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Belltower: Tidbits from a couple of Antarctic newsletters

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From page A4 | September 23, 2013 | Leave Comment

I ran across a couple of newsletters from the austral summer of 1967-68 I spent with the Navy in Antarctica, written by Cmdr. A.F. Schneider and Chief Journalist J.K. Partee. Our squadron, Antarctic Development Squadron 6, was commissioned in 1955 to support the U.S. participation in the International Geophysical Year, which lasted from July 1957 to December 1958.

I was fascinated with the Geophysical Year and collected stamps commemorating it. The IGY encompassed 11 Earth sciences: aurora and airglow, cosmic rays, geomagnetism, gravity, ionospheric physics, longitude and latitude determinations, meteorology, oceanography, seismology and solar activity.

The IGY led to the discovery of the Van Allen radiation belts, mid-ocean ridges that confirmed plate tectonics. Included in the IGY were 18 months of  Antarctic science. IGY discoveries paved the way for our manned space program.

It wasn’t until 1965-67 that plate tectonics and continental drift became accepted science. I still remember reading about it in 1970 when it was still new and discoveries like magnetic shift found in ocean floors were exciting.

In 1959, the Antarctic Treaty was signed by 12 nations, prohibiting military weapons and fortifications and leaving all bases open to inspection. One of our planes flew 720 miles to Vostok, the Russian base, in 1967 and passengers were treated to smoked salmon, caviar, dark bread, vodka and champagne.

When I arrived at McMurdo Station, our squadron was on its 13th six-month expedition in support of the National Science Foundation. The squadron still flew Gooney Birds — one Douglas C-47 Dakota and three Douglas C-117 Skytrains. That didn’t count the admiral’s red-carpeted C-47 in Christ Church, which I once flew on to put in the time to collect flight crew training pay as the admiral flew to Wellington to play tennis with the ambassador. It’s doubtful any U.S. military still flies Gooney Birds. Also only found in museums are Lockheed C-121 Super Constellations, the planes with three tails that TWA flew before commercial jets. Our squadron had two of those. They used the Super Connies to fly personnel and supplies back and forth between Christ Church, N.Z., and McMurdo Sound.

There were no hangars at McMurdo. All work on the aircraft and their engines was done outside in extreme cold.

The work horse in Antarctica was the ski-equipped Lockheed C-130 Hercules. That turbo-prop plane still is an invaluable part of the military air fleet. In Antarctica we had four of those.

Our squadron also had five Sikorsky H-34 Seahorse helicopters. In Rhode Island I would do my four hours of flight training by going out when the pilots would practice auto-rotations over Narragansett Bay. I last flew in one of those in 1979 on a press flight over the Chili Bar Fire. Originally developed for the Navy for anti-submarine warfare, our H-34s were converted for Antarctic use in 1962. The Gooney birds and the Hercules were maintained by the crews on the ice runway, called Williams Field. They lived in canvas quonset huts. We referred to them as on “The Ice.” I was on “The Hill,” McMurdo Station. Our electronics shop was next to the landing pad for the H-34 helicopters. We maintained the electronics and performed other lesser maintenance like oiling the key parts.

Our squadron had 75 officers and 396 enlisted men.

The Hercules flew 3,200 hours, hauling more than 462 tons of cargo and 726,000 gallons of fuel to the stations at the South Pole, Byrd, Plateau, Hallet and Brockton, as well as supplying open field scientific expeditions.

We had a complete photo lab fully staffed with Navy photographers. There also were at least two Navy journalists, a chief petty officer and his assistant. Since the assistant was a 2nd class petty officer like myself, he was assigned to the metal quonset hut that housed 1st and 2nd class petty officers and was called the “Lifers Lounge.”

We also had a big parachute contingent that liked to make historic jumps, like highest jump over the South Pole. Getting silver jump wings by completing five jumps was a goal of many. I was intrigued but not intrigued enough to jump out of a perfectly good helicopter, though the supply officer did it 10 times in Antarctica to qualify for gold wings. Lt. Orr received confirmation from an admiral in Washington that he was the only officer in the Navy to wear both naval aviator and parachutist wings.

The chute loft made special parkas for us, by adding colorful canvas-like material over the khaki military-issue parkas. I’ve still got a bright green one with fur-lined hood that could be closed down into a tube. Bear-claw mittens, big rubber “bunny boots” and insulated overalls completed the polar ensemble.

From the December newsletter came the account of a rescue mission by a Hercules that flew 1,500 miles to Britain’s Halley Bay Station to evacuate a British doctor who had fallen 30 feet down an embankment and broken his jaw and had spinal fractures. Another Englishman had pulled him free, rendered first-aid and erected a tent. The doctor refused morphine and wrote detailed instructions about treatment for his injuries.

“Upon arrival at the base on the coast of the Weddell Sea, the aircraft landed on a cocoa-sprinkled skiway prepared for them. Prior to the arrival, and having nothing else to mark the landing site, some 37 members of the British Antarctic party worked six hours spreading the cocoa.”

Also in December was the conclusion of the camp-wide dart tournament. Darts was serious business in Antarctica and also in Christ Church when on a lunch break with fish and chips or fried shrimp at the nearest hotel, which is what bars were called there. Everyone had specially ordered darts with changeable tip weights. A two-man team from the Lifers Lounge won the tournament. I was pretty good but not among the finalists. Battling for second and third place was a team of officers and two from another hut.

And finally, I’ll conclude with a newsletter entry about myself that I really don’t remember:

“Three squadron personnel spent several merry hours as the Duty Shore Patrol here on Christmas Eve. Disgruntled to have duty on such a joyous occasion, it soon became apparent that they were taking their job seriously. At the end of their tour of duty they had issued 177 parking tickets, arrested 203 people for ‘loitering with intent’ and threatened to close McMurdo’s three bars.

“It has been reliably ‘rumored’ that a decree has been sent down from the high echelon stating, ‘Don’t pick those three *@#% guys for Shore Patrol Duty ever again.’

“Our guess is the PN2 Elijah Dawkins, PH2 Chuck Durel and ATR2 Mike Raffety were simply insuring that they are not selected for that same duty on New Year’s Eve. (Right men?)”

Michael Raffety is editor of the Mountain Democrat. ATR2 is an abbreviation for Aviation Electronics Technician-Radar and Navigation, Petty Officer Second Class. 

Michael Raffety

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