Tales from Thule: A Look Inside a 72-Year-Old Journal

Two unlikely circumstances recently collided in my small world which led to the re-discovery of a 72-year-old journal. The first happening was a six-part documentary series which aired in the early fall titled “Expedition to the Edge.” It was the story of The Infinity, a 40-year-old sailing ship with a stubborn (!) German captain named Clemons Oestreich and his “rag tag group of family and friends” who signed up to sail through the Northwest Passage in 2018.

They set sail in The Marshall Islands (close to the equator) with a goal to reach Alert in Nunavut, Canada; a journey of over 6000 miles. They would sail west to east through the dangerous Northwest Passage which sits between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans.

Fighting pack ice and a closing window for getting through the Passage before they would be stuck there for the winter was a compelling story; particularly their 18-mile trek through the Bellot Strait complete with tidal surges, ice fields and dangerous currents.

The other happening was the tiniest of moments – recognizing my father’s fall birthday. I need to clarify that he, in fact, passed over 40 years ago, but it remains a few days where I turn my thoughts and memories specifically towards him.

And so, it was fateful timing to be doing that very thing when we completed watching the series. And at that moment, something just clicked and a door opened wide. I remembered something. I remembered that after all these years, I still had an old journal from my father, a journal that is now 72 years old. He was 21 when he wrote it over one summer in 1948 while participating in a program to sail from Boston to Thule, Greenland. He was selected for a summer appointment at the U.S. Weather Bureau where he would prepare, inspect and sort through supplies for a new weather station to be constructed on Ellesmere Island the following year. He would also be a handyman of sorts for any necessary building or maintenance projects.

After some digging, I found the journal in an old plastic storage bin. As I began to read, I realized that I wanted to transcribe it. Better yet, I wanted to share it. Why? The day-to-day day journal manages to capture some history in a bottle for this era and inadvertently provides a lot of interesting information. This is Part 1.

(Any content appearing in parentheses are my own additions to provide more clarity.)

Thule Crew 1948-49

Raob:                                  Robert O. Derrick Sunbury, Pa.  Eric E. Hinton Miami, Fla

Radio man:                       Stan Whiteman Watertown, Conn.

Official in Charge:          Niilo E. Koski Seattle, Wash.

Mechanics & Supply      G.B “Bud” Ward Windemere, Fla. Charles L. Havens Berkeley, Cali.

Cook:                                    “Frenchy” Paquet Barre, Vt.

(Author: Charles Vanderhoof Cleveland, OH.)

Friday, July 16

Departed from Boston July 16, 1948 at 10:20 A.M.  Waited to load two more landing craft on board ship. Weather clear and sunny; seas calm. Passed several small islands, entered ocean past last buoy about noon. Ship listing a little to port, due to heavy load. Spent afternoon sunning on stern deck. Making 12 knots. Food fairly good. Started to get chilly after supper when sun went down. Passed several fishing trawlers off Maine coast. Spent most of day going in east-northeast direction. Sea gulls following ship eating garbage.

July 17

Arose early at 6 A.M. after a cold night. Got out gray wool sweater but able to discard it after breakfast. Weather sunny, wind about 15 M.P.H. acting as a tailwind. Passed several small fishing craft, coming from Nova Scotia whose southern point we passed at 4:30 this morning. Waters full of herring. After lunch, we came upon 3 whales, small about 2 miles off starboard. Could see spouting, and once in a while, their black backs. From now on north, we should see many more. Held fire drill and abandon ship drill about two this afternoon otherwise spent afternoon sunning on fantail and playing bridge. After supper, we passed a tramp steamer going in our direction very slowly, about 5 knots. Experimented with telephoto lens, shooting it from the deck. We should reach the Newfoundland Straits about tomorrow afternoon. Averaging close to 14 knots, hope to make Thule one week from today. Getting used to Navy bunks. Wrote M.C.H last night. Just saw another whale off the stern. Movies in mess hall tonight. Thrill of a Romance, Esther Williams and Van Johnson.

