SPY SHIP

When the events described here took place in 1955, I realized immediately that it was an unusual story to say the least, and that it deserved to be told. However, I was not authorized to take it public; my last reading from the Pentagon was that it was likely to remain secret for as much as five years.

So I waited five years. I waited ten. Then twenty, and thirty. Finally, after 41 years, the story did go public in Norway, in full detail. Having a keen memory of the events, as well as many notes, records, and photos, I was then able to put together a manuscript, get it reviewed by fellow participants, and finally in 2006 publish a book titled The Cold Coasts.

THE MISSION

The star of the show was the motor cutter Godønes, 85 feet long and with berths for up to 19 men. Known as a “polar vessel” or “sealer,” she was designed for expeditions lasting two or three months at a time into the Arctic pack ice to hunt polar bears and seals. Vessels of this type had sturdy wooden hulls, which tended to bounce off ice chunks that would have cut into comparable steel hulls like a can-opener.

SvGodønes

During midsummer festivities, the Godønes slipped out of the Bergen navy yard and headed north. For five days she sailed along the spectacular Norwegian coast. The accompanying photo of a globe shows the region where this mission took place.

SvLocMap

Near the northern tip of Norway, 900 miles from where she began, the Godønes rolled and tossed at anchor, buffeted by a cold wind and a choppy sea. She was ready to leave the protected coastal waters and cross the open sea, still headed north. In her parting view of mainland Norway, the Lyngen Alps stood bold and beautiful (photo courtesy of Odd Magnus Heide Hansen).

SvAlpsLyng

To this point the voyage might have seemed ordinary. Now some remarkable things took place. Electric generators and radio antennas were uncrated. The skipper was allowed for the first time to enter his own cabin, where he saw stacks of electronic equipment. He learned that the ‘scientific expedition’ for which he thought the ship had been leased was, in fact, an intelligence mission. There would be electronic sweeps of Russian coal-mining settlements in the Norwegian territory of Svalbard, and then along nearby coasts of the Soviet homeland itself. While in Svalbard, teams would be put ashore to look into the possibility of building large airfields and developing harbors to supply them.

It was impressed upon the skipper that this was a dangerous mission and that Russians might capture the ship. In such a case, the people on board should expect to end up in Siberia. The year was 1955. The Cold War was in full swing. Remarkable things like this often happened during the Cold War.

Sixty-five days after she sailed from Bergen, the Godønes limped back into the port of Tromsø, mechanically disabled and under tow. The Godønes is shown below in a shipyard for repair, and the photo at right shows the damage – bent propeller shaft, propeller blade lodged against rudder – that made the tow necessary. The distance towed was 600 miles, and it took 10 days. That works out to an average speed of 2.2 knots, or 2.5 miles per hour.

SvGrasmyr(3)    SvDamgProp 

One might wonder why I called such a serious mission a “caper.” As the word “caper” implies, the story does have some comic elements, including cases of incompetence that were reminiscent of the Keystone Cops. One such incident explains the damage to the ship. The ship got into an “argument” with a huge ice floe 200 feet wide, 7 to 8 feet thick, composed of hard, dense blue ice known by the Norwegians as “steel ice.”

Crewmembers would have avoided such a large ice floe, but one of the Norwegian military people did a stint as guest helmsman. He must have been thinking, “Let’s see what this baby can do.” We rammed the ice at full speed. The ship rode up onto the ice, sat there for a moment, and then broke through. In the resulting turmoil, the propeller stopped turning and couldn’t be started again.

THE MEN ABOARD

There were 15 men aboard: The skipper and crew totaled five. There were five other Norwegians – military intelligence officers and electronic specialists – and five Americans.

T3sv2F6Leiv Isaksen (left) and Tore Snefjellaa

Leiv Isaksen was skipper of the Godønes. An excellent seaman, he was always alert for things that might go wrong. His eyes fascinated me as they flashed from sky to sea to ship and to each of the people in view. Thanks to this alertness, he survived a hazardous career to die of natural causes at a very old age. He was famed for having performed difficult rescues at sea.

Bjarne Thorsen was the expedition leader and a lieutenant commander in the Norwegian navy. During World War II, he had been a resistance fighter and spy against the Germans in occupied Norway. He also served on the British naval frigate Nene.  After the war, he ran many intelligence operations against the Soviets.

T3sv2F7Bjarne Thorsen

Tore Snefjellaa was a full commander in the Norwegian navy, a colleague of Bjarne, and with a similar history. He was a last-minute volunteer to come along as field assistant, because he simply loved going to Svalbard.

Frank Arnesen was a lieutenant in the Norwegian Air force, trained as a radio telegrapher and Russian interpreter. He assisted me in field work ashore. We became close friends and remained so for the rest of his life.

