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Past connections

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

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). 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 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, 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 me.”

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 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-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.”

In touch with fame

The list of people who Jules patched through in those days is a virtual list of Who’s Who of Antarctic history.

The notables include figures like Paul Siple, the scientific leader at South Pole in 1957 whose first trip to Antarctica was as a member of Admiral Byrd’s 1928 expedition. Scientist Carl Eklund at Wilkes Station, whose name would become attached to the forerunner of today’s Crary Lab, was another.

Capt. Finn Ronne, the military and scientific leader of Ellsworth Station, for whom the Ronne Ice Shelf is named, also talked to Jules, as did Vivian Fuchs, who teamed with Edmund Hillary in the first trans-Antarctic expedition, from Shackleton Station on the Weddell Sea to Scott Base, via South Pole.

There were other famous people who were eager to talk to the men in Antarctica, the vast unknown frontier. Arthur Godfrey and Art Linkletter made a point of talking to the heroes of the era, after which they would proudly announce this communiqué on their radio shows.

Meant a lot to morale

According to Dian Belanger’s definitive history “Deep Freeze: The United States, the International Geophysical Year, and the Origins of Antarctica’s Age of Science” when Deep Freeze personnel were asked to name people deserving recognition, the overwhelming majority began their lists with ham radio operators. Jules’ name appeared on everyone’s lists. The radio operators received certificates of appreciation for their support of polar morale, but Jules’ efforts were so extraordinary he got a geographical feature named for him.

Vic Young spent the winter of 1956 at Little America V running the ham shack during the evening hours. When recently contacted to see if he remembered Jules, an enthusiastic burst of energy came through the phone.

“Jules? Jules Madey? Sure I remember Jules. He was terrific. Almost every time I’d be on the radio, I’d contact Jules. I remember he was a young man going to school. It would be 2 or 3 a.m. in New Jersey where he was and he’d be up doing his homework and patching through phone calls for us. I cannot say with enough emphasis what a great kid he was.

“The men would come into the ham shack to talk to their wives. They’d be a bit down because here it was cold and dark, and they’d come into the shack and I’d put them through to Jules. I’d watch the person change from morose to his morale going way up as soon as he heard Jules’ voice, putting through the phone patch. I do not think Jules could possibly understand at his young age how important he was to us. He did a wonderful wonderful job.”

Meeting the Madey brothers

Several of the men made a point to visit Jules when they returned to the United States.

Ken Waldron was one of the 18 men who spent the first winter at South Pole in 1957. He first heard of Jules before he deployed, while still stationed in Davisville, R.I. “I didn’t know who Jules was, but his name stuck in my mind because I figured he was someone pretty important. Then when I got to Pole, I found out that Jules was this wiz kid who patched through our phone calls.

“You know, the thing that I remember best is that Jules would get the Sunday paper and read the comics and the sports pages to us over the radio. He was precocious enough to realize how important it was for us. Can you imagine being 16 years old and understanding the psychological impact of hearing the news like that? 

“Gee, when I was that age all I thought about was football and girls. Here these two boys would do their homework, get straight As, stay up all night to patch through phone calls for us and then go to school the next day. What they were accomplishing would take a project manager today.”

Jules made such an impression on Waldron that he visited the Madey family when he returned home. “One day Jules and John and their group of friends took me out to eat lunch and I was blown away by this group of friends. They were the most intelligent and polite high school kids. I remember one young lady was so intelligent I had difficulty following what she was talking about. Here I was 21 and I thought these kids were already several steps ahead of me.”

Waldron asked the boys’ dad how much he was involved in helping them get the radio and antenna set up. The Madey patriarch said that the boys figured out what they needed, he bought the equipment, and they did the rest. “Their dad said everything they have, they figured out on their own,” Waldron marvels.

Another Deep Freeze II Polie, Earl Johnson, has another story about Jules. “I had just finished talking to my fiancée, Celeste, and had signed off. Jules was a long time coming back to me, and I thought that the band had gone out. However, the band was OK and when Jules came back on he told me he had been discussing with Celeste about the possibility of him attending our wedding, upon my return to the States.

