February 1st, 1955
Operation Deep Freeze is Established in Antarctica
The research task force titled Operation Deep Freeze was first established in Antarctica in 1955. This first mission was the first in an ongoing series of American research missions to the Antarctic continent, which has facillitated many researchers and scientists to explore, study, and perform experiements. In March, 1970, Proceedings published a firsthand account of one of the first Deep Freeze missions, undertaken thirteen years after the beginning of the operation. In “Deep Freeze Diary, 1968,” Commander James S, McNeely, USN (retired), described his experience of Antarctica, from recieving his orders to the end of his assignment. Mcneely provides a detailed account of the dark Antarctic winter, as well as the risks and challenges of living in such a barren environment, but emphasizes the importance of such long and lonely missions in advancing human knowledge and exploration.
“BUPERS ORDERS … CDR JAMES S. MC NEELY … DIRDET … AS CO ANTARCTICSUPPACT DET ALFA …” Me! The Bureau of Personnel had ordered me to duty in Antarctica as Commanding Officer of the wintering-over detachment. Great!
I reported to Antarctic Support Activities at Davisville, Rhode Island, in October 1967. The majority of the wintering-over personnel had reported during the summer months. Only a few had been to Antarctica before. Indoctrination lasted two-and-a-half months. There were lectures, movies, and briefings. The men in the various specialties and ratings conducted functional training and many attended schools appropriate to their work.
Prior to my arrival at Davisville, the department heads, station officers-in-charge, and a few others had met with some of the key science personnel at Skyland, Virginia, at the end of August for an overview of the entire program. It was an excellent chance for everyone to become acquainted before going to what everyone now referred to as “the ice.”
Late in September and early in October, most of the officers and men of both the wintering-over and the summer support groups leave for McMurdo Station, Antarctica, to relieve the off-going wintering-over crew. The new wintering-over party continue their on-the-job training during the austral summer with the experienced members of the summer support group. This “summer” indoctrination period and the wintering-over period comprise the tour of duty for Detachment ALFA personnel.
While at Davisville, I attended briefings at the U. S. Army Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratory at Hanover, N. H., spent some time at the Naval Nuclear Power Unit at Fort Belvoir, Virginia, and visited the National Science Foundation in Washington, D. C., to obtain information on the U. S. Antarctic Research Program (USARP). At USARP Headquarters, I learned more about the science program in Antarctica, which the Navy supports. This program is an extension of International Geophysical Year (IGY) studies of 1957-1958 and includes such disciplines as: geology (conducted at McMurdo during Deep Freeze ’68 by a Soviet exchange scientist, Boris Lopatin from Leningrad), glaciology, biology, auroral studies, cosmic ray studies, climatic physiology, and meteorology.
I left the States with a few scientists and staff personnel on 3 January 1968 in a prop-driven C-121 “Super Connie” for the longest flight of my life. It was 50 flying hours from Quonset Point, Rhode Island, to McMurdo Station, Antarctica, with four stops en route. Jets do it in about half the time. One of the stops was in Christchurch, New Zealand, where I attended a planning conference for the following year’s operation.
We departed on our final leg to McMurdo, and, about halfway, we began to see huge icebergs. Even from 10,000 feet, they appeared enormous. A little further along we came upon the ice pack, which consists of ice broken out but still packed together. Finally, the continent appeared. When we arrived at Williams Field, located on the Ross Ice Shelf about five miles south of McMurdo, it was snowing, and, when we stepped out of the airplane the scene lived up to our expectations of Antarctica. The drive into “town” was a different story. Upon leaving the Ross Ice Shelf, the sudden absence of snow was quite a surprise. The ground was volcanic ash, bleak and dirty looking. There was absolutely no vegetation. The McMurdo summer temperatures were usually just above freezing and with the melting snow on the surrounding hills, water ran everywhere and the streets were often quite muddy.
The buildings consist of Quonsets and Quonsetshaped “Jamesways,” box-like T-5s, hangar-shaped warehouse, an occasional weather radome, and over a dozen quarter-million-gallon-capacity cylindrical fuel tanks.
There are several physiological and psychological conditions to be dealt with.
For example, no matter how often forewarned, people do not really believe, unless they see for themselves that, during the austral summer, the sun never sets. It continues to surprise them to leave the late movie about midnight and walk out into bright sunlight. The first sunset at McMurdo does not occur until 21 February. Until the day/night cycle commences, many have difficulty sleeping. This is called the “big eye.” Another condition that causes physical problems is the extreme dryness. Antarctica is the largest desert in the world. Beneath the feet are uncountable tons of frozen water, but moisture is almost completely frozen out of the air. This can cause bloody noses, dry skin, sometimes a severe skin rash, and easy-to-come-by hangovers.
