Greenland Assignment

by: Robert Boucheron

Part 2, of a 3 part glimpse into the wondrous real-life adventures of Pierre Boucheron…

Greenland

On April 8, 1941 as war engulfed Europe, the United States occupied Greenland, which was a possession of Denmark. This move was to prevent an invasion by Nazi Germany, to secure the cryolite mine at Ivigtut (cryolite was used to smelt aluminum from bauxite ore), and to protect the North Atlantic shipping route. Pierre Boucheron, my grandfather, then aged 52, was a corporate marketing executive and an officer in the United States Naval Reserve. From his notes for “The Story of a Naval Reservist,” here is an excerpt…

Most reservists could see war coming but fast, and many sought or accepted active duty. Lt. Commander [William Justice] Lee was then lining up communications personnel for call to active duty. In early 1941, Lee offers me possible assignments, starting with Communications Officer at Naval Air Station Corpus Christi, Texas. I refuse on the grounds that I am not a fully qualified communicator. Lee next offers me Assistant Naval Attaché and Communicator at Rio de Janeiro. I again refuse, this time on the grounds that I am engaged in strategic war industry as Washington contact manager for Farnsworth Television & Radio Corp. My civilian boss persuaded me to do this, and I agreed since the United States was not actually at war.

A month later, June 1941, Lee offers me a take-it-or-else-resign-your-commission assignment to head up a subarctic expedition to Greenland. German submarines are roaming the Atlantic sea lanes and sinking any and all ships that are supplying the Western Allies. My assignment is interesting in that I am to set up strategic direction finders at a point southernmost in Greenland, in order to secure cross-bearings of similar listening posts on the American continent, to intercept submarine communications in the North Atlantic.

Feverish activity for three months, while I scout around trying to find out all possible information about Greenland. I look in the files of the Navy Department, the U. S. Coast Guard (normally the watchdog of the North Atlantic on its ice patrols), the National Geographic Society’s file of published data on Greenland, and finally Admiral Byrd and his key officers on prewar Antarctic expeditions. I inherit some of that gear and later find it useless. I meet Marconi civilian engineer Griess of Chelmsford, England, who will accompany me to set up the Marconi Adcock Strategic Direction Finder.

The Greenland assignment, July 1941 to October 1942. In practice, this was my first independent naval command. A handful of men but each one an individual problem. They ranged from a 30-year service retired Chief Petty Officer, who went berserk when his liquor was suddenly cut off, to a 19-year old boy from Florida who had never seen snow. Here again, the lessons learned of leadership come to good use and practice. A naval officer on his own must ever be resourceful.

Our mother ship in a Greenland fjord is the USCG North Star. Some observations on the Coast Guard, sometimes unjustly known as the “Hooligan Navy.” Interservice jealousy and conflict. Some observations on the U. S. Army who supported and protected us thanks to a truly fine career officer, Colonel Benjamin Giles. Some observations on the Danish overseers and masters of the Greenland Eskimos. Experiences, difficulties, problems, and minor disasters of command while battling a remorseless enemy, cold and its allies wind and ice.

Pierre led fourteen men to set up a radio station on Gamatron Island. He was Lt. Commander USNR, and the Commanding Officer of the expedition. They sailed on a Coast Guard tanker from Boston on October 15, 1941. They arrived some days later at a bare, windswept island about two miles long. It was near the American base called BW-1 near Narsarq, and just west of the southern tip of Greenland. The men erected Quonset huts and antennas, built a breakwater of boulders, and installed generators and radio equipment. By March 1942, the radio station was operational.

As other commanders did, Pierre kept a log during the expedition. The log book for 1941, if it ever existed, is lost. The book for 1942 is inscribed on the cover “US Naval Radio Gamatron Official Record (Rough Log).” It includes daily entries, lists of men and equipment, a hand-drawn map of the island, a map showing how the direction finders worked by triangulation, official messages, and photographs of ships, the men and their base.

The name “Gamatron” sounds suspicious. It does not resemble Danish or Inuit names in Greenland. It looks like a combination of “gamma ray” and “electron.” “Gammatron” was the trade name for a vacuum tube made by Heintz & Kaufman in San Francisco, used in transmitters for the Dollar Steamship Company’s fleet in the Pacific. Pierre probably knew about the vacuum tube. Did he rebrand the island? If so, the name stuck, as it appears in other accounts of the period and on maps.

