RADM Richard E. Byrd (USN Ret.) - Officer in Charge TASK FORCE 68
RADM Richard H. Cruzen, USN, Commander TASK FORCE 68

from South-Pole Website


 

Contents

  1. Chapter - In The Beginning

  2. Chapter - Territorial Claims

  3. Chapter - Pre Highjump - Naval Operations 1945-46

  4. Chapter - The Byrd "Family" and Highjump

  5. Chapter - Final Plans

  6. Chapter - The Expedition Begins

  7. Chapter - Operations in Antarctica

  8. Chapter - Summary

Additional Information

Return to Germany's ET Contacts? - Its Legacy On The Twentieth Century And After...

Return to Antarctica Rediscovered

Return to Operation High-Jump

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

George One

Operation Highjump

Crew Recovery

 

 

 

EAST GROUP   (Task Group 68.3)
Captain George J. Dufek, USN

Seaplane Tender

Destroyer

Tanker

 

WEST GROUP   (Task Group 68.2)
Captain Charles A. Bond, USN


Seaplane Tender

Destroyer

Tanker

CENTRAL GROUP   (Task Group 68.1)

Communications

Supply

Supply

Submarine

Icebreaker

Icebreaker

CARRIER GROUP   (Task Group 68.4)

Aircraft Carrier



BASE GROUP   (Task Group 68.5)

CDR Clifford M. Campbell, USN, Commander TG68.5, Little America IV

                      

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CHAPTER ONE
In the Beginning
 
Nineteen forty-six was an unusual time, both in the United States and abroad.

Post World War II was a time of victory, a time of defeat and a time of recovery as the world would never be the same again. Former enemies became friends as former friends became bitter opponents. Difficult economic times of the Depression era, followed by a stifled economy during the war, had left the United States with an infrastructure much the same as it had been prior to those events.

Nearly twenty years had passed since the Great Depression yet it still took a minimum of 14 hours to travel coast-to-coast by DC-3, DC-4 or by Martin 202. Our telecommunications network and transcontinental railway system had not materially changed since 1928, yet by mid-summer 1946 the country was busy building the foundation of a new America.

Following the war, America was suddenly burdened with the responsibility of a Superpower, becoming a world leader in the political and economic arena nearly overnight. Americans from one end of the country to the other were becoming skeptical of their former ally, the Soviet Union. Soviet aggressiveness dominated events and discussions around the world as the cold war took root in that summer of 1946.

The American people were tired after fifteen years of scarcity and sacrifice and anger swelled under fresh fears of further economic hardship. The administration in Washington was considered by many to be uncertain and fumbling. As a result, the frustration was summed up by the Republican Party with the catch phrase, "Had Enough?" The Republican Party took control of Congress in the off-year election that fall.

Meanwhile, the world's greatest navy was being taken apart, piece by piece.

At the great naval bases in Norfolk, San Diego, Pearl Harbor, Yokosuka and Quonset Point - wherever navy men gathered - gloom and doom ran unchecked that summer of 1946. As worldwide tensions brewed in increasing fervor, a huge, battle-tested armada was being systematically decommissioned. Destroyers, battleships, aircraft carriers and dozens of other vessels were slipping into quiet backwaters alongside remote docks in uncaring ports.

Surprisingly, most of the ships were less than ten years old, yet after a few short years of battle they were sentenced to a life of neglect and inactivity. The primarily civilian crews had no difficulty saying good-bye but the comparative handful of professional sailors worked feverishly to position themselves for the few choice service jobs remaining. By mid-1946 the United States Navy was rapidly becoming a shadow of its former self.

To man the few remaining ships, the navy was forced to recruit young men all over again, just as it had done for the war. The young boys of 1942, now hardened veterans from fighting in North Africa, Guadalcanal, Sicily, Saipan, Normandy, Okinawa and Iwo Jima, were all too happy to remove their uniform and begin civilian life. The new crewmen were quickly trained in 1945 and 1946, while the navy wound down for an anticipated long period of inactivity.

Meanwhile, as sadness permeated the American naval bases, Admiral D. C. Ramsey, chief of naval operations, was in Washington signing his name to an astounding set of orders addressed to commanders in chief of the Atlantic and Pacific Fleets. These orders would establish the Antarctic Developments Project which would be carried out during the forthcoming Antarctic summer (December 1946 - March 1947).

Chief of naval operations, Chester W. Nimitz, code named the project Operation Highjump. Instructions were for twelve ships and several thousand men to make their way to the Antarctic rim to,

  1. train personnel and test material in the frigid zones

  2. consolidate and extend American sovereignty over the largest practical area of the Antarctic continent

  3. determine the feasibility of establishing and maintaining bases in the Antarctic and to investigate possible base sites

  4. develop techniques for establishing and maintaining air bases on the ice, with particular attention to the later applicability of such techniques to operations in interior Greenland, where, it was claimed, physical and climatic conditions resembled those in Antarctica

  5. amplify existing knowledge of hydrographic, geographic, geological, meteorological and electromagnetic conditions in the area.

Tentative plans would establish an American base on the Ross Ice Shelf near Little America III, home to Richard Byrd's 1939-41 expedition.

As Little America IV was established, a "systematic outward radial expansion of air exploration" would be performed by ship-based planes operating along the Antarctic coastline and by land-based airplanes departing from Little America. Although not specifically stated in the August 26, 1946 orders, a central objective of the project was the aerial mapping of as much of Antarctica as possible, particularly the coastline.

Signed Commander Cruzen

On October 15, 1946, Admiral Marc A. Mitscher, commander in chief of the Atlantic Fleet, appointed Captain Richard H. Cruzen, who participated with Richard Byrd in the UNITED STATES ANTARCTIC SERVICE EXPEDITION 1939-41, as commander of Operation Highjump.

Admiral Mitscher instructed Cruzen to terminate the project when the ice and sea conditions rendered further research "unprofitable". It was "not intended that any ship or aircraft remain in the Antarctic during the winter months".

Cruzens own orders were initiated two days later, centered around the construction and establishment of "a temporary base on Ross Shelf Ice in Antarctica" in order to "extend [the] explored area" of the continent and to "test material under frigid conditions". On November 20, only two weeks before the first ships were to sail, Cruzen released supplementary instructions which specified ship departure dates and movements, personnel and equipment assignments, and so forth.

Additionally, another ship was added to the list of those heading south --- the new fleet aircraft carrier USS PHILIPPINE SEA --- with Admiral Richard Byrd aboard. She would have six R4D military transport planes lashed to the deck for land-based use at Little America IV. Admiral Byrd would fly an R4D into Little America IV and assume the role of chief scientific commander of the project.

Before ceasing operations, Byrd was to make a flight over the South Pole. Although these were the stated plans and objectives of the project, the purpose and origin of the ANTARCTIC DEVELOPMENTS PROJECT 1946-47 was much more complex

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CHAPTER TWO
Territorial Claims

From the beginning of 1946, as a numbed and war-torn world reflected upon an uneasy peace, Antarctica and the polar regions once again became a powerful magnet to human fancy.

In January, plans by Lincoln Ellsworth were announced in the press for an aerial and ground-mapping exercise in Antarctica in 1947. Also in January, famous aviator Eddie Rickenbacker was pushing for American exploration in Antarctica, including the use of atomic bombs for mineral research.

By late autumn, the Netherlands (WILLEM BARENDSZ) and Soviet Union (SLAVA) whaling fleets were operating in Antarctic waters for the very first time. (This first Dutch Antarctic whaling operation was conducted in an area between Bouvet and the South Sandwich Islands. Five zoologists accompanied the voyage for research on whales and birds). November headlines in the New York Times declared a six-nation race to Antarctica "set off by reports of uranium deposits".

The article went on to charge that the British was leading the race by sending a "secret expedition" to occupy Byrd's 1939-41 "East Base" at Marguerite Bay on the Antarctic peninsula.

Actually, the British had been active in Antarctica for a number of years. After the outbreak of the war, a few German trading vessels, essentially pirate ships, cruised Antarctic waters in search of potential victims. In January 1941, German Commander Ernst-Felix Krüder, aboard the PINGUIN, captured a Norwegian whaling fleet (factory ships OLE WEGGER and PELAGOS, supply ship SOLGLIMT and eleven whale-catchers) in about 59°S, 02°30'W.

The PINGUIN was finally sunk off the Persian Gulf by HMS CORNWALL on May 8, 1941, after she had captured 136,550 tons of British and allied shipping. Argentina, a long-standing neutral nation, took advantage of the war to expand its territorial claims in the Antarctic. In January and February of 1942, Commander Alberto J. Oddera, aboard the PRIMERO DE MAYO, visited Deception Island in the South Shetlands and on February 8 Argentina took formal possession of the sector between longitudes 25°W and 68°34'W, south of 60°S.

Possession was claimed for the Melchior Islands on February 20 and the Argentine Islands on February 24. The Argentine Government officially notified the Government of the United Kingdom on February 15, 1943, letting them know that they had left copper cylinders containing official notices of their claims at all three sites.

