Operation Deep Freeze I: 1955-56

Featuring works by: Standish Backus (1910-1989) and Robert Charles Haun (1903-1975)

Operation Deep Freeze I was the codename for a series of scientific expeditions to Antarctica in 1955-56. The impetus behind these expeditions was the International Geophysical Year 1957-58. IGY, as it was known, was a collaboration effort between forty nations to carry out earth science studies from the North Pole to the South Pole and at points in between. The United States, along with Great Britain, France, Japan, Norway, Chile, Argentina, and the U.S.S.R agreed to go the South Pole--the least explored area on Earth. Their goal: to advance world knowledge of Antarctic hydrography and weather systems, glacial movements, and marine life. The U.S. Navy was charged with supporting the U.S. scientists for their portion of the IGY studies.

The U.S. Navy already had a record of earlier exploration in Antarctica. As early as 1839, Captain Charles Wilkes led the first U.S. Naval expedition into Antarctic waters. In 1929, Admiral Richard E. Byrd established a naval base at Little America I, led an expedition to explore further inland, and conducted the first flight over the South Pole. From 1934-35, the second Byrd Expedition explored much further inland and also "wintered over." The third Byrd Expedition in1940 charted the Ross Sea. After WWII, from 1946-47, Byrd was instrumental in the Navy's Operation Highjump that charted most of the Antarctic coastline.

In 1948 Commander Finn Ronne led an expedition that photographed over 450,000 square miles by air. Then, in 1954-55, the icebreaker U.S.S. Atka (AGB-3) made a scouting expedition for future landing sites and bays.

Operation Deep Freeze I would prepare a permanent research station and pave the way for more exhaustive research in later Deep Freeze operations. The expedition transpired over the Antarctic summer of November 1955 to April 1956.

Clothing in Antarctica

Clothing in Antarctica needed to be as windproof and waterproof as possible. Men wore long underwear, regulation fatigues, an outer shell of foul-weather gear, and full ski suits with parka when necessary.

Icebreaking: The Way Through the Bay 

Upon arriving at Antarctica on 27 December, the icebreakers, U.S.S. Glacier (AGB-4) and U.S.S. Edisto (AGB-2) led U.S.S. Wyandot (AKA-92) and U.S.S. Nespelen (A0G-55) to a mooring point in McMurdo Sound. Then U.S.S. Glacier directed the flagship, U.S.S. Arneb (AKA-56) and U.S.N.S. Greenville Victory (TAK-239) to Kainan Bay and Little America. Radio towers, supplies and old structures, remnants from earlier expeditions, now half-buried in snow and ice, were discernible as Task Force 43 approached Little America.

Offloading the Ships

"Men swarmed down the gangway as soon as it was lowered. Cargo crews hoisted all 'topside' cargo by boom to waiting crews on the bay ice. Among the first items to be landed were huge sleds to carry freight and huge tractors to pull the sleds. Thus freight could be loaded direct from the ships' holds onto waiting sleds and rushed to a temporary supply dump almost halfway between shipside and campsite. While this 24-hour-a-day cargo shuttle was running, crews bridged crevasses between the supply dump and the base sites. Surveyors worked to lay out a five-acre site that would spring up as Little America Five."--Operation Deep Freeze, The Story of Task Force 43.

Seabees at Work

Artist Robert Charles Haun devoted a large percentage of his sketches to the efforts of the Mobile Construction Battalion (Special), or the Seabees. They were the men that interested him most.

Before Operation Deep Freeze, he had painted murals for the Naval Air Station at Quonset Point, Rhode Island. Haun was given the honor of designing the MCB (Special) Emblem for Operation Deep Freeze I.

Two Tragedies

Methods of crevasse detection are laborious and something less than exact, especially with equipment available in the 1950s. Richard T. Williams, CD3, USN, a heavy equipment driver of MCB (Special) was killed when his D8 Caterpillar crashed through a bridge that had been placed over a crack in the ice at McMurdo Sound. A few weeks later, tractor driver Max R. Kiel fell victim to a huge crevasse while also driving a D8 tractor. These were the only two fatalities during Operation Deep Freeze I. In memory of these men, the Air Operating Facility at McMurdo Sound was named Williams Air Operating Facility and the airstrip at Little America V became Max Kiel Airfield.

Lieutenant Commander Jack Bursey Heads Trail Party

On January 14, LCDR Bursey and six volunteers set out overland from Little America V into Marie Byrd Land to mark off a safe trail to be followed by tractor trains taking materials to build Byrd Station, a new base closer to the South Pole. An Otter plane piloted by LT Paul Streich supported the party, locating potential safe trails from the air. As long as weather permitted, the Otter maintained daily contact. On February 1, the trail party had walked 420 miles east of Little America when they reached a heavily crevassed area and the base ordered them back. They planned to board the Otter to return to base, however, the Otter failed to meet them. Ice on its wings had forced it to make a crash landing, far from the intended rendezvous point. Fortunately all men aboard the Otter survived the crash, but with low visibility, it was seven days before they were rescued. Meanwhile, the trail party reversed their steps along the trail and were met by a tractor-train search party led by Machinist Victor Young.

