My Antarctic Adventure – Part IV

Summer at Hallett – Copyright 1999 – Jack W. Cummings

Emperor Penguins at Hallett Hallett Station was established in March 1957 as one of the original International Geophysical Year (IGY) stations. The station was located on the Antarctic coast at 72 deg 19’S, 170 deg 13’E. The station, operated jointly by the United States and New Zealand until a March 6, 1964 fire destroyed the main scientific building, was occupied by U.S. Scientists who conducted biological research during the austral summer months from 1965 to 1973. The station provided communications and weather reporting for the air route between Christchurch, New Zealand and McMurdo Station, Antarctica. In addition, it served as an alternate landing field when Williams Field in McMurdo Sound was closed. Since the station’s closure in 1973, the United States and New Zealand have attempted to reclaim the approximately 22.2 hectare-site to the original pristine environment. Buildings, equipment and rubbish have been successfully removed.·

When I arrived at Hallett, the station had been in continuous operation for almost four years. By the time of the fire in 1964 and the advent of jet powered support aircraft, the station no doubt lost some of its reason to exist. Since the science building was destroyed, the cost to rebuild and to refurbish older buildings was probably more than the project could afford. I wonder what the overall cost to “restore to the original pristine environment” amounted to? Prior to 1957, the Adélie penguin pretty much occupied every square inch of the spit, and most small pebbles had been claimed for nesting material. The site was a natural nesting spot, being composed of glacial moraine and only 16 feet above sea level. It has been long felt, and probably proven by now, that the penguin returns to the exact geographical spot where it nested the previous year. When that spot has been preempted by something else the penguin will do it’s best to retake it. They seemed to have had the GPS thing down before civilization did, and they didn’t need electronic satellites.

Anyone who grew up on a farm could appreciate the sights, smells, and sounds of a penguin rookery. Once you got settled into your quarters and had a chance to gather your senses, you came to the realization that, with an excess of 50,000 penguins as close neighbors, you were going to be experiencing the similar sights, hen-house smells, and early morning barnyard sounds, 24 hours a day for the next two or three months! The sights; renewals of the mating ritual, the sounds; the calling of each bird’s mate – part of the ritual, smells; part of daily living, which intensified as the ground/guano thawed or was disturbed by a passing caterpillar tractor!

The next few days would be occupied with familiarizing myself with my surroundings and getting to know those with whom I would be spending the next year. During the previous nine or ten months, and our training period, there was no time for the crew to get to know each other. So basically we were just a group of strangers that had never worked together before. I guess the US Navy and USARP didn’t feel that was necessary, since we were all individually evaluated to endure the rigors of isolation.

The first person I would meet was D. M. Sheldon, the First Class Radioman who would be in charge of my work place and me. As it turned out “Shel” and I would just be working together, sharing the twenty-four  hour watches. Because of its location and value as a weather reporting station, it was necessary for a radioman to be “on watch” all the time. Weather observation messages had to be transmitted to McMurdo every four hours. Shel would become a good friend and was easy to get along with. Never talked much about his past, and I didn’t inquire. We started out sharing a bunkroom, which was in one corner of the building, but this seemed to be one of the hardest places to try to rest. Radiomen are a “captive” audience for anyone who is lonely and can not sleep or who just wants a place to crash for a while. Besides we had the only pool table on station, so we were an annex to the recreation room, which was located in the weather building. I eventually moved into a corner of the Jamesway Hut that was attached to our building.

The station electronic technician (ET) was not only responsible for the upkeep and maintenance of the radar used to track high altitude weather balloons, but our communications equipment as well. ET1 George Allen was initially assigned to this job, but ended up being sent home on emergency leave to take care of some personal business. George did not have much experience with communications gear, as his specialty was radar. It looked like it is going to be a bleak year for us as our gear was now on its fourth year and was not in the best of shape, as it was not new to start with when the station was built. There were a couple of old transmitters that were not in working order. After George left, we wondered what kind of replacement we would get. It wasn’t very long until Chuck Lauter Jr; Electronics Technician Second Class arrived. We had heard that he was a whiz kid, and he looked the part, and barely dry behind the ears. He hardly had his bags unpacked when we gave him his first challenge to see if he was as good as his advance billing. Much to our joy, he was. He was a gifted young man and soon our gear was in great shape. There wasn’t any gear he was afraid to challenge, and fix