In 1943, the British Royal Navy launched OPERATION TABARIN (Commanded by Keith Allan John Pitt aboard the FITZROY and Victor Aloysius John Baptist Marchesi aboard HMS WILLIAM SCORESBY), in order to establish permanent meteorological stations at Port Lockroy (Base A) and Deception Island (Base B).

The cylinders previously left by the Argentine expedition of 1942 were removed from these two places along with the cylinder that had been left in the Melchior Islands. An occupation party was attempted, without success, at Hope Bay and subsequent investigations found no suitable site for a base on the Antarctic Peninsula. The expedition also visited the South Orkney Islands and South Georgia and during the winter of 1944, geology, biology and survey programs were conducted.

This was the first of a series of British expeditions by the Royal Navy, Falkland Islands Dependencies Survey, and British Antarctic Survey.

In 1944 the Falkland Islands Dependencies Government was established and in December of that year postage stamps were issued for four of the Dependencies - Graham Land, South Shetland Islands, South Georgia and the South Orkney Islands. In late 1944, OPERATION TABARIN II commenced with the help of a third vessel, the EAGLE, commanded by Robert Carl Sheppard.

The two existing stations were relieved and a new meteorological station was established at Hope Bay (Base D). A hut was built at Sandefjord Bay (Base P) on Coronation Island in the South Orkney Islands (subsequently destroyed by a storm in February 1956).

At the end of the war, the administrative responsibilities for the bases established under OPERATION TABARIN were transferred from the Admiralty to the Colonial Office under the new name, FALKLAND ISLANDS DEPENDENCIES SURVEY (FIDS).

In the Antarctic summer of 1945-46, the FIDS established new bases at Cape Geddes, Laurie Island (Base C) and on Stonington Island (Base E). The following summer, the FIDS established sites on Winter Island in the Argentine Islands (Base F), on Signy Island in the South Orkney Islands (Base H) and a new hut was built and temporarily occupied in Admiralty Bay, King George Island (Base G).

By late May 1946, Oslo had notified Washington of possibly reasserting its old claims to regions of the Antarctic and by the first week of July, U.S. Ambassador George Messersmith in Buenos Aires reported that the Argentine government was about to dispute Britain's territorial claims in the Falklands.

A few days later Claude Bowers, in Santiago, Chile, informed the State Department that the Chilean government was furious over the sweeping claims of the British.


Adding fuel to an already explosive fire, the British released a set of eight postage stamps on February 1, 1946, commemorating their claim to the Falkland Islands Dependencies. The new stamp depicted a territorial map of the Antarctic, completely overlooking Chilean claims as well as disregarding much of Argentina's claim.

For the first time in history, an international crisis was brewing over territorial claims in the Antarctic wasteland.

The dismal state of the world economy fueled heightened tensions on a global dimension. The advanced industrial nations of Europe had suffered tremendous devastation during the war and many of these countries envisioned Antarctica as a solution to their problem.

The first to lay a legitimate claim could possibly extract an abundance of expensive, necessary raw materials. The formal American position on the polar regions had always been that they should be open to exploration and research by all concerned but in the wake of Admiral Byrd's formal announcement of OPERATION HIGHJUMP on November 12, 1946, Latin American governments became nervous and suspicious of the notorious American Yankee.

OPERATION HIGHJUMP was seen as a huge threat to future Latin American claims. After all, thirteen ships with 4,700 men seemed to confirm the notion that the United States had a plan of their own to seize huge chunks of the continent.

The official press release by Byrd seemed to confirm their anxiety as OPERATION HIGHJUMP was justified as an "extension" of the United States Navy's "policy of developing the ability of naval forces to operate under any and all climatic conditions". A publicly stated objective was to "consolidate and develop the results of the US ANTARCTIC SERVICE EXPEDITION 1939-41".

As it turns out, the Latin suspicions were correct. Initial approval of OPERATION HIGHJUMP was apparently reached at a meeting of the "Committee of Three" (Secretary of State, Secretary of War and Secretary of the Navy) on August 7, 1946. A memorandum prepared for the meeting stated that the "Navy proposes to send an expedition to the Antarctic early in 1947. The purpose of this expedition includes training personnel and testing material, consolidating and extending U.S. sovereignty over Antarctic areas, investigating possible base sites and extending scientific knowledge in general. Rear Admiral R.E. Byrd will be designated as Officer-in-Charge of the project.

Task Force Commander will be Captain R. H. Cruzen now commanding OPERATION NANOOK , an expedition to the Arctic". One week after the meeting, Edward G. Trueblood, deputy director of the State Department's Latin American desk, sent a memorandum to the head of the European desk stating there was no objection to the "Byrd Expedition" so long as no territories claimed by certain Latin American governments were entered.

On August 22, Acting Secretary of State Dean Acheson gave his department's approval to OPERATION HIGHJUMP with the stipulation that,

"in view of the territorial claims in the Antarctic of other Governments, it is suggested that the areas to be visited by the proposed naval expedition be discussed informally between representatives of the State and Navy Departments. . ."

That discussion was held on November 25, only one week prior to the first ships departing.

Acheson wrote the Secretary of the Navy James Forrestal on December 14 and told him of his "complete agreement" with the majority opinion reached at the November meeting and,

"that this Government should follow a definite policy of exploration and use of those Antarctic areas considered desirable for acquisition by the United States".

Since the formal opinion of the United States had been not to recognize any territorial claims in the Antarctic,

"in the view of this Department vessels, aircraft or personnel of the US NAVAL ANTARCTIC DEVELOPMENTS PROJECT 1947 are not precluded by prior territorial rights or claims of other states from entering and engaging in lawful activity in any of those areas or from making symbolic claims thereto or to newly discovered territory on behalf of the United States".

Admiral Marc Mitscher, commander in chief of the Atlantic Fleet, was even more daring in his "Instructions for OPERATION HIGHJUMP " issued on October 15. "Objectives" included "Consolidating and extending United States sovereignty over the largest practicable area of the Antarctic continent". Perhaps the Departments of State and Navy had wished for major territorial claims, but the fact of the matter is that no formal claims were made by the men of OPERATION HIGHJUMP.

It was not launched in a scramble for Antarctica's natural resources nor was it launched for the chief purpose of territorial expansion. According to news releases of Admiral Byrd's November 12 press conference announcing OPERATION HIGHJUMP, "The Navy strongly discounted reports that the voyage will be primarily a lap in the race for uranium. 'When this expedition was first talked about, uranium wasn't even mentioned. The statement that this is a uranium race for atomic energy is not correct', Admiral Byrd was quoted as saying.

However, the basic objectives were not diplomatic, scientific or economic - they were military. OPERATION HIGHJUMP was, and to this day still is, the largest Antarctic expedition ever organized.

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CHAPTER THREE
Pre Highjump - Naval Operations 1945-46

Admiral Byrd's comments in his press release of November 12, 1946, stated that,

" ... the purposes of the operation are primarily of a military nature, that is to train naval personnel and to test ships, planes and equipment under frigid zone conditions... A major purpose of the expedition is to learn how the Navy's standard, everyday equipment will perform under everyday conditions".

The Soviets were paying close attention to this project and editorialized in their naval journal, Red Fleet, following Byrd's press conference that "U.S. measures in Antarctica testify that American military circles are seeking to subject the [polar] regions to their control and to create there permanent bases for their armed forces".

Soviet-American relations were rapidly deteriorating throughout 1946 and with American interest in both polar regions steaming up, Russian anxiety was escalating with each passing day. The Soviets were quick to realize that if a Third World War broke out between Russia and the West, a strategic battleground would most likely be in the North Polar region. It was in Americas best interest to expose and prepare their men, ships and equipment to the extremes of the polar regions as quickly and efficiently as possible.

The American political environment of 1946 also played a valuable role in OPERATION HIGHJUMP .

Following the end of World War II, many political debates around the country focused on the merits of a single unified military command under a single department of national defense. At first, navy brass embraced the notion. However, as more details came forth, fears arose of a navy dominated by the arrogant and chafing young generals of the air force who would subordinate the Navy to simple coastal defense procedures.

Talk was floating around Washington that the marine corps would operate under the army while aircraft carriers would be under the direction of the air force. Obviously, the consolidation would save the American taxpayers a great deal of money but the navy would simply have no part of it. Consequently, the navy lost a great deal of public support. By the middle of 1946, admirals were searching for a way to dramatize the navy's efficiency. This anxiety, coupled with the escalating cold war, created the opportunity to heavily expand on polar exploration.

The first naval program of polar exploration was OPERATION FROSTBITE in the fall and winter of 1945-46. A handful of ships accompanied the new aircraft carrier USS MIDWAY to the Davis Straits, off the coast of Greenland, where men and equipment,

"underwent a grueling test. Torn by high seas and raging blizzards in extreme cold and with drifts of snow across the flight deck, they operated under the most exacting conditions to prove that such operations are feasible".

However, OPERATION FROSTBITE had not been conducted far enough to the north. Arctic summers are simply too mild to adequately expose and train men for subzero temperatures. Thus, in order to train a large enough navy for polar conditions, testing would be required in regions of severest weather for a prolonged period of time.

