Air Force Leaves Greenland Base After 50 Years


It was almost like old times at the Caribou Club, like it was before the U.S. Air Force began scaling back on the way to closing "Sondy" after 50 years.

The last Americans flew in late September, ending an era at this glacial outpost near the top of the world.

But on this summer night, the Air National Guard's 109th Airlift Group was in town and the Danish team had just clinched the European soccer championship with an incredible upset of Germany. Both the party and the midnight sun burned into the wee hours.

The crowd, stacked three deep around an enormous rectangular bar, erupted in a flurry of blue-and-white flags and toasts made with 70-cent beers. A fire truck passed by outside, sirens wailing. Relentlessly, everyone belted out the Danish anthem.

Even those who didn't know the words--Greenlanders, Americans and other stray nationals passing through this self-governed Danish island--found ways to sing along.

Marked by a grinning caribou's head, the barracks-like building has been the meeting place for Americans, Danish and Greenlander support staff and scientists from around the world. They come to shoot a little pool, chat over a beer or play the one-armed bandits lined up in the mini-casino room. On Fridays and Saturdays, there was dancing and Bingo.

Since the officers' club and the 109th's less formal Raven's Roost shut down, the Caribou Club has been pretty much the only game in town.

"This is it these days," said bar manager Louise Sorenson, an Englishwoman who has been in Greenland four years. "The place fills up by 11 p.m. It's cheap, and anyway, where else are you going to go? We're like a family, stuck together, arguing and gossiping like brothers and sisters."

Not long ago, more than 100 members of the U.S. Air Force were based here in support of the Distant Early Warning radar sites scattered across the Arctic. The system was automated in the early 1980s and the personnel roster began to shrink, ultimately to fewer than a dozen names.

By 1991, satellites had displaced the radar system. The DEW Line stations, with their huge mushroom caps on stilts, now are abandoned.

Inside one, a calendar is marked off with big black X's, down to day zero. Cues are scattered on the pool table and coffee mugs on the kitchen counter, as if the game were still in progress and lunch only half over when the last skiplane out arrived.

It's an hour's flight from the desolate icecap back to the scrubby mountains at the rim of the vast island. The plane swoops through Paradise Valley, startling hulking musk oxen from their afternoon doze, and around the bend past a clan of caribou. Soon, over a mauve and gold ridge, along a silty fiord, Sondrestrom's airstrip and boxy buildings come into view.

The base was established during the darkest days of World War II, in 1941 when the German army occupied Denmark.

American officials negotiated the agreement to open air operations at Sondrestrom through the Danish ambassador in Washington. It became a crucial link to Europe and continued serving as a support base through the Gulf War.

Being stationed 33 miles inside the Arctic Circle was always tough duty, particularly because friends and family were far away. The summer months can be quite pleasant, but tours of a year or two sometimes seemed interminable in the dead of winter.

"It's dark and cold and never gets above minus-25 degrees--really desolate," said Carrol Buford, a retired colonel who was "kind of lord mayor of Sondrestrom" in 1977-78.

Rather than going home to spend the Christmas holiday with his family in Colorado Springs that year, Buford chose to stay with his troops. The close-knit group, ranks erased by holiday cheer, held church services in the tiny, corrugated chapel and gathered around the wassail bowl.

"I get sentimental thinking about it," Buford said by telephone from his home in Lompoc, Calif. "We played soccer in our mukluks and parkas, just generally stayed together and kept each other's spirits up. It was kind of special and it made the long days seem shorter."

And, ah, when springtime came!

"You could land a single-engine plane up at Paradise Valley, walk a few miles and catch salmon swimming upstream from the icecap to the ocean," Buford said. "They'd run anywhere from 6 to 10 pounds!"

A civilian field, Greenland's only international airport, has been built alongside the base. In the future, there will be only commercial traffic at Sondrestrom--or Sondy, as those who have served here call it.

U.S. air and sea operations in the Arctic will continue from Thule Air Base, about 660 miles to the north. Closing Sondrestrom will save $25 million a year.

Greenland, which won home rule from Denmark in 1979, bought the base for the equivalent of 15 cents. It plans to transform Sondrestrom into an exotic convention center and hub for adventurous travelers interested in touring the Arctic.

The transition will be slow, and perhaps painful. For 50 years, the U.S. military has underwritten much of the local economy. It built and maintained a bowling alley, racquetball court, chapel and hotel. The base PX sold everything from cheap beer to sweat shirts and Slimfast.

Arnold Lyberth, who came here from his coastal village to earn a buck, speculated about life after the Americans. "It is time for the people to claim the country," he said.

"We, the Greenlandic people, we always say, 'Make love not war.' But it's time, also, to make this place our own. As a Greenlander, I say it's great."

Lyberth, 25, was starting on a fourth rum and Coke. He lit another Prince cigarette and seemed not to notice the enormous mosquitoes--some call them the national bird--buzzing around his eyes.

He is an assistant cook at a Danish hotel on the civilian side, so his job was not at stake.

For others, though, it is a sentimental goodby.

"I have all my friends here, and now they'll be gone," said Brian Quist, 19, who moved to Sondrestrom from Nuuk, the capital, about 200 miles away.

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