Why, how U.S. built the South Pole station

By Jack Williams ©2015

Note: This is from Chapter 14 of  “The Complete Idiot’s Guide to the Arctic and Antarctic” ©2003 by Jack Williams with minor editing changes and a few updates. It adds background to my Washington Post blog story about the South Pole Station.

When the Cold War was at one of its hottest points early in the 1950s as hot war against Communist North Korea and China raged in Korea, scientists around the world began putting together a dream. In 1952 the International Council of Scientific Unions proposed 18 months of intense observations of the Earth from July 1957 through December 1958.

The scientists picked this period because the sun would be at a peak of its 11-year cycle, when, among other things, auroras occur more often and farther from the poles. All of the earth would be observed during this “International Geophysical Year” (IGY), but the polar regions would be a focus.

The idea for an IGY went back to the International Polar year of 1882-83 when 11 European nations studied the weather, auroras, and magnetism in the Arctic and to a small extent in the Southern Ocean. The key idea was that scientists all over the world would observe phenomena in the same ways at the same times, and share their data. About 40 nations were involved in the 1932-33 polar year, which focused mainly on the Arctic. Among other things, the 1882-83 polar year came up with strong evidence that the Earth’s magnetic field is involved in auroras, and that this field connects the Arctic and Antarctic. We could see this as the beginning of the idea that the atmosphere, as well as the oceans, connects the ends of the Earth.

Sure, We’ll Build a Station at the South Pole

During planning for the IGY, some scientists began talking about setting up a station at the South Pole. In fact, some wanted not only a station, but one with men there making scientific observations through the winter. “The path to the South Pole is fraught with great dangers,” Paul Siple told the National Academy of Sciences, sponsors of the U.S part of the IGY. With crevasse-studded glaciers leading to the polar plateau, Siple doubted that tractor trains could haul enough material to build shelter, and the needed fuel, food and other supplies for even a small group to spend the winter.

The South Pole Station in December 1958. The photographer and the flags are on top of the station built in 1956, which has already been covered by snow. U.S. Navy photo donated to the National Science Foundation by Charlotte Koch, whose husband was a P2V Navy pilot in Antarctica.

When Siple went to the IGY’s first international planning conference in Paris in July 1955, the United States had not decided about a Pole station. Then, “the Russians dropped a bombshell,” Siple writes in his autobiographical book 90 Degrees South. They planned to build and man a South Pole station. The Americans were speechless. Then the French conference chairman said, “I’m sorry, but we have accepted the offers of the United States to erect and man a South Pole Station. We don’t think there should be two there.”

This was during the cold war. The Americans couldn’t back down from such a commitment, even though a Frenchman had made it. “Somehow we would have to erect a self-sufficient village at the Pole to house and support a group of Americans,” Siple wrote. “It promised to be the most difficult construction job in history.”

The Navy Pioneers a Base, and a Way South

The U.S. Navy headed south with 3,400 men, 12 ships, and several airplanes in 1955 to begin meeting U.S. commitments to the IGY. During the 1955-56 summer the Navy established a supply base on McMurdo Sound, and built Little America V near the locations of the earlier four Little Americas. But, by the mid 1950s, movements of the Ross Ice Shelf’s eastern end were making it clear that eventually the U.S. would have to build elsewhere. McMurdo, which had been envisioned as a South Pole supply base, became the main U.S. station, as it is today.

Equally important for the future of Antarctic exploration, on Dec. 20, 1955 two Navy P2V Neptune patrol planes and two R5D Skymaster transports flew from Christchurch, New Zealand, to McMurdo, taking a little over 14 hours for the 2,400-mile flight, which is roughly the distance from Portland, Ore., to Jacksonville, Fla. They pioneered today’s most common route to Antarctica for American scientists and those who support then.

The Navy Worries About Flying to the Pole

While other U.S. stations were built and supplied for the coming winter, the centerpiece of the 1956-57 summer was building, supplying and manning the South Pole station. Only ten men had ever set foot there — Roald Amundsen and his four men in December 1911, and Robert Scott and his four in January 1912. Byrd and his plane crews had flown over the Pole in 1929 and again during the Navy’s Operation Highjump in  1946, but no one really knew whether an airplane could land there and, even more importantly, take off again.

The Navy set up a refueling base on the Ross Ice Shelf north of the Beardmore Glacier, about 390 miles from the pole. The Air Force had eight C-124 Globemaster transports at McMurdo to parachute supplies for the South Pole Station. When the first Navy plane landed at the Pole, one of the Globemasters would be overhead, ready to drop emergency supplies, sleds, and a small weasel tractor, if the Navy plane couldn’t take off. The Navy was even prepared to parachute two teams of 11 dogs to the stranded crew. Whether with weasels or dogs to pull the sleds, the stranded men would head for the refueling base.

A weasel was a World War II tracked vehicle designed to haul soldiers and equipment over a variety of terrain, including snow. It was about 10 feet long and five feet wide, and weighed about 4,000 pounds (1,814 kg.). Instead of wheels it had treads that ran the vehicle’s length on both sides.

At 8:45 p.m. on Oct. 31, 1956, a Navy R4D airplane   (the Navy’s version of the DC-3) named Que Sera Sera (“what will be, will be”) landed on skis at the South Pole and Admiral George Dufek stepped out, becoming the 11th person to leave his footprints in the Pole’s snow. “The bitter cold struck me in the face and chest as if I had walked into a swinging door,” Dufek wrote later. The temperature was –50F.