As I mentioned in part three, some VIPs arrived on the same plane as I did and elected to sRadio Shack Hallett 91 (1)tay a few days. As I recall they ended up staying for two weeks. In the world of long-range high frequency communications, much before the days of satellites, how far a radio signal traveled was dependent on the ionosphere. The ionosphere is like this invisible ceiling above the earth, through which certain radio signals did not penetrate, but were reflected over and over again as they bounced around the globe, similar to a ball bouncing from floor to ceiling. During the daylight hours we used higher frequencies, and during darkness the lower ones, as the ionosphere changed position above the earth. At the poles, the ionosphere is not as stable as it is to the north or south. At times of extreme sun spot activity, it becomes very weak or disappears altogether. For two weeks, in October and November of 1960, it was if it did not exist. One could tune through the entire frequency spectrum and there was nothing but “white” noise. Without communications, planes don’t fly in the Antarctic! It was if the outside world, as we knew it, had ceased to exist. Needless to say, this disruption did not sit well with the VIPs, as they had more to do than sit on their hands at Hallett Station.

As my life settled in to a routine of work; twelve hours on and twelve hours off, I was soon able to become more familiar with my surroundings. By now it was daylight 24 hours a day so exploring the spit, and getting acquainted with our noisy neighbors was possible at any time. We had to be careful not to disturb the penguins, as this was their nesting season and their territory is very precious. If they were frightened off their nest of pebbles, their neighbors would dismantle it in no time, and if they were sitting on eggs, it would not be long until a patrolling skua bird would swoop down for a meal. The skuas are one of many predators of the penguin, and were not at all popular with the sailors. To us the penguins were the good guys and the skuas the bad guys. If we had stopped to think about the overall plan, there was no way the skuas could even make a dent in the population with a ratio of several thousand to one.

As the air became warmer due to the constant daylight, things started to melt. And as the top layer of the “soil” started thawing, the air was filled with the heavy smell of a chicken coop. And these beautiful white and black penguins started looking grubbier and grubbier. As they sat on their nests, often they would be right in the line of fire of the back end of their neighbor. They soon did not look so loveable. With the warmer weather, we also lost our “ice runway”. Soon the bay was clear of solid ice and the penguins were able to bathe and feed without having to travel great distances to find open water. As the tide came in and went out, with it moved the icebergs. This was like watching ships moving along a coastline. Some were so large that as they moved into the shallower areas of the bay, they would become grounded on the bottom and would remain there throughout the summer and winter. Once the bay became frozen, the ice caves of these “chunks” of geologic history would be exciting to explore.

Our crew was coming together now and we would soon settle down to the final roster. But first there would be two more changes. Our cook, J. R. Skero, CS1, would break his arm in an afternoon baseball game, sliding into home plate. He was returned to McMurdo to mend and winter there, and C. J. “Pav” Pavlischak, CS1, would be brought in as his replacement. Pav and the lack of exercise would be responsible for the 30 pounds I gained that winter. He wasn’t just a “cook”, he was a Chef! At the end of a meal, he would station himself at the garbage can, and if you had anything left on  your plate, you better have a good reason. In some recent research I did on the Internet, I came across a description of some official record movies that were made that summer: “Two men at the NAF McMurdo heliport awaiting the arrival of the HUS-1 helicopter coming in from the background, it is flown by Lt. John A. Hickey, USN, the scene is panned as the copter touches down to pick up C. M. Baron, CMA2, USN, of the Hallett Station wintering over party of DF’61; Baron suffered a heart attack at Hallett Station and was evacuated from Hallett by a helicopter from the USS Staten Island (AGB-5), he will be flown to Christchurch, N.Z by C-130”[1]

The incident of BaroMain Streetn’s heart attack and departure from Hallett is  not real clear in my memory. His replacement was T. R. Nelson, CM1, who I think was the only one that winter that did not attempt to grow a beard. The “CM’s” were responsible for maintaining all motorized vehicles, and the station generators. With the departure of the “Summer People” and the sailing of the last ship north, the cast of characters who would play out the drama of the next nine months was set. There would be good and bad times to come, but as we came out the other end, I think our lives were enhanced by our experiences, I know mine was. As I have often said “I probably wouldn’t want to go through it again, but I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.”

Next – “The Long Winters Night”


· (National Science Foundation – http://www.nsf.gov/pubs/stis1993/opp94009/opp94009.txt)

[1] Control Number NWDNM(m)-428NPC-25277, Media – Motion picture films from NAIL

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