My First Antarctic Adventure – Part I

Part I – “Getting There”

RM2 Jack CummingsCopyright Jack W. Cummings 1999

The US Navy has been using a slogan for years, “The Navy just isn’t a job, it’s an adventure!”, and I guess in a way that is correct. Sure it is a job, but sometimes just getting to the job can be an adventure. I have decided to finally put down in writing some of the “adventure” that came along with 21 years of service in the Navy.

Since the IGY, (International Geophysical Year) which was an 18 month period beginning in July of 1957, and until just a couple of years ago, the United States Navy was responsible for providing support services for the scientists conducting research in the Antarctic.. Providing everything from meals to wheels, the Navy solicited volunteers from almost every rate. From Seabees to Helicopter pilots, the Navy did it all, and the taxpayer got their moneys worth.

It was in the fall of 1959, and I was bored with my job as an instructor at the Radioman “A” school in Bainbridge, Maryland, when the Navy sent out it’s annual call for volunteers to serve with the Antarctic Support Activities or ASA. This seemed just the thing that I needed to give me that “travel and adventure” that the Navy is so famous for. Acceptance into ASA was not automatic though. Everyone had to be a volunteer and complete a series of preliminary physical and psychological tests, before actually receiving orders to CASA (Commander Antarctica Support Activities). I think the real reason for the psychological tests was to make sure we were “crazy” enough to get through what lay ahead. I passed all the tests and in the Spring of 1960 I reported to CASA at the Seabee base in Davisville, Rhode Island. Seabee is actually and acronym for CB which stands for Construction Battalion. Seabees became famous for being able to construct anything during W.W.II, so they were the natural choice to construct and maintain bases in the Antarctic. Many were to loose their lives in support of CASA in the years that followed their arrival in 1957.

Now I know what you are thinking; isn’t Rhode Island in the Northeastern part of the US? And isn’t it already winter in the Antarctic? Yes to both, however the tour of duty with ASA is for two years with one year spent wintering over in the Antarctic. The rest of the time is spent in training and preparations for that year. Some rates need special schools for the job that they will be expected to do during the long Antarctic winter night. My summer of 1960 was spent in Norfolk, Virginia in teletypewriter repair school, as the outlying station that I would be assigned to was one of only two stations that used TTY for communications. In addition, all Radiomen were required to be able to send and receive Morse code at speeds of up to 30 words per minute. I needed no training in that because I had been instructing Morse code at the Training Center for eighteen months.

Finally we were all fitted out with our “polar” clothing, trained and ready to go. We were permitted to take 30 days leave (vacation) before reporting to Travis Air Force Base in California, and begin the next leg of our trip; the flight to Christchurch, New Zealand. Arriving in Travis, I was reunited with most of the friends I had made in Davisville, as we would all travel on a special “Antarctic” express. This “express” was to last, seemingly, forever. Lets see California to New Zealand, with stops in Hawaii (overnight) and one in Fiji. The aircraft in those days traveled at about 300 mph. It seemed like we were in the air for days. We left the States in the Fall and arrived in New Zealand in the Spring bypassing winter completely somewhere along the way – so far.

New Zealand is a beautiful and friendly country. We were treated to the scenic Canterbury Plains as we descended for our landing at Christchurch International Airport. This airport was also the staging area for the US AirForce in their support role of ASA. Several huge C124 cargo, and a Super Constellation passenger plane sat on the tarmac. All were piston driven. The “Super Connie” was one of the most modern airliners of the day. The days of jet travel were several years in the future.

The next couple of weeks would be spent waiting for transportation to  the “Ice”. There were no regular scheduled flights to the Antarctic. Weather forecasting had to be long range and as accurate as possible. The distance to the ice runway at McMurdo Sound is around 2357 miles and Antarctic weather can deteriorate in minutes. When an aircraft has passed the point of no return, and the weather changes, pilots and passengers start to get nervous. Some of our wintering over party stayed in Christchurch during this period and those of us who could not afford a room at a hotel, were billeted at a nearby New Zealand Army base. I can still remember huddling under several layers of Army blankets, that smelled as though they had just come off the sheep that provided the wool, watching birds flying in and out of the barracks through the open space between the walls and roof. I guess this could have been called “Cold Weather Training”. After several false starts, the day came for us to leave civilization and fresh food and members of the opposite sex. It would be a year before we experienced those taken-for-granted delights again.

(Next week: “Part II – The Ice”)

2 thoughts on “My First Antarctic Adventure – Part I

  1. Jack,

    This is in response to the comment left on my blog. Awesome that you wintered in ’65. Yes, please email me, and I’ll do what I can to help you get in touch. I just arrived in Punta Arenas from Palmer this morning so will have good internet connection for a few days.


  2. Thanks for the nostalgia trip. I was also a member of ASA, but a year later than your self. Went down as an Construction Electrition for the summer (Antartic) of 60/61 and then again as a member of MCB 1 in the summer of 61/62. We (our crew)built most of the Power lines from Obsevation hill to and through the camp, Brought phones to the Plateau above the sno-mine for the antenna that was built for cosmic Ray studies. Was a real learning experience, We took a 25 pair leaded cable up the pass till we reached a point just below summit on camp side, and then tried to go straight up to the plateau, and were unable to reach the top and so decided to use a D4 cat and sled. Hauled the cable on a reap up with no problem, but neglected to anticipate the weight of the cable when we spooled it over the lip of the plateau. We used a 4×4 pressed againts the side of the reel for a brake. About 200 feet down the side of the slope cable wight exceeded 1,000 lbs and the ability of the 4×4 as a brake. Cable spool held appox 1200 feet of cable, by the time it had free spooled from reel bottom of pass looked like a plate of spaghetti! Went on a side trip on the Coast Guard Ice Breaker Eastwind during the difficulties at Hallet Station, only to return when it turned out difficulities were blown out of porportion. Have nothing but fond memories of both trips. Thank you again for bringing back thos great times.

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