Iceland is a peaceful place: it has no army, no air force, and no navy. The closest thing the country has to a modern security force is the small coast guard that ensures the safety of Iceland’s waters and the boats that operate there. The crime rate is vanishingly small and police generally speaking don’t go about armed.
Despite the relative tranquility of the island, Iceland has long been recognized as a place of great strategic value: located midway between North America and Europe, it would be an ideal base for any nation seeking to seize control of the North Atlantic.
At the beginning of World War II, Iceland was part of a union with the Kingdom of Denmark, and was officially neutral. On April 9, 1940, however, Germany invaded Denmark, leading the British to fear that Iceland might be used as a base for U-boats to attack Allied convoys and disrupt England’s supply lifeline to the United States. By the same token, Icelandic harbors would be excellent refueling and repair bases for escort ships guarding the convoys. Just over a month after Denmark fell, the British invaded Iceland. In July 1941, the US took over garrison duty – the beginning of a 60-year American military presence.
At the end of the war, American troops left Iceland, but returned shortly after Iceland joined NATO.* The international airport at Keflavik was initially a military airfield operated by the US Air Force and US Navy. Iceland was perhaps more strategically significant during the Cold War than during WWII, because the Soviet Union’s main naval bases were in northern Russia. To reach the Atlantic, the Soviet fleets would have had to get past Iceland – something NATO would have done its best to prevent.
The air base at Keflavik served two main purposes: it was home to fighter aircraft like the US Air Force F-15 Eagle and submarine hunters like the US Navy P-3C Orion. If the Cold War had gone hot, the Orions would have conducted search-and-destroy missions against the Soviet submarine fleet, and the Eagles would have shot down Soviet bombers trying to sink NATO convoys heading to Europe. If there had been a Third World War, Iceland might easily have been ground zero for the initial battles.
One of the smaller bases supporting the fighters was a radar station in the southeast, on the Stokksnes peninsula. Originally known as H-3, it later acquired a name: Höfn Air Force Station. This is where my friend Kevin was stationed in the early 1980s, and in the early morning hours in January, we headed out for a visit.
Eagle Air is probably the #1 domestic airline in Iceland. A trip that by car would have taken us a full day (or longer, depending on road conditions) took only about 45 minutes, at a remarkably affordable price. We landed at the airport at Hornafjörður just after dawn, and spent a while chatting with the airport staff before renting a car and heading out to the former air station. On our travels that day we met some reindeer, found a few stern-looking wooden staves, and (because we are lawyers) stopped at the monument to Jón Eiríksson, eighteenth-century Iceland’s first professor of law.
Kevin back home in eastern Iceland.
It was very special seeing Kevin revisit his old haunts in Iceland, but there was one event that was incredibly touching. For years, Kevin has told me (and others) stories of “Valdi,” the base civil engineer at Höfn AFS. Valdi was, in Kevin’s retelling, larger than life: a gregarious Viking who would personally demolish buildings and rebuild them better than they were before to make sure the base had all it needed, and opened his home during the holidays to welcome the Americans guarding his country.
While we were chatting with the airport staff at Hornafjörður, we found that some of them had known Valdi before he passed away a few years back. When we got back to the airport for our return flight, the airport folk were waiting. With them were two passengers heading to Reykjavik: Valdi’s granddaughter and great-grandson. For about half an hour before the plane arrived, Kevin got to tell them stories about Valdi and how much he meant to the American airmen. It was a nice way to pass the time.
A tribute to Valdi from the airmen of H-3 can be found here.
* Iceland declared its independence from then-Axis-occupied Denmark in 1944.