Monday, 1 June 2020

'Operation Frothy' - The Beer That Wouldn't Die...

The village of Gambell sits right on the northern most tip of the St. Lawrence Island in the remote north west of the American continent, closer to Siberia at just 70 km away than to the Alaskan mainland coast. Gambell is officially classed as a city but a quick glance at any online mapping site shows a small town of low wooden house arranged in a grid like formation, with a few municipal building and a hotel on its fringes. Its population in 2010 was just 681 practically all of which are the indigenous Yupik Eskimo people1.

On the face of it this would not seem to be a place where one might find anything remotely interesting beer-wise, but back in 1959 it had a problem that even made it into an Irish national papers, as the story crossed over a continent and across to this side of the Atlantic.

During World War II the U.S. Air Force operated an Aircraft Control and Warning Station in Gambell, which meant providing for the considerable number of personnel that were stationed around the area. Even after the that war ended the US military maintained a presence in Gambell as The Cold War started to escalate, given its geographical closeness to the perceived enemy no doubt - a cold place to monitor an equally frosty war from indeed. When the army eventually left that area of the island in 1956 or 1957 the literally covered up any sign of their presence (including plenty of ecological nightmares) and moved to the other side of the island2, and this is where my interest was prodded...

As amongst the other things they buried were 7,000 cases of canned beer.

If this strikes you as odd on a number of levels I'm not surprised, as it certainly peaked my interest when I read the following article in a newspaper from August early 19593.

 Beer that would not lose it's "head" 
US. troops were being flown into a tiny island 50 miles off Russia's eastern coastline this week-end for their third assault on the beer that would not lose its "head." In official terms the mission to St. Lawrence Island in the Bering Sea is to destroy the remains of 7,000 cases of canned beer abandoned there when American forces moved out in 1957 
For the beer - condemned by medical officers as unfit and stacked in earth-covered pits - proved too great a temptation for local "inebriates," according to Senator E. L. Bartlett (Democrat. Alaska). 
The islanders went to work on the "beer pits" with picks and shovels. and "much vandalism" occurred, the Senator said. 
Now the local Council of Gambell village has mounted a 24-hour watch over the beer until the soldiers arrive. Nothing short of an all-out operation will destroy the beer the islanders say. 
And if army experience is anything to go by they are right. When the beer was dumped in 1957 it was covered in oil and petrol and burned and finally buried. 
It survived and a battalion the National Guard landed on the island and mangled the cans with a bulldozer for 24 hours and set them on fire once more.
This time a secret method is to be used to rid the island of the beer. and an officer of field rank will certify complete destruction the Senator said.

Ignoring the obvious typo in the headline - as I'm not one to talk - this was an intriguing article which raised a number of questions, not least of which were; Why so much beer? What was wrong with it? What exact beer was it? And what Happened next?

I decided that some research was required and although I haven't got to the bottom of all those questions I  did manage to find a little bit more about the story, including an interesting twist at the end so stick with me.

First I found an article from an American newspaper published the day before the one I referenced above that filled in a little more information4. Under the headline 'Trouble Brewed - Platoon is Ordered to go on a Beer Bust' we get a different amount of 7,000 cans quoted, which although a considerable amount is a lot less than 7,000 cases regardless of the case quantity - 24? This article also expands on the vandalism cause by the 'natives' [sic] and states that 'village council' send a letter to the local senator reaffirming that the beer mining has...
"...constituted a growing and serious menace to the health, peace and welfare of our community"
Fair enough.

Going back a little farther I found a mention on the 27th of July in a South Carolina newspaper5. under the headline 'Eskimos Have Beer Problem', stating as per my first article that it was 7,000 cases not the above 7,000 cans. The writer goes on to quote a junior senator named Gruening from Alaska who says that such a huge amount of beer would...
"... have constituted a lifetime supply and it would have required a very hearty group of men, indeed, to cope with it even over the period of the next 25 years."
He also states that the 'better element among the local Gambell Eskimos' had tried to destroy the beer themselves but lacked the manpower and equipment and then goes on to ascertain that there were probably about 70 personnel stationed on the island and it must have 'been a wrench' to leave behind 100 cases or 2,400 cans of beer each.

The writer signs off with the line:
'...Senator Gruening refuses to get me passage to Gambell Island [sic]. It seems like an interesting place to spend the summer.' 

Thankfully someone snapped off at least one picture of the operation and it appeared in Life magazine in August 19596. Here again it mentions 7,000 cases not cans so I think we are getting closer to the true figure - perhaps - and this time the stash was destroyed with TNT and the task took 2 weeks to complete, or so it reports. Interesting that one of the cans here has been clearly opened for consumption. I wonder did one of those pictured here feel the need to try one? Just to be sure that it was undrinkable of course...

