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Ice camp: Under harsh conditions in northern Greenland, Navy’s builder-sailors show their stuff

Petty Officer 2nd Class Ken Lancaster, a Little Creek-based Seabee with Underwater Construction Team 1, surfaces through the emergency exit hole during an exercise in northern Greenland.

JOSH DUMKE/U.S. NAVY

By DAVE RESS | Daily Press | Published: May 2, 2021

(Tribune News Service) — The ice was 4 feet thick. The water temperature below was 28 degrees. The wind howled south from the North Pole, just 900 miles away. But the Seabee divers from Little Creek kept diving.

And the team from Naval Mobile Construction Battalion 1 that accompanied the Little Creek divers to Thule Air Force Base in northern Greenland, after setting up the divers’ ice camp, kept testing their building and engineering skills in some of the harshest conditions the Navy’s builder-sailors face.

It was so cold that Lt. j.g. Jacob Wolff and his fellow divers from Little Creek’s Underwater Construction Team 1 couldn’t stay under for more than 10 to 15 minutes at a time, despite the thick felt insulation and other layers under their baggy dry suits.

“We’d chop into the ice and when we got a foot deep, if we didn’t move a warming tent over it, it’d freeze right away,” said Petty Officer 2nd Class Ron Hutson, a member of the Little Creek team whose job is to work topside, monitor divers and manage their communications.

“We could work outside for maybe a couple of hours at a time,” he said. “You’d put on lots of layers, but after working for a bit, you’d get so warm you’d want to pull your gloves off to cool down — but then you’d cool down so fast you’d need to head into one of the warming tents.”

It was new experience for most of the Little Creek team and the Mississippi-based construction battalion. Some divers hadn’t used the dry suits, and before heading north, practiced in them, and learned how to get upright if they were turned upside-down.

The construction battalion went through cold weather training at a Marine Corps base in the Sierra Nevada, including camping in the snow with minimal equipment.

Once in Greenland, the team’s members, most of whom hadn’t worked together, would gather every morning for briefings and again in the evening to talk about what could make the work go better.

“There were lots of good ideas,” Hutson said.

The Seabees were there to make a point — that the Navy builders, whose job is to set up and repair port facilities, airfields, power and communications systems and other facilities, can do that work anywhere in the world they’re needed. These days, more than ever, that includes the high Arctic.

“We were there to show we are committed to being in the Arctic. And that Seabees can handle the most extreme conditions you can think of,” said Lt. Cmdr. Seth McGuire, commander of Underwater Construction Team 1.

Headed to Greenland, they brought along one of their heavy steel hyperbaric oxygen chambers, used to treat the blood bubbles and nitrogen accumulation that can be fatal as divers emerge from the depths.

But they didn’t need it. A key part of the mission was for the divers to get a firm sense of how long they could stay in that freezing water — sometimes to depths of 50 feet — before being tempted to head to the surface too quickly for safety, Wolff said.

“It varies for every diver,” he said.

Still, they’d usually flash the Navy’s four-fingered hand signal that means “time to go” after about 10 minutes — and even if their diving partner thought it possible to stay down a little longer, the drilled-in Navy diver discipline that you never leave a diver to be alone would kick in, Wolff said.

Unlike most Navy divers’ work under ice, when SCUBA gear suffices, the team used helmets, with oxygen supplied from the surface — along with hot water into a shroud around the helmet, to make sure air temperatures that could dip to minus 40 degrees did not freeze the pipes and regulator that fed oxygen to the divers.

That was one of the key things they needed to test, Wolff said. It worked.

And, though Wolff wasn’t sure the “wagon wheel” — a system of concentric, spoked circles carved into ice to help divers navigate — that Hutson and his fellow Seabees made would let enough light through 4 feet of ice to be useful, one of the lessons learned in Greenland was that this traditional safety backstop did its job.

The construction battalion, meanwhile, proved its ice-camp building skills — setting up a warming tents over the holes they’d chopped into the ice for the divers, as well as a heated space for divers to don the layers of dry clothing they needed when out of the water and warmed tents for equipment, said Lt. jg Morgan Jung, the detail officer-in-charge.

After setting up the ice camp, construction battalion Seabees focused on testing their metal-cutting and welding gear, as well as on working with concrete and erecting timber construction.

One big challenge was the concrete — it doesn’t cure properly in extreme cold or damp, and the Seabees learned they had to work with it in heated spaces.

Tools and equipment sometimes didn’t work as they should — it was so cold that mechanical parts could shrink and not move properly. Diesel engines needed modification to start in the extreme cold, battery life was shorter and electric components sometime froze. Heavy clothing made it hard to move, keeping focused in the extreme cold wasn’t always easy.

“I’m from northern Minnesota, so I thought I’d be used to this,” Jung said. “But it was really cold.”

dress@dailypress.com

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Members from all seven units participating in the arctic training event pose for a photo in front of Mount Dundas at Thule Air Base in Greenland on April 14, 2021.
MATT MEADE/U.S. NAVY