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Navy Seabees at South Pole.
Photo Credit: Dick Prescott
U.S. Navy Seabees in the South Pole galley in 1956. Left to right are Nolan, Williamson, Randall, Wagner and Bowers.

Pole turns 50

Station celebrates birthday on Jan. 4 after Navy Seabees finish oasis in middle of polar desert

A mere 20 days after it was demonstrated that an airplane could land and take off from the South Pole, a small team of men was deposited at that loneliest imaginable spot, charged with the task of building a permanent station.

That was in the early morning hours of Nov. 20, 1956. Barely 45 days later, on Jan. 4, 1957, the last of the 24 men returned to McMurdo Station, leaving behind a functioning facility in the hands of those who would spend the first winter ever at the South Pole.

The significance of that accomplishment was lost on neither those men nor on the people who today continue to maintain a human presence at 90 degrees south.

“It was a demanding team effort, and everyone I know who was involved takes great pride in it,” said Dick Bowers, who led the construction of the station 50 years ago.

“They established a platform for a U.S. presence at the geographic South Pole,” added Jerry Marty, National Science Foundation representative at the Pole. “They established the recognition that man could survive. They built an infrastructure to support science in man’s first winter at South Pole in 1957, based on what they did between Nov. 20 and Jan. 4.”

Bowers was a lieutenant junior grade in the U.S. Navy when he was part of the initial deposit of men, supplies and a dog team on the two-mile-high ice shelf in central Antarctica. His first order of business was to confirm their location, and he found they were eight miles off-target.

He said the dogs came along as a backup plan should they have trouble getting planes off of the snow, something that had only been done once before. The canine team was put to work hauling the first supplies to the actual geographic Pole.

In short order, his full team — mostly Navy Seabees, members of the construction battalion — arrived and a flurry of airdrops and deliveries of materials ensued. Combating the effects of altitude sickness and the extreme cold, the men set about constructing buildings.

Speaking from his current home in Indianapolis, Bowers said they carried an awareness of why they were called on to do the job.

“We had a very general idea of how the [International Geographic Year] came about via a group of forward-thinking scientists who wanted to get this thing started ... because science was advancing so rapidly,” he said. “These people were really extraordinary, far-thinking individuals. We knew that, and ... those who understood the mission could really appreciate it.”

Marty, whose first involvement with the U.S. Antarctic Program (USAP) was in 1969, is in his 17th season at Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station, as the station was ultimately named to honor the first two explorers to reach the Pole.

He agreed that the station was a goal that has paid significant dividends, listing accomplishments such as learning more about the origin of our planet and our universe, the climate and our effect on it.

Team effort

While Marty made a point of singling out the leader of the team that constructed seven major buildings in less than seven weeks, Bowers would hear nothing of it, going to great lengths to heap praises on the other members of his group, the flight crews who delivered supplies and personnel, and the hundreds who supported the operation from McMurdo Station and beyond.

“We were very proud of it,” he said at one point. “I say ‘we’ because no one ever does anything down there as an individual. It’s always a group activity.”

“We were surrounded with very competent people, hundreds of them, hard-working people. The plans, early on, had been quite nebulous about many facets — whether we could land, whether we could take off, what materials were actually required, what we would face. ... Basically, we were surrounded by men who were capable of doing so much and had so much drive and energy, people who didn’t get frustrated when things went wrong. It was a humbling experience.”

Bowers even made a point of listing some of the other stations built during the early years of Operation Deep Freeze, adding that “all the stories of those other stations were incredibly impressive to me, maybe because I could understand some of the things they were going through.”

Many members of those long-ago missions still keep in touch, he said, and try to gather at least every two years. He said current USAP members such as Marty make an effort to keep them updated and will join their meetings.

“They keep us advised, and we tell them about how it was back then and they laugh,” Bowers said. “Then they tell us about how it is now and we laugh. We enjoy every bit of it.”

“Those guys just sit back in awe in terms of the magnitude, the size of the pieces of equipment and everything,” Marty said. “We talk about the challenges of logistics, the challenges of sometimes things don’t fit quite right in the field — really, nothing has changed.”

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