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Man operates ham radio in 1956.
Photo Credit: U.S. Navy/Antarctic Photo Library
U.S. Navy Chief Petty Officer Aubrey Garrett uses a ham radio at Williams Air Operating Facility during the 1956 winter. Ham radio was the only means of voice communication with friends and family back in the United States for navy personnel living and working in Antarctica in the days before satellite telephone technology. 

Past connections

Young ham radio operators kept IGY crew in touch with friends, family

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Madey Ridge, located in Antarctica’s Pensacola Mountains near the Ronne Ice Shelf, is named for a teenager who played a critical role in the lives of hundreds of Antarctic pioneers. Today, ask any number of retired Navy Seabees if they remember a Jules Madey and every one of them will happily tell you that Jules was one remarkable young man.

In 1955, the U.S. Navy sent hundreds of Seabees, the Navy’s construction battalion, to Antarctica to build seven research stations for the impending International Geophysical Year (IGY) External Non-U.S. government site. Over the course of the next two years, these men braved primitive conditions to do what no one had ever done before — build functioning facilities with electricity, running water and science labs in locales where the explorers before them had struggled to survive.

Ham radio was the only means of talking to loved ones back home in the era preceding satellite-enabled telephony. For the men who arrived at what is now McMurdo Station External U.S. government site in December 1955, and who did not depart until a year or two later, hearing a wife’s voice or son’s laughter was an important morale booster.

Jules Madey was a 16-year old ham radio operator in 1956 when he read about the Antarctic expedition. The Clark, N.J., teen and his 13-year old brother, John, were radio-control-airplane enthusiasts when they learned a person could increase flying capabilities by operating on the ham radio frequencies.

Studying together to learn the Morse code, they both got their ham licenses in 1954 and soon realized that talking to people around the world via ham radio was as much fun as flying airplanes. With the encouragement and help of their parents, they soon had a 110-foot tower in their back yard, enabling a better reception than most operators in the world had at that time. Jules also hooked up a telephone to the radio that allowed him to make phone patches.

“I’d be in the basement doing my homework with the radio on when I’d receive a radio call from McMurdo, South Pole External U.S. government site, Byrd Station … I talked to all of them. Monty [a U.S. Navy radioman] was a person I spoke with almost every night,” Jules says during a phone interview from his home near Albany, New York. He would have a dozen men who were lined up there in McMurdo wanting to place a phone call home to their wives or parents.

“Monty would give me the phone number and I’d place the collect call. The first time I placed the call, no one knew who this Jules kid was, but after the first time they eagerly would accept the collect call being placed by m.”

Talking over a ham radio takes getting used to, Jules said. “I would have to explain to the person how to say ‘over’ when they had finished speaking. I had to listen to all the conversations because I had to switch the radio from transmit to receive after each speaker. It got to where I felt I knew these men and their families pretty well.”

Jules Madey on his ham radio antenna.
Photo Credit: Jules Madey
Jules Madey on top of his 110-foot-tall antenna tower.

“Jules was a very mature teen,” recalls Tom “Monty” Montgomery, now of Clearwater, Fla.. “I was a 30-year old married radioman with three children when I first arrived in Antarctica. My wife and children were living in Martha’s Vineyard, and I remember very well the time Jules put a call through to her for me.”  

Disney studios even got involved, filming a ham call from Monty in McMurdo to Jules in New Jersey, who patched the call through to Monty’s wife.

Ham radios most frequently operate on Federal Communications Commission External U.S. government site-designated high-frequency bands between 1.8 and 30 MHz. Long distance communication is possible because these wavelengths reflect off the ionosphere, where the waves bounce around the world. At the same time, because of the ionosphere’s role, disruptions can be caused by solar flares, auroras and whether it is daylight or nighttime.

The Madey boys had also rigged up a radiofax machine, allowing them to transmit scientific data as well as photos. Jules recalls, “A typical 8x10 photo took about 20 minutes to send in those days.”

Montgomery says Jules ended up patching through the majority of calls for the Deep Freeze men because he had a better set-up than most people had at that time.

“He had a huge antenna, so his reception was good, and he had a telephone hooked up for patching calls. Sometimes when I would be transmitting, I’d be picked up by someone in, say, California, but they didn’t have the capability of placing a phone patch. Jules did. It was just easier working with Jules than anyone else. I talked to him almost every night for over a year.”1 2 3   Next

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