“Celeste and I were honored that a young man whom we had never met, but who had handled all our phone calls for the past year, would want to do that. Jules and his father flew down to West Palm Beach, Florida, for the wedding. We had the opportunity to visit with Jules again a couple of months later when passing through New Jersey.”

Not forgotten

Cliff Dickey was also at Pole that first winter in 1957, and would sometimes operate the ham radio. “I don’t know when the guy studied. He was always there. He was a constant. My wife was in Cleveland and my parents were in California, so I would try to get a ham radio operator close to them, so the phone patch would not be long distance. But sometimes you couldn’t get through to the hams who were close to where you were calling and you just knew you could contact Jules.

“You knew he would be there and he would put through the call for you. No matter what time it was, every night of the week. He was always there. K2KGJ. That was his call sign. Everyone in Antarctica knew it. It’s been over 50 years and I still remember it. My wife and I made a point of visiting Jules when I returned to the U.S.”

Jules was the first ham radio operator contacted from the South Pole, according to Dickey. Records kept by wintering personnel indicate contact was made on December 24, 1956, at 4:08 am GMT.

So high was the Navy’s regard for Jules that they arranged for him to take a trip to Antarctica in December 1959. He flew in on a Super Constellation (C-121C) by way of Hawaii, Fiji and New Zealand. He got to visit Byrd and Hallett stations, but was unable to make it to the South Pole.

Making waves their livelihood

Jules and his brother John made careers out of their fascination with radio waves. Jules holds an electrical engineering degree from CalTech. He was a biomedical engineer in visual neurophysiology and sensory aids for the blind at Smith-Kettlewell Institute in San Francisco before moving back to the East Coast in the 1970s.

Today he is the director of Technology Development for the New York State Thruway Authority. He is responsible for development and design of components and systems for manual and electronic toll collection and Intelligent Transportation System functions — all  which utilize radio waves.

But Jules is quick to point out that it is his younger brother who has gained fame for his study of electromagnetic waves, specifically laser technology. As an undergraduate student at CalTech in the late 1960s, John developed the first Free Electron Laser, and a few years later received a patent for it.

Today John is the director of the University of Hawaii’s physics department Free Electron Laser group. “I can picture myself in the basement on a cold winter night, staring at the glowing vacuum tubes in the ham radio and wondering about the nature of them, knowing there had to be more to the physics by which radio waves could be amplified. There is no doubt that my ham radio days led me to where I am today,” John recalls.

“We had extraordinary parents. They were children of the Great Depression who came of age during [World War II], witnessing amazing scientific and technological developments, from the birth of the atomic age to radar,” he adds. “Mom graduated at the top of her class and Dad had his own automotive repair business, and although neither had a college degree, they were both very intelligent.

“They were surrounded by friends who were some of the leaders in high tech. Their friends would come over and discuss a recent invention or development, and thus our parents were always learning and then conveying this information to students who would be sent to our dad’s business to learn. Our parents were determined that their two sons would have the opportunities that they had not had.”

The New York Times widely covered IGY and Operation Deep Freeze, so the Madey boys were well aware of this global cooperative scientific effort. But to become a part of it, by patching through phone calls from the likes of Siple, already quite famous, and facilitating the science by transmitting scientific data reports, allowed the boys to feel that they, too, could become scientists.  

John remembers, “Seeing, as a student, what goes on in these projects and understanding at a very basic level that you, too, could make things like this happen in your own career is an essential part of the education of the next generation of our leaders, whether scientific, business or political.

“I look at my own children today and lament the fact that we, I, did not facilitate the opportunities that we children of the 1950s had. Jules and I could get our hands dirty in our dad’s machine shop, learning how to build things. Then we became an integral part of the IGY, being intimately involved in the science conducted. We were encouraged to experiment and build our ham radio tower. There was no end to it.

“Do children today have that opportunity? There has been no global effort to solve scientific mysteries as there was in the 1950s. Maybe global warming and the push toward alternative fuels will reignite an effort bringing youth and scientists together.”

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