During and after the expedition, Pierre wrote a book titled Greenland Assignment. He revised the manuscript at least once, but two or three chapters are incomplete. In 1943, it was passed by the Department of the Navy censor. Harcourt Brace and Company rejected it on September 16, 1943. Here is an excerpt from “Chapter 5: Command.” 

My own military experience, stretching over twenty-five years on and off, is frankly not up to date. I find myself asking and suggesting instead of commanding and ordering that things be done. In civilian life, I long ago found out that more was to be gotten with sugar than with vinegar. In my executive work, I was used to dealing with highly trained, mature men of more than average intelligence. We never ordered anyone to do any given job. We proposed, we suggested, we planned and worked as a team. We frequently asked for ideas, for ways of doing a task better and quicker. As a result, we had cooperation of the highest degree.

Now the habits of a lifetime in speech and thinking are not changed overnight. When at first the men were under my command, and no longer under arbitrary discipline as passengers on our supporting ship, I unconsciously reverted to type and employed civilian tactics of direction and management. This seemed to work when we were but a few on the island, a mere dozen. It was like a camping trip or a two-week summer reserve training cruise. There was enthusiasm in landing our gear, stowing it, and building our living quarters. We all lived closely together. We ate and slept in the same hut. There was no class distinction between rank and rating. Regulation uniforms were not worn. Instead we had warm, heavy parkas and special winter clothing issued to the expedition. A visitor on official business could not tell officer from enlisted man.

It dawned on me that I had been put down by some of these men as a softie and that they were beginning to take advantage of me. Normally, I believe I am just that. Like most Latins, I run along in an easy-going manner for long periods, then suddenly flare up at an obvious wrong. At such times I am too harsh, too violent, possibly too brutal. Then comes crushing remorse. I vow to myself that henceforth, come what may, I shall never let myself reach such a crisis. 

I might have gone on in this easy-going fashion and let discipline fall where it may. I might have adopted the philosophy, as I often had when faced with life’s dilemmas, of laisser faire, of life being too short to worry. Then along came the army lieutenant and his ten men to assist us. Army discipline is more pronounced than in the Navy, even under a tough skipper. I’ve observed both situations as a civilian.

The army boys were delighted with the easier way of life on our island, that is, easier than they were accustomed to. The lieutenant soon changed all that. He told me he was surprised at the behavior of some of our Navy men. Of course, he did not know the background of these boys, and our difficulties in getting established. He compared us to his army standards. He was right, discipline was lacking, the kind of discipline he was accustomed to. But not lacking was the kind of discipline that makes for results.

The army lieutenant did not observe these reserve radiomen, mostly slight of build, who hardly knew how to hold a hammer, haul and push and pull through snow drifts, in bitter wind, the heavy timbers, corrugated roofing sections and steel girders of our Quonset huts, and erect six of them in six weeks. The lieutenant had not seen the fortitude of these “kids” and their application under severe weather conditions to back-breaking jobs usually delegated to doughty stevedores.

The instructions for Quonset huts say that ten men can erect one in six hours, or six men in ten hours. But I defy these ten supermen, for supermen they must be under normal terrain conditions, to set up such a hut in twenty hours. To start, there’s not a spot in all of our island thirty-six by sixteen feet that is flat and level. So this means a day or more of work leveling and preparing the site with heavy boulders and timbers. Second, none of the prefabricated parts seem standard or from the same mold, because of warping and breakage during transportation. They must therefore be prepared to fit into respective joints, sections and bolt holes. Third, there’s the ever-present wind to reckon with. It is no mean feat for four men to hold a twelve by four foot sheet of Masonite in a fifty-mile per hour wind without being blown clear out to sea. And if it isn’t wind, it’s snow or ice-encrusted materials to work with.

The book has more on bad weather, including blizzards, rain, fog, high winds, a “magnetic blackout,” and the aurora borealis. The men and their commander salvage a 26-foot boat, repair it, wreck it twice, go on shore leave, and get into trouble with the Greenlanders. From a Coast Guard ship, they adopt a Husky dog as their mascot. Pierre makes friends with Theodore Thane, a Danish official and telegrapher, explores Norse ruins, and describes the flora and fauna. The medieval Norse history is cribbed, but the first-hand observations are fresh. Here is another excerpt, which reads like a diary.

