] Dear Mr. Chairman, Distinguished Graduate Selection Committee: October 13, 2006

It is my distinct privilege to recommend MG Joseph P. Franklin, USA (Ret) for your consideration and selection as a Distinguished Graduate. Joe is a classmate, friend and erstwhile fellow Engineer soldier, with whom I had the privilege of serving in the Army Nuclear Power Program from 1961-64. Joe distinguished himself in his initial assignment to develop the world's first floating nuclear power plant, but it was his next assignment which was a highlight of his career. This was to plan for and execute the closure, disassembly and removal from Camp Century, Greenland of the prototype Portable Nuclear Power Plant, the PM-2A.. This was also to be a first, as never had an operational Nuclear plant been closed, much less in the hostile environment of the Icecap, 138 miles from its logistical base at Thule, on the west coast of Greenland. As you will see, this accomplishment led to a major contribution to our national security.

I was in a unique position to observe Joe, as I had served six months operating the PM-2A, and was replaced by Joe and his 20-man crew of NCO's, who shut down the plant and safely winterized it. Joe and his crew then returned to Fort Belvoir and spent the winter of '63-'64 developing the detailed logistical plan for the operation, which was thought to require at least two "summer" construction seasons. While I was not involved in the planning, having been assigned to organize a new department to oversee the safety of US military land-based nuclear facilities, I closely monitored the planning, for I was to lead a team at the Greenland logistical base, Camp Tuto. I was responsible for assembling supplies to send out to Joe at Camp Century, and then receiving the shipments of the PM-2A components at the edge of the Icecap and transporting them to Thule AB, to await the first ship able to make it thru the Arctic ice.

The obstacles confronting Joe were immense. No one had ever shut down and disassembled an operating nuclear plant, much less in such a hostile environment of weather and extremely high radiation fields. Typically, Joe made do by using Bailey Bridges, cranes, Canadian farm sleds pulled by huge crawler tractors and his "Yankee" ingenuity and leadership. This latter quality allowed Joe to compress the planned two-year schedule into less than one season. Our international agreement with Denmark required the site to be left with the same or lower radiation levels as before the nuclear plant. The Danish government sent a team of experts to the site, and in their letter to our State Department, they expressed astonishment that this task had been successfully done in such a short time. There were no precedents to this operation, and Joe successfully met the challenge using his native smarts, superb planning and leadership skills. Of particular noteworthiness was the admiration expressed for Joe by the hand-picked crew of senior NCO's working with us during this unique operation.

While it was not public knowledge, the Navy had discovered a serious embrittlement safety problem with pressure vessels on its nuclear subs, and was planning to recall a large percentage of that fleet into dry dock, in advance of scheduled overhaul, to replace the reactor pressure vessels. This would have created a serious weakening of our national deterrent force. The Army Nuclear Power Program had developed an operational curve that controlled the pressure and temperature of the pressure vessel during startup and shutdown, which negated the threat and allowed continued operation. In order to convince the Navy of this procedure, the Army shipped the PM-2A's pressure vessel to the National Reactor Test Station in Idaho for destructive testing, where the results validated our operating curve. The Navy adopted the same rules for startup and shutdown of its reactors and avoided a serious blow to our national security posture. Without Joe's successful, timely removal of the pressure vessel this would not have been possible.

General Franklin's exemplary performance of duty in this instance strongly demonstrated the high ideals of our Alma Mater, and clearly exemplified "Duty, Honor, Country."

Leon E. McKinney, COL, USA (Ret), P.E., Class of 1955 [McKinney]


Cast of Class of 1955 Characters above: Joe Franklin, Lee McKinney, Ted Gay, Jack Doyle, Vern Pace, Jim Ryan, Danny Dugan.

Jim Ryan, ed. & compiler.



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U.S. Army's Top Secret Arctic City Under the Ice! "Camp Century"


Camp Century Movie

Camp Century Article




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