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In recalling some of the “characters” with whom I served during my 30-year career (1937-67) as an officer in the regular U.S. Marine Corps, Rear Admiral Thomas B. Brittain comes to mind.
I had always thought of him as a Kentuckian, but this assumption was brought into doubt by his biography, which shows his place of birth as Annapolis, Md., home of the U. S. Naval Academy, though I did consider the possibility that his father may have been a naval officer at the time, stationed at the academy.
Research in The New York Times archives produced a news item about the death of Rear Adm. Carlo B. Brittain, who had shot himself while on duty in Cuban waters in 1920.
He had been born in Pineville, in Bell County, and his body was accompanied to the United States by his son, then Ensign Thomas B. Brittain, a 1920 graduate of the academy, for the funeral in Kentucky. So my assumption was correct in associating Adm. Thomas B. Brittain, lanky, rawboned, and outspoken, with the mountainous regions of southeastern Kentucky.
During 1951 and 1952, Brittain was Commander of Amphibious Group Two of the U. S. Atlantic Fleet, based in Norfolk, Virginia, his shortened title in naval parlance being “ComPhibGruTwo.”
As a colonel, I served as the Senior Marine Officer on his staff. He had administrative command of a squadron of attack amphibious troop transports (APAs), cargo ships (AKAs). and landing ships tank (LSTs).
He also had a planning and operations staff, which would enable him to be to take command of a naval task force activated for a specific operation.
Operation Blue Jay
Much of this historical narrative has been based upon my article “Operation Blue Jay” in a national publication, the Marine Corps Gazette of April 1954.
In the spring of 1951, in the midst of the Korean War and at the height of the Cold War, Admiral Brittain was given the challenging mission of delivering heavy equipment and supplies for the construction of a gigantic U.S. Air Force base in northwestern Greenland.
The chosen site was Thule, now called Pituffikat, on North Star Bay, 750 miles north of the Arctic Circle and just 900 miles from the North Pole. The term “ultima Thule” in medieval geographies denotes any distant place located beyond the "borders of the known world."
As Greenland was a possession of Denmark, an agreement had been signed with that country to establish there a base to accommodate bombers and tankers of the Strategic Air Command.
Such a base was intended to deter threatened Soviet air attacks on the United States over the polar region, a matter of serious concern in those days.
This operation, given the code name “Blue Jay,” required the transit through the ice, and return, in one short Arctic “summer,” of more than 50 naval and merchant cargo ships.
Included, were large Army troop ships (T-APs), which would not only transport civilian workers to the construction site but provide housing for them as well, serving in effect as “barracks ships.”
Also included were large “Delong” floating piers, towed by tugs and set up off shore, anchored to the bottom of the bay by pneumatically-controlled piles, which would enable them to be raised or lowered as needed. These would then serve as docks, to receive lighterage for unloading at the site.
Through the Arctic Ice
Long days – literally
Our flagship, USS Monrovia, with the first convoy, left Norfolk on June 5, 1951, with a planned arrival date at Thule of June 23, the earliest date that typical icing conditions would allow. However, in Davis Strait, after crossing the Arctic Circle, we became icebound, the ice being three to six feet thick.
We waited several days for the arrival of a Coast Guard icebreaker, which was finally able to break a passage through to open water.
An icebreaker requires three special traits: a strengthened hull, an ice-clearing shape, and the power to push through ice-covered waters. An icebreaker uses its great momentum and power to drive its bow up onto the ice, breaking the ice under the weight of the ship.
We resumed our voyage and arrived at our destination, North Star Bay at Thule, on July 9, 1951, a couple of weeks later than planned.
We immediately commenced unloading our ships. At that time of year the sun did not set, and it was difficult at first to become accustomed to 24 hours of daylight. All our staff stood 12-hour watches, 12 on, 12 off.
We created an “Unloading Control or Lighterage Control Center” in the flagship’s plotting room, from which the ship-to-shore movement of boats and barges was directed. This was my duty station, as the control officer of the watch.
I retained the log (or journal) of our activities, which is now in the Van Stockum Collection in the Filson Historical Society archives. It contains the report of the following incident.
One day, while I had the watch, Gen. Hoyt Vandenberg, chief of staff of the Air Force, who had come aboard to call on Admiral Brittain, stopped in to visit our control center.
He was an impressive individual. Before being appointed as leader of the U. S. Air Force, he had been director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).
The Washington Post once described him as “the most impossibly handsome man on the entire Washington scene.”
Less than three years after this visit, he died of cancer at the age of 55. Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif., is named in his honor.
Prank gone awry
Shortly after his visit, upon being relieved from watch, in jest, I had created a fictitious incoming message, intended only for my relief, purporting to have been sent by Gen. Vandenberg. This, I left in the pending basket, expecting my relief to take it as the joke intended.
However this impulsive officer identified it as an actual message and sent it immediately to the admiral.
As I recall, I had written something such as follows: “I was impressed by your lighterage operation center, but I saw only marines there. One had a name very much like mine. Where was the Navy”?
Admiral Brittain immediately initiated a response containing, “they were doing their job,” but soon recognized the hoax.
He sent for me, delivered a stern lecture on “the inviolability of Naval communications,” and dismissed me without taking any official action.
Fortunately for me he was a senior naval officer with a sense of humor. In fact, Tommy Brittain may have secretly enjoyed this prank!
The Admiral sent regular reports to the Chief of Naval Operations in Washington, imbedding such phrases as:
“Next time serve mine without ice”; “The well-named Sappa Creek [oil tanker] rammed an iceberg”; “Heaviest ice in the memory of the oldest Eskimo.”
The naval staff officers back in Washington, we were told, eagerly awaited his colorful messages.
As we neared the end of the short Arctic summer, Admiral Brittain grew increasingly restless, pacing the deck and demanding frequent reports from his aerologist.
One morning skim ice started to form in North Star Bay. That convinced the admiral, ingrained as are all naval officers are with the safety of their ships, that it was time to leave.
In my earlier days in the Marine Corps, before World War II, the Navy used to distribute booklets of Court Martial Orders, recording trials by General Courts Martial.
They occasionally contained the reports of Naval officers being tried on the career-shortening charge of “through negligence allowing a vessel of the Navy to become stranded.”
On Aug. 21, with only two cargo ships left to unload, the mission could be considered as having been accomplished. The Admiral directed the sailing of the remaining ships except for a small, rear echelon.
On the way south, we were passed by the powerful icebreaker USS Edisto, departing "downhill" with its bullhorns blaring "There is Nothing Like a Dame," from the immensely popular musical South Pacific, still running on Broadway.
Problems imposed by geography, hydrography and climate were overcome, and Operation Blue Jay had been brought to a successful conclusion within the short shipping season of Northern Greenland.
Between an arctic dawn and sunset a weather station with a modest air strip had been converted into a huge Air Force base. American ingenuity had triumphed!