Late last night I got a phone call from a friend stationed at Minot Air Force Base in North Dakota. He told me that since early morning, the snow had been coming down steadily. It was nearly waist high and still falling. The temperature was dropping quickly and already well below zero. The wind was nearing gale force. He said that, for the past two hours, his wife had done nothing but stare through the kitchen window and if the weather got much worse, he feared he would have to let her back inside.
The recent arctic blast, caused by a giant polar vortex (sounds like a menacing phenomenon from Star Trek), had most of the lower 48 states reeling for a couple of days. It was terribly cold here in western Pennsylvania – the kind of chill that freezes the little hairs in the nostrils when one inhales. Such weather makes for great jokes, interesting coffee talk and countless headlines.
Those in the military have a special dread of the cold. It has a unique way of making rigorous duties even tougher. National defense doesn’t get a two-hour weather delay. While civilians hunker down, waiting for the temperature to rise, many men and women in uniform are out in the elements doing their jobs.
Minot (pronounced “my not”) was mentioned at the top of this article. Among military personnel, Minot is legendary for its harsh winters – worse than any other U.S. military installation. Airmen shudder at the thought of being stationed there. It’s not uncommon for an airman to exclaim, “Anywhere but Minot!” The rationale behind such exclamations is simple. Freezin’ is the reason.
Extreme cold can be the most dangerous enemy on the battlefield. Many American GIs learned this during the Korean War. I spent a lot of time working in cold weather during my 24-year Army career. Even today, just thinking about some of my winter training experiences in places like Goose Bay, Labrador, Bergen-Hohne, Germany, and Fort Sill, Okla., can still send shivers up my spine.
The recent cold snap brought back memories of my glory days in the Army’s 10th Mountain Division at Fort Drum, N.Y., in the early 1990s. The winters there were the most memorable of my military career. Fort
Drum was part of upstate’s infamous frozen triangle, which also included the Air Force bases in Rome and Plattsburgh.
Anyone who served at one of these locations has cold weather tales to share.
Winter duty was tough for 10th Mountain troopers, but I have to admit that the airmen stationed in the frozen triangle had it tough, too. Just try refueling an airplane or performing maintenance outdoors on a flight line when it’s 30 below zero and the wind is howling. Definitely not fun!
Fort Drum is situated near the eastern shore of Lake Ontario. It was not uncommon to go a week or more with the temperature never topping zero. When it got that cold, we had to set up special watches in the motor pools where we parked our vehicles and heavy equipment.
Those standing watch would idle each vehicle’s engine for 10-15 minutes every hour. They would also shovel snow from between the parked vehicles and brush it away from the vehicles’ sagging canvas tops. It was miserable but necessary work.
The 10th Mountain was a rapid deployment division and had to be ready to begin movement within 24 hours after notification.
It was a light infantry division, so we didn’t have a lot of luxuries. The division had no cots. We slept on the ground on thin, hard, insulated foam pads. There were no heaters in the sleeping tents. Everyone in the division, including the commanding general, slept in the cold.
Everything is harder when it’s cold. Physical training during the winter was always challenging for the division, but was rarely canceled. The soldiers were issued excellent cold-weather clothing. It was normal to see a unit outside running in formation at 20 below, bundled up like Eskimos.
Even the simplest tasks are more difficult in the cold – tying one’s boots, cleaning a weapon, refueling a generator or checking the fluid levels on a vehicle. As the temperature decreases, a soldier’s misery factor increases.
For soldiers living in winter field conditions, hot coffee and soup are highly cherished commodities – liquid gold. In the 10th Mountain Division, hot beverages were packed and transported in rugged, heavily insulated mermite containers. When properly sealed, the containers would keep their contents hot for hours. Pity the soldier caught failing to properly reseal a container lid after serving himself. In cold weather, carelessly letting the coffee or soup get cold was a crime akin to aiding and abetting the enemy.
Since retiring from the Army over a decade ago, I’ve not spent a single night sleeping or working in the cold. I can’t go to bed on a cold night without thinking about the men and women serving their country today. Many of them won’t have a warm bed to sleep in tonight. They’re stationed in cold places like the mountains of Afghanistan, Korea, Kosovo and other harsh locations. Most of them would rather be warm and at home, but they know their mission comes first.
When you crawl into your warm bed tonight, please don’t forget to whisper a prayer for them.
Zachary Hubbard, formerly of Johnstown, is a freelance writer and retired Army officer residing in the Greater Pittsburgh area.