During my first week, I visited all activities at McMurdo Station and then went over to Scott Base, just two miles south, to become acquainted with the New Zealanders and their program. I also toured Williams Field, and went over the entire air operations setup with the summer O-in-C of the airfield, who was to be my Exec during the winter months.
I then flew to the inland stations, with South Pole as the first stop. We took the same route as Scott had taken on his famous last journey in 1911-1912, across the Ross Ice Shelf, up the Beardmore Glacier to the polar plateau, 9,000 feet above, and straight to the Pole.
At Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station, I was given a good three-day tour of the station, which, though built on the surface, now was buried under the snow.
From there I went to Plateau Station, the coldest and highest of all our inland stations. It is located 630 miles beyond the Pole from McMurdo at an elevation of 11,800 feet. (Plateau was to set a new temperature record, for American stations, of minus 123.1° Fahrenheit on 20 July. Upon completion of Deep Freeze ’68, this station would be decommissioned.)
Lieutenant Jerry Johnson, MC, U. S. Naval Reserve, a doctor not long out of medical school, was the OinC. He escorted me through his one-building base. With only eight men in the wintering-over crew (four Navy men and four scientists), and temperatures averaging minus 100° Fahrenheit between April and September, theirs was to be a cold, lonely winter.
Finally, I spent three days at Byrd Station. This station had been built under the snow and was the most elaborate of all the inland stations. The only wintering-over station that I was unable to visit was Palmer Station, located near the tip of the Antarctic Peninsula, which normally is accessible only by ship.
Upon returning to McMurdo about 1 February, I began in earnest to set up my winter organization. In another week or two, the Summer Support personnel would start flying north for home, and they would be leaving at the rate of about 100 every three days. As each group left, my detachment personnel took over.
Detachment ALFA was finally activated on 24 February. The last LC-130 Hercules to leave for Christchurch made a low pass over Williams Field and then dipped down over McMurdo in a salute to those who faced the coming winter. Detachment ALFA had the conn. It was the beginning of seven and one-half months of isolation. As the LC-130 flew out of sight, our last physical link with the outside world was broken. We could almost feel the stillness pressing down on us. It was as if we were at the end of the world—and we were!
Our first task was to close up all buildings and secure the power at Williams Field. Some of the equipment, such as mobile generators, was hauled into McMurdo on sleds for overhaul and repair during the winter months. It took a week-and-a-half to close the Field. Meanwhile, a crisis was developing at Plateau Station. Just a few hours after the last plane had left McMurdo, Jerry Johnson reported Plateau’s number one generator in a down status. Six days later he reported problems with number two generator. The first report was disturbing, the second downright alarming. Plateau Station had only three generators and number three, which was provided for emergency use and was located in the emergency quarters about 1,000 feet behind the main building, eventually had to be moved to the main building as a substitute generator. Manhauling this equipment in the low temperatures and thin air of Plateau Station was quite an ordeal.
At one point all three generators were in a down status at the same time and an emergency evacuation was considered. The critical temperature for flight operations is minus 65° Fahrenheit—when the hydraulic seals in the aircraft begin to break down. This means that, after the landing skis are lowered, it would probably be impossible to bring them up again. Additionally, the next landing would be without oleos (hydraulic shock absorbers). Plateau’s temperatures were rapidly approaching this cut-off point.
Jerry, who had learned very little about generators or command in medical school, sutured and clamped the entire Plateau crew—both Navy and science personnel—together and ordered the needed repairs. Had they failed and had we been unable to evacuate them, they would have had to rely on their fuel oil to provide heat, light, and cooking for the remainder of the winter; but, the science program for Plateau Station would have been cancelled, since most of the projects depended on electrical power.
We celebrated our final sunset on 23 April with a formal flag-lowering ceremony and had our first station party. Inland stations had similar ceremonies—traditional in the Deep Freeze Program. The exact date of final sunset varies for each station, depending on its latitude. We continued to have some twilight on a gradually diminishing basis for another two or three weeks, then complete darkness descended.
Most people become depressed with the coming of darkness. In Antarctica, it is called the “midwinter blues.” The absence of a day/night cycle again caused difficulty in sleeping for some of the men. The “big eye,” was as contagious as the “channel fever” so many of us had experienced on return trips from a long cruise. As usual, those who kept busy fared the best.
