Operation Frostbite, A Strategic Success

By Lieutenant E.B. Salsig, U.S. Navy

Now, at eight o’clock, the weather had begun to clear exactly as Aikens had predicted in last night’s forecast. The heavy arctic overcast was lifting, and still no protective fighters roared their defiance over this far-flung base.

“Not a chance,” Aikens muttered, and heaved a crumpled paper disgustedly at the waste basket. The mechanics could continue their frantic haste, but, like Aikens, no one need tell them their efforts were futile, not that their wait would not be long.

Even as Aikens turned away, the air-raid siren screamed its warning, and the bullhorns mounted on the operations tower announced the approach of enemy planes—carrier planes, fighters, and bombers. Resignedly Aikens slipped on his parka and headed for his battle station on a 90-mm. anti-aircraft gun.

Though the arctic base had been forewarned, it was powerless to defend itself, and it lay ice-bound and helpless under the onslaught of the enemy’s carrier-based aircraft…

Of course, this did not happen. Probably won't happen. But should it happen, the U. S. Navy is going to make sure that those carrier planes have this country's "stars" on their wings. Ours will be the planes which can fly while the others are icebound, can strike with the advantage, and can win against the double odds of enemy and weather. Operation Frostbite, just completed, is the initial step in solving the enigmas of Arctic warfare.

Though crippled and sorely handicapped by the rush to peacetime standards, the Navy embarked upon an ambitious schedule of experiments—all-important, exciting work. The end of the war left a host of weapons yet to be tested, new techniques to be developed, and even new boundaries to be protected. For Navy men there would be no Monday after-game layoff.

The experiments would range in magnitude from Operations Crossroads, the atomic bomb trials, which presaged major and drastic changes in warfare, through the experiments with rockets and jet propulsion, down to the lengthy series of trial operations in the Arctic, of which Operation Frostbite is the forerunner.

If those tests which involve the power of the atom, the rocket, jet propulsion, and radar, by their very nature appeal to a man's imagination, he will be wise to watch also the more ordinary ones which are sure to bring the immediate changes now in order. These changes will be slow—the only safe way for implements of war—and will result from immediate needs of national defense.

To the east, to the west, and to the south, the end of the war found the United States well protected, but to the north our boundaries were suddenly vulnerable. The Arctic ice caps and the vast snowbound wastelands were no longer a defense against attack—both aircraft and mobile land machines had opened the route, and principles of defense demanded immediate action. The Navy must turn attention northward and learn the secrets of subzero war, but continue to develop the fantastic world of atoms and cosmic space.

The road for scheduled experiments forked here, with research on the one hand and practical operations on the other. Both paths had to be blazed, with change, the only constant, evident at every turn. Research promised the goal: fleet operation would provide the quarterbacking to achieve that goal.

Confronted with all these factors—the defenseless Arctic wastes, the multitude of experiments to be run, and the disrupted condition of conversion to peacetime—the Navy planners tackled the problem with action. Operation frostbite, a task unit of three destroyers and the giant CVB Midway, assembled in Norfolk, Virginia, with orders to begin the probe of mysterious northern waters by the first of March.

Objectives were obvious. Could the Navy's most potent weapon, the airplane, operate in strength in the far north? What changes would be necessary in the present equipment? What were the hazards to shipboard and flying personnel? Were there going to be any strategic factors yet undiscovered?

In short, what was the straight dope?

By the end of February, the Midway and three destroyers, the Vogelgesang, Stormes, and Ware, were fit ted and ready for the month-long voyage. Special steam lines had been run to the open bridges to melt the ice which was expected to collect, gear lockers filled with a diversity of heavy cold-weather clothing, and tons of aircraft engine covers and heaters loaded. On February 23 two squadrons of Carrier Air Group 74, the bombers and the fighter bombers, were hoisted aboard from the Naval Operating Base pier, and the pilots filed up the gangway with an anxious and uncertain trend.