The U.S.S. Wyandot: the ship used for transport to Greenland. Credit Wikipedia

July 18

Were lucky enough to sleep an extra hour this morning, until seven, it being Sunday. Ham and eggs for breakfast weren’t too bad. Weather beginning to get cool, today especially. It was cloudy and a little rain fell after dinner. All Weather Bureau personnel held a meeting in the mess hall after church at which Mr. Dyer explained further operations of the trip. I may go with him on the icebreaker Eastwind to Eureka Sound to help unload supplies. We are still lucky to have such calm weather, but it should rough up tomorrow when we go through the Belle Isle Straits. Saw a school of ten or twelve porpoises off the bow this morning. This afternoon, we began to sight the west coast of Newfoundland, and by suppertime were within 3 miles of it at one point. It certainly looks bleak and dismal, a horrible place to live the year round. Could see a village through binoculars. Hope tomorrow is nice, so we can take pictures going through the Straits, since they are only 12 or 15 miles apart. We’re getting radio news reports only, keeping us in touch with home.

July 19

It really feels like we’re in the north. The weather was foggy and cold this morning as we were well on our way through the Belle Isle Straits. We sighted our first iceberg about 11:00 about two miles off starboard. We gave it a wide berth since only one-tenth shows above water. It apparently was grounded in about 35 fathoms of water. About 100 feet high above the water level. Were able to see several small villages through the glasses on the western coast of Newfoundland. Figure the air temperature was between 45 and 50 degrees.

Contemporary map of Greenland

July 20

Another cold and gray morning accompanied by rain. However, it cleared off somewhat by afternoon, but the strong wind made it uncomfortable to stay on deck very long. We’re in the middle of the North Atlantic now and should enter the Davis Straits tomorrow evening. If we do, then icebergs should become more prevalent when we get even to the opening of the Hudson Straits. We had an excellent meal tonight, hot dogs and rolls, sauerkraut, mashed potatoes, salad, peach pie and hot tea. Had another fire drill after lunch. Weather looks now like it might clear up before tomorrow. It is very bleak and desolate now. I looked through the complete set of instructions today, and found a few things very interesting concerning the summer plans for The U.S.S Wyandot and the two icebreakers, the Edisto and the Eastwind. We slowed to eight knots part of last night, due to the possibility of running into an iceberg.

July 21

A very unusual morning. The fog was very heavy, but the sea was calm as silk. We only made about 4 knots last night because of the poor visibility and fear of hitting icebergs. We are getting way north now. It is now 10 p.m. and it is still very light. The sun just went down. Saw another school of porpoises today. Took a trip to the bridge today, and went through all the operating procedures of the ship – radar, radio etc. Otherwise a rather uninteresting day. This daylight phenomenon is certainly amazing. I stayed up until eleven and went on deck at that time. It was as light as Cleveland would be at about 7:30, and you could see the sun sinking in the west. The amazing thing is that by looking towards the opposite direction, the east, you could see the early stages of sunrise comparable in Cleveland to about 4:30 in the morning. Tomorrow will be even more noticeable. I guess we’ve seen the last darkness for about two or three weeks.

July 22

This morning was a beautiful change from the weather of the past 3 or 4 days. It was still plenty cold though – cold enough to see your breath. The sun was in a position at 7 o’clock that seemed like it should have been 10 or 10:30. We have a north wind, and a fairly choppy sea.

At 10:44 A.M. we became members of the “Royal Order of the Blue Nose” having officially crossed the Arctic Circle (app. 66.5 degrees latitude). Just at this same time, since the visibility is perfect, we could make out the glacier-capped mountains of Greenland, which, according to the navigation charts, is 48 miles distant. This apparently is one of the more rugged parts of Greenland. We sighted land again in the late afternoon, as well as three more medium-sized icebergs and a killer whale. It clouded up and rained a little about 5, then cleared up again. We just got word a big iceberg was spotted on the horizon, so out I go to take a look.

