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OAEA logo
Photo Credit: OAEA
The Old Antarctic Explorer's Association logo.

 

OAEA wants you

Organization keeps memories alive for those away from the Ice

 

Its membership includes a scientist who first visited Antarctica nearly 60 years ago and officials from the National Science Foundation.

The Old Antarctic Explorer’s Association is possibly the largest organization
of its kind dedicated to preserving the collective memory of Antarctica, a club of kindred spirits fascinated with life on the Ice.

It doesn’t matter whether one worked on the seventh continent in the military or as a civilian, served a single season or 20.

The OAEA wants you.

“The association was founded to keep alive the memory and share the experience of those personnel, both military and civilians of all nations, who served or are serving in support of Antarctic research,” writes OAEA President John West on the group’s Web site. “Membership in the association is open to all that have shared the ‘Antarctic Experience.’”

Billy-Ace Penguin Baker perhaps does as much as anyone to keep those experiences burning bright. Baker is a retired Navy radioman who between 1962 and 1980 spent four winters and 15 summers in Antarctica as part of Operation Deep Freeze, the Navy mission to support research on the Ice from 1955 to 1999.

At age 70, Baker is still intensely involved in all things Antarctic, wearing several hats in the OAEA, including historian and editor of the association’s official newsletter, The Explorer’s Gazette.

“It takes a sort of special kind of individual to go down to Antarctica, even when you get drafted into the program like I did, but I kept going back,” said Baker from his home in Pensacola, Fla.

“Most people really had a good time down there, so it’s the camaraderie and things like that,” he said when asked to explain the draw of remaining connected to the Antarctic so many years later.

OAEA members
OAEA members John West, right, and Billy-Ace Baker buff the floor in McMurdo Station’s main building in 1975.

The OAEA undeniably has its roots in the U.S. Navy, which has long been associated with Antarctic exploration and research. As early as 1839, Capt. Charles Wilkes led the first U.S. Naval expedition into Antarctic waters.

In 1929, Adm. 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. He led two subsequent, smaller expeditions before the beginning of World War II.

The Navy assumed a permanent sort of stewardship over the continent in 1955 as it prepared to support the International Geophysical Year (IGY) in 1957. It continued in that role until 1999, when the mission for the U.S. Antarctic Program was turned over primarily to the U.S. Air Force, U.S. Air National Guard and private contractors.

Thanks to the Internet, people who wanted to stay connected formed an e-mail group the same year Operation Deep Freeze was decommissioned. The group grew into a loosely formed organization that called itself the Old Antarctic Explorer’s Association, according to the OAEA Web site.

Eventually, it took steps to elect a board of directors, to draw up by-laws and to become incorporated as a non-profit corporation in the state of Florida.

Today, the OAEA has about 1,100 to 1,200 members, according to Baker, with a couple of hundred members just in the Gulf region, primarily around Pensacola.

Its roster includes Bill Sladen, a noted ornithologist who first visited the Antarctic in the 1940s. A few National Science Foundation (NSF) officials like Dave Bresnahan and Jerry Marty, who have spent more than their fair share of time here, are also life members.

Writer and historian Dian Olson Belanger, who just published a book on the IGY and Operation Deep Freeze, also signed up. (See the Oct. 29, 2006, issue.)

Belanger was one of the speakers at the biannual OAEA reunion and symposium in Rhode Island last August. The New England Chapter of the OAEA – which includes Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island and Vermont – hosted the event.

In a previous interview, Belanger said she spoke to the members about why she believed the events of 50 years ago still matter today. “I think people need to know about how they got to where they are now,” she said.

An unofficial historian of the South Pole and Ice veteran, Bill Spindler first journeyed to Antarctica in 1972 as a junior Navy Seabee officer assigned to winter, but budget constraints cut his deployment short. The brief stint hooked him, however, and he ended up returning several times as a civilian, including a winter at the South Pole in 2005.

“The Ice is a neat place, with lots of interesting stuff going on, some great people, and a unique social environment. ... I’d go back if I could,” he wrote via e-mail. “And off the Ice, I’ve met many great folks thanks to the OAEA who share my sentiments about the place.”

The OAEA can also call itself an international organization, with a handful of members from England, Australia and New Zealand, including another writer, Kiwi Noel Gillespie, who penned a history book about the Navy pilots who flew countless missions in the 44 years of Operation Deep Freeze.

Gillespie’s book, “Courage Sacrifice Devotion” pays homage to the men who flew in conditions he called more hazardous than they are today thanks to the advances in aviation technology.

“The bond formed between men in Antarctica proved beyond all else that each one depended on his mates,” Gillespie wrote via e-mail when asked to speculate on the relationships that have survived over the years.

Baker’s involvement in Antarctica extends beyond friendship with fellow OAEs.

Like Gillespie, he has a keen interest in the continent’s history. His personal Antarctic library numbers about 2,000 books, he said, and he often fields queries from people trying to reconnect with old friends or learn more about the service of deceased family members.

“I have a room that’s wall-to-wall books about Antarctica,” Baker noted.

Annual and lifetime memberships are open to anyone who has spent time in the Antarctic, whether on the continent, surrounding islands or aboard the various vessels that have crisscrossed the Southern Ocean.

More Information

The OAEA has recently added Antarctic tourists to its list of people eligible for full membership. An associate membership is also available for those who have no direct Antarctic experience but merely an interest in the Ice.

The OAEA holds meetings like the one in Rhode Island every two years, alternatingyears with another Ice-related organization, the Antarctic Deep Freeze Association (ADFA), which existed prior to the OAEA and originally consisted mostly of the Navy Seabees from Operation Deep Freeze I and II. Baker is vice chairman with the ADFA.

“I think somewhere down the line we’ll just merge into one outfit,” he said.

“Tell your friends to join,” Baker added before hanging up the phone. “We need more members.”

 

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Curator: Peter Rejcek, Antarctic Support Contract | NSF Official: Winifred Reuning, Division of Polar Programs