On February 12, 1946, Congress approved Public Law 296 directing the chief of the U.S. Weather Bureau to establish "an international meteorological reporting network in the Arctic regions of the Western Hemisphere". The Weather Bureau turned to the army and navy and together, the three agencies came up with a plan to build reporting stations that summer at Thule, Greenland and at the southern tip of Melville Island in the Canadian Arctic.

The U.S. Atlantic Fleet commander, Admiral Marc A. Mitscher, selected a few ships, designated them Task Force 68, and appointed Captain Richard Cruzen as commander of OPERATION NANOOK.

Admiral Curzen's first orders, issued May 31, 1946, called for a general plan whose second phase consisted "of operations to establish weather observation and reporting stations of the U.S. Weather Bureau" in the Canadian Arctic and Greenland. Additionally, Cruzen ordered one icebreaker, the EASTWIND, along with a seaplane tender, the NORTON SOUND, to operate,

"in the general vicinity of the southern limit of the ice pack which is expected to be encountered in the Baffin Bay area".

This may have been a peaceful project to make weather observations in the Arctic, but an interesting argument could be made that these stations would be additionally used as intelligence gathering sites.

Regardless, with these two projects the U.S. Navy began its effort to systematically expose men and machine to the rigors of polar life.

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CHAPTER FOUR
The Byrd "Family" and Highjump

So, what role did Byrd and his companions, particularly Paul Siple, play during this time?

Actually, they found much of their research work underwritten by the government, all in the name of national defense. Paul Siple not only set men to work in Alaska and Greenland during World War II; he also traveled to Europe to advise Eisenhower and his generals on the best way to avoid an epidemic of trench foot among his men.

In the spring of 1945, Siple traveled to the Philippines to advice MacArthur "on winter clothing and protection of forces preparing to invade the main islands of Japan". After the end of the war, Siple found himself working in the federal service as a civilian scientist in the army chief of staff's Office of Research and Development.

He was a brilliant man and could have easily taught at the university level in his own science or geography department, but few universities in 1945 contained these departments and no money was available to establish his own research center, particularly in something as exotic as polar study. Instead, he became a willing participant in the cold war.

He later wrote,

"My new career was to involve the application of my environmental research concepts to Army equipment and personnel in any environment they might be called upon to fight to preserve the free way of life. My interest was to broaden to the entire aspects of basic research and the segment with which I was a charter scientist eventually developed into the Army Research Office".

But no single person was more responsible for OPERATION HIGHJUMP than Richard E. Byrd.

Byrd's reputation flourished throughout the war. He was appointed a special assistant to the chief of naval operations, Admiral Ernest J. King, and was a close, personal friend of President Roosevelt. Between 1941 and 1945 he traveled to the war fronts in Europe, Alaska and the North Pacific. But the spirited admiral of 1930's Antarctic fame never commanded a single fighting ship during the war. Now, with the war ended, the navy suddenly discovered they needed Richard Byrd.

If it was to avoid being stripped of its role, particularly the role of naval aviation, then some plan to dramatize its value would have to be quickly put forward. According to Paul Siple, it was Byrd who persuaded the Secretary of the Navy James Forrestal and the Chief of Naval Operations Chester Nimitz into launching a huge naval expedition to the Antarctic.

Besides, Forrestal's obsession with the Soviet menace was finding increasing sympathy and support on Capitol Hill. Another close ally was Richard Byrd's brother, Senator Harry Flood Byrd, then head of the powerful family machine that ran the Democratic party of Virginia. Harry was a key figure in the Democratic politics of "the solid South" of the 1930's and 1940's.

Harry had a high degree of clout on the Hill and many presidents, particularly new presidents with shaky popularity, embraced him. Normally, Harry got for Richard whatever Richard wanted and in 1946, Richard wanted to go back to Antarctica. How the navy high command convinced Congress to fund the expensive expedition is a mystery to this day. The navy had not been in charge of a South Polar expedition since the exploration by Charles Wilkes a hundred years earlier.

One can only speculate that the country was excited about sending forth the largest Antarctic expedition in history, under peace-time conditions, on an adventure apparently not involving death and destruction. The "Soviet menace", accompanied by the threat of war in the Arctic, may have been reason alone.

The U.S. Navy strongly emphasized that OPERATION HIGHJUMP was going to be a navy show, with naval interests predominating over scientific studies. Admiral Ramsey's preliminary orders of August 26, 1946, stated that "The Chief of Naval Operations only will deal with other governmental agencies" pertaining to OPERATION HIGHJUMP.

"No diplomatic negotiations are required. No foreign observers will be accepted".

Thus, it seemed there would be little room for civilian scientists and observers. Subsequently, the chief of naval operations sent a letter around to several other governmental agencies and departments as an invitation to participate modestly in Highjump. According to the Army Observers Report,

"The War Department responded willingly to a Navy invitation to send observers on this important expedition and increased its representation to sixteen, ten more than originally allotted by the Navy. The personnel included four men with prior Antarctic Service", including Paul Siple.

Also invited to participate were observers from the army, Weather Bureau, Coast and Geodetic Survey, Geological Survey and the Fish and Wildlife Service.

Recommended scientific studies included aerological measurements (synoptic observations, radar meteorology, intensity of solar radiation), terrestrial magnetic observations, aerial geological studies (including "Aerial Prospecting for Atomic Energy Source Materials"), cosmic ray studies, etc. Notable scientists and researchers included Jack Hough, Bill Metcalf and David Barnes from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.

As soon as the ships returned from OPERATION NANOOK, on September 18, planning was intensified and an official sailing date of December 2 was announced.

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CHAPTER FIVE
Final Plans

With the exception of Cruzen, the entire cast of ships and men would eventually be changed.

The leader of the expedition would be Richard Byrd, who would base his operations at Little America and would later attempt to fly down to, and perhaps beyond, the South Pole. In order to expose as many men as possible to polar conditions, none of the ships used in OPERATION NANOOK would be sent south.

Instead, the commanders of the Pacific and Atlantic Fleets were to each designate six ships for the expedition. The expedition flagship, USS MOUNT OLYMPUS, came from the Atlantic Fleet. The ship was crammed with comparatively crude communications and electronic equipment for the time.

Also coming from the Atlantic Fleet was,

The Pacific Fleet would supply,

A conference was held in early autumn at the Naval Hydrographic Office in Suitland, Maryland, to prepare charts and navigational aids for OPERATION HIGHJUMP .

They soon realized that the most dependable charts of the Ross Sea were from the British Admiralty. Copies were made and sent to all the ships. Cruzen, Byrd and others gave serious thought to goals and priorities of the expedition and jointly came to the conclusion that the single, most spectacular objective should be the complete aerial mapping of the Antarctic coastline and as much of the interior as possible.

The expedition would divide into three groups with the Central Group, led by the Coast Guard Cutter USCGC NORTHWIND, thrusting into the ice pack of the Ross Sea. Followed closely behind would be the cargo ships USS YANCEY and USS MERRICK, the submarine USS SENNET (sent along to test operational capabilities under polar conditions). and the flagship USS MOUNT OLYMPUS.

(The navy's new icebreaker USS BURTON ISLAND, a member of the Central Group, was still undergoing basic training and sea trials off the California coast when OPERATION HIGHJUMP was launched).

Charts and navigational aids used for OPERATION HIGHJUMP were assembled at a gathering of minds at the Hydrographic Office in Suitland, Maryland, early in the fall of 1946.

The Ross Sea charts prepared by the British Admiralty seemed to be the most reliable and were subsequently reproduced and dispatched to all the ships. As a consequence, the USCGC NORTHWIND would rely exclusively on these charts to guide the ships of the Central Group through the ice pack and into the Ross Sea.

Admirals Byrd and Cruzen (promoted to rear admiral prior to their departure) determined that the highest priority of the expedition should be the virtually complete aerial mapping of the Antarctic rim and as much of the interior as possible. The expedition would be divided into three groups. The Central Group, led by the USCGC NORTHWIND, would include the USS YANCEY and USS MERRICK cargo ships, the submarine USS SENNET (sent along specifically to test its capabilities under polar conditions) and the flagship of the expedition, the USS MOUNT OLYMPUS .

The navy's icebreaker USS BURTON ISLAND would arrive late in the final stages of OPERATION HIGHJUMP. Once alongside the shelf ice at the Bay of Whales, Little America IV would be established.

A landing strip for the six R4D (military version of the DC-3) transport planes would be laid out, serving as a base of operations for the aerial mapping missions to follow. In order to carry out this mission, the Central Group would be supported by the aircraft carrier USS PHILIPPINE SEA which would carry the planes, along with Admiral Byrd, to the edge of the ice pack.

From here the planes would make the risky six-hour flight to Little America IV. To assist the planes in takeoff from the narrow flight deck, Jet-Assisted Take-Off (JATO) bottles, filled with jet fuel, would be attached under the wings and ignited just seconds after the plane began to roll, thereby dramatically increasing the speed necessary for take-off.

The R4D's were the heaviest aircraft ever to launch from a carrier. They would also be the first to take off on one end with wheels and land on the other end with skis. They had only 400 feet of take-off to work with, otherwise their wide wingspan would collide with the carrier's superstructure.

