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Protecting Greenland: The American Consulate at Godthab, 1940-42

During World War II, Nazi Germany invaded and occupied continental Denmark, leaving the Kingdom’s other two territories, the Faroe Islands and Greenland, exposed to a possible German invasion. The United Kingdom quickly occupied the Faroe Islands and, along with Canada, made plans to occupy parts of Greenland, which would drag the otherwise neutral island into the war. The United States, which at that point had not yet entered the war, rejected these plans and instead made Greenland a de facto protectorate and established formal diplomatic relations with the opening of a consulate.

The United States recognized that Greenland was strategically essential in that much of Europe’s weather patterns originated in the Arctic, so a meteorological station on the island would be a boon for any country fighting a war there. Furthermore, the mine at Ivittuut on the island’s southwestern shore provided the rare mineral cryolite, which was useful in the mass production of aluminum. Therefore, it was critical for the United States that Greenland was kept safe and in friendly hands in a time of all-out war in Europe.

George L. West was an American Foreign Service Officer who served from 1938 until 1962 at a variety of posts including Godthab, Stockholm, Helsinki, Frankfurt, Paris and Luxembourg. He was part of the first group of Americans to go to Greenland to establish a consulate at Godthab in 1940. He helped build the first US airbase on the island and devised a code for Greenland’s official government and military communications to use before leaving in 1942.

Please follow the links to read more about World War II, Scandinavia, or to read George L. West’s oral history.


“We had to do something about Greenland”

George L. West, U.S. Consulate Godthab (Nuuk), 1940-1942

WEST: We were not in [the war], but Denmark was occupied. Roosevelt immediately decided we had to do something about Greenland.

It was put partly on a humanitarian basis, that they were entirely dependent on Denmark for their supplies. Mr. [Adolf Augustus] Berle (seen right) was put in charge of this project. The President had pointed out, in one of his fireside radio talks, that Greenland was essentially North American, that the fauna and flora were North American, the natives were North American.

At any rate, we were rushed up there. I say, “we,” an acquaintance of mine, whom I’d also known in college, was sent up there. When they decided to send somebody up, they got a fairly senior officer, who was a bit of an elegant type. He was called in to Berle’s office to say what his plans were.

Perhaps I’m jumping too far ahead. [On April 9, 1941] The United States made an agreement with Henrik Kauffmann, who was the Danish Minister in Washington, whereby he did not recognize the authority of the German occupied power in Denmark. And he made this agreement whereby we, among many other things, took over responsibility for supplying the country.

There were other factors involved besides relief. That was recognized by the Red Cross sending a man up with us, Mr. Reddy of the Red Cross.

Let me go back. The big item there was the cryolite mines. Cryolite, people are not too familiar with it; I certainly wasn’t. It is a mineral, the only commercial deposits in the world are up in Greenland. It was mined by a government company, or quasi-government Danish company, with Danish miners. It was on a fjord.

The two principal North American customers were Penn Salt Company of Philadelphia and the Aluminum Company of Canada. The other was strictly a defense thing. One of the first things in the order was the use of Greenland, if possible, to ferry aircraft to the British, that is going from Newfoundland to Greenland to Iceland.

Otherwise you had to go by ship. Maybe I’m telescoping this a little too much. We went up on the Coast Guard. The Coast Guard had a lot of experience in Alaskan waters, as they have more recently with the Exxon experience [in Alaska]. We went up on the Coast Guard partly because they were willing and able, and the Army and Navy were arguing who should be in charge.

We were given the house of the sole doctor, Danish doctor, in Greenland. In the preliminary arrangements, Mr. Hugh Cumming, who was on the desk at the time, didn’t know whether it was furnished or not.

So I was authorized by the department (I think this is probably a unique experience) to go up to Abercrombie and Fitch and buy certain cots and things of that sort, plus all winter equipment: skis, snow shoes. I got nice cashmere underwear, nice cashmere pajamas for Penfield and myself. And such things as Coleman lamps and cots, chairs. The rest of it we did with packing cases, for the time being. I guess I’m the only one that ever had a free charge at Abercrombie and Fitch.

After we’d been there awhile, we’d had a Sears and Roebuck house shipped up, that is, all the parts, and it was constructed by a Greenland carpenter. We also had put in batteries and a wind charger.

Once, in the dead of winter when there was a hundred-mile gale, the thing broke loose, and I went out to put on the brakes. It was not far from the house. Next to it we had a little building where we had all of our batteries. There was a little space between that little house and our house.

Coming back, I got swept off my feet. This was the first winter just after my boss had left. I broke my leg. I was swept off my feet into the flagpole, a couple hundred yards, and had to crawl back to the lee of the house and get into the house. I had to cut open my boot because it was swelling so much. I got in, got on the sofa, took off my belt, wrapped it around the pillow, and sat there [sending signals by] the light to get some attention. We had no telephones.

Sure enough, the boy from the telegraph office, who came down to deliver some telegrams, saw the light.

There was no doctor in South Greenland at that time, but they took me into this little infirmary. These Greenland nurses pulled the damn thing straight on me and put me in bed with just sandbags around it and pulleys

I had to move all of my codes down there. We devised a Greenland code for use with all the Army, Navy, Air Force, ourselves, and the Greenland government, based on the Brown Code.