FHArnes300Frank Arnesen

The Norwegian electronic specialists included a leading designer of electronic intelligence gear, and his assistant.

Among the Americans, Bruce Johnson was a marine geologist. We were concerned that any recommended airbase sites should be accessible by sea. Bruce studied navigation conditions and sites for ports, harbors, landing beaches to supply each of the recommended sites.

T3sv2F8
Bruce Johnson

The three Americans concerned with electronics intelligence, unfortunately, cannot be identified here. Fritz, the technician who installed our equipment and kept it running, never revealed his employer, and never presented his face to a camera. Fred and Doug, captains in the Army and Air Force, respectively, accomplished so many misdeeds in the story I have told that I don’t dare reveal their true names or their pictures.

I was the fifth of the Americans, a geologist employed by the U.S. Geological Survey. My assignment was to locate and describe sites suited for the construction of large airfields. From a study of maps and aerial photographs, I had selected eight study areas where sites might be found for runways of 10,000 feet or more.

SvJRB
Jim Burns

I hiked over all eight areas, making an engineering geologic reconnaissance, and I hauled back hundreds of pounds of soil samples for testing by the Army Corps of Engineers.

The best sites were all on raised beaches that, here and there, fringed the mountainous, glaciated interiors of the islands (a raised beach appears in the foreground of the aerial photograph shown below at left). My top-rated site was at a place called Kvadehuksletta, on the west coast of West Spitsbergen (at right).

SvTørrfl  SvKvadeh

 

 

 

THE FOLLOW-UP

The next summer, in 1956, two Norwegian brothers named Pedersen visited Svalbard and agreed that Kvadehuksletta was the best site for a large airfield. One brother was a military officer, the other an official of Scandinavian Airlines System. They proposed that SAS be permitted to build an emergency landing field there. This was negotiated with the government and various leaseholders for the next two years.

In 1958, the Soviet Union made an official protest, claiming that the landing field could be used as a military airbase. The Svalbard Treaty prohibited any military use of the land.   End of subject; silence and secrecy prevailed until 1996.

The story went public in 1996 through a series of newspaper interviews with the skipper and with Frank Arnesen.

Frank thought that the Norwegian government authorized this release for political reasons, namely to embarrass the party that had been in power in 1955 and had allowed these things to go on. If that was the motivation, Frank provided the bombshell that was needed. He claimed that explosives were aboard, set to go off if Russians approached. This would sink the ship and the secret electronics, and would leave the men to fend for themselves in icy water.

For reasons given in my book, I believe this was a false rumor cooked up by the crew, but I certainly can’t prove a negative. The issue is still being debated in the Norwegian press, about both the Godønes and other ships on similar missions later. This has led to heart-wrenching interviews with seamen, making such statements as “They played with my life, and I didn’t even know it.” And today, nobody really knows.

This posting is an updated selection from my book, The Cold Coasts (Kindle, Paperback, and Hard Cover).

ARRIVING IN STYLE: WEST GERMANY, 1955

When I left the meeting at the Pentagon in late June, 1955, I had everything I needed to proceed to Norway, where I would take part in an intelligence operation aboard a Norwegian sealing vessel, operating in Svalbard, a far northern island group belonging to Norway.  (The operation itself is described in my posting “Spy Ship” dated August 9, 2013.)

“Everything” included military travel orders, a security checklist defining procedures to follow and people to contact, a travel advance check, and a passport of the kind normally issued to tourists, not to government employees on official business.  “Everything” did not include an airline ticket to Europe.  We would be flying on the Military Air Transport Service (MATS).

I had met Bruce, a civilian contractor with the Office of Naval Intelligence.  While I would be investigating potential sites for large military airbases, he would study navigation conditions, harbors, and sites for ports or beach landings to supply these bases.

I had also met the other three Americans who would be joining us – all experts in electronic intelligence:  Fred, a captain in the Army Signal Corps; Doug, an Air Force captain; and Fritz, a civilian technician skilled at installing electronic devices and keeping them running.  Fritz never identified his employer; I suspected either the National Security Agency or the Central Intelligence Agency.  The mission of these three men would be to record signals from radars in the Russian mining settlements in Svalbard and along the nearby shores of the Soviet Union.

Once again, we had been warned of the need to maintain tight security on this mission.  If the Russians suspected our mission at all, particularly its electronic aspects, they could easily board our ship and send us all to Siberia, or worse.  We must appear at all times to be tourists.

 frankfort

The Rhein-Main airport at Frankfurt, West Germany was our point of entry into Europe.  At that time there were two terminals on opposite sides of the main runway.  The German civilian terminal handled commercial flights.  The other terminal, operated by the U.S. Air Force, handled military flights.  It was proudly labeled “Rhein-Main Airbase, Gateway to Europe.”  The five of us were to assemble in Frankfurt and travel together by train to Norway.

