The American military presence in Iceland goes back to the middle of WW2, and there are many Americans who can trace their family history back to the US naval base in Keflavík. Russ Sims is one of these Americans. His father, Commander Russell Sims, Jr., was not only stationed here, from 1967 to 1969, he was also the commander of the base itself. In July of 1969, he crash-landed a US Navy R4D-6 at the former runway in Þorshöfn, North Iceland—there were no fatalities, but the wreckage is still there and, some 47 years later, Russ and his wife came back to Iceland to honour the Commander’s memory with a commemorative plaque at the wreckage itself.
We caught up with Russ as he and his wife traveled around the country, encountering locals who can still recall those times, bringing back a flood of memories for him. He also shared with us some incredible photos of Iceland, past and present.
Tell our readers a little bit about Russell W. Sims, Jr.
My father was a driven man. He started in the Navy as a 17-year-old sailor. He didn’t have a college education, but moved up the ranks to become an officer. He flew blimps escorting convoys out of New York, flying halfway across the ocean while keeping an eye out for German subs. He then flew P2Vs, the precursor to the modern P3s, which are now at Keflavík. He flew those for many years. We were living in Newfoundland in the 1960s, and he would regularly fly between Newfoundland and Iceland, looking for Russian subs in the North Atlantic. He worked his way up to full Commander, and was the executive officer in charge of the US Navy base in Keflavík. We moved there in August 1967, and lived on the base until August 1969.
What were some of your memories of “everyday Iceland” at this time?
Well, first let me say we came from South Texas. We came off the plane in late July, looked out across the landscape under this grey, overcast sky, and I said, “Dad, how did you screw up so badly to get this assignment?” It ended being the most exciting, most pleasurable experience my whole family had. I was a junior and senior in high school, and dad was the executive officer of the base, and with that comes what you might call a very demanding situation. Being military, the attitude was, “If you can’t manage your kids, how can you manage the base?” All the officers, really all the people on the base, had to be very aware of our behaviour in the community, because we were representatives of the United States. But it was a wonderful experience. Our mother picked up a keychain from Iceland that I still carry with me. So it was a very important place in our lives.
I realise these are emotional memories that are very close to your heart, but tell us what went down on the day in question.
I was working at the gas station that summer. I came home one day and he was sitting on the couch, and that’s not like him. He normally worked late hours. And he was sitting there with this look on his face, like he’d just seen God. A deer-in-the-headlights expression. [The crash] was his mistake and he knew he’d screwed up. Dad used to say that any landing you can walk away from was a good landing, but it was obvious his pride was hurt. He was quiet, and he’s not usually a quiet man.
What led you to want to come back and revisit the scene?
We left in the summer of ’69, but we had been back before. We came back in 1994 with our son, because we wanted our son to experience what we had experienced (my wife actually lived across the street from me on the base, although we didn’t date at the time). I mean, if it wasn’t for Iceland, my wife and I wouldn’t have met.
So the wreckage is sitting on someone’s farm right now?
Yes, it’s on someone’s farm, and the farmer doesn’t want people traipsing all over his property. Which I fully understand. The locals have been pretty concerned about tourist traffic, and have been thinking of different things they could do with the wreckage, like maybe move it closer to the road. But they’ll figure something out I’m sure.
And how did it feel putting up this commemorative plaque?
It was emotional given my feelings toward my father, who was a great accomplished man who joined the Navy at 17 but rose to the rank of Commander; limited for further advancement because he did not have a college degree. This memorial is not to celebrate his error but to honor his career, and a part of our family that remains in Iceland. Something very close to our hearts.