December 24, 1941. I have lost over twenty pounds. I now weigh 160 pounds, yet I feel well and am less winded when climbing hills. I eat three times as much as formerly, meat twice and three times a day, very wholesome food prepared by Gambino, our ship’s cook.

My beard is now one month old. My goatee has grown out all white and is quite a contrast. I do not recognize myself in the ten-cent mirror I bought at St. John’s for sixty cents. Hair seems to stop growing here, or at least it grows more slowly. The same is true for nails. This must be due to the intense cold, a sort of arrested animation.

Work is progressing but is slow. Our truck is out of commission, so we must haul, push and pull by brute human muscle every piece of heavy gear around the island to the various sites. Some of these pieces weigh as much as two tons. We skid them on rough sleds over the ice and rock and snow, which is anything but level.

WBOS, Boston short wave, comes rolling in here via the Farnsworth super radio set donated by my friend and chief of civilian life, Ed Nicholas, president of the company. I wonder if family and friends back home are hearing the same things. The air is filled with German, French and English war claims and counter-claims. I welcome the French announcements, from Vichy and from Canada, as they are spoken by experts and a ready means of keeping up my French.

December 25, 1941. Barometer 30.00, temperature 32 degrees F, most unusual as it hovered between 5 and 20 degrees for weeks. Temperature rose to 35 and a dreaded thaw. Wind is light.

At breakfast there is little comment about its being Christmas and few Christmas greetings. I announce 2 ½ hours of only the most necessary work. Everyone knocks off at 11 AM for the flag raising ceremony. Boatswain’s Mate Kaminski has finished raising a steel mast on a rocky rise southeast of headquarters. We all gather round. I give the order, and up goes our #7 ensign. The boys, 27 strong, stand at attention and salute. This is my greatest thrill since landing on the island. It is a glorious day, the most perfect we have had so far. Not too cold, a clear sky, and what there is of the sun on its small arc over the south is warming and cheerful. Our beautiful new flag reaches the top of the staff and waves in most orthodox fashion in the ever-present wind. In all my life I do not recall a prouder moment. I am proud to be an American, proud to hold a commission in the armed forces of this, my adopted country, and proud to serve it even in this awful climate.

During and after the flag-raising ceremony, I take 16-millimeter motion and still pictures for the official record. Later, in high spirits in anticipation of Christmas dinner being prepared by Gambino, the boys gambol and horseplay for the camera.

Our band is the usual conglomeration of personalities, temperaments and origins that one finds in any American group. Beginning with the Commanding Officer who is French-born, we have two of Italian descent, one Dutch, four Irish, one Pole, one Czech, two Germans, several Scandinavians, and a British subject, Mr. Griess. A word about him.

Mr. Griess is the Marconi engineer. Slight of build, he is aesthetic and cultured, with the most perfect Oxford accent. He is at once a delight and a revelation to us. By his constant good cheer and untiring energy, he has shown the way to many a job that looked impossible. His example has made a few of the boys snap out of it, boys not accustomed to hard outdoor work, boys who might not otherwise realize that we are at war, that every man must do his share for the common good.

I am glad that Mr. Griess is with us. He too is many weeks behind schedule on this project. I first met him in Washington last July. Then it looked like a simple three-month job to us, and he planned a Christmas back home in “blighty.” He has had no mail since August. He does not know when he will complete this job nor by what means he will return. But there’s never a word of complaint, or criticism of the system or the bureaucrats or the fates. To him it is all part of the business of war. Like most Britishers who have lived through the bombing of London and submarine attacks, he takes it all with philosophical resignation.

Pierre was in Greenland for a year, during which the United States entered World War II in earnest. He returned to Washington, DC to a desk job, but domestic comfort and politics palled. He asked for another assignment. The Navy sent him to Casablanca and then Paris as a liaison to the Free French Navy. He returned to civilian life in 1945 in Fort Wayne, Indiana, and he died there in 1976.

Part 3: The Captain

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