First to depart would be Admiral Byrd, with skilled polar flyer William "Trigger" Hawkes at the controls.



On either side of the Central Group and the USS PHILIPPINE SEA would be the Eastern and Western Groups.

The Eastern Group, built around the seaplane tender USS PINE ISLAND, would rendezvous at Peter I Island and from there would move toward zero degrees longitude (Greenwich Meridian). Joining the USS PINE ISLAND would be the oiler USS CANISTEO and the destroyer USS BROWNSON.

The Western Group would be built around the seaplane tender USS CURRITUCK. The USS CURRITUCK would rendezvous, together with the oiler USS CACAPON and destroyer USS HENDERSON, at the Balleny Islands and then proceed on a westward course around Antarctica until, hopefully, it met up with the Eastern Group.

Each of the seaplane tenders would be supplied with three Martin Mariner PBM flying boats, the largest and most modern seaplanes built during World War II. Plans were made to daily lower each plane into the sea, from where they would take off on flights of many hours in an attempt to photograph as much of the coast and interior as possible.

PBM GEORGE TWO and the tragic crash of GEORGE ONE

If all went according to plan, and the crews performed flawlessly, then there was a chance, as Admiral Byrd later wrote,

"that a complete circle could be closed around the continent. It was hoped that in a few weeks more would be learned of the great unknown than had come from a century of previous exploration by land and sea".

Throughout October and November 1946, swift preparations were underway around the country.

Admiral Cruzen and his subordinates on both coasts were busy ordering parkas, goggles, boots, thermal underwear, special tents and the matting for Little America's new runway. Special trainers were sent by Byrd and Paul Siple into the New Hampshire woods to work with the dogs.

Meanwhile, caterpillar tractors, forklift trucks, "weasels" (powered sleds) and other heavy machinery were being manufactured and loaded onto railroad cars and shipped to docksides in California and Virginia.

But all was not well.

Huge concerns were in the minds of planners as, for the very first time in Antarctic history, every vessel used in the expedition would be steel hulled.

Steel is certainly stronger than wood, however wood tends to splinter in the viselike grip of pack ice while steel is usually ripped apart. It is true that Byrd successfully maneuvered the ELEANOR BOLLING through the ice pack and around the shelf in 1929, however the ELEANOR BOLLING'S hull was significantly thicker than that of most of the ships used in OPERATION HIGHJUMP.

Compounding this problem was the fact that all but a handful of men were totally lacking in adequate training for polar conditions. As Professor Bertrand later noted, "Although personnel of OPERATION NANOOK served as a nucleus for staffing OPERATION HIGHJUMP, the much greater size of the later expedition necessitated the filling of many posts with men who had no previous polar exploration. It was possible to obtain the services of only eleven veterans of previous U.S. Antarctic expeditions.

Only two pilots in the Central Group of the Task Force had experience in flying photographic missions". As a matter of fact, none of the seaplane pilots or flight crews had ever flown in Antarctica before. Only Byrd's personal pilot, Commander William M. Hawkes, had polar experience as he had logged hundreds of hours in the treacherous skies of Alaska.

Extensive ship movements only made matters worse as the lives of many men and their families were suddenly disrupted, uprooted and shipped across country on the eve of the expedition. The USS MERRICK and USS YANCEY were attached to the Atlantic Fleet when in October they were ordered to sail for Port Hueneme, California, to prepare for the exercise.

The MOUNT OLYMPUS, which played a major combat role in the war, and the USS PINE ISLAND had spent most of their lives in the Pacific Fleet and now were suddenly ordered to the Atlantic Fleet for preparations.

With all the turmoil, Captain Rees of the USS MOUNT OLYMPUS wrote in exasperation to Admiral Cruzen,

"Details as to the nature of the operation are completely unknown. It is therefore urgently requested that this vessel be informed at once as to what special equipment, instruments, clothing, etc... the ship must obtain in the limited time remaining. The ship can not be considered a smart ship".

The carrier USS PHILIPPINE SEA had completed its shakedown cruise only weeks before, yet now the ship and its crew were expected to launch the largest planes ever sent from a carrier deck, quite possibly under extreme weather conditions.

The navy's new icebreaker, the USS BURTON ISLAND , was still undergoing basic sea trials and training off the California coast as OPERATION HIGHJUMP began. This meant that during the earliest and possibly most crucial stages of the expedition, Cruzen and his untrained men would have to rely solely on the USCGC NORTHWIND to get the four thin-skinned ships of the Central Group through the ice pack and into the Ross Sea.

Not only that, but if any of the ships from the Eastern or Western Groups ran into trouble, only the USCGC NORTHWIND would be able to assist. If the USCGC NORTHWIND should become disabled herself, the entire Central Group could be left helplessly for weeks, deep in the Ross Sea, certain prey for icebergs and the crushing pack ice.

The inexperience of the men, particularly the fliers, was all too apparent. One of the pilots, Lieutenant (jg) William Kearns, later recalled that volunteer pilots, navigators and air crewmen were gleaned from both the Atlantic and Pacific Fleets,

"in the fond hope that some experienced men would be among those selected. Since the vast majority of personnel knew nothing about the type of operation for which we were destined, we were forced to dig into books for even the most elementary information".

The information was frightening.

Temperatures were far colder than the Arctic regions and the fliers could fall prey to an empty, inhuman landscape from which no help could be expected. Traditional navigational aids were of little help as Mercator projections were of no use due to the convergence of meridians at high latitudes and the consequent distortion of areas between the parallels.

Thus, a grid system would have to be used.

"From the experiences of men who had been to both regions and learned the hard way, we saw that polar flying, even at its best, was never really safe. There were no airways, no weather reporting stations, no convenient alternate airports. We were, in fact, extremely fortunate if we found any charts at all available for the 'Highjump' operating area. With all these facts in mind, some of us began to regret our decisions to become intrepid Antarctic explorers, and to long for the good green lands and the waving palms of Florida".

Pilot Thomas R. Henry wrote,

"Once a plane rose from the ski strip at Little America, it was virtually imprisoned in the sky for at least five hours; it could come down only with a crash landing on the rough ice surface, which would almost certainly ruin the aircraft itself and seriously endanger the crew".

If the mapping objectives of OPERATION HIGHJUMP were to be met, planes would have to be heavily overloaded with photographic equipment and topped-off fuel tanks. Antarctica was simply too large, its weather too unpredictable, not to make every flight fully count in terms of photographic exploration during the brief expedition.

A certain sense of uneasiness flowed through the seaplane crews at Norfolk, Virginia. The follow-up report on their mission stated that the operation,

"was characterized by a very limited period of personnel training, material inspections and logistic planning".

The crews of all six PBM's were drawn from current squadrons and assembled at the Naval Air Station, Norfolk, VA, on November 1, 1946.

This gave them only one month to prepare. Meanwhile, the PBM's were winterized and fitted out with some special navigational instruments, as well as the trimetrogon photographic equipment. Survival gear was gathered as the crews were quickly instructed in polar navigation. On November 27 three of the seaplanes flew from Norfolk to San Diego, California, and were lifted aboard the USS CURRITUCK, which was in its final loading phase.

Back in Virginia, the other three planes were brought aboard the USS PINE ISLAND. When the USS PINE ISLAND reached the Panama Canal, the planes had to be sent off, later landing at Balboa on the Pacific side, in order to get through the canal.

Despite the many risks of such an adventure, morale actually turned for the better as sailing time approached. Married men, many of whom had spent prolonged months of separation from their spouses during the war, were obviously less enthusiastic than their generally younger, unmarried peers. But, as the official report noted, the general mood was one of a "trip of a lifetime" and of "a big expedition to Antarctica".

As last-minute preparations were underway, diplomats of several nations continued to snip at one another.

On November 13, Ellis O. Briggs of the Latin American bureau of the State Department noted that "The [British] Empire continues to bleed over the forthcoming Byrd Antarctic expedition if Mr. Everson of the British Embassy who called on me this morning is to be believed". Briggs told Everson "that our Government is at least as interested in practicing cold water operations as it is in what may be found sub-zero, sub-rosa, sub-ice caps, etc." However, Everson "did not seem altogether soothed".

Briggs went on to say that Everson muttered something about Antarctica being British territory and that the United States should have cleared the expedition with His Majesty's government.

"If London has any such notions as that, I assume steps will be taken to disabuse our British friends of any belief that we consider Antarctica British", Briggs concluded.

Two days later Briggs noted that New Zealand, Australia and Chile had also indicated a rather keen interest in the motives and objectives of OPERATION HIGHJUMP.

Would the United States abandon current policy and lay claim to vast areas not only claimed by the above, but also by the French, Norwegians and Argentineans? Briggs noted that representatives of the governments of Australia, New Zealand and Chile requested permission to go along as observers but that permission was firmly opposed by the navy.

Finally, on November 27 as the USS YANCEY and USS MERRICK began to cram aboard every last item remaining on the docks at Port Hueneme, Acting Secretary of State Dean Acheson telephoned Briggs to ask if he foresaw any "political difficulties" in the "Byrd expedition".