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As Bruce and I were waiting to board our flight at Washington National Airport, one of our project officers came by and asked me to join him on the aircraft parking apron for a confidential chat.

Word had just been received that Fred, Doug, and Fritz had a disastrous arrival in Frankfurt two days earlier.  The passports of the first two had been stamped ENTERED – U.S. AIR FORCE EUROPE, a brand that would expose their U.S. Government affiliation at every border crossing – including the crossings into Communist East Germany — and hotel check-ins for the rest of their time in Europe.  Perhaps even worse, Fritz avoided the stamp, but only by bolting from the immigration line and disappearing from the terminal.  He was now being sought by the German police.  (As I learned soon afterward, Fritz had dashed across the runway to the German civil terminal, melted into an immigration queue to get the needed entry stamp, and then slipped quickly out of the country and on up to Norway.)

After all this bad news, the project officer was pleased to announce that measures had been taken to make sure there would be no repetition of the fiasco for Bruce and me.  An agent of the Air Force Office of Special Investigations (OSI) would board our plane in Frankfurt to escort us off and make sure that our passports got the proper entry stamps by German civil authorities.

What had happened was perfectly predictable, except that nobody had thought of it.  The bosses in Washington hadn’t foreseen that a MATS flight would arrive at the military terminal, where the military stamp would be applied to all passports.

I was getting the sinking feeling that there would be no end of installments to this one continuing lesson:  Make your own travel arrangements, or beware!  After all the rigid secrecy and expense involved in mounting this expedition, we couldn’t manage to get five commercial airline tickets to Frankfurt that would have allowed our team to travel like the private citizens we were pretending to be.

And now I was further concerned that an electronic spy ship had been selected as my means of transport to Svalbard.  My own work, related to airbase construction, would not pose any imminent threat to Soviet security, but the electronics intelligence most certainly would.  If the Soviets found out what we were up to, they might take drastic measures.

Our flight to Frankfurt lasted 20 hours, including a refueling stop at Lajos airbase in the Azores.  After touching down at Rhein-Main, the aircraft taxied up to the military terminal.  As soon as the portable steps were in place, a man in civilian dress climbed to the top.  When the cabin door was opened, he stepped inside and asked for Bruce and me by name.  We came forward.  He flashed his OSI identification and asked us to follow him.  We moved quickly into the empty special lounge for VIPs (Very Important Persons).  He was curt and appeared tense.  “Give me your passports and baggage tickets.  I’ll be back in ten minutes.”

As we waited, I considered the attractive surroundings and the service being rendered, and reflected that we had “arrived in style.”  Our man returned on the dot of ten minutes.  We checked our baggage and it was all there.  We checked our passports and, yes, they had been stamped.  Stamped ENTERED – U.S. AIR FORCE EUROPE.

I voiced the obvious:  “These passports have an Air Force stamp in them.”

“That’s right.”

“But that’s just what you were here to prevent.”

“No one said anything about that.  I was told to expedite your passage through the terminal.”

We thanked him for his kind efforts and pondered our situation after he left.  It was clearly time to call Mr. Sylvester.  This code name identified us and our mission.  Bill, an Army intelligence agent in Frankfurt, answered our call.  He picked us up within the hour, and together we began a three-day process of figuring out how to resolve this latest fiasco.  Bill decided immediately that we would have to take up residence in the bachelor officers’ quarters at the airbase; any hotel in town would want to see our passports.

This unwelcome confinement was relieved by daily outings with Bill, mostly to the U.S. Consulate where we had repeated interviews and saw much shaking of heads.  We visited the basement room where documents were forged and altered, but even there the man shook his head, saying U.S. passports were too difficult to alter.  An elderly, corpulent German lady at the reception desk quizzed us daily about our evening exploits.  As we shook our heads, she shook hers too in disappointment, admonishing with a twinkle in her eye that Frankfurt was a great place to have a ball; we needed only to name our pleasures.

On one occasion, Bill took us to his office at the I. G. Farben building, the Nazi-era headquarters of the huge chemical concern, and still the largest office building in Europe.  The Allies had spared it during the wartime bombings, earmarking it as a postwar military headquarters and administration building.  In familiar Nazi style, the building dwarfed individual humans and incorporated the latest mechanical efficiencies.

 i g farben 3

One of these was the use, instead of elevators, of endless conveyor chains in constant motion.  I have read of the “Paternoster” cabs mounted on these chains, but my experience was more primitive:  no cabs, only exposed foot-perches and handholds at regular intervals along the chains.  Regular users were rather graceful on these gadgets, but I had to make a nervous leap when a perch arrived, hold on for dear life, and leap off at the desired floor.  I had a nagging fear that this technology had been adapted from the abattoir, and that there could be a meat grinder at the roof or basement level.