That evening the Air Officer, Commander “Buzz” Borries of Navy football fame, addressed the pilots in the Ready Room:

This is going to be a new business for us all. Except for a short cruise by the Ranger back in 1935 and some work by the British during the war, we haven’t much background. Nobody volunteered for this job. We were sent. But the Navy needs the dope, and we’ll get it. However, the policy will be safety first, with no unnecessary risks, which means flying only when sea and weather permit a quick rescue should someone go in.

A quick babble of relief went up from the pilots, for none held any illusions of surviving in the Arctic waters.

In the next three days a hurried shakedown of the ships and planes was conducted off the Virginia Capes. The Helldivers and Corsairs ran off tactical exercises and landing qualifications for the new pilots who had joined the squadrons only a few weeks before. This was evidence of the blight of demobilization, and the ships worked under the same difficulties, below complement and green hands to boot.

But there was an important job to do, and the first three days ran off smoothly enough with spirits and anticipation high. The group returned to Norfolk for a brief topping-off and to embark a large group of observers, pressmen, and photographers who were to make this one of the Navy’s best-publicized operations to date.

The next day, March 1, Operation Frostbite got under way for the operating area in Davis Strait, the stretch of water bordered by Labrador, Baffin Island, and Greenland. Parkas, “long-john” underwear, helmets, goggles, and face masks were issued to men on duty in exposed stations and on the flight deck. While the weather was still warm, every man took the opportunity to fit and test the unfamiliar clothing for comfort and warmth, and the ship became a machine from Mars, full of weird, bulging figures and grimly masked faces. The game was on!

Then, on the second day, we lost a plane and the pilot, and the excitement was gone like a shadow passing over and away. The effect was sobering enough, and the hard, dull facts of the job suddenly loomed ahead. On the 3 rd and on the 4 th two more planes went into the water, which had dropped in temperature as we left the Gulf Stream from a balmy 60° to a chattering 37°. Luckily, both pilots were recovered. Though the accidents gave the pilots a bad case of the jitters, they served a much more important end; that is, the exposure suits provided got a real firsthand test. And from these tests a full dozen worthwhile suggestions for improvements developed, both in the suits and in the recently invented air-sea rescue basket.

As the task group turned northward, rounding Newfoundland’s Cape Race, the weather continued good until the 6 th , and then a lively wind sprang up and a blanket of solid overcast settled, tinting the sea a disheartening gray. Flight operations were suspended for lack of visibility and inability to make a quick sea rescue in the rising swells. But this didn’t stop the helicopter.

All hands rushed topside to watch the strange spectacle of a plane taking off backwards from an aircraft carrier, and with no wind across the deck at that. Then to confound the flight crew, and especially the hard-bitten Fly-One officer, the "windmill," as it was tagged, proceeded to land from the bow. Handling the helicopter was not difficult, and proved excellent for photographic work, plus showing great possibilities in air-sea rescues.

Though the work slacked off for the pilots, the hangar crews were busy testing engine covers, heating units, and starting procedures each morning. The weather obstinately continued windy but mild, so mild that Commander Arbick of the Canadian Navy, an expert in northern operations, refused to believe the steady temperatures. With the moderate weather bringing no snow or ice with which to experiment on the flight deck, Admiral Cassady continued north past the Ice Patrol boundary as far as latitude 63-20 N.

Luck was no better there, for the temperature hovered at 17 above. A small iceberg was sighted on the 7 th , and tests for identification by radar were made. By now the first nervous edge began to dissolve as the Arctic grew familiar and even friendly, but our problems were no nearer solution, for contradictions kept popping up on every hand. The temperature sat stubbornly close to freezing, and refused to drop lower, prohibiting the tests prepared for extreme cold.

Then came a spark of hope. A terrific low-pressure area was building up off Nova Scotia. There would be foul weather, snow, and ice by the square mile in the eye of that storm. Eagerly, the Admiral laid his course southward, and to honor his icy thirst the pressmen tagged him “Blizzard Bill.”