According to the Secretary, President Truman's naval aide, Admiral Leahy, had expressed concern that it might be too bad to have the Chileans,

"now so full of good will, acquire hurt feelings".

Briggs attempted to put his President at ease, saying that both Chile and Argentina had expressed "some interest" in Highjump, however,

"I did not believe that relations with either country would be affected in any substantial or noticeable way by the expedition".

Perhaps Secretary Acheson was put at ease, but the same can not be said of the President.

At the very last moment, probably December 1 or 2, President Harry Truman tried to stop OPERATION HIGHJUMP. Briggs was told that "the navy" had suddenly been called into the Oval Office and told to cancel the expedition.

When,

"the Navy Department remonstrated, pointing out that if the expedition did not sail now the opportunity would be lost, the President is supposed to have relented and allowed the expedition to proceed".

Who the President addressed that day is unclear, but it was possibly Nimitz, or more probably James Forrestal. In any event, neither Byrd, Cruzen or the thousands of other men under their command were aware of how close they had come to missing their "trip of a lifetime". By December 3, 1946, most of the ships were at sea; all the rest, but for the USS BURTON ISLAND, were about to depart.

OPERATION HIGHJUMP was underway.

Back to Contents

 

 

CHAPTER SIX
The Expedition Begins

The first ship to leave its home port was the icebreaker USCGC NORTHWIND, casting off from the Boston Navy Yard on November 25, 1946.

On the 28th she arrived at Norfolk, VA and joined the flagship USS MOUNT OLYMPUS, seaplane tender USS PINE ISLAND and destroyer USS BROWNSON for final preparations. Finally, on December 2, all was ready. Shortly before noon, Admiral Byrd went aboard the USS MOUNT OLYMPUS for a final lunch with Dick Cruzen.

Afterwards, Byrd stepped ashore and announced that he would wait to sail on the carrier USS PHILIPPINE SEA some thirty days later.

Byrd appointed Paul Siple to represent him as the War Department's chief representative on the expedition and with that, the USS PINE ISLAND cast off, to be followed shortly thereafter by the other three ships. The tiny fleet moved down the Roads, past Old Point Comfort, Cape Henry and finally into the open sea where they abruptly turned south for their 10,000-mile voyage to Antarctica.

December 2nd also found the ships of the Pacific Fleet pulling away from various California ports: the seaplane tender USS CURRITUCK and destroyer USS HENDERSON from San Diego, the oiler USS CACAPON from San Pedro and the cargo ship USS YANCEY from Port Hueneme. The cargo ship USS MERRICK was still busy loading gear and would pull out of Port Hueneme on December 5.

The Atlantic Fleet sailed around Cuba through the Windward Passage and across the Caribbean to Panama. On December 7, the four ships passed through the canal, docking at Balboa on the Pacific side. Waiting for them was the submarine USS SENNET and oiler USS CANISTEO, since they had previously been assigned to the Central American station.

By December 10 all the ships had arrived and as they left Panama behind, the ships fanned our over many hundreds of miles as they made their voyage south.
 


 

Back to Contents

 

 



CHAPTER SEVEN
Operations in Antarctica

Central Group Activities
The Central Group rendezvoused at Scott Island on December 30, 1946, in order to follow the USCGC NORTHWIND through the pack ice into the open waters of the Ross Sea.

The modern icebreaker is one of the most distinctive and remarkable vessels ever designed. And from this distinctive group of ships came the hardest working vessels of their kind: the Wind-class sisters built during and just after World War II. A total of seven were built by the Western Pipe and Steel Company of San Pedro, California.

However, four of them were sailing with a Soviet flag in 1946-7 as part of the lend-lease program with the Soviets, and the last ship was not returned until 1952. (When the American crew arrived at Bremerhaven to take over the ship, subsequently renamed STATEN ISLAND, it was in horrific condition. The ship's desk drawers were crammed with rotting tins of fish and the flight deck area was smeared with chicken blood and feathers. It would take two cruises to the Arctic before the stench would disappear).

Of the three remaining vessels, only the USCGC NORTHWIND was immediately available, as the USS BURTON ISLAND was still in service and the EASTWIND was scheduled for service in the Arctic. By default, the USCGC NORTHWIND would mean success or failure as the thrust began.

When it became apparent that the ice presented a serious danger to the USS SENNET, the submarine was towed back to Scott Island. The remainder of the group reached the Bay of Whales on January 15, 1947, with the USCGC NORTHWIND breaking out a harbor in the bay ice for them.

Over the following two days, landing parties went ashore and selected a site for Little America IV, somewhat north of Little America III, the West Base of the UNITED STATES ANTARCTIC SERVICE EXPEDITION 1939-41.

Construction of the base and accompanying aircraft facilities commenced immediately thereafter. Quite an assortment of vehicles were used in this undertaking, including tractors, jeeps, weasels, bulldozers and other tracked equipment. On January 21, young sailor Vance Woodall, from the USS YANCEY, was working on the ice in the unloading area when a tractor nearby picked up a load of snow roller sleds to move in to the barrier cache area.

The D6 tractors were proving too heavy to ride on top of the snow that lay on the surface of the bay ice. In order to gain sufficient towing purchase, the drivers had to let the steel treads plow into the snow until reaching the hard ice. As a result, one tread would often grip the ice before the other, throwing the tractor violently from side to side until both treads took equally.

The official accident report states that Woodall unfortunately caught both his right arm and head in the slats of the roller just as the tractor suddenly lurched ahead. Woodall's spinal column was severed "high in the neck" and the navy veteran of only seven months died instantly.

By February 6 Little America consisted of a multitude of tents, a sole Quonset hut, three compacted snow runways and a short airstrip made of steel matting. At one point, the number of persons stationed at the base approached 300, but eventually this number had to be greatly reduced so that the remaining individuals could be readily evacuated by the USS BURTON ISLAND.

Meanwhile, shortly after noon on Thursday, January 2, 1947, the carrier USS PHILIPPINE SEA , with Admiral Byrd on its bridge, slowly pulled away from the pier at the Norfolk Navy Base as bands played and the local command saluted farewell.

The USS PHILIPPINE SEA had been finishing up a shakedown exercise off Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, when orders were received that she would be participating in Operation Highjump. The brand new ship hurried north with an exuberant crew cheering the news... this was certainly more exciting than routine shore leave in Hong Kong or Panama!

But what a task they had before them. Since she would be going through the canal, changes had to be made in the hull and flight deck structures. A massive shipment of parts for twenty sleds came in from the Supply Office of the Boston Navy Yard and quickly assembled for use by the Byrd party. A quantity of "Byrd cloth" was shipped in "for the construction of various items of cold weather clothing and equipment".

An HO3S1 helicopter was flown aboard along with approximately one hundred tons of miscellaneous equipment for use by the other ships participating in Highjump. Next came the six R4D transport planes. They were obviously too big to be flown in at sea so it took a little imagination to get them aboard. Since there was no landing field adjacent to the dock, a mile-long swath had to be cut right through the middle of the naval base, from the field to the docks.

What a site it was as drivers had to "pilot" the planes through the narrow pathway, with sailors sitting on the wings to prevent a sudden burst of wind from picking the plane up and hurling it against the sides of buildings, fences and machinery, often within inches of the wingtips.

Last aboard would be Byrd, just hours before shoving off.

The USS PHILIPPINE SEA reached the Canal Zone on January 7, 1947, and the next day started the slow journey through the locks. Byrd and his men departed Balboa for the Antarctic on January 10. The ship steamed south at twenty knots toward Scott Island.

By January 22 the vessel had reached 58°48'S, and "it was assumed icebergs could be encountered during the day".

One of the helicopters was readied for takeoff and as it lifted from the deck, the pilot neglected to gain further altitude before veering off to the side of the carrier. As the copter swept over the port side, the sudden down-wash of wind, together with the loss of the flight deck surface as a cushion, sucked the aircraft right into the water.

Fortunately the pilot bailed out and was rescued by a lifeboat. On January 25, they rendezvoused with the USCGC NORTHWIND, USS CACAPON, USS SENNET and USS BROWNSON near Scott Island. Four days later, on January 29, the first two R4D's successfully took off from the flight deck of the USS PHILIPPINE SEA for the risky flight to Little America IV; Admiral Byrd was aboard the first plane.

By January 30, all six R4D's had arrived safely at Little America IV. The carrier's objective had now been completed. Carrying the only outbound mail from OPERATION HIGHJUMP ships during their Antarctic deployment, the USS PHILIPPINE SEA turned and headed for Balboa, Canal Zone.

She arrived there on February 18 and ten days later was back at Quonset Point, Rhode Island.

Back at Little America, every opportunity was taken to keep the aircraft flying. Several photographic missions were flown, including a two-aircraft flight to the South Pole on February 15-16.

A final flight attempt was made on the 22nd, but was turned back due to poor weather, thus terminating Little America-based flight operations for the expedition. On the ground, investigations were conducted in the immediate vicinity of Little America. A tractor party departed Little America for the Rockefeller Mountains on February 12, but had to return prematurely to the base a week later due to the impending evacuation.

