Things Fall Apart: The B-52 Bomber That Crashed In Thule


The second in a three-part series on US military accidents. Read part one here.

Five hours into its patrol, a B-52 Stratofortress bomber carrying four nuclear warheads battles to find a safe cabin temperature. At first it’s too cold, so the third pilot turns the heating on full blast. Now it’s too hot, and a cushion placed over the heating vent catches fire.

Twenty minutes later the plane crashes onto thick sea ice at 590 miles per hour, leaving a trail of fire which turns into a long black scar. The nuclear weapons aren’t armed, but the conventional missiles and the plane’s fuel explode, spreading plutonium, uranium and tritium over miles of frozen ocean, and into the waters below the ice.

crash site scar

“A long black scar.”

It’s 6 January 1968, 4.4 miles from a US Air Force (USAF) base on Greenland called Thule, where the plane had been attempting to make an emergency landing. But before it was a military base, and before it had a nuclear disaster named after it, Thule was a myth.

In the minds of the ancients, Thule was that unexplored land beyond the edge of the map in the European North-West, identified variously with Norway, Iceland, Greenland and sundry other cold places. It’s first recorded in the writings of the Roman historian Polybus (c. 140 BC), who quotes the Greek explorer Pytheus (c. 330BC) as saying that in Thule there was ‘no longer any proper land nor sea nor air, but a sort of mixture of all three the consistency of a jellyfish.’ Seneca (c. 40AD) sealed this strange reputation by calling Thule ‘the limit of the lands.’

From these times onwards Thule, or ‘Ultima Thule’, never totally left European culture. In around 1070 German historian Adam of Bremen declared that Thule had been found and renamed Iceland. In the 12th century, the bizarre echo chamber of medieval letters combined Thule with Bahrain, and for a while it had palm trees as well as ice. As the European map expanded, and travellers’ tales contracted, writers found it hard to map Thule, with its many contrary qualities, onto anywhere real at all.

But Thule finally settled onto its modern day location in 1910 when Danish explorers Knud Rasmussen and Peter Freuchen established on Greenland the Thule Trading Station, so named because it was reckoned to be the most north-westerly trading station in the world. The station, and Rasmussen’s expeditions, were important to Denmark’s sometimes tenuous claim to sovereignty over its colony of Greenland – Norway had previously co-owned the island, and as 20th century military expansion gathered pace, nearby Canada and the United States also became interested.

The Second World War allowed the US to get a foothold. Thule hosted small US military installations to guard against the Nazis using Greenland to launch attacks on Atlantic shipping vessels; the Americans promised to disband these bases as soon as international peace was secured. Nazism was defeated, but the threat of Communism provided an equally adequate justification for their continued military presence. In the early fifties the US built a huge base at Thule on land leased to them by the Danish. (A founding NATO member, Denmark was anxious to please their nuclear-armed allies.) At the height of the Cold War, the base housed over 10,000 people, and was circled by B-52 bombers twenty-four hours a day, watching from the air to see if its early warning radars were attacked by the Soviets. It was one of these bombers that crashed in 1968.


Colonialism imagines the areas it attacks as a mixture of exotic pre-modernity and empty wasteland. Thule is part of this imagination: an enticing, otherworldly myth and an inhospitable hinterland at the extreme corner of Europe. No one imagined the everyday lives of the people in Thule. This (mis)perception is alive in a US report from the time of the accident, whose dry technical tone occasionally breaks into sentimental mystification, referring to the crash zone as ‘that icy twilight world’.

Of course, for some people ‘Thule’ was not on the periphery: it was at the centre, and it was not called Thule but Uumanaq. The antecedents of the people who call it Uumanaq probably migrated to Greenland from Alaska in around 1200 AD. Many of their mummified bodies were shipped to Copenhagen for examination in the late eighties then transported back to Greenland again, where they are now on display, carefully preserved.

Not much care was shown to the live bodies of their descendants. When the accident happened, a team of Danish scientists were dispatched to Thule to collaborate on the clearing of the highly radioactive wreckage. As a contemporary USAF report about the clean-up operation of the accident notes,

The Danes did not seem to be worried about contamination of the food supply of local inhabitants, but they were interested in a joint ecological study.

They were interested in the study because it would enhance territorial claims on Greenland (not to mention winning prestigious association with American techno-scientific might).

This is a recurring theme in Polar/Arctic exploring, from the manic measuring of everything that could be measured during the early expeditions of Scott to the Canadian surveys of the Arctic during the Cold War. These studies provided information that remains useful for understanding the region, but they were always granted much needed funding for political and economic ends – the retention of territory, and any income that would come from the land and its inhabitants. It was, however, a grand ecological study:

ecological study 1

ecological study 2

ecological study 3

The study is carefully researched and designed, full of graphs, tables and beautiful photography. But its sumptuous looks and academic authority are there to smother any dissent. The epilogue leaves no doubt when it states: ‘No danger to man or animal and plant life was created by the Thule accident – that is now a well established fact.’ But the issue of the Thule disaster has come up again and again in Denmark, most notably in the form of a media storm in the mid-nineties following the release of previously classified documents. Wrangles about compensation for Danish workers employed on the clean-up operation, or local inhabitants who live off wildlife in the area, continue.

Today when USAF soldiers are posted to Thule Air Force base they receive a 34-page document entitled ‘Welcome to Thule: “The Top of The World”’. This is how the ‘history’ section of the document frames the dispossession of the Inuit from their land:

Although the Inuits were not thrilled with leaving their home, it is said that the noise and smells from the planes and ships had frightened away many of the polar bears, musk ox, seals, narwhals and fish that had previously called the area home and were essential to the Inuits cultural survival.

The detached use of ‘it is said’ lends this account the misty air of long-forgotten folklore, but the truth is vivid: even before the crash contaminated their land, the Inuit had been violently displaced – first by the Danes and then the Americans. ‘Welcome To Thule’ doesn’t mention the crash.

—Den Staf


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