IGY and the beginning

old LA
Admiral Byrd (left) revisits Little
America I/II in January, 1956 during
his last visit to Antarctica
(more information)

The most famous preface for serious American work in the Antarctic is, of course, the early experience of Amundsen, Scott, Mawson, and Shackleton during the first years of the 20th century. Later in the 1930's, the names "Admiral Byrd" and "Little America" became synonymous with the U. S. involvement on the ice. Much of the burden of establishing and funding Byrd's three pre-WWII expeditions had to come from private sources, The final prewar expedition that established Little America III (and East Base on Stonington Island along the Antarctic Peninsula) had to be cut short in 1941 when Congress, facing the gathering dark clouds of global war, refused to appropriate $250,000 to continue that project.

After the war the most massive assault on the continent up until that time, "Operation Highjump," was launched. There were 13 ships including a carrier and a submarine (!) as well as 19 aircraft and 4000 men who went south on a massive mapping and survey mission during the 1946-47 summer. A new tent camp at Little America IV was occupied north of the earlier bases, to support some of the flight operations. Unfortunately the expedition results were not the best, partly because of the lack of ground control so that the aerial photography could be coordinated with known landmarks, and partly because there was limited emphasis on science. In the next few years a second smaller Navy project, Windmill, sent icebreakers to further explore the coastline, and Finn Ronne took a private expedition to East Base. However, the "Highjump II" expedition scheduled for 1949-50 was cancelled for political and economic reasons.

IGY planning originated in the international scientific community, based on two previous "polar years" in 1882-83 and 1932-33. Not wanting to wait another full fifty years, they eyed the period 1957-58 partly because it was a time of peak solar activity. The US scientific organizations involved included the US National IGY Committee and the separate National Program which was more directly concerned with mapping of Antarctica to document future US territorial claims. Eventually the IGY station sites were selected; although some of the scientists initially proposed a station at Pole, that idea did not get turned into reality until a Paris IGY scientific conference. The USSR delegation, which had arrived late, announced their intentions to build a station at Pole, and immediately the French conference chairman announced that the committee members "have accepted the offer of the United States to erect and man a South Pole Station." Remember that this was during the height of the cold war. At this point in time the US had not committed to build Pole, but now the "impossible" had suddenly been turned into a political necessity. Then as now the scientific funding came from Congress to NSF, which allocated it out primarily to other government agencies. The support funding went through DOD to "Task Force 43" the overall Navy command for "Operation Deep Freeze."

By the way, there is a bit of trivia behind the name "Operation Deep Freeze." The original name assigned by the Navy to the Task Force 43 operation was Project Longhaul, indicative of the long logistics pipeline between the United States and Antarctica. Before operations began, the name was changed to Operation Deepfreeze. When the Amana Corporation notified the Navy of a copyright infringement, the name was changed further (about October 1956) to Operation Deep Freeze. (from US Aircraft Losses in Antarctica, Peter J. Anderson, NSF AJ, 1/74)

Since IGY (International Geophysical Year) actually lasted 18 months beginning on 1 July 1957, The IGY stations needed to be completed and occupied by the end of the 1956-57 summer. As always, vessel cargo can't get to the ice until the end of the summer, which meant that the initial logistics effort had to go into getting stuff to the ice in 1955-56, building the initial bases on the coast, and staging the construction material which would be flown to Pole the following summer.

LA5 As part of the funding debates, the "National Committee" mapping program was discarded, and the IGY effort was defined as a 4-year project (DF I, 55-56, for initial establishment of coastal bases in the Ross Sea area, DF II for construction of the remaining stations and scientific data collection starting July 1957, DF III for continuation through the end of IGY, and DF IV for final closeout and departure at the end of the 1958-59 austral summer. Admiral Byrd had favored development of permanent US bases on the ice, but this was not part of the plan. Instead the short-term design for all of the US IGY stations included the prefabricated temporary T-5 structures specifically designed for the IGY program, and the ubiquitous Jamesway structures which were available in quantity from Korean war surplus...