Finally completing shakedown trials, the USS BURTON ISLAND departed San Diego, California at 1530 hours on January 17, 1947. By February 6 she had reached the northern edge of the Ross Sea pack.

Two days later she contacted the ships of the Central Group at 72°S and delivered mail for these vessels. On February 13 she headed for McMurdo Sound, arriving on the 16th, where she acted as a weather station until the 20th. Following this duty, she steamed for Little America to commence evacuation of the base. The USS BURTON ISLAND reached Little America on February 22 and evacuation operations commenced immediately.

The remaining base personnel boarded the icebreaker shortly thereafter, and she departed the Bay of Whales on February 23, 1947.

The ships of the Central Group took various routes on the homeward journey. The USS MERRICK received extensive rudder damage from the ice floes and had to be towed by the USCGC NORTHWIND back to Port Chalmers, New Zealand, for repairs. All the ships had taken a significant amount of abuse from the ice.

The bows and sides of the flagship and cargo vessels USS MERRICK and USS YANCEY became severely dented, as rivets were sprung and propellers damaged. Nevertheless, they all made it back. The USS MERRICK was in drydock for a month but eventually sailed north on March 22, 1947, arriving in San Diego on April 12th. Meanwhile, the USCGC NORTHWIND, USS MOUNT OLYMPUS and USS BURTON ISAND departed Wellington, New Zealand, on March 14, 1947.

The USCGC NORTHWIND arrived in Seattle, Washington, on April 6, 1947. The USS BURTON ISLAND arrived at San Pedro, California, on March 31, 1947 and the USS MOUNT OLYMPUS slipped through the Canal on April 7th and arrived in Washington, D.C. on April 14.

The Yancey had a more interesting return voyage. She departed Port Chalmers on March 5 and arrived at Pago Pago, Samoa, on the 11th. She left Samoa on the 27th and steered for Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, with the Navy YTL-153 in tow.

Under steam at about 7.5 knots, she arrived at Pearl on the 14th of April. The long voyage for the crew and ship finally ended on May 2, 1947, when they settled into Port Hueneme, California. The submarine USS SENNET served as a stand-by rescue vessel for the R4D flights from the USS PHILIPPINE SEA to Little America through the 30th of January. On February 4 she set course for Wellington, New Zealand.

She left New Zealand on the 15th of February and arrived at her mooring at Submarine Base Balboa, Canal Zone, on March 13, 1947.



WESTERN GROUP ACTIVITIES

The Western Group rendezvoused at the Marquesas Islands on December 12, 1946, and sailing on parallel paths, they reached the edge of the pack ice northeast of the Balleny Islands on Christmas Eve day.

 

The USS HENDERSON and USS CACAPON fanned out to serve as weather stations while flight operations from the USS CURRITUCK began on December 24.

 

Perhaps Dufek and his men struggled with the Antarctic elements off the Thurston Peninsula, but Captain Charles A. Bond and his Western Group were blessed by comparison. Their primary weather problem was related to fog. Additionally, considering that none of the sailors aboard the three ships and ever seen Antarctic service before, things couldn't have gone much better.

 

Captain John Clark of the USS CURRITUCK wrote,

"The acute personnel situation then current in the Navy by reason of the demobilization fully affected this vessel".

Of major concern was the Engineering Department, where the inexperienced men,

"were encountering numerous difficulties with all phases of the plant. The ship was to continue to be handicapped by critical personnel shortages throughout the entire operation".

The handling of the PBM's were a concern, too.

"A continuous and searching analysis was made of all phases of plane handling".

Clark was acutely aware of the special weather conditions encountered in the South Polar region and the need to,

"reduce all plane handling times to a minimum except crane operating time and that of actual fueling from the ship's side, which were, or course, uncontrollable".

With much practice, the plane handling time was actually cut by two-thirds.

A few flights were attempted but fog continued to plague them until New Year's Day, 1947. The fog lifted and the first mapping flight of about seven hours was flown along the Oates Coast with complete success.

Free from fighting the elements his colleague Dufek was encountering, Bond was able to concentrate his attention on mastering the weather.

"The ship was continuously looking for good weather and for ice bays in the pack ice for wind protection, being guided in the former by the aerologist's recommendations".

The pilots were encouraged and enthused by Bond's leadership and the resulting accuracy of the aerology and radar tracking teams, both on the USS CURRITUCK and aboard the aircraft.

Whereas the pilots at Little America IV fought dense cloud formations rising to thirteen or fourteen thousand feet, the Western Group, flying along Wilkes Land, found that even if the overcast was dense,

"ordinarily you would break out in the clear soon. On the average the cloud layer wasn't any more than 4 or 5,000 feet thick with not too much icing... it would be absolutely clear on top".

Icebergs were encountered, but as Clark recalled,

"Bergs were shown by radar with fidelity and the ship maneuvered in and out among them easily".

Bond was pleased as significant air operations resulted in unquestioned successes.

After the seven-hour mission on New Years Day, flights were made on the 2nd, 4th, 5th and 6th over the continent from their staging area in the Balleny Islands.

"Operations were eminently successful and a substantial portion of the area assignment had been completed by this time".

Their first assignment completed, Cruzen radioed from the Central Group instructing Bond to cease operations and sail the USS CURRITUCK eastward to the vicinity of Scott Island in order to reconnoiter for the USCGC NORTHWIND and its bedeviled flock in the Ross Sea.

The USS CURRITUCK reached Scott Island on the 10th and both patrol planes flew reconnaissance missions on the 11th and 12th, but no leads could be seen for their trapped colleagues in the ice below.

Dismissed by Cruzen after their unsuccessful air operations, the USS CURRITUCK headed west again past the Adélie Coast and on to Wilkes Land along the Sabrina, Knox and Queen Mary Coasts.

 PBM Landing at "Bunger's Oasis"

Unfortunately, no flights were possible between January 13 and the 21st because of the huge northerly swell.

On January 22 the swells at last moderated and the weather remained acceptable for additional flights. Over the next week, long and successful photomapping missions progressed to the west. Suddenly, on either January 30 or February 1 (the record is unclear), PBM pilot Lieutenant Commander David E. Bunger lifted from the bay and headed south for the continent some hundred miles distant.

At this time the USS CURRITUCK was off the Shackleton Ice Shelf on the Queen Mary Coast of Wilkes Land.

Reaching the coastline, Bunger flew west with cameras humming. Suddenly the men in the cockpit saw a dark spot come up over the barren white horizon and as they drew closer, they couldn't believe their eyes.

Byrd later described it as a "land of blue and green lakes and brown hills in an otherwise limitless expanse of ice". Bunger and his men carefully inspected the region and then raced back to the ship to tell the others of their discovery. Several days later Bunger and his flight crew returned for another look, finding one of the lakes big enough to land on. Bunger carefully landed the "flying boat" and slowly came to a stop.

The water was actually quite warm for Antarctica, about 30°, as the men dipped their hands in to the elbow. The lake was filled with red, blue and green algae which gave the lakes their distinctive color.

The fly boys "seemed to have dropped out of the twentieth century into a landscape of thousands of years ago when land was just starting to emerge from one of the great ice ages", Byrd later wrote.

Byrd called the discovery "by far the most important, so far as the public interest was concerned of the expedition".

As early as 1947, men now wondered if this was the first sign of global warming.

As Paul Siple disgustingly reported, discussion between the scientists as to the nature of "Bungers Oasis" had not even begun,

"before the eleven press representatives aboard the USS MOUNT OLYMPUS had fired off dispatches to the outside world describing the oasis as a 'Shangri-La' and implying that it was warmed by a mysterious source of heat and might be supporting vegetation".

Siple gave high marks to the crew of the PBM for landing and making an attempt to examine the lake, however Bunger "had no technical tools to examine his find".

He even had to guess the temperature of the water since no thermometer was aboard. But they did have an empty bottle aboard which they filled with water from the lake. Unfortunately, "the water in the bottle turned out to be brackish, a clue to the fact that the 'lake' was actually an arm of the open sea".

By the end of January, inclement weather had forced the airmen to skip over the existing gap between 150°E and 145°E longitude, which later expeditions would fill in. Mapping missions continued day after day covering a 1500-mile long area between 141°E and 115°E longitude.

Wilkes Land proved to be a "featureless ice sheet that ranged from 6,000 to 9.500 feet above sea level. No mountains were lofty enough to thrust their heads into the frigid winds above this white blanket, although valleys and ridges in the ice surface up to 100 miles inland gave a hint of rough terrain underneath".

The weather turned typically Antarctic as the first week of February arrived. Seas became rough and snow storms frequent as flight operations were limited to only three days during the month. During that time, the USS CURRITUCK sailed hundreds of miles around the coastline, from 115°E to 40°E longitude, all around Wilkes Land, the American Highland fronting the Indian Ocean and on to Queen Maud Land.

When the planes were able to fly, outstanding results would be the norm. These results would be of significant importance in the selection of base sites some ten years later during the IGY.

On February 12, when the USS CURRITUCK was off the Princess Ragnhild Coast of Queen Maud Land, pilots W. R. Kreitzer and F. L. Reinbolt lifted off in their PBM for a routine photo mission to map 300 miles of coastline. What had previously been drawn in as coastline now proved to be towering shelf ice rising high above the sea.

