The U.S. and Soviet militaries in the Cold War both understood the importance of the Arctic. Their submarines moved under it, their bombers moved over it, and both sides kept radar stations to track each other’s planes and potential missile launches. But after the U.S. figured out how to track Soviet submarines from drift stations, they wanted to know if the Soviets had figured out the same trick.
The problem was that drift stations were small bases built on floating ice islands. It’s hard to sneak onto such isolated and small installations. Luckily, drift stations are a bit dangerous. As the ice shifts on the island, it can crack and rupture. Drift station commanders had to keep firm eyes on their runways. Otherwise, the ice could crack too badly and make escape impossible.
So they had a tendency to get abandoned every once in a while, but only as they were becoming inaccessible. Well, inaccessible to the Russians, who couldn’t get personnel out of the remote areas without a runway. But America had a new trick up its sleeve in 1962 it wanted to try out.
That was the Skyhook, an ingenious but dangerous tool that allowed planes to scoop people off of the ground using a system of hooks, wires, and balloons. A famous Batman clip actually shows the concept in very exciting detail. And, Russian Station NP 9 had recently been abandoned.
An instruction comic for the Robert Fulton Skyhook.
But the mission would be dangerous. A small team would need to parachute into Arctic conditions, scrounge through the rubble of the rapidly breaking base, and then get extracted with a Skyhook before it all fell apart. This was Operation Coldfeet.
Two men were selected for the mission. Air Force Maj. James Smith was a Russian linguist with experience on American drift stations, and U.S. Navy Reserve Lt. Leonard LeSchack, an Antarctic geophysicist. LeSchack had to learn to jump out of planes, and both men had to train on the retrieval system.
But as the men trained, the target drift station was shifting further from their launch point at Thule Air Force Base, Greenland. Luckily, something even better came along.
Station NP 8 was a more modernized station, but its runway rapidly degraded and the Soviets abandoned it. America found out in March 1962 and shifted the planned operation to target NP 8.
But the operation was short on time. NP 8 wasn’t expected to last long. It was drifting quickly and would soon be crushed in the ice. And the training and the surveillance of NP 9 and then NP 8 had used up the funds allotted for the operation. So the military went shopping for partners, and the CIA was happy to help. They had their own questions about Soviet drift stations.
The insertion took place on May 28, and the two investigators got to work. They searched through piles of documents, technological equipment, and other artifacts to piece together what was happening at the drift station.
They discovered that, yes, the Soviets were tracking American subs. Worse, they were developing techniques to hunt them under the ice.
The Fulton Skyhook being used by the men of Operation Coldfeet in 1962.
Smith and LeSchack made a prioritized set of documents and items they needed to get out, and they carefully packed it into bags. Over six days and five nights, they cataloged, documented, and packed. Then they attached them to balloons, filled the balloons with helium, and sent them into the sky where the plane snagged them up.
Once they were sure the bags were safe, they sent their own balloons up and got pulled out by the plane.
The Soviets wouldn’t know for years that their secret was out.