Part of a continuing weekly series on Alaska history by local historian David Reamer. Have a question about Anchorage or Alaska history or an idea for a future article? Go to the form at the bottom of this story.
On Aug. 14, 1946, a routine 46th Strategic Photo Reconnaissance Squadron flight took off from Ladd Field, what is now Fort Wainwright, outside Fairbanks. The B-29 turned north toward the Arctic, passing over land and then sea ice as they left Alaska in their wake. Nearly 300 miles north of Point Barrow, the crew spotted something odd, what appeared to be a large and previously undocumented landmass. The discovery of a roughly 200-square-mile object shocked the pilots, their superiors, and their superiors’ superiors. The information was swiftly classified, and the seeming island became known as Target 1 or T-1. When a follow-up flight found the island had moved, the truth was revealed. T-1 was a massive iceberg, flat and floating in the Arctic Ocean currents.
In 1950, Air Force Lt. Col. Joseph O. Fletcher (1920-2008) was commander of the 58th Strategic Reconnaissance Squadron at Eielson Air Force Base. The Arctic ice islands, especially their scientific and strategic potential, captivated him. The Arctic Ocean was still largely a mystery then, and in the early days of the Cold War, a potential weak point in American defense. As such, he convinced the Air Force to initiate Project Icicle, establishing a weather and research station on an ice island. The suitable candidate, T-3, was identified in late July 1950.
Perhaps the most notable of the Arctic ice islands, T-3, was a massive chunk of ancient lake ice broken off an Ellesmere Island glacier. Shaped like a kidney and 11 miles across at its longest point, T-3 became more commonly known as Fletcher’s Ice Island. Scientists lived on the iceberg intermittently over the next two and a half decades, collecting valuable and irreplaceable data while less formally testing themselves against the frigid conditions and extreme isolation.
Fletcher was well aware that his proposal was based more on dreams and ambition than evidence. So, he and several project members tested every piece of equipment in a trial camp built on the frozen Chena River near Ladd Field. For several weeks, Fletcher and his men lived, worked, and slept on the ice, while also fending off locals curious about the odd camping trip. Though exhausting, the experiment was vital to their success on the ice island, especially as they learned heavier sleeping bags and clothing were needed.
Finally, in March 1952, a C-47 fitted with both skis and wheels made the first landing on Fletcher’s Ice Island. That far north, without landmarks, the navigators relied on the sun and stars to guide their way. In addition to the difficulty of finding and landing on a moving target, the pilots did not know the depth of the snow cover or what it might be underneath. Three times they touched down but lifted off again to escape rough ice. On the fourth attempt, they successfully landed though the skis instantly froze to the ground.
Photographer George Silk was the first person out the door, jumping into snow up to his knees. Kaare Rodahl, a Norwegian physician, physiologist, and member of the original research team, wrote of the first exposure to the island. “As we slowly opened the door to leave the plane, a biting wind hit us in the face. We judged the temperature to be below minus 60 degrees Fahrenheit ... We were greatly surprised at the depth of the snow — up to four feet in some places.”
After unloading several thousand pounds of gear, the first of many shipments, the men settled into their simple lodgings. Within a couple of months, there would be several cozy Jamesway huts, essentially insulated Quonset huts better designed for extreme cold. When the station was completed, there was a cleared runway and surprising conveniences like a washer, dryer, and electric mixer, plus entertainment from a record player. But for those first few days, they slept in simple double-walled tents and doubled sleeping bags. Their kerosene froze in the night, and they woke with frost lining their faces and bags.
The photographer, Silk, did not make it even as far as that first night. Informed that he would be trapped on the ice island for the next 30 days, he dumped out the candy and whisky in his gear bag and boarded the plane. Fletcher, however, spent the next three months on his island.
Fletcher’s Ice Island was not the only American drifting ice station. There were other research facilities but also several listening posts, sometimes as little as a shed on a smaller floe where lonely agents tried to capture Soviet transmissions. The Soviet Union had its own ice island stations, with a similar mix of research and espionage priorities.
