The Thule Bomb Accident: A Series of Catastrophic Events

Thule Air Base, Greenland
Thule Air Base, Greenland. Credit: EWO

Historical Background

During the 1950s and the 1960s, The United States of America installed several military bases in Greenland.  One of those bases was Camp Century, a military base located in the northern-eastern region of Greenland. Project Iceworm was one of the many secret projects taking place in Greenland at the height of the Cold War era. Project Iceworm aimed at constructing a network of movable nuclear missile launch sites beneath the Greenland ice sheet.

Only 204 km away from Camp Century, the Air Force personnel of the United States Space Force built the Thule Air Base. The airbase was the main staging point for the construction of Camp Century in 1959.

Map of Greenland showing the locating of Thule Air Base and Camp Century
Map of Greenland showing the locating of Thule Air Base and Camp Century

Over the next few years, a series of catastrophic events would taint forever the reputation of the Thule Air Base. As always in times of war, many people died. Planes were destroyed. But perhaps most surprisingly of all, bombs were ‘accidentally’ dropped and lost in civilian areas. If they had detonated, they would have wiped out entire cities.

The Thule Air Base

The Thule Air Base is home to a few hundred Air Force personnel and the occasional family member. To visit the military complex, guests who are not family members must fly into the Qaanaaq airport, which is not open to the public.

From this base, American aircrafts equipped with nuclear weapons flew over the world, ready to drop bombs on Russia and reduce the country to ruins. This airborne alert force was under the direction of the now-defunct Strategic Air Command (SAC) of the United States Air Force.

It used to be a source of national pride for the US military. SAC bombers were about 15 minutes away from annihilating Russia for more than a decade. However, the lengthy shifts on the bombers meant that pilots and crew had to put up with a lot of stress to always keep an alert force available.

A B-47 Stratojet images -USAF)
A B-47 Stratojet images -USAF)

SAC quickly realized that flying bombers 24 hours a day would speed up its bombing plan. It happened, even if it sounds crazy. The flying branch started Chrome Dome Project in 1960. SAC bombers flew daily above the Kremlin for eight years, poised to unleash a nuclear bomb.

Some questions remained. How would the military know if a U.S. radar station was attacked or had a technical problem? How would America know if Russia attacked?

In Thule’s freezing Arctic climate, radar and radio towers routinely shut down, preventing contact.

Arctic weather makes the radar station susceptible. SAC used redundancy to avoid striking Moscow if it lost touch with Thule, which happened often.

In 1958, The US created a Ballistic Missile Early Warning System, but radar, computing, and radio transmission were new and prone to outages. It became operational in 1961.

The Thule site J BMEWS  station's detection arcs.
The Thule site J BMEWS station’s detection arcs.

SAC continued as normal. Bombers carried nuclear weapons. The air force sent a nuclear-armed bomber to regularly fly above the Thule monitoring site.

Operation Chrome Dome

Operation Chrome Dome started in 1960, was one of the global alert programs carried out by the United States Air Force during the Cold War, the program consisted of several B-52 Stratofortress strategic bombers armed with thermonuclear weapons with assigned targets in the Soviet Union, flying on schedules that would guarantee a considerable number of planes in the air, in the event of the outbreak of the Third World War.

It originally started in 1958 under the code names Head Start, Chrome Dome, Hard Head, Round Robin and Operation Giant Spear. Up to a dozen bombers flew continuously, with missions of 20 and 23 hours above the Arctic Circle and the Mediterranean Sea.

Description in 1966 of Operation Chrome Dome, related or derivative flights
Description in 1966 of Operation Chrome Dome, related or derivative flights

A B-52 would leave Sheppard Air Force Base in Texas, and fly across the United States to New England and the Atlantic Ocean. The B-52 could refuel over the Atlantic to the north, around Newfoundland. It would change course and fly northwest over Baffin Bay toward Thule Air Base, Greenland. At this point, it would fly west through Canada’s Queen Elizabeth Islands. Continue to Alaska to refuel in the Pacific Ocean, continue southeast and return to Sheppard AFB.

A Series of Catastrophic Events: Accidents, Errors and Explosions

There have been many catastrophic events relating to missing or lost bombs due to aerial or land accidents. But the following are specifically related to Operation Chrome Dome and its Air Base at Thule, Greenland.

  • Also in 1958, a nuclear weapon was accidentally detonated over South Carolina by a bomb technician aboard a B-47. The bomb’s conventional explosives caused damage to a nearby residence.
This hole 50 feet wide and 20 feet deep was made after an Air Force nuclear weapon accidentally fell from a B-47 and exploded in Florence, South Carolina, March 12, 1958.
This hole 50 feet wide and 20 feet deep was made after an Air Force nuclear weapon accidentally fell from a B-47 and exploded in Florence, South Carolina, March 12, 1958.
50 years ago a USAF B-52 carrying two Mark 39 nuclear weapons crashed into a Wayne County field. Five of the six safety features designed to prevent an explosion failed.
50 years ago a USAF B-52 carrying two Mark 39 nuclear weapons crashed into a Wayne County field. Five of the six safety features designed to prevent an explosion failed.
  • In 1964, a B-52 crashed after its vertical stabilizer broke off due to storm turbulence. Two nuclear bombs that were transported at the time were found in the middle of the wreckage. The accident occurred in Savage Mountain, Garrett County (near Frostburg, Maryland).
  • On January 17, 1966, a KC-135 tanker aircraft and a B-52 strategic bomber collided in flight in a refuelling manoeuvre. This caused the four thermonuclear bombs that the B-52 was carrying to detach and fall. The event happened in the Spanish town of Palomares, Almería.
In 1966, a B-52 bomber on a Cold War nuclear patrol exploded over Spain, releasing four hydrogen bombs.
In 1966, a B-52 bomber on a Cold War nuclear patrol exploded over Spain, releasing four hydrogen bombs.