first traverse from LAV to Byrd The Little America V (LA5 or LAV) station (above right, by Jim Waldron) was planned to support tractor trains that would carry construction materials for Byrd Station. At left is the first of these--it set out from LAV on 4 December 1956 and reached the empty site of Byrd Station on the 26th (more information) Also there was to be a runway for wheeled aircraft to carry cargo to build Pole. This plan was based on experience, since Byrd's 4 previous expeditions had spent time there, and few Americans had any experience in the McMurdo Sound area. However...an exploratory cruise by the Navy icebreaker Atka during 1954-55 confirmed that the Bay of Whales, the "site" of the previous Little America bases, no longer existed as a usable base site. Kainan Bay (another transitory feature on the coast of the Ross Ice Shelf) 30 miles west of the Bay of Whales, was selected for the LA5 site. Since it then became questionable whether a good runway for wheeled aircraft could be built there in one season, the decision was made to build the air support base at McMurdo, after consultation with the British revealed that the sea ice would probably do for a runway.

In November 1955 the Deep Freeze I ships departed Norfolk, VA for the Ross Sea (via ChCh of course). They arrived at McM and LA5 in December, and the first direct aircraft flights from NZ to the ice happened on 12/20. At this point in December the ice edge was 40 miles north of McM so the tractor trains to unload the first ships there had a long trip. Although the ice was weakening fast (and would soon prove no match for the more powerful icebreaker Glacier, at some point the order was given that the base construction would be at Cape Evans rather than at the already-established encampment site at Hut Point. So...0n 6 January, EO3 Richard Williams got assigned to drive a 30-ton LGP D8 from the ice edge to Cape Evans (NOT McM). He and it disappeared into a crevasse never to be found. downtownHence Willy Field; actually the name "Williams Air Operating Facility" was initially given to the entire Ross Island base including the land portion at Hut Point. The initial McM tent camp was set up on Hut Point near Scott's hut, but shortly thereafter the streets of the place began to take shape. The large Seabee construction crew continued work through the winter...at right is a view of one of the main streets of "town" in September 1956 (more information).

A similar traverse disaster on the future trail from LA5 to Byrd killed D-8 driver Max Kiel; the LA5 airfield was named for him.

Staging and preparing the cargo for the future Pole construction was a major effort at McMurdo. Painting the Pole Here (left) is Howard Wessbecher painting that bamboo pole that would become the iconic symbol for the station to the present day. Howard wintered at McMurdo during DF-I and he was the IGY Logistics Representative for the establishment of South Pole Station.

Although the primary task of the first summer was to build the support bases at McM and LA5, a number of exploration and mapping flights were also conducted, and traverses set out to establish the route to the future site of Byrd. 93 men wintered at McM and 73 at LA5.

When the 1956-57 ("Deep Freeze II") season started, the first task involved with building Pole was the establishment of a midway point "Beardmore Station" at the south end of the Ross Ice Shelf. This facility would provide weather obs, radio relay and refueling for Pole flights...plus it would provide a search-and-rescue base and, if necessary, a closer refuge in case the first plane to land at Pole couldn't take off again and the passengers had to walk home... The station was set up in late October at 85S-166W which was actually 120 miles from the Beardmore glacier, but the station name stuck. Several days later on 10/31 George Dufek boarded the ski-equipped R4D aircraft "Que Sera Sera" piloted by Conrad Shinn. With a total of seven souls on board, they headed for Pole accompanied by two wheeled aircraft (a Skymaster and a Globemaster) that would watch, circle overhead and take pictures (the Skymaster developed engine trouble early and had to turn back).

on deck at Pole The landing (Navy photo by reporter Maurice Cutler; larger view and more info) was successful although the engines were leaking oil. Temperature was -58F. With great difficulty because of the hard snow surface they dug an 18" hole and planted an American flag. Then after everyone started to notice frostbite on each others' faces, Admiral Dufek uttered another of those immortal Pole quotes: "Let's get the hell out of here." That proved a bit easier said than done, the aircraft had a total of 15 JATO bottles and it wasn't until the last 3 were fired that they were able to take off.