July 23

Been gone from Boston one week now. The most noticeable difference is of course in the temperature drop, although the 24 hours of daylight are certainly hard to get used to. At 10:30 last night it was as light out as it is at noon. It rained most of the day however, making it hard to see the many icebergs we passed. Spent the afternoon playing a new card game entitled “Oh Hell” – a lot of fun, similar to bridge. Held last minute conference with Bill Johnson on our duties at Thule.

July 24

An extremely cold morning, completely overcast but not raining. We should arrive at Thule sometime this afternoon. After Captain pays his respects ashore, unloading operations will begin, and continue 24 hours per day. Our main job will be to cache the supplies for the new Cape Columbia station at a spot near the airstrip in 10 stacks app. 16’ by 30’. Supplies for Resolute, Prince Patrick and Isachsen will go on to Resolute Bay (Cornwallis Island) with the Wyandot. The W. Bureau plans to work in 2 12-hour shifts. I am in the first shift. The airstrip is about 1 mile from the beach. Supplies will be unloaded by the Navy into 7 LCM’s (Landing Craft Mechanical), transported to the shore, then hauled by tractors (supplies are on sleds) to the airstrip. I hope to get ashore with the first or second boatload. (I did.)

July 25th

A very long day. After establishing a beachhead last night about eight, I stayed up until 1:00 o’clock waiting to start work, but the Navy was so slow in unloading I went to bed in my comfortable quonset hut. Should move out when the other weather men leave. Went to work at 10 a.m. and worked through till midnight. I won’t work at all today (Monday) until 6 tonight, then work twelve hours. That is the shift I was originally supposed to be on. Expected a wind last night, but it didn’t come. Most of the day was spent unloading gasoline and diesel oil and stacking them in piles. The weather is beautiful and sunny, with no rain in sight. The sun shines 24 hours a day, which is awfully hard to get used to. Took a walk to the airstrip to watch the 2nd B-17 come in. The first, a Coast Guard plane, is here for repairs. It lost a motor while on ice reconnaissance. Food isn’t bad. Have eaten at the ship as well as at the weather station. Hot meals are provided twice daily, twelve hours apart.

July 26th

Another beautiful day. Work should be well cleaned up in two or more days, then we’ll have time to look around. Hope to take a day’s hike to the icecap (24 miles.) Have been taking quite a few more pictures. The C-54 (Douglas C-54 Skymaster military plane) came in, bringing air force personnel to help unload the gasoline. Hubbard (Charles J. Hubbard, Chief of the Polar Operations Project for the United States Weather Bureau)  isn’t in yet, but I hope he doesn’t wait much longer. Most of the work is done. Last night (Monday) we had very little work to do. I hit the sack at 3 o’clock. The B-17 made its first reconnaissance yesterday, and discovered ice conditions to be pretty bad, especially up around Cape Columbia. The weather here is still perfect and I hope it stays. I moved into the main cabin, and am closer to everything now. Two Eskimos came over while we were working. I thought of trying “How do you do?” on them, but used my better judgment and didn’t. I learned from a Dane last night that Thule means the ultimate, coming from Latin. The first exploration was done about 1800, but not until 1912 was anything concrete done in settling Greenland. The Danes have been at Thule since 1932, the Americans since 1946. Denmark still has rationing – meat, butter, sugar, all clothes.

Tuesday July 27th/Wednesday July 28th

Nothing much doing. Tonight should be our last night of work, since the ship is almost completely unloaded, except for the frozen foods. We unloaded them about 3 o’clock Wednesday morning, almost filling the refrigerator.

Wednesday. Slept until noon, then did very little the rest of the day. Koski played some musical selections on his wire recorder. Then we played some checkers. Retired quite early. A fog came in from the bay and three boys who went hiking probably didn’t get any pictures. Hubbard arrived today, along with other brass. Took a few pictures. Can now operate the jeep and weasel. What fun!