As they turned south, they suddenly discovered a range of ice-crystal mountains, luminously blue against the dark sky, rising more than two miles into the air. Flying near the mountain peaks, Kreitzer and Reinbolt followed the range for nearly one hundred miles before turning back.

One of them later told Byrd,

"It was like a landscape on another planet".

On March 1, the final flights were made in the vicinity of Ingrid Christensen Coast.

The USS CACAPON fueled the USS HENDERSON and USS CURRITUCK on March 3 and all three ships sailed for Sydney, Australia, arriving there on March 14. All three ships departed Sydney on March 20. The USS CURRITUCK arrived at the Canal Zone on April 9, traveled through the locks and arrived in Norfolk, Virginia on April 18, 1947.

 

The USS HENDERSON entered San Diego Bay channel on April 6 and the USS CACAPON arrived at San Pedro, California on April 8, 1947.


EASTERN GROUP ACTIVITIES

Operations of the Eastern Group commenced in the vicinity of Peter I Island, north of the Bellingshausen Sea, late in December, 1946.

The USS PINE ISLAND reported a position near Swain Island on December 23 and on Christmas Eve, the first iceberg was spotted. Without question, the Amundsen and Bellingshausen Seas experience some of the worst weather conditions in the world.

To complicate matters with the Eastern Group, frequent foggy weather, howling blizzards and stormy waters made aircraft launching and flight perpetually hazardous. That portion of the global windstream that follows the north / south axis is heated in the tropics and rushed toward the poles in the upper atmosphere.

The massive Antarctic ice cap cools this mass and as the air descends, greater cooling takes place. The frigid, cold air is deflected outward once it reaches the Pole. The natural rotation of the earth drives the air mass toward the coastline from a southeasterly direction, often creating hurricane-force winds in the process. Between Cape Leahy and Cape Dart and in the area around Mount Siple in the Amundsen Sea vicinity, this frigid howling windstream often slams head-on into a southward-heading warmer air mass blowing in from the lower Pacific.

As a result, a cyclone is created which spins eastward along Ellsworth Land and through the Amundsen and Bellingshausen Seas, gathering velocity as it races up the base of the Antarctic Peninsula across Charcot Island and Marguerite Bay before finally dissipating along the tip of the peninsula or at sea in the Drake Passage.

Heavy swells and frequent snow squalls plagued the USS PINE ISLAND until the weather suddenly improved and cleared in the afternoon of December 29.

PBM GEORGE ONE was lowered over the side and fueled without difficulty and shortly after 1:00 p.m. the plane lifted off the water on the first flight to Antarctica with Lieutenant Commander John D. Howell as pilot and Captain George Dufek as observer. Within hours, GEORGE ONE radioed back that weather conditions were favorable for mapping operations over the continent and so GEORGE TWO took to the air later that evening.

When GEORGE ONE returned at 11:05 p.m., a third flight was scheduled with an entirely new crew. This flight left at 2:24 in the morning of December 30 (it was, of course, daylight 24 hours / day), with Lieutenant (jg) Ralph Paul "Frenchy" LeBlanc at the controls. His co-pilot was young Lieutenant (jg) Bill Kearns.

The rest of the crew consisted of

  • navigator Ensign Maxwell Lopez

  • Aviation Radioman Second-Class Wendell K. Hendersin

  • flight engineer Frederick W. Williams

  • photographer Owen McCarty

  • mechanic William Warr

  • Aviation Radioman Second-Class James H. "Jimmy" Robbins

  • lastly, the skipper of the USS PINE ISLAND, Captain Caldwell

     

As GEORGE ONE flew southwest at four hundred feet above the ice, the weather "looked anything but promising", as Kearn's later wrote.

The plane flew for three hours before picking up the coastline of Thurston Island (then called the Thurston Peninsula). Co-pilot Kearns took over the controls from a very tired LeBlanc and took the plane up to 1,000 feet in altitude.

Unfortunately, the plane began picking up a great deal of ice. The bow station Plexiglas froze over and the cockpit windows frosted over despite all efforts with on-board de-icing equipment. The plane suddenly entered an "ice blink", streams of sunshine trapped beneath the clouds, bouncing off the snow "in a million directions, as if each ice fragment were a tiny mirror".

To make matters worse, a fine, driving snow obstructed the surface below. Puzzled in their predicament, the altimeters began giving different readings and as the wings began to ice up, Kearns turned to LeBlanc and said,

"I don't like the looks of this. Let's get the hell out of here!"

LeBlanc nodded in agreement and as Kearns gently banked the plane, all on board felt a "crunching shock" that "reverberated all along the hull".

The plane had obviously grazed something so Kearns immediately applied full throttle as LeBlanc gave full low pitch to the propellers to aid pulling power. Both men pulled back hard on the yoke and GEORGE ONE began to rise steeply.

Then the "flying boat" blew up.



Crash Victim Fred Williams
A TRAGEDY ON THE ICE



ANTARCTIC MAYDAY
The plane had literally blown apart.

Three of the men were dead and the others crawled into what was left of the fuselage to lay stunned and bleeding for hours. The explosion had lifted co-pilot Kearns right out of his seat, whose seat belt was unfastened for the first time in all his years of flying.

He flew right out the cockpit window, headed straight for the starboard propeller and somehow missed the blade and instead fell harmlessly into the drifting snow.

Landing like a ski jumper, Kearns fell head-over-heels down a slope and when he awoke from his daze,

"I was all in one piece - just full of pain and nearly frozen".

All but one of the crew had been blown clear of the wreck.

Captain Caldwell had been riding in the nose of the plane when he was pitched out the window and into the snow. His wounds were relatively minor: a cut across the nose, several chipped and loosened teeth and a broken ankle. McCarty had a 9 ½" gash in his scalp which knocked him unconscious for about an hour.

He woke up to extreme pain in his right hand caused by a dislocated thumb and when he went to stand up, he could not lift his leg. Warr had suffered only a small cut on his scalp and radioman Robbins came out of the ordeal with only post-crash shock. The other four men were not so lucky.

LeBlanc was still in the shattered and burning cockpit, his body held in the grips of his seat belt. Flames from the burning aviation fuel were licking at LeBlanc's body as Kearns reached the wreckage first and rushed through the fire to undo the seat belt. As hard as he tried, Kearn's stiff shoulder wouldn't allow him to set LeBlanc free.

Robbins rushed forward to assist and between them, LeBlanc was finally freed. Kearns, Robbins and Warr used their gloved hands to beat the fire out that was consuming LeBlanc's body. Kearns later recalled, "Frenchy's face, arms and legs were burned black and were already starting to swell.

He was only half-conscious, writhing in pain and muttering unintelligibly". LeBlanc was covered with a parachute and the search resumed for the others. It was a gruesome find. The official report states that Hendersin died instantly of "extreme multiple injuries" and that Williams went about 2 ½ hours later from the same trauma. Lopez was decapitated ("traumatic amputation of the head").

These were the first men to ever die on an Antarctic expedition connected in any way with Richard E. Byrd.

I invite you to read two compelling stories of this disaster, ANTARCTIC MAYDAY, the personal account of a crash survivor, and TRAGEDY ON THE ICE, the story of an unlucky young man one who didn't make it.



Sketch from Jim Robbins' unpublished Antarctic Mayday
*


Admiral Byrd later wrote of the absolutely terrifying experience this must have been.

None of them had ever been to Antarctica before the crash and even though some of them had experienced similar flying conditions in the north polar regions,

"One is generally introduced to Antarctica by degrees, and even then it is awe-inspiring. But these young men came out of their daze - woke up, as it were - lying on the continent and in one of its most uninhabitable spots. It was like dying and coming to life in another world".

McCarty wrote a farewell letter to his family.

He figured they'd be found someday and he wanted his wife to know what had happened. For a day and a half the survivors slept or talked as though dazed by drugs.

Incredibly, LeBlanc tried to cheer everyone up as he called to McCarty,

"Now don't you worry, Mac. Just take it easy. They'll come and get us out of this mess".

LeBlanc's pain finally drove him into delirium as he staggered to his feet so that he could "go below and see Doc Williamson". Kearns and the others gently helped him back into his sleeping bag.

The men used the remaining section of fuselage as a shelter for the rest of their ordeal.

"Plane number one CW and voice call George One Captain Caldwell flight crew number three overdue since 30 1945 Z. Accordance rescue doctrine have made preparations for search and rescue".

This message was radioed to Cruzen in the Central Group. Unfortunately, inclement weather stubbornly refused to allow for search flights. At the crash site, New Year's Eve was celebrated with Warr and Robbins scouring the wreckage for food. A little dried fruit was all that could be found.

The next morning they awoke in a better mood and Robbins was able to find more food, frozen solid, along with a frying pan, pressure cooker and some canned heat, possibly enough for a few hot meals. After breakfast, McCarty looked through the wreckage for his wedding ring which had come off in the crash - he found it.

