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January 21, 1968: US B-52 Nuclear Bomber Crashes in Greenland

Image: AP Photo

On Jan. 21, an American B-52 nuclear bomber on a routine patrol mission over Denmark-controlled Greenland caught fire and crashed near Thule Air Base, a U.S. Air Force base located 1,000km north of the Arctic Circle. Six of the seven crew members aboard the aircraft were able to eject safely; their cargo, on the other hand, wasn’t as lucky. The plane’s impact into the sea ice caused explosives on board to detonate and its nuclear payload of four hydrogen bombs to rupture and disperse, causing radioactive contamination in the vicinity of Thule.

The task of cleaning up the massive mess was immediately initiated by American and Danish officials. Operation Crested Ice, known informally among workers as “Dr. Freezelove,” was launched to clean up airplane wreckage as well as potentially radioactive ice and snow. The cleanup involving hundreds of personnel took nearly nine months to complete, ending in September of 1968, with a reported cost of around $9.5 million.

Of course, it wasn’t over there. Complaints stemming from the crash surfaced. Danish workers involved in Operation Crested Ice reported numerous cases of apparent radioactive-born ailments, including cancer and sterility, and sued the United States in the late 1980s. Furthermore, reports that nuclear bomb parts from the crash were missing somewhere beneath the Greenland ice appeared in the 1980s, and then again in the 2000s.

As disastrous as it was, the incident at Thule was quickly overshadowed by two subsequent January 1968 events – the capture of the American intelligence ship USS Pueblo by North Korean forces and the beginning of the Tet Offensive in Vietnam. In any other time, an even such as the crash at Thule air base may have been the news that rocked the year, but within the tumultuous context of 1968, it serves as merely an unfortunate footnote.

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