“There are no trees in Greenland, and there’s not much else”

At any rate, one of first things was the cryolite mine. In fact, we put in there first… I should explain that this mine was right on the edge of a fjord. In fact, the mine to some extent went under the fjord. It was the sort of thing where it wouldn’t take much to knock the edge of it off and to flood that thing, either by air or by sea.

So the Coast Guard supplied some petty officers. They made a blind guard and they had some anti-aircraft weapons and whatnot. It was just a small detachment. Then we proceeded up to Godthab.

At that time, there were two governors of Greenland: one of South Greenland, one of North Greenland. Godthab was the capitol, if you wish, (it had about four hundred people) of South Greenland.

The Governor was close to retirement. Although he had an American wife, he didn’t go all out for this. He was rather nervous. He was worried about his retirement when the Germans had won the war. So we sort of induced him to go down to New York.

The cryolite ships that used to ply between Denmark and Greenland were then put on the run to Philadelphia. The Governor of North Greenland became the officer in charge.

We did a number of things, initially. One of the biggest problems was that the Germans and the Norwegian Quislings were landing meteorological parties on the east coast of Greenland, the east coast being largely uninhabited except for a few trappers.

It seems that a lot of your weather for western Europe originates up on that icecap. It’s invaluable, from a military standpoint, to get meteorological reports from there.

So we went around to the Coast Guard, and we’d find these places and destroy them. Once we took a [German] ship, and (we were not in the war, mind you) they escorted this ship, practically towed it, into Boston harbor. The crew was arrested for entering without visas and interned for the duration of the war, although, as I say, this was still before Pearl Harbor.

One of the big projects was to find some places where we could put in some airfields (and I do mean fields). Greenland is, as you probably know, mostly ice, with a lot of rocks around the edge of the icecap.

One of my jobs was to go with a joint Army-Navy group to explore for possible sites. Well we did find one site, way up at the north. It was designated Blue Wessy [?].

But the best site in the south, which was where we wanted to be primarily, was down on the southwest coast in Tunulliafik Fjord, which was actually called by the Danes “Eric’s Fjord.”

It’s where Eric was supposed to have landed and named it Greenland because there were some willow bushes around there. There are no trees in Greenland, and there’s not much else.

There was a glacial moraine there, which, although it had a pretty good pitch, looked as if it was a possible field.

The Army engineer was a man named Gerlenski. He described the surface of it as “gravel.” Well, in the long run it proved that, although there was a little gravel on the top, you got down a bit and you had these… small boulders, which subsequently were known as “Gerlenski gravel.”

At any rate, they had an awful time getting equipment ashore. They should have put in a pier as the first thing they did. But we had ships, so many ships there you had to unload them by lighter. All kinds of ships were sent up with heavy equipment. They were stuck there sometimes for over a month just because of the tempestuous weather.

Actually, when December of ’41 came along, I was on a banana boat in that harbor, drinking a rum and cola, when we heard the news of Pearl Harbor.

I should go back and mention that we did an awful lot of travel up and down the coast, lining things up. My boss went out in the late fall of ’40 to go down to the States before the ice pack came in.

The ice pack comes around from the east to the west and then up the west coast. Godthab, for example, is inaccessible by ships for several months of the year.

So I was left there in charge. Incidentally, the Canadians had also sent a Consul and Vice Consul up there, recognizing their natural interests and the aluminum companies’ interest in it.

And so I spent the first winter there. The Canadian Vice Consul was actually a Scotsman, a marine biologist from McGill. We did quite a study of the fisheries; I did the commercial aspects of it. This was the chief support of the island during the war.

There had been a small crab cannery, but the crabs had disappeared, so we converted it to shrimp. It was with a good deal of pride that when I came back to the States I’d go into Safeway and see “Produce of Greenland.” They’d had little glass jars.

The big thing was the sale of their cod. It used to be that a lot of the cod was shipped to the Mediterranean countries.

The Portuguese, themselves, did a lot of fishing. In fact, up in North Greenland … I went aboard a Portuguese fishing… They have a big mother ship. It’s a hospital that is loaded with sardines going up, and those are used as chum to cast. They had a fleet of about 30 or 40 smaller vessels. The mother ship did all the meteorological work in the shipping.

It was quite an operation. They were still operating during the war. The reason they put in (they normally were not permitted to come in) was just to bury a man and, incidentally, to get some fresh water. They had a priest and all that. I tasted all the ports, the green ports.

So there was a great market for the cod, and particularly though, for the liver oil, not only cod liver, but halibut liver. These drew a terrific premium. They did great with them in the States. A lot of the cod went on to the West Indies, Spanish-speaking countries.

The base eventually became operative. An awful lot of planes were lost flying from Newfoundland because of the storms. We established a meteorological system, with people taking recordings every day. I used to put up a balloon every day. This was a fascinating experience.

I came down on a plane in spring of ’42, just about two years after I’d first come up — and left in very Arctic conditions. We had a hard time landing at Goose Bay because of all the snow, and them came into a sweltering Washington, D.C., where I stayed for some time.