The Thule Bomb Accident

The Thule Accident involved a US Air Force Boeing B-52 Stratofortress. The B-52’s cabin caught fire above Thule Station on January 21, 1968. The crew were forced to abandon the aircraft before they could make an emergency landing.

A B-52G, similar to the one that crashed at Thule Air Base (Source National Museum of the USAF)
A B-52G, similar to the one that crashed at Thule Air Base (Source: National Museum of the USAF)

Six of the crew escaped safely, but one member, who did not have an ejection seat, died while trying to escape from the aircraft.

The aircraft crashed on the ice near Thule Air Base in North Star Bay in the current Qaanaaq, causing the rupture of the protection measures of the four thermonuclear weapons they were transporting, which produced radioactive contamination.

A B-52 bomber crashed at Thule Air Base in 1968.
A B-52 bomber crashed at Thule Air Base in 1968.

Even though only one member of the B-52 crew perished in the Thule incident, the tragedy was far from over. Fuel and radioactive elements from the hydrogen bombs were dispersed throughout the ice cap. Plutonium and uranium were found in abundance, as well as thallium, and thorium.

 The accident caused the dispersion of powdered fragments of plutonium and other radioactive materials along a 100-meter strip on both sides of the aircraft’s impact zone.

The United States and Denmark conducted a recovery and clean-up operation (Operation Crested Ice), which lasted for several months. The effort was nearly scuttled by the frigid temperatures and fierce winds of the Arctic. Weather conditions were deteriorating rapidly, with temperatures plummeting to below -70 degrees Fahrenheit and winds soaring to more than 80mph. Despite this, the teams worked nonstop until the debris was cleared and the bomb fragments were discovered.

For nine months, more than a thousand people cleaned up Thule. They spent close to $10 million to transport more than 500,000 gallons of polluted water. The ramifications of the Thule disaster were long-lasting.

Inuit around the base worked with the U.S. Air Force to get to the B-52 crash. The sleds were the only way to get to the crash site.
Inuit around the base worked with the U.S. Air Force to get to the B-52 crash. The sledges were the only way to get to the crash site.

Danish workers who helped clean up the site are dying of cancer, despite their heroic efforts. In the face of international pressure, Crested Ice was rushed and its leadership slashed corners. Workers from the United States and Denmark were unable to handle the radioactive materials because they lacked the necessary protective gear.

Danish compensation claims were rejected in the United States in 1987. A settlement with 1,700 crew members was made in 1995 by the city of Copenhagen. This story of Crested Ice, its employees’ plight, and any leftover contamination from the United States continues to resurface in the Danish press to this day.

Operation Chrome Dome missions were suspended immediately after the incident, highlighting the security blunders and political risks of these kinds of missions. Security procedures were reviewed and a series of more stable explosives, the so-called insensitive ammunition, were developed.

SAC was disbanded in 1992 by President George H.W. Bush.

Six nuclear weapons were misplaced in 2007 after the Air Force accidentally loaded them onto the wrong aircraft. Because of this incident, SAC was reconstituted and renamed Global Strike Command because the military need a specialized command to manage its nuclear arsenal. It presently has command of the nuclear arsenal of the Air Force.

Currently, there are approximately 600 personnel serving at Thule (though the exact number is unknown), a mix of active duty personnel and contractors. They receive supplies via a ship once a year in what is called Operation Pacer Goose.

Parting Thoughts

Nuclear accidents are far more common than the public is led to believe. The vast majority are either underreported or simply covered up by governments and its full details only surfaced decades later thanks to the dedication and investigative skills of a few individuals.

Besides the loss of life, these events often cause radiation spills that sip through soil and water into the ecosystem causing major damage to the environment, as well as an array of diseases and increased rates of cancer not just in humans but in animals also.

Many casualties get simply labelled as “collateral damage”, so we forget that living and breathing individuals with families are lost to them and their loved ones.

And lastly, what often gets overlooked is the capacity for damage from such nuclear devices. All the above-mentioned cases carried several times the payloads of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The Palomares bombs alone carried 70 times more destructive power than the bombs dropped in Japan. If either of those bombs had exploded, millions of people would have died.

3 thoughts on “The Thule Bomb Accident 1968: A Series of Catastrophic Events

  1. It’s hard to believe how close can be a place of being completely destroyed with everybody on it, in just a matter of seconds in a situation like this, its terrifying

    1. It’s unbelievable how a nuclear bomb can destroy everything in a matter of seconds

  2. Really interesting facts that you have stated here. I never heard of a major catastrophic event like this to take hundreds of lives in no time. Countries like US should pay more attention when they use nuclear weapons to not repeat this history

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