On January 2, the snow finally stopped. More food was discovered in the wreckage, enough to ensure survival for quite some time. The aircraft, in Kearns words, was,

"a virtual flying laboratory, carrying radar and other equipment far more elaborate than old-time explorers had dreamed of. Nine cameras were set up within her huge frame. Her emergency supplies included food packets, sleeping bags, field tents, medical equipment, and a survival sled. Within the sled were stored additional rations, warm clothing and small arms".

The next few days broke clear and cold.

On January 5, LeBlanc's condition had deteriorated as a supply of fresh water was now becoming a problem. LeBlanc's hands had swelled and his face had become covered with a hard, black crust. His legs and back had been left with a mass of angry burns. LeBlanc's biggest problem was dehydration and even though the men tried to keep a cup of water next to Frenchy, it would freeze in a matter of minutes.

Huge quantities of snow were melted by the Coleman stove in order to obtain only a mouthful of water. This ordeal and daily suffrage would continue until January 11.

Operations aboard the USS PINE ISLAND were frustrating, at best. On New Year's Day, GEORGE TWO was lifted over the side but a dense fog suddenly rolled in.

The plane was tied up to the stern by a 300-foot line and at two the next morning, disaster struck. The swells swung the plane around and thrust it into the side of the ship, extensively damaging a wing tip, de-icing boot and aileron. By January 5, GEORGE TWO had been repaired and GEORGE THREE assembled for backup. Both planes were lowered over the side and once again the fog rolled in.

Finally, the weather cleared and that afternoon a test flight was ordered. It went off without a hitch and later that evening a search was made over the last reported position of GEORGE ONE but they returned to the ship "because of increasingly bad weather". The following day weather conditions allowed a second flight, but once again the mission was scrapped due to fog and snow.

Snow, fog and heavy swells continued to plague the search efforts until the 9th, but even the search that day was turned back due to "very unfavorable weather".

Good fortune would finally smile on Dufek and his men on the morning of January 11. At 4:30 a.m., GEORGE TWO, flown by Lieutenant (jg.) James Ball and Lieutenant (jg.) Robert Goff, was hoisted over the side. It lifted from the water at 7:00 a.m. and flew off in the direction of the continent. Later, at the crash site, Kearns suddenly sat up and shouted "Airplane!"

They struggled out of their tents and broken plane and there, on the horizon, was Ball's PBM. Everything that could burn, especially the raft, had already been dragged out of the plane, placed in a large pile and doused with gasoline. After the sighting, Caldwell cried, "There she is, lads!"

Nearly blowing himself up in the process, Robbins dropped a match on the pile of debris which sent a tall column of smoke high into the sky. The PBM rocked its wing and the men went hysterical, dancing and jumping in the snow. However, the ordeal was not over.

Supplies, including food, clothing, cigarettes, bedding, a rifle and ammunition, even two quarts of whiskey, came floating down by parachute. Then the survivors wrote a large message on the blue wing of the plane, letting those above know that Hendersin, Lopez and Williams had been killed. Meanwhile, co-pilot Goff of GEORGE TWO looked to the north for a landing spot.

A few minutes later they returned and dropped a message in a sardine can, "Open water ten air miles to north. If you can make it on foot, join hands in a circle. If not, form straight line. Don't lost courage, we'll pick you up". "Let's go," Kearns said, and all but LeBlanc joined hands.

Ball and Goff, still overhead, were low on fuel and would have to return to the ship. No problem, as Lieutenant Commander Howell was already on his way in GEORGE THREE. Soon Howell was overhead dropping additional supplies to the men below. GEORGE THREE then went back to the shore and landed some two miles out.

Conger and Howell loaded a sled and supplies into a life raft and gently lowered themselves into the sea for a brisk row to shore. Once ashore, the sled was loaded and the two men headed off into the interior. It was difficult going and as the two men trudged onward, the weather got colder and colder. Fog rolled in and the possibility of disaster loomed larger and larger.

The survivors pushed their way along through huge snow drifts and as the fog drifted in ever closer, the men of GEORGE ONE dropped to the snow in exhaustion. Suddenly all heard a pistol shot. Robbins stood up and saw two figures moving toward them, dragging a sled. As Howell and Conger made their way to the six, they could not believe what they saw.

Exhausted, bearded, battered men stood before them, overcome with pain and emotion. Howell quickly got the men moving. By this time, the fog had engulfed the plane and to make matters worse, it started snowing. The return trail was not marked and soon the earlier sled marks and footprints were covered.

But fate stepped in at the last moment and the party suddenly arrived at the edge of the shore where they now would wait impatiently for the fog to lift. As it turned out, they would have to wait eight hours for the fog to lift enough for GEORGE THREE to be guided in. All were rowed out to the plane and several hours later the PBM was carefully hoisted aboard the USS PINE ISLAND.

All would recover but LeBlanc's legs would be amputated two weeks after the rescue aboard the carrier USS PHILIPPINE SEA.
FIVE OF SIX SURVIVORS
(LEFT TO RIGHT)

William Warr, Aviation Machinest Mate 2nd Class, Flight Engineer
James Robbins, Aviation Radioman 2nd Class, Radar
Capt. H. H. Caldwell, Commander of USS PINE ISLAND

Lt. jg. William Kearns, Co-pilot
Owen McCarty, Cheif Photography Mate

On January 18, the USS PINE ISLAND rendezvoused with the USS BROWNSON and transferred the crash survivors, who were then taken to the USS PHILIPPINE SEA for transfer back to the United States.

Further photographic flights from the USS PINE ISLAND were initiated on the 23rd, covering the Getz Ice Shelf to the vicinity of Thurston Island. Early in February the ship moved to the northeast of Charcot Island and flights were made to Charcot and Alexander Islands and Marguerite Bay.

Intentions were to land a party at Charcot Island but the shifting pack ice prevented any possibility. Vessels of the Eastern Group were ordered to proceed to the Weddell Sea on February 14, but unsatisfactory weather prohibited any worthwhile photographic flights. By March 4, the Eastern Group had departed Antarctic waters, arriving at Rio de Janeiro, Brazil on March 18, 1947.

The USS PINE ISLAND departed Rio on March 24 and arrived at Cristobal, Canal Zone, on April 6. The next day she transited the Panama Canal and remained in drydock at Balboa, to replace a port screw, until leaving on April 11. Her arrival date in San Diego is unknown.

The USS BROWNSON departed Rio on March 24 and arrived at Norfolk, Virginia, on April 8, 1947. The USS CANISTEO departed Rio on March 23 for the United States. On the 25th, she set an independent course for Ascension Island after refueling the USS PINE ISLAND and USS BROWNSON.

The official narrative for this ship does not describe the log entries beyond the date of March 25, therefore the return date to the home port in the States is not known to this writer.

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CHAPTER EIGHT
Summary

The greatest achievement of OPERATION HIGHJUMP was its acquisition of approximately 70,000 aerial photographs of the coast of Antarctic and selected inland areas.

But what was expected to be a mapmaker's dream turned out to be a cartographic nightmare when a large percentage of the photographs were rendered useless due to lack of adequate ground control points. Fortunately, this matter was rectified the following year by a much smaller expedition, OPERATION WINDMILL, which succeeded in obtaining most of the needed ground control points.

Thus, OPERATION HIGHJUMP was not denied its rightful place in the history books as one of the more productive Antarctic expeditions.

Four brave men gave their lives on this expedition. The crash of the PBM and the death of three crewmen ignited a venomous conflict between "Byrd's boys" and the regular navy. Embittered relations between the two groups would last for more than twenty years. In Byrd's three previous expeditions, not a single life was lost.

He and his comrades had taken every precaution to see to it that all men would return safely. Foolhardy risks were simply not taken by Byrd. Paul Siple later noted, in paying tribute to the admiral of the Antarctic, that Byrd invariably preferred a live failure to a dead success. Now the navy, perhaps calloused by the many lives lost during the war, had let three men die on their very first major venture into Antarctic exploration.

Highjump had certainly been a rush job, with preparation and training at a minimum in order to race the men and ships south into polar training conditions as quickly as possible. An operation of this nature, particularly due to its size, was bound to contain risks so it is really quite remarkable that more crashes hadn't occurred.

All things considered, this expedition was a huge success and thanks to its accomplishments, the ground work was layed for modern day scientific exploration on the ice.



* Although it is assumed there are only written accounts from two of the survivors (Pilot Bill Kearns and Photographer Owen McCarty), a third account actually exists. Written by Radioman Jim Robbins, ANTARCTIC MAYDAY is a heartwrenching story of courage and faith in his own words. This story has never been published and only a few copies exist but fortunately Mr. Robbins has presented me with one for publication on this web site, so be sure to read this compelling story.

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Related Reports

 

Bibliography

  • "Assault on Eternity", by Lisle A. Rose

  • "Americans in Antarctica 1775-1948", by Kenneth J. Bertrand

  • "Chronological List of Antarctic Expeditions and Related Historical Events", by Robert K. Headland

  • "Ice Cap News", the Official Journal of the American Society of Polar Philatelists. HIGHJUMP information courtesy of Joseph Lynch, Jr.

  • "Moments of Terror: The Story of Antarctic Aviation", by David Burke

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