Me and My Grandfather In Iceland: Pictures from 1955, 1956 and 2016
Note to the reader: This article was assembled using pictures of Iceland taken from 1955 to 1956 by Retired Lt. Colonel Robert Marker, in addition to information from his private autobiography and personal interviews with him. This article is supplemented with pictures taken by me in 2016 and from my own experiences of Iceland during that time. Lt. Colonel Marker served in the US Army from 1953 to 1974, first in the Army Infantry and later in the military intelligence field.
Iceland a Land of Change
I have been fortunate enough to live very close to my grandparents. When I was growing up I spent countless hours at their home playing games, watching TV and listening to stories from grandpa. Being in the military afforded my grandfather the opportunity to travel all over the world. While his expertise pertained to Asian countries, one of grandpa’s first overseas assignments was a year long tour of duty in Iceland — a setting I was often transported to as grandpa recounted his adventures.
In addition to being a masterful storyteller, Grandpa was also an avid (though by his recounting, amature) photographer who photographed his many trips. Only three months ago, I sat in front of his computer and jostled around his photo library looking for his Iceland pictures as he recounted his memories of a year in Iceland. Just two months ago, I finished a month in Iceland. As I, an amature photographer, traveled through the country with the stories of my grandfather still fresh in my mind, I experienced how much Iceland as a island and a nation has changed. I realized that, while still beautiful, my pictures looked different from the 60 year old pictures taken by my grandpa.
Over the course of 60 years, Iceland has experienced a rapid increase in economy and quality of life. Over the past decade, tourism has added an additional pillar to the Icelandic economy.
On 21 June 1955, First Lieutenant (1st Lt.) Robert Marker of the US Army, my grandfather, received orders for a combat team stationed at Keflavik Air Force Base in Iceland. On 14 September 1955, 1st Lt. Marker arrived in Keflavik, he served in Iceland until 9 August 1956 and was assigned to the Icelandic Defense Force until 9 September of that year, when he was reassigned to a new post.
“We could see if it’s useful for us well — It’ld be useful to them to— to occupy it.”
In 1955, US Army, Navy and Air Force, maintained an active presence at Keflavik Air Force Base as part of the Icelandic Defence Force. The base provided refueling capabilities, allowing B-29 bombers to fly from the Continental United States to Europe, but a main goal of the US military presence was to discourage a Russian-Soviet ground invasion of Iceland. Grandpa said, “We could see if it's useful for us well — It’ld be useful to them to—to occupy it.”
While our departure cities were different (changing the flight path) the modern Keflavik International Airport is located in the area that used to be part of the United States Air Force Base. Today the entry to Iceland, with views of the flat, green countryside, looks very much like it did when my grandfather arrived.
Upon landing, grandpa sent a telegram to my grandmother, Joyce. Having little money, it read only “Arrived, Bob.” In late June of this year, grandma asserted that, “he could have written ‘LOVE’!” As my grandfather would later write, “…Joyce was upset with the brevity.”
Flights carrying mail, goods, and personal, were carried out in large double-decker cargo planes (pictured above). The navy also operated submarine-hunting missions. Grandpa recalls 14-hr missions pilots would perform on 4-engine planes he fondly referred to as “two-a-turning, two-a-burnings,” (he couldn’t remember the actual name), because two engines could fail and start “burning” and pilot could continue to fly.
Today, close to the former Air Force Base, is Keflavik International Airport. With such a large number of planes arriving daily, the airports capacity is too small. Many arrivals are taxied to a staging zone where passengers disembark the plane and load onto one of many aurora-borealis-wrapped buses which take passengers to the terminal.
Despite having no specialized communications training, grandpa was temporarily assigned to the post of “Battalion Communications Officer.” The Keflavik Air Force Base was a strategic defense position at which the United States Air Force could refuel planes during the posturing of the Cold War. Grandpa was a part of The Iceland Defense Force, 2nd BN Combat Team, an infantry unit tasked with protecting the base and nearby gasoline reserves from “possible soviet ground attack.” Grandpa recalled that, since the position was significantly isolated, the infantry units were supported by additional tank, air, and artillery units. During his six months as the Communications Officer, grandpa and his platoon were responsible for maintaining communication systems for the Navy, Airforce, and Army forces at the base including the additional support units.
Noticeably, this picture portrays paved roads. Before 1955, few road in Iceland were paved (in fact my tour guide told me that Nato Forces constructed some of the first paved roads). As grandpa remembers, the road from Keflavik to Reykjavik was unpaved during his time. (It is, of course paved now). T0day, tourists can take the “ring road” — a full loop around the Island of Iceland.