M29 Weasel Equipment Photo: Tanks-encyclopedia.com

July 29th

Very foggy when I got up at 11:00 (very tired) and stayed that way ‘til afternoon. The big shots started trip to the icecap in a jeep, but got bogged down. Bud Ward and I went out in the weasel and pulled them out. They then held a little party in our mess hall, drinking Danish vodka. We didn’t get much done in the afternoon, and after supper went to a movie in the Danish barracks. We picked up Los Angeles on short wave radio. Koski played a few reels of wire recorded music. A B-17 takes off in the morning on a reconnaissance flight.

1945 Peirce 55-B Magnetic Wire Recording Machine Photo: Wikipedia

July 30th

Two weeks out of Boston. Koski and I went to ship at noon to get some small stores and our station beverage. Took 3 hours of red tape before we could get a ride back. Had a horrible fish lunch on the Wyandot. The Eastwind and the Edisto left at 1500 for points west. Ice conditions apparently will be very bad. Wyandot probably will stay until first of week at least. Fog beginning to close in again. Three of the boys leaving after a year at Thule are going to Resolute on the Wyandot to help unload supplies. We hope to visit the Thule village colony sometime soon. It’s easy going along the beach at low tide. McKlery, a Canadian, went hiking last evening, and ran into a polar bear (2000 yards) heading his way. He lit out of there pretty fast. It was the first bear seen near Thule in two years. Hope to take a Kyack ride one of these days. Koski and I made a record player tonight, finishing about 1 o’clock. He brought the parts and all we had to do was assemble them and construct a wooden cabinet. Didn’t get carpenter’s salary, however.

July 31st

A beautiful and clear day for a change. Am going to go on board the Wyandot this afternoon and turn in my foul weather gear. I can then get some from the station. The 30 Air Force personnel have finished moving their gas drums and probably will leave in a few days. Everyone will be happy when they do. It’s too much like Grand Central Station with so many people around. Washed clothes this afternoon, am well caught up now. Dicky and Bird came to dinner tonight, after which slides were shown of last year’s activities, taken by various people. Pictures of walrus skinning, etc. Bridge of the nose is one of the most delicious parts of a walrus, as well as clams from the stomach whose shells have been removed by (undecipherable) in the throat. An Eskimo delicacy. Hunting starts in late September, before the ice freezes in. A trip usually lasts 2 or 3 days, may bring in a dozen walrus. Wyandot possibly may sail on Friday. Definitely no later, possibly sooner. Milan got back from his bear hunting trip, but didn’t see it. Filled in with dirt around the reefer, making it colder.

August 1

You’d never know it was Sunday, for we started work on the extension for the bunkhouse, to house a washroom and a shower. Used the fork lift to bring lumber nearby. It was a nice day today, quite warm, although it didn’t get above 48 degrees. Most of the stuff from the Thule cache has been hauled up now, and in my spare time we’ve been loading it into the warehouse. This should be done in a week or so…

August 2

Up bright and early today, but was surprised to find it cloudy, the first such day since we’ve been here. The lack of sun made it quite cool. Went to the ship at noon, and returned my Navy clothes. Also took a shower and got very clean for a change. Picked up a movie for tonight – 12 shorts. Didn’t have time to go and work on the new building. (Explorer Donald) MacMillan arrived on the Bowdoin, but was unable to come ashore since he has been banned from Greenland by the Danish government. He visits purely on a commercial basis, and Greenland is not open to tourists. Happened to be in the jeep with my cameras, so got to go on board ship. Webster, from Montgomery Rd. was one of the crew. Met Mack (?) Rasmussen, the Danish colony manager, and he looked at all our passports. Took a hike after supper, discovered a river in a deep gorge on the way to the village. A good spot for pictures when the sun comes out. MacMillan plans to return to the states about Oct. 1st. He’s about 74, and is the one who signed my book on Eskimo language. 

End of Part I

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