Antarctica: Operation Deep Freeze I: 1955-56

Background Information

The Artists:

Operation Deep Freeze I garnered significant national attention, with Commander Dufek holding news conferences in several states and delivering briefings to news organizations in Washington, DC and in New Zealand. Admiral Byrd held a press conference on board U.S.S. Glacier before departing for the Antarctic. The expedition also carried 2500 pounds of mail from eager philatelists who wanted to receive a postmark from Antarctica.

Given the historic nature of Operation Deep Freeze I, the Navy saw the importance of inviting representatives from newspapers, radio, magazines and television to accompany the expedition. But space was limited. Initially only one artist was invited to portray this faraway country for the American people. Commander Standish Backus had gained renown as a combat artist in World War II and was selected to fill the artist billet. Civilian artist Robert Charles Haun also volunteered his services in October 1955, but Captain Dufek wrote that he should try again the following year. When the ships sailed in November, however, Haun was aboard as a Staff Artist, having clearly pulled the necessary strings. A long-time resident of Rhode Island, Haun had garnered favor with the Seabees by painting murals at the U.S. Naval Air Station at Quonset Point.

Backus did not do any oil painting while in Antarctica. He found it impractical to attempt such a medium under the harsh, frigid conditions. Instead, he took photographs and made sketches with a liquid lead pencil that prevented smudging and resisted freezing. His oil paintings were done from this reference material in the months following his return to the United States. Haun did some oil painting on paper while in Antarctica but created mostly pencil sketches. He used these as studies for oil paintings after his return.

Haun's works were later exhibited in the Central Library, Wellington, New Zealand and at the Victorian Art Gallery in Melbourne, Australia. Ten of his paintings were also displayed in Peoria, Illinois, home of the Caterpillar corporation, in September 1956 as part of a larger exhibition including Deep Freeze equipment, clothing, trail tent, and photographs. Both artists exhibited together at the Overseas Press Club in New York City. Backus' works were exhibited in New York City, Detroit, Santa Barbara and as part of Operation Palette, a tour of Navy art that traveled across America in the 1950s and 60s. All of the works are part of the permanent collection of the Naval History and Heritage Command's Art Collection.  

The Personnel of Task Force 43:

Rear Admiral Richard E. Byrd was President Eisenhower's logical choice to serve as Officer in Charge of Operation Deep Freeze I.

Captain (later Admiral) George J. Dufek postponed retirement and was named Commander of Task Force 43 and Commander, U.S. Naval Support Forces, Antarctica.

There would be four groups of men working together: Surface units, Air Development Squadron (VX-6) (commissioned at NAS, Patuxent River) Mobile Construction Battalion (Special) (commissioned at Davisville, Rhode Island); the CBs or Seabees Support staff

The Ships:

Ice breakers:
U.S.S. Edisto (AGB-2)
U.S.S. Glacier (AGB-4) (doubled as a carrier)
U.S.C.G.C. Eastwind (Coast Guard) (WAGB-279)

Attack cargo ships:
U.S.S. Arneb (flagship) (AKA-56)
U.S.S. Wyandot (AKA-92)

Gasoline tanker:
U.S.SNespelen (AOG-55)

Gasoline barges:

Cargo ship:
U.S.N.S. Greenville Victory (TAK-239)

The Planes:

(2) R5D-3 "Skymaster" (wheels): for long-range reconnaissance and photo missions
(3) HO4S-3 Helicopter (wheels)
(2) UF-1 "Albatross" (ski-wheels, boat hull): triphibian rescue plane
(2) R4D-5/6 "Dakota" (ski-wheels)
(4) UC-1 "Otter" (ski-wheels): Canadian snow-designed utility plane
(2) P2V-2N "Neptune" (ski-wheels): for fast long-range missions

The Machines:

For service, maintenance and operations:
(34) 20-ton cargo sleds
(10) low ground pressure Caterpillar D8 tractors
(3) low ground pressure D2 tractors
(1) semi-low ground pressure Caterpillar D4 tractor w/ fork and bucket attachments
(2) Pettibone-Mulliken carrylifts
(5) M29C Cargo Carriers (Weasels)
(2) Tucker Snow-Cats
(1) Jeep
Several 1-ton M1 and "go-devil" bobsleds

National Science Foundation website, http://www.nsf.gov
U.S. Geological Survey website, http://vulcan.wr.usgs.gov/Volcanoes/Antarctica/description_antarctica_volcanoes.html
Sea World website, http://www.seaworld.org/AnimalBytes/adelieab.htm
Theatre on the Square website, http://www.theatreonthesquare.com/blonde/maewest.html
Caterpillar Inc. Corporate Archives, Peoria, Illinois.
Operation Deep Freeze First Phase: 1955-56, Narrative by Joseph E. Oglesby, JOC, USN, under supervision of CDR Robin M. Hartmann, USN, Task Force Public Information Officer. The Dorville Corporation, 1956, Paoli, PA.
Operation Deep Freeze, by RADM George J. Dufek, 1957, Harcourt, Brace and Co., New York, NY.
Interview with Jim Bergstrom, 14 January 2003 at the Navy Art Collection.

View the selection of works in the U.S. Navy Art Collection