Iceland is also a leader in constructing tunneled-roads under fjords. The three hours grandpa remembers traveling around the fjord to the Qualifuer Security Camp by jeep is now cut to half an hour through a tunnel.
At Qualifuer Security Camp, a strategic fuel reserve was maintained to support airport refueling operations. Tanker ships could travel up through the fjord and then pump the fuel up to the storage tanks (to the left of the picture), the same route whaling vessel traveled to unload their catch at docks deeper in the fjord.
Every Icelandic tour guide I encountered always told the joke: “What do you do if you get lost in an Icelandic Forest?…. You stand up!” While Iceland itself is largely unforested, Mount Esja is a rare place featuring taller (than the Icelandic Average) ever-green trees. The Icelandic government has started a large reforesting efforts and some of the original “experimental forest” were started here. Mount Esja, part of a mountain range bordering the southern side of Hvalfjorður, provides hiking trails used by many Icelanders as an after-work workout.
“What do you do if you get lost in an Icelandic Forest?…. You stand up!”
Many scenic views of Iceland features Alaskan Lupine, imported to Iceland in 1945. These flowers are noticeably absent from grandpa’s pictures and from his memories of Iceland. Today Alaskan Lupine, technically an invasive species, is a controversial topic in Iceland. It helps prevent erosion, but also out-competes native species for resources and space.
For New Years Eve 1955, grandpa and some colleague requested permission to leave the base and travel to Iceland’s capital city Reykjavik. Grandpa only recalls one hotel in Reykjavik. On New Year’s Eve, 1955, the hotel was totally booked so the manager found him an Icelandic family to stay with. He recalled how friendly the family he stayed with was, saying of the mother, “she was very kind, very friendly,” though grandpa was slightly spooked by a picture hanging from the wall of her son in a German uniform .
Today the “Old Harbor” in Reykjavik is home to sightseeing vessels, cafes, and shops for tourists. Here visitors can catch a whale-watching tour or a become vikings in modern, motor-powered viking-longboats. In both directions along the water, visitors can find hotels and hip coffee shops catering to Iceland’s new tourism industry.
Grandpa recalls Icelanders wandering the streets all night on New Year's Eve, celebrating the coming year. “They were firing off firecrackers — ah — rockets. I think all night long. And — and they were all wandering in the streets.” As grandpa wandered the streets, he experienced the small capital of Reykjavik.
When grandpa saw this picture he said, “It wasn't colorful like that when I was there.” Reykjavik today is an ever-growing tourist city of cathedrals, concert halls, and hotels. One native asked me, “What do you think of our multi-story igloos” — referring to the tall apartment buildings being constructed.
“It wasn’t colorful like that when I was there.”
Reykjavik is also home to a vibrant nightlife of bars and clubs. During the summer — when the sun doesn’t set — people truly do stay up all night.
Fishing and the Sea was and, even today, is deeply embedded into the culture of Iceland. During the grandpa’s time, it was a way of life and provided a food source for many Icelanders.
When I told grandpa I was going to Iceland he said “I hope you like fish, that’s all they eat.” During the 1950’s, this was likely true. Today you can get almost any food in Iceland — even “Cool American Flavor” (Cool Ranch) Doritos, though the prices are much higher. Yet fishing remains one of three recognized “pillars” of the Icelandic Economy. Even today, the Icelandic people take great pride in the “True Icelandic Cod” fished off the coast of their rustic Iceland. Green Energy, from geothermal and hydroelectric sources, as well as the relatively new tourism boom are the other two.
Fish drying racks were prevalent in many places grandpa traveled. Drying fish was a way to prevent spoilage and make it easier to transport. “That is their main food, is fish, apparently, because there were huge racks just with these fish hanging there drying”
Today many drying racks, like those pictured above, are relegated to museum pieces. Here they are covered with netting to prevent birds from nesting. Though drying racks are seldom used, we found bags of dried fish at every gas station we stopped at (gas stations are one of the only indicators of civilization in most remote areas). I even tried snacking on it a few times, but just couldn’t learn to like it.
Despite the transformation it has experienced over the past decades, both my grandfather and I experienced the magnificent natural beauty, the intense national pride, and the friendly-warmth that the people of this cold Island offer to visitors. Iceland, the Land of Fire and Ice.
Thank you to Colonel Marker for making time to be interviewed and allowing the use of his photos.
Credits: 2016 Pictures ©Patrick Cunningham. All Rights Reserved. All others, ©Robert Marker. Used With Permission.