On the second afternoon of our stay, Al Nicol came in from a field office of the U.S. Geological Survey near Heidelberg, some 60 miles distant.  Al was an engineering geologist of wide experience, great abilities, and highly acclaimed reputation.  As previously arranged, he would stay overnight to give me an extended tutorial on geologic field procedures that could be useful in my assignment.  But first, Al’s presence with an auto gave Bruce and me our first chance to sample the Frankfurt nightlife.  So Al kindly escorted us through a night on the town that lasted till two in the morning.  In the downtown area surrounding the main railway station, the U.S. forces had commandeered all the hotels and public buildings, and among them had sprung up a string of night clubs, beer halls, snack stands, and assorted dives that catered mainly to Allied military people.  It was a throbbing Times Square atmosphere 24 hours per day.

Frankfurt hauptbahnhof(1)         Frankfurt hauptbahnhof(2)

 Next morning, my first act was to hold my head beyond the edge of the bed as I threw up on the floor.  After a failing try at breakfast, I spent the next three hours flat on my back as Al patiently delivered his tutorial.  I would frequently grunt and occasionally even ask a question to assure him that I was still conscious.  I took in and remembered a lot more of his points than I ever expected.

Shortly after Al left, Bill returned with great news.  The passport dilemma had been solved!  The consulate would issue us new passports and keep our present ones in a safe.  After the expedition, we would exchange passports again and return home on the original ones.  I admired the beauty and simplicity of the solution, and wondered how many high-powered government officials had been needed to think of it.  If it were an option at all, this solution would have seemed obvious from the start, before we wasted several days seeking other means of solving the problem.

Before the day was out, Bruce and I moved to the luxurious Frankfurter Hof hotel where Fred and Doug had been waiting for us.  The tab of 16 dollars per day was way over my per diem travel allowance, but well worth the experience for a short time.  As we stood on the roof garden surveying the city, it really did seem fair now to say that we had arrived in style.  Frankfurt, a sprawling city of perhaps 600,000 inhabitants at that time, was fast rebuilding from the war.  Nevertheless, from our rooftop we could see in nearly every block at least one burned-out building shell or cratered vacant lot.

But we still had lots more arriving to do, specifically in Norway, and there now seemed no reason for any further stay in Frankfurt.  Correction!  Doug had a reason.  Far from his wife and small children, he had named his pleasure in the person of a female roommate whom he was not anxious to leave just yet.  And Fred, the senior member of our group, always seemed most anxious to please Doug.  So we all agreed to round out the week in Frankfurt.  During the remaining days, Bruce was mostly with a flight attendant friend he had met on the MATS flight.  Doug stayed in his hotel room.  Fred and I became tourists and sightseers for real.

Frankfurt was full of fascinating sights and sounds.  Aside from the sideshows around the main railway station, the real spectacle was the German people, endlessly energetic, working long hours six days a week.  Their average personal income was about 100 dollars per month, I was told.  Thanks to a favorable exchange rate of 4 marks to the dollar, Americans could order steak dinner for about a dollar and a half.  But it was obvious that here was an economy on the rise, and that these people would soon work their way up from such low estate.

There was one untoward effect of all this energy and ambition that I found astonishing.  This was the apparently reckless abandon with which German drivers plied the roads.  Bill had introduced me to this on the autobahn, a rambunctious scene of weaving, bumper-riding, and split-second maneuvers at breathtaking speeds.  Bill pointed out that one could easily tell the maximum speed of each vehicle, for that was precisely the speed it was going.  His explanation for this was that an entire generation nearing middle age was now experiencing its first car, hence was only in the teen-age of driving maturity.  (Maybe so, but I didn’t note much change when I came back in 1960.)  The auto accident rate in mid-fifties West Germany was about four times that of the United States, and one motorcycle owner in ten did not live to make the final payment.

One week after Bruce and I landed at Rhein-Main, we gathered with Fred and Doug in the railway station before dawn to board the express to Copenhagen and Oslo.  The trip was roughly a thousand miles and would take somewhat under 30 hours.

Shortly before reaching Grossenbrode, where we would take the ferry to Denmark, we crossed a corner of East Germany with all the train’s window blinds tightly closed.  The conductor warned that peeking could cause nasty problems with the local authorities.  Our second ferry, from Denmark to Sweden, embarked from Helsingør, Shakespeare’s Elsinore.  From the ferry we saw “Hamlet’s Castle”, appearing by its style to be several centuries too young for the sweet prince, but nevertheless picturesque.  The central wharf area of the town was overshadowed by a decidedly un-picturesque ESSO sign, the largest I had ever seen.  We slept through Sweden, and arrived in Oslo the next morning.

This posting is a selection from my book, The Cold Coasts (Kindle, Paperback, and Hard Cover)