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DESIGNATION: Bluie West One Airfield

OPERATIONAL: January 1942

CAMPAIGN: Atlantic

ON JUNE 19, 1941, SIX MONTHS before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, a small naval convoy consisting of the troop transport USS Mimargo (AP-20) and three other ships made its way out of New York Harbor to carry out one of the U.S. Army’s least-known prewar operations.

Aboard Mimargo were 254 officers and men of the 3rd Battalion, 21st Engineer Aviation Regiment (EAR). Among them was my father, Lieutenant John James Haley, the battalion staff engineer. He had earned his degree in civil engineering at the University of Wisconsin, where he had joined the ROTC program.

The 21st EAR had been formed only a year earlier to meet the need for engineer units able to provide specialized support for the U.S. Army Air Corps. The 3rd Battalion had been training at Langley Field, Va., when orders came to deploy.

Another 215 men were aboard the transport USS Chateau Thierry (AP-31). They included the support force for the engineers in addition to medical, quartermaster, signal, weather and ordnance detachments, as well as a composite battery from the 62nd Coast Artillery Regiment. The entire force of less than 500 officers and men was under the overall command of Army Air Corps Colonel Benjamin F. Giles.

In June 1941, the 3rd Battalion— like the rest of the regiment— was still at peacetime levels: a headquarters and service company and two letter companies. None of those components was at full strength, and each letter company fielded only two platoons. When the deployment order came, the battalion hastily augmented its meager equipment roster with heavier equipment from the regiment.

Rumors of a warm-weather destination — fed by the yellow fever inoculations the men received before sailing— were quashed when the ships turned north out of New York and, six days later, steamed into Argentia Bay, Newfoundland. Aboard Mimargo, the officers of the 3rd were finally briefed on the operation by their battalion commander, Major Edward Walters. The 3rd’s secret mission was to build Bluie West One, the first U.S. Army airfield in Greenland.

During the spring of 1941, the War Department had wrestled with the problem of what to do about Greenland. Intelligence had already identified German agents there transmitting valuable meteorological data to Germany’s Atlantic Fleet. Two other problems worried military planners. First, the numbers of U.S. aircraft being ferried across the Atlantic under the Lend-Lease program were increasing. Additional links in the air bridge to England had to be built, and Greenland was the logical place. Second, southwest Greenland was the world’s only commercial source of cryolite, a mineral essential in the production of aluminum. Greenland had to be protected from Germany, and airfields were needed for patrol aircraft.

Greenland was a Danish colony, but in April 1940, Denmark had fallen to invading Nazi troops. On April 9, 1941, the minister of the Danish government-in-exile in Washington and U.S. Secretary of State Cordell Hull signed an agreement by which the United States would become the protector of the Northern Hemisphere’s largest island.

A month earlier, anticipating the agreement, the War Department had dispatched the South Greenland Survey Expedition aboard the U.S. Coast Guard cutter Cayuga. The expedition identified 13 possible sites for airfields, the most promising of which was at Narsarsuaq, a large glacial plain located at the head of Tunulliarfik Fiord in southwest Greenland. Aboard Mimargo, the 3rd Battalion and its support units, now known as the Greenland Defense Force, made their way up Tunulliarfik Fiord, and on July 7, 1941, the first engineer and support troops were transported to the gravel beach via the ship’s whaleboats.

Narsarsuaq— its Greenlandic name means “ the big plain”— is an expanse of glacial plain at the foot of the Kuussuup Sermia glacier. The glacier had once calved icebergs into the fiord, but it has been a “ dead” glacier for many thousands of years, its head now sitting several miles back from the shore. Located at 61 degrees north latitude (about the same as Anchorage, Alaska), Narsarsuaq is surrounded by rounded, glacier eroded mountains thrusting up to 3,600 feet, their treeless heights covered with heather and wildflowers. The only trees are along the rivers and streams. The ruins of Eric the Red’s late 10th-century homestead stand across an arm of the fiord.

Living temporarily aboard Mimargo, the engineers immediately set to work. Trucks, jeeps and heavy equipment were offloaded and, under the direct supervision of battalion executive officer Captain Gerard Forney, the engineers began laying out and grading a 5,000-foot runway. Others began erecting prefabricated wooden buildings.

Mimargo and Chateau Thieny departed in August, and the Greenland Defense Force moved into tents ashore. From that point on, the main support was provided by the 165-foot cutter Algonquin, whose armament offered a real challenge to any German U-boats trying to reach the head of the fiord.

A severe windstorm hit the camp in August. Although the winds blowing off the glacier often reached speeds of more than 100 mph, the head of the meteorological detachment estimated that gusts during the August storm reached 170 mph. Tents were blown down, and large steel fuel tanks were hurled across the plain.

By September 1941, the engineers had erected some 85 wooden buildings and Narsarsuaq began to look like the major construction site it was. In September civilian contractors from a New Orleans dredging company arrived to build a wharf. With the deployment to Narsarsuaq of an additional engineering company, military strength was brought to 665 officers and men.

Despite the backbreaking work six days a week, clouds of midges and mosquitoes, outbreaks of scurvy, a singular lack of diversions, and harsh working and living conditions, there were few disciplinary problems. Many of the troops of the 3rd Battalion were from southwestern Pennsylvania. They were professional soldiers and used to the hardships of the coal fields and the Depression. The Danes had insisted on a ban on all contact between American forces and Greenlanders, but there were so few Greenlanders in the area that the restriction hardly mattered. For the most part, the men worked, ate and slept.

As winter approached, daylight at Narsarsuaq dwindled to only three or four hours a day, and after dark work on the runway continued under floodlights. Boulders were moved or dynamited, the rocky terrain was graded, drainage culverts were built, and the nearly mile-long runway’s dirt surface was overlaid with pierced steel plank (PSP). As far as anyone knows, it was the first operational use of PSP.

Bluie West One was finally declared open in January 1942. The airfield immediately became an important link in the Atlantic air bridge.

The War Department had recognized as early as mid-1940 that increased reliance on air power required some sort of reorganization on the part of the Army’s Corps of Engineers. Engineer aviation regiments (of which the 21st was the first designated) had been tried, but they weren’t the solution. Based on the experience in Greenland, the Army decided to organize a number of self-contained engineer aviation battalions, and on April 20, 1942, the 3/21st Engineer Aviation Regiment was redesignated the 825th Engineer Aviation Battalion. More than 50 such battalions eventually were fielded during World War II.

In early June 1942, when the ice had broken up in the fiord, the transport ship USS Dorchester arrived to take the 825th Engineer Aviation Battalion back to the United States, where it briefly rested and refitted before deploying to England in August.


Originally published in the August 2004 issue of World War II. To subscribe, click here.