Then, on September the 17th a Liverpool paper7 ran this story under the headline 'Troops Go Into Action With Tin Openers' 
A detachment of U.S. Army engineers armed with tin openers has just completed a melancholy mission on remote St. Lawrence Island off Alaska. 
The mission dubbed "Operation Frothy"—was to destroy a cache of beer burled by the U.S. Army when it left the island two years ago. 
Village elders complained that thirsty residents were digging up the beer in large enough quantities to constitute a menace to the community. They asked the army to come back to destroy the brew. 
The Alaskan Army Command reported that 19 enlisted men and two officers were flown the Island. They bulldozed a hole "one and a half times larger than an ordinary football field" to uncover the cache, which contained soft drinks and chocolate milk In addition to 2,000 tins of beer. 
"All of these were destroyed by opening the cans and pouring the contents upon the ground," the army reported. 
The army dispatch said: "It is impossible to say that 100 per cent. of this beer has been destroyed" but it added that any remaining would be "of such small quantity that It no longer represents a threat to the health or discipline of the community."
So 'Operation Frothy" involved 21 soldiers and now the opened beer cans in the picture possibly make sense, and given the size of the hole they excavated to get at the cache I think they might be underestimating the the number of beers - 2,000 - that they mention here, but when we read another version of the story in an Indianapolis newspaper8 it has two additional remarks, which throws more light on the numbers, plus it gives the exact dates of the operation.
[The] company which conducted the operation from Aug. 3 to Aug. 22 failed to locate the 7,000 cases of beer. All they could find were 1,500 to 2,000 cans of beer...
and most importantly
"Questioning of the members of the village failed to disclose the location of any other burial sites within the area."
So it appears that most of the cases of cans had 'disappeared' in the couple of years since the army had last tried to destroy them, and the huge hole they dug was a way of trying to find the rest of the cache. But it certainly sounds like some of those in the village didn't want to give up on their stash...

But what beer was it?

In Beer Cans: A Guide for the Archaeologist(1993)9 the author D. B. S. Maxwell states that during WWII at least 18,000,000 cans were produced for overseas consumption, so although our stash is later than that period it does show us just how much beer the US army bought and goes some way to explaining our stockpile of 7,000 cases. He also states that 40 different breweries produces these beers during the war and even if we reduce that dramatically post war it still probably leaves a good few possible contenders, perhaps the stash was from multiple breweries given the volume, which would make sense. Interestingly he confirms what we would imagine, that these cans were camouflaged or plain, 'olive-drab' or grey in colour and had a matt finish so as to be non reflective, with the actual brand name in black, and although I'm not sure if it's safe to assume the same packaging was used in the late fifties one would think it would be the case. The cans were flat topped and opened using a punch called a church key, which left the two holes we can see in the photograph of the operation.

If I was to hazard a guess - and that is all it is - I'd suggest it may have been Schlitz lager or maybe Blatz, as both seem to have had a connection with supply for the Korean War, it's just a pity the above photo from Life isn't a little clearer...

As to what exactly was wrong with the beer, I haven't found any other comments other than the earlier mention that it was 'condemned by medical officers as unfit' to drink, perhaps the cans had started to rust and disintegrate due to poor storage originally, or other similar issues...

But that's not the end of the story...

Just when I was beginning to think that I had exhausted my search I came across a Blog post by Bruce Bond10, and it seems that some of this tale has been partially told before and he relates in that post a discussion he had with a person called Dennis Corrington in Skagway, Alaska. Bruce told him the story of the destruction of the beer and then Dennis in turn tells him a story...

In the 1960s Dennis had been hunting on St. Lawrence with a friend, one of the indigenous people, and was asked if he'd like a beer. Dennis acquiesced and was then led down a tunnel into a beer mine, where they both enjoyed on of those long buried beers!

So, that's just about as much as I can find out, but I can't help think there is a movie that could be written around the story. Are there any screen writers out there?

I also wonder if perhaps those beers are still there now, kept safe and sound by the cold of the tundra landscape...

It is of course highly unlikely but who knows? Perhaps finding these beer mines are a right of passage, in tales passed on through the generations of local people?

After all, it seems like Operation Frosty was an abject failure...


(All written content and the research involved in publishing it here is my own unless otherwise stated and can not be reproduced elsewhere without full credit to its source and a link back to this post.)

1 Wikipedia - Gambell

3  The Sunday Independent - 2nd August 1959 via The BNA

4  The Spokane Daily Chronicle - 1st August 1959 via Google Newspapers

5  The Greenville News - 27th July 1959 via Newspapers

6  Life Magazine - 31st August 1959 via Google Books

7  Liverpool Echo - Thursday 17 September 1959 via The BNA

8  The Indianapolis Star - 13th September 1959 via Newpapers

9  Beer Cans: A Guide for the Archaeologist(1993) D. B. S. Maxwell

10  Bruce Bond via Wordpress Blog

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