One of the more prominent Soviet ice islands was NORTH-67, which the Soviet government claimed was solely focused on scientific studies of the Arctic. In April 1967, an American resupply airplane bound for Fletcher’s Ice Island from Alaska landed at NORTH-67. The Soviet station was then almost exactly on its flight path from Point Barrow, and the scientists on board were naturally curious. The Russians, in turn, welcomed the visitors and the brief interlude from the monotonous, austere life on the ice island. As part of the friendly celebration, the scientists exchanged gifts. The Americans offered 5 cases of beer and 20 cartons of cigarettes. The Russian hosts reciprocated with more than 50 pounds of red caviar, a case of frozen fish, and several smaller items, including some well-received instant coffee.
In 1967, Newsweek magazine described Fletcher’s Ice Island as “the biggest bargain the U.S. Navy has ever known” since it “did not cost a cent to build.” The same article also described it as “unsinkable.” While the ice would not sink, it did crack, erode, and melt. In 1954, the island was an estimated 132 to 135 feet thick at the base site. Six years later, that number was down to 114 feet. In 1960, the ice island ran aground new Wainwright and did not break free until early 1962. During this time, scientists on the ice island noted extensive melting on the surface. Drilling tests in 1964 revealed an ice thickness of 99 feet covered with two to four feet of snow.
Oversight of the ice island was eventually transferred from the Air Force to the Navy, but the mission remained the same, to learn more about the mysterious Arctic. At its peak, more than 40 scientists and engineers were stationed at Fletcher’s Ice Island, engaged in a diverse range of biological, geophysical, and meteorological studies. Some of the data collected there is still used today, functionally irreplaceable given the myriad difficulties of research so far north.
In 1974, the research station was abandoned but not before a tragedy. No doors or cabinets were locked on the island, as there was nowhere to go. On July 16, 1970, Mario Escamilla accused fellow scientist Donald Leavitt of stealing his homemade raisin wine, certainly a prized possession. The argument grew heated, and Escamilla left to retrieve a rifle. On his way back, he was stopped by station manager Bennie Lightsey. The rifle accidentally fired, killing Lightsey.
The death raised a fascinating and, heretofore, largely unexamined issue of jurisdiction. Though primarily staffed by Americans, the ice island spent most of its existence in international waters. In fact, the island was frequently closer to Canada than the United States, which led to some diplomatic friction. No one was sure whether to treat the ice island like territory, ship, or something new. In this case, the Canadian government waived any jurisdiction.
Leavitt, a longtime alcoholic, had attacked ice island coworkers with a cleaver on at least three occasions to get to their alcohol. In other words, the rifle might have been needed for self-defense. Escamilla had turned the safety off and pointed it toward Lightsey, but the rifle was defective. Escamilla was initially convicted of involuntary manslaughter but was cleared of all charges on appeal.
Over the course of its American occupation, Fletcher’s Ice Island made three large loops between the North Pole and Alaska, drifting at an average speed of about 1.2 miles a day. Americans last visited the island in 1979. By then, the iceberg had broken free of its pattern, moving east and south. In 1983, it was free of the Arctic ice pack and headed towards the Atlantic Ocean, past the eastern coast of Greenland. There, it just melted away.
Brewer, Max C. “The Soviet Drifting ice Station, NORTH-67.” Arctic 20, no. 4 (1967): 263-265.
Buck, Beaumont M. “Ice Drilling in Fletcher’s Ice Island (T-3) with a Portable Mechanical Drill.” Arctic 18, no. 1 (1965): 51-54.
Crary, A. P., R. D. Cotell, and T. F. Sexton. “Preliminary Report on Scientific Work on ‘Fletcher’s Ice Island,’ T3.” Arctic 5, no. 4 (1952): 211-223.
Murkowski, Carol. “Ice Island No Longer a Scientific Platform.” Anchorage Times, January 2, 1984, D-6.
Rodahl, Kaare. “Ice Islands in the Arctic.” Scientific American, December 1954, 40-45.
Rodahl, Kaare. North: The Nature and Drama of the Polar World. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1953.
Ruppel, C. D., A. H. Lachenbruch, D. R. Hutchinson, R. J. Munroe, and D. C. Mosher. “Heat Flow in the Western Arctic Ocean (Amerasian Basin).” Journal of Geophysical Research, Solid Earth Vol. 124, p. 1-26; 2019.
Smith, David D. “Sequential Development of Surface Morphology on Fletcher’s Ice Island, T-3.” In Proceedings of the First International Symposium on Arctic Geology Volume 2, Calgary, Canada, 1960, 896-914. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1961.
United States v. Mario Jaime Escamilla, 467 F.2d 341 (4th Circuit 1972).