As they set up an American flag and radar reflectors to help other airplanes find the Pole, Dufek and the others noticed each others’ faces turning white with frostbite. After one man said, “Boss, I can’t move the fingers of this hand, I think they’re frozen,” Dufek said: “Let’s get the hell out of here.”

The pilot, Lt. Cmdr. Gus Shinn described what happened after Dufek gave the order to leave after 49 minutes on the Ice: “I pushed the throttle fully forward and nothing happened. I then fired four JATO bottles and still nothing. I fire another four and got slight movement, then four more, followed by another three and we more or less staggered into the air.” The cockpit’s windshield was so frosted over inside that the pilots were flying on instruments as the R4D slowly climbed into the thin air.

JATO bottles are “Jet-Assisted Take Off” rockets, which provide added thrust for airplanes to take off on short runways, at high elevations, or in snow. While the name JATO has been used since World War II, they are really rockets, not jet engines, which is why the U.S. Air National Guard’s 109th Airlift Wing, which now handles most Antarctic and Greenland flying for the National Science Foundation, which uses them on its LC-130 airplanes in Antarctica and Greenland uses the term “ATO” for Assisted Take Off.

A Special Breed Builds the Pole Station

Paul Siple, who was to be in charge of the eight civilian scientists who would spend the winter at the Pole, and Lt.  (jg) Jack Tuck Jr., commander of the eight Navy men who would spend the winter, wanted construction to begin right away. But it didn’t start until two R4Ds landed at the Pole in bright sunlight at midnight on Nov. 20, 1956, with Lt. Richard Bowers, his team of seven Navy Seabees, and 11 sled dogs to begin construction. Some back at McMurdo thought the dogs were just extra weight, but they earned their keep by helping the men haul parachuted building materials and supplies that fell far away from the site.


A Jamesway is a prefabricated, canvas building shaped like a half circle with a wooden floor and frame, which is easily erected and taken down. Many dating back to the time of Operation Deepfreeze I are still used at U.S. Antarctic bases and field camps.

Seabees are U.S. Navy sailors who are skilled in construction trades and members of construction battalions or CBs. They first gained fame during World War II for building airfields and other facilities on captured Pacific islands, often while the bullets were still flying.

The first few days the men lived in survival tents, as they would have if their airplane had been forced to land on the ice. But, they quickly erected two Jamesway huts to live in as they built the station. On Nov. 26, 1956, Air Force Sgt. Richard J. Patton parachuted in to help direct the airplanes dropping supplies. Air Force Globemasters dropped by parachute most of the materials needed to build the base and supplies that would keep the men alive all. Unfortunately, about one-fifth of the chutes failed to open.

Siple arrived on Nov. 30 and his description of the next two months is one tale after another of materials or supplies ruined when they “streamed in” under unopened parachutes. At times the wind would drag functioning parachutes and the things attached to them 20 miles from the station. The parachutes were a good source of cloth used for many things, such as decorating rooms (they were different colors), and as bags filled with snow and dragged inside to melt for drinking

On Jan. 1, 1957, the 16 men who were building the South Pole Station, buried a time capsule to be opened in 2000. Paul Siple, the station’s chief, ruled against burying it in the snow because “it never would be found again.” It went into the small plywood shack that marked the South Pole. In 2002 the National Science Foundation wanted to recover the capsile , but “We don’t know where it is,” Jerry Marty, the National Science Foundation representative at the Pole, told the Antarctic Sun. He said the records are sketchy and many who helped bury the 1957 capsule are dead. A new capsule, which was put into one of the support beams of the current station, which was under construction then, was better documented so it can be found for its 2050 opening.

On Feb. 21, 1957, after the last of the Seabees had left, when an Air Force C-124 Globemaster dropped the last supplies of the “summer” by parachute, the 18 men at the Pole knew they wouldn’t see another airplane, much less another human, until late October. It would be too cold for an airplane to land. Siple described the group “as 18 men in a box” they had to stay in to survive. They had no way to leave the Pole, nor “any possibility we could be rescued should tragedy strike.” The nearest humans to the 18 men at the South Pole were three men wintering over at the British South Ice Station, about 560 miles (900 km) away and the closest Americans were the 23 men at Byrd Station, 700 miles (1,126 km) away.

Making sure all needed supplies are on hand before flights stop for the winter is important even today. In 1957 the supply effort wasn’t always well organized, as Siple found out during the winter while talking with the leader of another station on the radio. He learned the other station had “no sheets, blankets or toilet paper.” What did they use? “Sleeping bags and parachutes.”

Pole Remains Isolated after the Sun Returns

The sky begin to show the first sign of the sun in August, 1957, but civil twilight, when the men could move around outdoors without flashlights, arrived so slowly the men at the South Pole could hardy say when it started. “By September 6,” Siple wrote, “the dull grays of the sky were interlarded with other colors.” The sun came up on Sept.  23, 1957, but it was still bitterly cold, the South Pole had set a new low temperature record (then) for the world of –102 F on Sept. 18, 1957.

The first airplane flew over and parachuted down mail and some fresh food on Oct. 17, making the men eager to leave. The first plane landed on Oct. 21, but broke down, probably from the cold, and its 16 men joined the 18 at the Pole until Nov. 16, when airplanes were able to arrive and depart, taking the 18 men who had spent the winter to McMurdo, and bringing replacements. Since that first winter the South Pole has never been unoccupied.



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