Dufek postponed further flights to Pole for several weeks because of the cold. It turned out that he eventually developed pneumonia perhaps due to his overexposure at Pole; he ended up spending some time in NZ after Christmas thawing out and recovering. Meanwhile, Paul Siple and the other Pole folks worked at inventorying the cargo staged for airdrop delivery, making up shortages, and dealing with other problems. For example, all of the T-5 (Clements) building foundation trusses were too long for airdrop; they had to be cut in half and drilled for field splicing.

Finally at 0045 November 20, 2 more planes landed near Pole (8 nautical miles away) with the initial team of Seabees led by LT Dick Bowers. They had an airdropped Weasel (which landed hard breaking the transmission case), dogs, and sleds to use for their initial tasks. Their first job was to head for 90 South and determine its exact location, so they could start building the station. From that day forward the South Pole has been occupied continuously.

Most of the station cargo was transported by Air Force Globemasters and airdropped. Airdrops would continue to be the main source of cargo supply until a few years later when the ski-equipped LC-130's would make their appearance. Construction was plagued by the fact that 20% of the cargo "streamed in" after the parachutes malfunctioned.

so many poles, so little time Paul Siple finally arrived on November 30. Meanwhile, after the erection of 2 Jamesways, construction started on the permanent station. Flights were delayed because of a lack of aviation gasoline at McM. In the meantime, on December 14, the striped bamboo "ceremonial pole" was erected on the roof of the garage, the first permanent structure to be completed. The pole was topped by one of Siple's mirrored glass balls, thus originating one of the most photographed features of the Pole landscape to this day. A few days later, the station American Flag was moved to this pole.(Navy photo, AJ 3/75, Paul Siple is at left. Here's the color photo of Paul on the roof.

Construction continued, although weather problems and fuel shortages continued to delay the arrival of personnel and cargo. Flight communications were extremely poor compared to more recent standards...sometimes the first alert that a flight was incoming was the noise of it overhead. At least once, comms were relayed between Pole and McM via ham operators in the US. Meanwhile, the station buildings were finished out (mainly by the w/o occupants after most of the Seabees had departed by early January. A system of tunnels covered by chicken wire and burlap was erected around the buildings...a tunnel system that would later be rebuilt using heavy timbers and later steel beams and planking, as the 2-year original lifespan of the station was extended through 18 years of occupancy and an indefinite afterlife. Late in the summer the original 1000' of seismo tunnel was constructed from formed snow and cut blocks. On January 23 the station was officially dedicated "Amundsen-Scott IGY South Pole Station" complete with speeches, Marines in full dress, and a radio proclamation from President Eisenhower...this ceremony was held in McMurdo and the Pole residents didn't find out about it until much later when the next flight arrived. That last R4D flight brought in the remaining w/o people on February 12. Airdrops continued, including the long-awaited berthing building materials, some of which were dragged 25 miles away when the parachutes didn't collapse. The last airdrop happened on February 21.

The berthing building was erected east of the galley (mess hall). The six major structures that constituted the original station (see map) are, from west to east: the galley (with the RAWIN dome and met offices); berthing building (later Club 90); garage/power plant (later rebuilt as BU/UT shop, steam bath etc.); berthing Jamesway (soon replaced with permanent USARP barracks); science building with aurora tower; and the balloon inflation building.


To borrow those words we all used at the end of those oral book reports in elementary school, "If you want to find out what happened, read the book." I highly recommend both of these, for the rest of the story and many more details: Operation Deepfreeze by Rear Admiral George Dufek (Harcourt Brace, 1957) which describes the overall U. S. Antarctic events through 1957 from a Navy perspective; and 90 South by Paul Siple (Putnam, 1959) which focuses more closely on science and Pole. This book is the definitive work on the early history of the station through the first winter, back when no one knew how cold it would really get. Of course both of these books are long out of print, but a good library should be able to locate a copy to read, and a good out-of-print bookstore or web site can find you a copy to buy...If you're reading these words you really owe it to yourself to go find those books!