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Photo credit: Travis McHenry

Thurston Island Journal: Hunting Somber Relics of the Cold War in Antarctic Ice

Posted: February 7, 2005

Courtesy: NYTimes.com

December 30, 2004
By LARRY ROHTER

ABOVE THURSTON ISLAND, Antarctica - Of all the places where
the cold war was waged, this was surely the coldest.

Even now, buried somewhere under 100 feet of snow and ice,
still unrecovered after 58 years, lie the bodies of three
American servicemen, casualties of the rivalry between the
United States and the Soviet Union on the world's most
frigid and remote continent.

On Dec. 30, 1946, a United States Navy patrol plane with a
crew of nine, mapping the Antarctic coast as part of a
military effort called Operation Highjump, crashed in a
snowstorm here after its radar failed to detect a slope not
shown on charts.

Now the United States Navy, piggybacking on scientific
explorations of western Antarctica, has begun an effort to
locate the plane and recover the remains of the crew
members who died.

At least two of the six crew members who survived the crash
of the plane, code-named George 1, are still alive, living
in warm climates on opposite sides of the United States.
Both the men - James H. Robbins, then a 19-year-old
radioman, and William Kearns, the 22-year-old co-pilot -
still remember vividly the sense of dread they felt after
regaining consciousness and realizing where they were and
the challenge they faced.

"Our biggest fear, with no one else on the continent at the
time, was being left alone in six million square miles of
ice and snow," Mr. Kearns recalled in a telephone interview
from Sarasota, Fla. "If our own people couldn't rescue us,
we were sunk. It was a hell of a feeling."

For nearly two weeks after the crash, the survivors endured
rugged weather, injuries and a sparse diet, mainly dried
meat. After a reconnaissance plane finally spotted them
huddled at the wreckage, they felt relief, but still had to
haul ailing comrades on a ski-sled to a spot where the
rescue seaplane could land.

"It was only 10 miles, but I had to keep turning and
turning that sled to stay on course and had to dig in my
heels to slow it as we went down an incline," Mr. Robbins
said in a telephone interview from his home in Palm Desert,
Calif.

The crew members and their plane were part of what to this
day remains the largest expedition ever in Antarctica,
Operation Highjump, which was led by the renowned polar
explorer, Rear Adm. Richard E. Byrd, and consisted of 13
ships, 23 aircraft and 4,700 men.

According to a 1946 Navy memorandum, the mission's goal was
"consolidating and extending U.S. sovereignty over
Antarctic areas, investigating possible base sites and
extending scientific knowledge in general."

In another document, Secretary of State Dean Acheson wrote,
"This government should follow a definite policy of
exploration and use of those Antarctic areas considered
desirable for acquisition by the United States."

With the cold war turning more frigid by the month, the
venture unnerved the Soviet Union. The Soviet whaling fleet
had just begun plying Antarctic waters, and a military
publication called Red Fleet warned darkly that the
operation was proof that "American military circles are
seeking to subject the polar regions to their control."

Argentina and Chile were none too happy, either. Both
countries had their own overlapping claims to areas
extending down from the tip of South America. Their fears
of an American incursion were heightened when Chile asked
Washington's permission to send an observer along, but was
turned down.

Nowadays, those conflicting claims and the suspicions they
generated, if not entirely forgotten, no longer dominate
Antarctic issues. The initial flight on Nov. 27 to try to
locate the wreckage of the George 1 was a joint one,
conducted aboard a Chilean Navy Orion P-3 aircraft with a
Chilean crew and NASA scientists working together.

"This wasn't just a routine task for us," said Capt.
Christian Aldunate, the senior Chilean pilot on the
recovery flight. "It was a challenge to find clues that
could help locate the plane, even though we knew it would
be almost impossible to get at it because of the ice and
snow that had piled up over so many years."

Perhaps more than anyone else, the Chilean pilots
appreciate the bravery of the crew of the George 1 and the
dangers they faced.

During an 11-hour flight from and back to Punta Arenas, in
the extreme south of Chile, the search plane dipped as low
as 500 feet over mountainous Thurston Island so scientists
could use radar and laser beams to try to locate the
remains of the United States Navy PBM Mariner seaplane.

"Even today it's not easy, but we can rely on information
from satellite photos, G.P.S. systems and wind
predictions," Captain Aldunate said, referring to global
positioning networks. "But from the time they took off
until the time they arrived in the area, they had no idea
what to expect. They didn't know what the weather or runway
conditions were like, and that's why there were so many
crashes and emergencies back then."

Though little known in the outside world, the three men who
died in the crash - Wendell K. Hendersin, Maxwell Lopez and
Frederick Williams - are still celebrated in Antarctica as
heroes. At McMurdo Station, a United States research base
on the edge of the Ross Ice Shelf, there is a plaque to
honor the men, the first Americans to die in Antarctica on
any of Admiral Byrd's many expeditions.

Even today, Mr. Kearns, a retired journalist who is the
author of a book about Antarctica called "The Silent
Continent," expressed reservations about the recovery
effort, which depends on government funds and further
feasibility studies. He described weather conditions as
"precarious and changing so rapidly that it that would
endanger the recovery crew, and I don't like the idea of
risking any additional lives."

On the other hand, Mr. Robbins, whose memoir of his
experience, "Antarctic Mayday," has been published at a Web
site, south-pole.com, worries that with global warming the
crash site is "moving towards the sharks, and they will end
up as bait if we don't do something."

But then, he also has another incentive. He inadvertently
left behind a cache of film, on which he documented the
ordeal, "so that if we all died and they found us, the
camera and the film would be there."

"It really irritates me that it ended up staying there," he
said, "but it's still got to be in the same cavity of that
little pup tent, untouched."

- NYTimes.com -

 

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