With the reduced size of the wintering-over crew, the Naval Nuclear Power Unit Detachment was able to provide McMurdo with all of its electrical power for nearly the entire winter, except for the few times the plant had to “scram” because of mechanical difficulties. The only nuclear power plant in Antarctica and the only land-based nuclear electric plant operated by the Navy, it also provides heat for flash evaporators that produce nearly all of McMurdo’s fresh water supply during the wintering-over period. This is the world’s first application ashore of nuclear energy to produce fresh water from the ocean.
Antarctica is a land of extremes in things other than cold weather. Airfields, for example, have far more runway area than one might expect for the few planes in use. The seven American airfields on the Antarctic Continent during Deep Freeze ’68, all constructed of ice and snow, comprised 23.5 million square feet of landing surface.
At Williams Field alone, more landing surface is maintained than at Washington’s Dulles and Baltimore’s Friendship Airports combined. There is good reason for this, however. Since wheeled aircraft, such as the C-121 cannot land on a skiway, an ice runway has to be constructed every year on the annual ice just off the Ross Ice Shelf and adjacent to the skiway. Another ice runway is maintained about 11 miles west of Williams Field, on the ice shelf, in an area where high winds prevent snow from accumulating. It is used when the annual ice breaks out. The strip—“Outer Williams”—is also available as an alternate field if the annual ice runway is closed owing to bad weather. The inland stations can only construct skiways, and are thereby limited to receiving the ski-equipped LC-130 Hercules aircraft. Nearly all of the Antarctic fields have a tower, navigational aids, and ground control approach (GCA). One of the wintering-over tasks was to prepare each skiway and the two ice runways by dragging with a chain and smoothing out with special heavy leveling equipment. The associated electronic equipment has to be activated and tested so that when the summer support group returns, all airfields are ready in all respects for use during the coming austral summer.
The supply pipeline to Antarctica extends halfway around the world. Although all delivery of supplies must be conducted during the austral summer, most of the planning and ordering is done during the winter months. This is a coordinated effort and is shared by Detachment ALFA in Antarctica; Antarctic Support Activities in Davisville (the parent command); and the staff, U. S. Naval Support Force, Antarctica, with headquarters in Washington, D. C. The U. S. Antarctic Research Program (USARP) uses Navy general use items. This organization, however, has its own specific Antarctic supply program for scientific material and equipment and cold weather clothing.
In the extreme isolation of Antarctica during the winter months, it is as important to have a good recreation program as a good work schedule. Most activities are necessarily confined to the indoors because of the weather. The possibility of falling into a crevasse also makes it hazardous to stray too far from the base. During the darkest part of winter in June 1968, one of the scientists discovered a large crevasse not more than one-half mile from McMurdo that measured four and a half feet across at the top and 48 feet deep.
Everyone read a lot. Besides McMurdo’s excellent station library, every lounge had a substantial number of books that had been brought down and then left by those who had gone before us. Movies were another favourite pastime and one that had most of us as “hooked,” as is customary on board ship when we are far from home and have few other diversions.
The two-lane bowling alley at McMurdo was in use constantly. League games generated a tremendous amount of enthusiasm and were an excellent boost to morale. Chess was also popular and was played both at McMurdo and by radio with other U. S. and foreign Antarctic stations. Even the Canterbury Chess Club of Christchurch, New Zealand, contacted us by radio with a challenge. To no one’s surprise, our Soviet exchange scientist, Boris Lopatin, was the McMurdo chess champion.
The wintering-over period should have been an excellent opportunity for each individual to concentrate on a comprehensive program of study. In fact, the Navy went to great lengths to provide as many programs as possible including USAFI, Navy correspondence courses, and the Program for Afloat College Education (PACE). The latter is sponsored by BuPers and offered by Harvard University to the McMurdo crew. It brings the professor into the classroom through the use of specially prepared films. PACE had been very successfully employed on nuclear submarine patrols.
In Antarctica, however, none of these programs fared very well. Although a few individuals did complete a large number of courses during the winter months, the great majority were unable to stay with any of the programs very long. The only exception was study for advancement in rating. Evidently, the motivation to be promoted was great enough to overcome the general apathy. The same thing has been observed year after year. Many men make big plans for using their spare time more effectively during the wintering-over period, and then they fail to follow through. Perhaps this is because they feel so isolated from the outside world that they are reluctant to isolate themselves even more in a self-imposed study program.
