A year after World War II ended, the U.S. Navy mounted a massive-though hastily planned-mission to the bottom of the world.
The three Navy airmen who in 1946 became the first U.S. casualties in Antarctica (see “Executive Editor Paul Hoversten asked Dian Olson Belanger, a historian of polar exploration and the author of Deep Freeze: The United States, the International Geophysical Year, and the Origins of Antarctica’s Age of Science (University Press of Colorado, 2006), to talk about Highjump and its legacy.
A & S: What was the significance of Operation Highjump?
Belanger: No U.S. naval expedition had been in Antarctica for 100 years before that, not since the [Charles] Wilkes expedition of 1838–42. Highjump was a significant illustration of the state of the world and the cold war thinking at the time. The nuclear age had just begun, and the real fears were that the Soviet Union would attack the United States over the North Pole. The Navy had done a training exercise there in the summer of 1946 and felt it needed to do more. The northern winter was coming, and Highjump was a quickly planned exercise to move the whole thing to the South Pole. Politically, the orders were that the Navy should do all it could to establish a basis for a [land] claim in Antarctica. That was classified at the time.
A & S: Admiral Richard Byrd, who led the Highjump expedition, had 13 ships, 23 aircraft, and 4,700 men. Quite a contingent.
Belanger: It was the largest naval expedition ever in Antarctica. Even the [Operation Deep Freeze] expeditions during the International Geophysical Year [in the 1950s] were a fraction of that. These were also newly released soldiers and sailors from World War II. And there were very few of those 4,700 who had any [polar] experience. So it’s a little odd that they would have conjured up so many. The leadership ranks were very thin, especially in the flying ranks.
A & S: Was Byrd able to accomplish all his objectives?
Belanger: No. Admiral Byrd by then was a minor player. His name was, of course, illustrious, and they wanted to make use of that. But in fact, while he had the titular control of the operation, the Navy really called the shots. From the research I’ve done, Byrd really wasn’t well. He never really recovered, according to people who knew him, from his time alone on the ice in 1934. As for the exercise, it was so brief and cobbled together. They were supposed to do a lot of photo mapping. But as one of the pilots, Conrad “Gus” Shinn [who flew Douglas R4Ds from the carrier USS Philippine Sea], told me, “We didn’t really know what we were doing. We didn’t know about precision flying or what we were looking at.”
A & S: The only casualties on Highjump were the three Navy men killed in the George 1 airplane crash in December 1946. Do you think the Navy should recover their bodies?
Belanger: Well, there [also] are bodies from Operation Deep Freeze, and there’s been no attempt to get them either. In Deep Freeze 1, there were two [deaths]. One was on a tractor that went through the ice right when they got there in January 1956. Later, another tractor went down in a crevasse and its driver was crushed. There were maybe four [deaths] in Deep Freeze 2 or 3. And they’re still happening. It’s still a dangerous place. Where that Highjump crash was sounded to me to be in a pretty tough place. When some of them were rescued, they were asked to walk the nine or 10 miles to shore because no airplane could land there to pick them up. They called it “the Phantom Coast” because you could never find it.
A & S: How did Highjump help lay the foundation for further U.S. exploration of the continent?
Belanger: It was the beginning of photo mapping there, and it helped people learn about the continent. When the IGY scientists, who of course were sitting in conference halls in Europe, were planning where to put stations in Antarctica during the IGY, they used what the Highjump people had learned to help them make decisions. For example, there was a discovery over in east Antarctica of an ice-free area that was bedrock and had water pockets. That guided the building of stations there. It carries the name Bunger Hills, after the Highjump pilot who first flew over it.