This time Blizzard Bill struck it rich. The destroyers made heavy going of it that night, and lo and behold, in the morning we had our ice and snow. Above decks the destroyers carried long rows of icicles on the gun mounts and life lines. On the Midway the crew rolled out at 0400 to scrape and sweep the flight deck clean for the dawn launch. The wind was rising even then, on March 13, and men working in exposed spots learned that the old timers’ stories of icy Arctic winds were not idle tales. Surprisingly, the wind, though hard on the face and hands, was easy on the back, since it served as shovel and broom, blowing nearly all of the light snow right over the side and allowing no deep drifts to build up. With the help of the snowplows and mechanical brushes, what blanket there was disappeared quickly enough for the early flight.

Ice caused by spray from the high seas collected in small patches around the bow, but it was not serious enough to hamper operations or collect in quantity on the aircraft. Perhaps the temperature was a factor, for it held to an even 20° Fahrenheit, cold enough to freeze, but not the severe cold which then blanketed the land areas just to the west. The sea in the Arctic, which everywhere registers about 27°, seems to serve as a huge thermostat for the air close above the water, allowing only a few degrees difference between air and water. This is a familiar phenomenon to aerologists, but it does set your imagination to ticking.

There is the genesis for the picture of Lieutenant Aikens’ airfield rendered defenseless under the terrific inland cold. Of course, it is the ground operation which limits the use of aircraft anywhere, for once air-borne it is no matter to a plane whether Timbuctoo or Labrador lies beneath. And to destroy Aikens’ field, the carrier-based planes had flown in from the milder temperatures of the sea, where the temperature is only a minor problem.

With the cruise only half gone, we had stumbled onto a most important strategic fact—carrier aircraft would have ground operational advantage over land-based planes just because of a simple, natural phenomenon. But the phenomenon would have to be confirmed. If it were true, Operation Frostbite could be declared a success if no other experiment were made, for here was the strategic kernel, if developed and turned to use, which would win a battle—the little twist spelling victory.

The weather continued to thicken every hour as the task group pressed directly toward the heart of the storm. By early evening the destroyers sent in reports of deep 30-degree rolls, but we on the Midway could only wish them well from the still mildly pitching safety of the big carrier. On towards midnight the crash of the heavy swells began to awaken Midway men in their bunks. Following the crash would come a shudder as if the ship were shaking the water off her back like a dog fresh from a swim. In from the destroyers came reports of hair-raising 45° rolls and 55-knot winds. Even then the Midway measured a staggering 24° herself—considerable roll for such a big ship.

Shortly after 0300 the big one struck, the crash and jar coming simultaneously. It struck from the starboard bow, and smashed, like a cardboard box, the officers’ bunkroom located just under the flight deck. Fortunately no one was hurt; in fact, one of the flyers roller over and slept the rest of the night out in his twisted bunk. Later, another “big one” stove in a shutter door in the forward hangar bay, flooding the deck with icy water. With acetylene torches, steel reinforcements, and new planking the damage control party patched the hole, and by morning all was secure once more.

But here was another lesson learned—the price of sustained operations in northern latitudes, where weather is frequently violent, is reckoned in damaged equipment. The truth of this was borne out on the 16 th and 17 th when refueling from the tanker, Allagash, cost one day’s delay, several broken fuel lines, and much wrecked rigging. Yet with the storm raging in full force, the temperature remained steadily mild, substantiating earlier observations.

The transfer of a group of industrialists, the men who manufacture products used in the Navy, proceeded on the following day, and except for the thrill of their breeches buoy ride, the transfer was uneventful.

During the storm period checks continued for the best techniques for warming up and handling planes on deck, with numerous spots and respots of aircraft to replace and simulate regular flight operations. The British system of cutting down the plane complement aboard, so that servicing and handling could be accomplishes in the warmth of the hangar deck with only a short exposed period on the frigid flight deck, was tried and then discarded as an evasion of the problem. Rather than cut the fighting strength of the carrier by stripping off the planes, our Navy preferred to tackle the freezing winds and use a full complement of planes. Since men cannot carry on for long on the exposed decks, this meant a plan for rotating the crews by short-duration watches, even though it entails increasing the complement of the ship.