Actually, the isolation is not as complete as it might be. True, there is no mail service during the winter. But, all Antarctic stations had an amateur radio with which to contact a ham operator in the United States, which is one of the few countries where patching a radio signal into the telephone system is legal. Thus, we were able to talk to our families fairly often. U. S. ham operators also passed messages called “hamgrams” back and forth. Transmission was by teletype to the United States and then by regular U. S. mail. Hamgrams are similar to telegrams, but were sent for us at no cost. The U. S. amateur radio operators are indeed selfless men and women. Operating an amateur radio is only a hobby for them and their equipment is their own. In helping a man overseas contact his family, they expend a great deal of their own time and resources. The Military Affiliate Radio System (MARS), which receives nominal government assistance, is also used extensively in these phonepatch and hamgram programs.
Though time often seemed to stand still, the days and weeks moved by rather quickly during the early months of Deep Freeze ’68. Before we knew it, midwinter day was upon us. This is the day—21 June—when the sun reaches the northern solstice. In the United States, it marks the first day of summer. In Antarctica, it is the midpoint of both our long period of darkness and our isolation. This was the crest of our great venture. From here on, it would be all downhill, and spirits started to improve noticeably from this point. It was also an occasion for the exchange of congratulatory messages between all stations in the Antarctic—both U. S. and foreign—and with our stateside Antarctic commands. We even received a message from the President of the United States.
Early in August, twilight began again. The return of the sun baked away most cases of “big eye” and “mid-winter blues.” We also acquired another major task—the reopening of Williams Field for a winter fly-in, called Winfly, scheduled for late August or early September. Winfly was to bring in about a dozen additional scientists, three VX-6 helicopter pilots, extra enlisted flight crewmen, six and one-half months of accumulated mail, and several hundred pounds of fresh produce. The purpose of bringing in the additional scientists was to take advantage of the daylight available in September to conduct work not possible at other times of the year. For biologists, for example, it included an important period in their life-cycle studies.
To have Williams Field open in time, it was necessary to start work three to four weeks in advance of the great event, and everyone welcomed the change in pace. During the preparatory period, our next cyclical milestone occurred—first sunrise on 18 August.
The date of Winfly was eventually set as 3 September. The night before, however, the Williams Field temperature was forecast to be about minus 70° Fahrenheit, so the flight was postponed a day. Temperatures were forecast to rise on the following day and the two LC-130 Hercules departed Christchurch shortly after midnight on the 4th, hoping the weather reports would continue to be favorable. Everything worked out. When they arrived about an hour apart during the midmorning hours, the Williams Field temperature had soared up to a minus 53° Fahrenheit. After six and one-half months, it was great to see an airplane again and to meet people from the outside world. We were all quite pale in comparison to the newcomers and felt very much behind the times as they began to bring us up to date on all the latest news from home.
Life at McMurdo changed during the last month of the wintering-over period. With the new people among us and the prospect of our relief imminent, the pace of operations picked up rapidly. To conduct the additional scientific research, there were daily helicopter flights taking field parties to some of the remote areas. Biologists were peering into the penguin rookeries and geologists were poking in the bleak and rocky valleys that remain clear of snow and ice. Scuba divers were gathering underwater specimens in McMurdo Sound. The annual ice by this time had frozen to a thickness of about five or six feet. The divers, who cut holes to go through, said enough sunlight penetrated to see at least 100 feet underwater. The killer whales were no threat at this time because they never came into the area until the ice broke out during the austral summer.
Before we knew it, 8 October was upon us and our relief had arrived. Our job was finished.
To each individual, this tour gave a first-hand glimpse into the mystery and splendor of the continent made famous by Scott, Amundsen, and our own Admiral Richard E. Byrd. It also gave us the opportunity to observe at close range and on a prolonged basis how men operate in a completely hostile environment.
Antarctica challenged the young officers and petty officers to test themselves. The wintering-over period provided at least three opportunities: a man could take on greater responsibility; he had more latitude for individual initiative; and he could demonstrate greater self-reliance. Significantly, every department except operations, and every inland station, was headed by a fairly junior lieutenant or a lieutenant (junior grade).
Our work gave the incoming summer support group an estimated six-week to two-month head start on the extensive austral summer construction and resupply program. Too, our Detachment ALFA, like those that preceded—and will follow—ours, provided the winter support to assure year-around operations, allowing for continuity in the overall science program.
Each member of the Deep Freeze ’68 wintering-over crew, then, made a significant contribution to our nation’s scientific and exploratory efforts in Antarctica. The increased knowledge and insight gained from this venture should be of great value as man and his technology continue to intrude deeper into the unknown.