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When the Pentagon Dug Secret Cold War Ice Tunnels to Hide Nukes

March 27, 2019 in History

By Eric Niiler

The project, dubbed “Project Iceworm,” sounds like a setting for a James Bond spy movie—except it was real and the remains present a toxic mess

On a clear, cold day in May 1959, two U.S. Army officers clad in polar gear gazed through their aviator sunglasses at the endless white horizon before them. Standing heroically in front of Arctic personnel carriers, Col. John Kerkering and Capt. Thomas Evans took measurements for a new military installation to be buried beneath Greenland’s ice cap. They called it “Camp Century.”

The proposed facility in northwestern Greenland was publicly touted as a “nuclear-powered Arctic research center” nestled in a wilderness of ice and snow. But the real reason for this Cold War base was to build and maintain a secret network of tunnels and missile silos connected by rail cars known as “Operation Iceworm.”

Photo of PM-2A Nuclear Power Plant.

It was the tense days of the Cold War when a rivalry between the nuclear powers of United States and the Soviet Union had military leaders constantly scheming new ways to outfox the other side. Pentagon planners thought that by shuttling 600 nuclear-tipped “Iceman” missiles (a new moniker for the existing Minuteman) back and forth between 2,100 silos, they could keep their counterparts in the Soviet Union guessing. Imagine a potentially deadly game of atomic “whack-a-mole” spread out across 52,000 square miles of northern Greenland.

“We needed a flat surface, a level with less than one degree of slope,” Evans says in a voiceover of a U.S. Army film, released in 1960, documenting the scout mission for the site. “This would minimize construction problems by enabling us to keep all of our tunnels on the same level.”

Once the location was settled, hundreds of military engineers and technicians trekked 150 miles from the existing Thule Air Base along Greenland’s northwest coast to the Camp Century site. From 1959 to 1961, they dug hundreds of feet into the compacted snow, fashioning an underground city with a sleeping quarters, laboratories, offices, a barber shop, laundry, library and warm showers for 200 soldiers.

The American public didn’t know about Project Iceworm until a Danish Parliament investigation published documents about the secret project in 1997, but they did know about Camp Century. Television crews and journalists from National Geographic and the New York Times visited as the camp took shape. So, too, were an unlikely pair of Boy Scouts, one …read more


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