Death Survey (120-02)

Joe B.

Pearland, Texas (interviewed at ELC -- Survey Date: October 14, 2001 )

Was there ever a time….

It was the year 1956. The event took place on a little island in the Bering sea, a little island called St. Lawrence Island. It is a little island and was about 10 miles by about 100 miles, something like that. It had one mountain on it. Our facility was at the east end of the island across from Nome Alaska, and on the other end of the island was across from Russia, and I don't remember the town. There was an air base on the other end of the island. We were at an radar site where we had an intelligence group that was to monitor where the Russian air traffic was.

This event take place, probably in January. And we were warned that there was a storm approaching. We were always having storms up there. The wind blew constantly all the time. Cold, cold. And where we did our operations was about a mile and a half to two miles from our actually living facilities. It was a two story wood frame building. It was heated by oil heat. The commander told us that we probably wouldn't come back in that night, we'd probably stay out there. And he sent out cooks. The cooks came out and cooked us steaks. We had a real big meal. Then they went back and we were on our own. This facility went 24 hours a day. The weather gradually got worse and worse and worse and worse. And we didn't have anything out here to monitor the conditions. When the wind started hitting the building, there was glass windows...The wind was getting so strong that the wall had come loose from the top and bottom and actually bowed in. The glass was starting to go too.

Everybody started looking for whatever they could put on because, the heat had gone now. The inside of the building started to look like the inside of your freezer. Everything started to getting white. We did, we looked for whatever we could put on to keep warm. We huddled together. The fear that I had, was that if this building went, we're going to get blown out to sea somewhere. I mean, this place is flat. You could see for miles, except for one mountain over to the left of us… went like that for... about, 15, 16 hours, finally it slacked off, but my thoughts at the time were, the fear of being blown away and no one ever finding you again... probably get covered up…they knew the direction the wind was blowing, but not how far we were.

I was in the Air force intelligence, I was 22, not married. We had an intelligence group out there, that consisted of four of us, I was the lead. Me and one other guy were out there, plus we had radio operators out there.

I wondered if I was ever going to see anybody again.

The building held. I think probably because some of the windows went and the walls became lose from the ceiling. I guess that "give" is what really saved it. Had it been too ridged, it would have blown everything away. Outside where the wind was blowing, started to build up a big wall of ice and snow. After it was over, we had to dig our way out. After it was over, they sent over a guy with a snow cat. It had tank treads on it. It was a wild time. Everybody was very happy. We heard later the winds had gotten up to 125 mph. When the storm hit, it was already 30 below zero, so I don't know how cold it got with that wind blowing. The clothes you wear out there, the boots, they call them bunny boots, they're probably guaranteed for 30-45 below zero. We were feeling it on our feet. And that was inside so you can imagine what it would have been like outside.

St. Lawrence Island is north of the Aleutians, right across from Nome, Alaska. Our whole facility out there, the living part, was all connected by enclosed tunnels, so you never had to go outside, except to work, the operations. That was done by big Army trucks. There were probably 100 people there, but we had our own room, it was like a hotel, I mean they made it plush. Of our four, two of us were out there, the intelligence part. The other part were the radio operators, there were a number of those out there. In the winter time, the operations building was probably, the living area was probably 20 tall, and in the winter it was trouble. In the summer, what we can call summer, you'd walk out of a building and step down to the ground. In the winter, we dug steps up to get to the surface. In fact, in my room, I opened the window and dug it out to have a refrigerator.

The thought occurred to a lot of people, would they ever find us. There's not only the threat of cold, but the threat of animals, you have polar bears up there, and no telling what else you could be a meal for.

The Service was four years I wouldn't trade. The tour in Alaska was 2 years, but if you went to that island, it was 1 year. Alaska was beautiful. I got to see Fairbanks, Nome on the way out to that island. Nome is way over on the west coast, the island between Russia and the Alaska, in the Bering straits, a little old pile of rubble, covered with tundra.

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