Surprisingly, the exposure of personnel seemed to be the only limiting factor, for once more relatively mild temperatures, the new-found friend of the carrier, held extensive cold-weather treatment on the planes down to a minimum. And in the clear weather periods, such as followed the storm of the 14 th , flight operations ceased to be difficult, merely uncomfortable.

Once the storm cleared and the sea lessened, Operation Frostbite had a real picture of cold, sparkling beauty, when the task group steamed into the Labrador ice pack. The helicopter was in the air again taking photographs of the pack, icebergs, and growlers.

Sleeves were towed by the two TBM’s taken along for that purpose, and the anti-aircraft gunners had a chance to show their skill. Though the sea had given the gun sponsons, which are built far out on either side of the Midway, a real pounding, the mounts remained in perfect alignment as the gunners that day proved by riddling the sleeves passing over.

Time was growing short for Operation Frostbite now, and though the major issues were settled, one last experiment yet remained to be run—the Navy’s tribute to the individual fighting man. It was to be an actual test of the newly developed rescue basket equipment for downed flyers. Utilizing the experience of the pilots who had been rescued in the early hours of the cruise, Commander King, a Navy physiologist, donned flight clothing and the special exposure suit and leaped into the sea. From the Midway one of the special ASR baskets was thrown to him, and in less than four minutes the destroyer Ware had him safely aboard, none the worse for his frigid dip.

But this test was conducted under ideal circumstances with a calm sea and all hands forewarned. Nevertheless, in the three different emergencies where Helldivers went in, rescue by the basket method was effected with a 17-minute average, and improvements will continue to cut this figure even more.

With the rescue of Commander King, Admiral Cassady turned south once more—homeward bound.

Compiling all the myriad facts and discoveries for official record was all there was left of Operation Frostbite. But to properly evaluate the results, an observer must detour most of the petty, yet lengthy pages of figures and details. The Mother Lode lies elsewhere. The real significance is in the field of strategy.

Granted that suggestions for improving heavy Arctic clothing and methods were many and constructive, that Navy ships could positively operate in Arctic waters—for a price—that shipboard gunnery standards were found not to suffer at all. These facts were proven without doubt. But these individual tactical problems lose their significance beside the greater lesson—that the aircraft carrier task force, the Navy’s Sunday punch, can operate in full strength in the Arctic.

More specifically, since the sea moderates the bitter cold over the water’s surface, the carrier can exploit a definite strategic advantage over land establishments. The Navy will have the offensive edge of unhampered operation over Lieutenant Aikens’ frozen, snowbound coastal bases. The phrase “might happen” is suddenly “can happen,” with merely the perfection and development of tactical problems remaining; such as the factors: how many additional men are required on carrier flight decks, what are the best methods for Arctic attack, and what training is necessary to accustom men to Arctic conditions.

The strategic trail is now blazed with the successful conclusion of Operation Frostbite, and during the projected cruises in task force strength which will follow soon, the tactical details will be settled, cooking the goose for hapless Lieutenant Aikens and his desperate comrades.

But perhaps by being prepared on every front, Lieutenant Aikens will forever be a fictitious enemy for our Navy.


LIEUTENANT SALSIG writes: “I voluntarily left California to join the class of 1944 at the Naval Academy after observing that naval officers have all the fun and long vacations to boot. Now at the ripe old age of twenty-five I find the vacations a myth, and the fun sometimes grueling—but fascinating. Put in a short tour in the gunnery department of the U.S.S. Fletcher and then to flight training. The war ended before the U.S.S. Midway or VB-74 or myself got to the combat stage, so we took next best—Operation Frostbite. Was incited to literary effort by the English Department at the ‘trade school’ and by the Navy’s evident need to become more articulate.”


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