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Off the radar

Few people know the role Navy radar picket ships played in early communications for Antarctica. Former sailor Gene Spinelli tells the story.

Before the high-tech days of weather satellites and the Global Positioning System (GPS), aircraft flying between Christchurch, New Zealand, and McMurdo Station would depend on weather reports and navigational fixes from a weather picket ship deployed near 160° east and 60° south. Both the U.S. Navy and New Zealand (NZ) Navy provided ships for this purpose.

During the years 1957-1968, the U.S. Navy deployed Destroyer Escort (DE) class ships for this duty, while the NZ Navy provided Loch class antisubmarine frigates for the four years it participated. The U.S. ships were World War II vintage DEs, later replaced by DE Radar (DER) class ships. The DERs were also World War II (Edsall class) DEs that were converted for radar duty in the 1950s. Built from 1943 until the end of the war for the princely sum of about $6 million each, the DERs were never intended to be in service into the 1970s.

More Information
Gene Spinelli created a Web site in 1998 dedicated to the Operation Deep Freeze weather picket ships and those who served aboard them. Visit www.aspen-ridge.net to view some of the 2,000 images from those years.

The DER was easily distinguishable from its original World War II configuration by its unusual architecture and the addition of a second mast, Tactical Air Navigation (TACAN) gear, the ubiquitous SPS-8 height-finding radar system and an after-deck house on the 01 level.

The Navy selected the Edsall class DEs for conversion because of their Fairbanks Morse diesel engine propulsion system. The ships could travel many thousands of nautical miles nonstop on a full tank of gas. It wasn’t the smoothest ride a sailor would ever experience. With a displacement of 1,700 tons — and at 306 feet long, 37 feet at the beam and about 14 foot draft — it could have been worse, and was, during Antarctic storms.

In all, the Navy converted 36 Edsall class ships to DERs, and eight of them served as Operation Deep Freeze weather picket ships. Toward the end of World War II, seven Buckley class DEs were converted to DERs, but those earlier conversions were deemed unacceptable for radar picket duty in the 1950s.

During the early Operation Deep Freeze years, one U.S. Navy picket ship would deploy to the Southern Ocean. Later in the program, the U.S. and New Zealand navies would alternate their time on station. From 1966 through 1968, the U.S. Navy provided two DERs during each season, with Dunedin, NZ, serving as the port for both ships. I don’t recall both ships being in port at the same time.

Headed around the world

In April 1965, as a newly promoted Electronics Technician Third Class (ETR3) awaiting assignment at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, I was handed orders to the USS Calcaterra, DER-390, at Newport, R.I. The chief petty officer handed me the envelope, laughed, and asked, “Do you know what a DER is?”

I responded, “No,” and he explained the life of an East Coast DER sailor: Depart Newport and sail to the waters around Cuba, then sit there for 30 days tracking aircraft in and out of Cuba. The picket station was known as “Dog Rocks.”

As I boarded a Greyhound bus for Newport, the bus driver asked what ship I was assigned to serve. As we entered the base, he would take us as close as possible to our ship. The only problem was the Calcaterra had sailed for Dog Rocks that morning to relieve another DER that had broken down. DERs were known for breaking down.

I headed to the USS Yosemite, AD-19, and checked in at the Quarterdeck. While being processed, the petty officer of the Watch said, “You lucky dog.”

I responded, “Why is that?”

He said, “You’re going on a round-the-world cruise. The Calcaterra will leave Newport in August for New Zealand, completely circle the Earth on the return voyage, and return in May of next year.” I spent one month on Yosemite waiting for Calcaterra to return from Dog Rocks.

So, at the tender young age of 19, I embarked on a once-in-a-lifetime experience by completely circling the planet twice; transiting the Panama and Suez canals; being inducted into the Ancient Order of the Deep by crossing the equator; then later crossing the International Date Line, the Antarctic Circle, and spending two birthdays below the Antarctic Circle.

Exercise in routine

The voyage to Dunedin, NZ, took about a month. Departing Newport, we sailed for the Panama Canal. After a few days at the U.S. Navy base at Balboa, Canal Zone and a few days at Callao (Lima), Peru, we began what was to be a 20-day nonstop voyage to New Zealand. Because of rough seas along the way, the voyage took longer than planned. Calcaterra arrived at Dunedin on Sept. 21, 1965, with its fuel gauge almost on empty.

After taking on supplies and fuel, we departed Dunedin four days later for the New Zealand weather station at Campbell Island. I’d soon learn that part of the ritual was to stop at Campbell Island to offload mail and supplies for the handful of New Zealand scientists who lived on the island. On the return trip, we would stop to pick up outgoing mail. On each visit, crewmembers went ashore to tour the island and enjoy a beer at the recreation center. After several hours we’d be under way again, either heading for picket duty at 60º south latitude or back to New Zealand.

I would eventually learn that Deep Freeze pickets were an exercise in routine. By the end of my Deep Freeze assignment, I made a total of nine pickets aboard USS Calcaterra and USS Thomas J. Gary. During these pickets, the aerographers would send up at least two weather balloons a day and the sonarmen would make regular bathythermograph (BT) drops.

The weather balloons contained a radiosonde transmitter, which sent various weather measurements back to the ship. As the balloon made its way into the upper atmosphere, the radarmen, using the SPS-8 height-finding radar, logged the balloon’s altitude and direction. The aerographers compared the radar tracks to the radiosonde data, computed the results, and sent weather reports to McMurdo Station and Christchurch. As required, the TACAN beacon would transmit navigation information for inbound and outbound aircraft.

On duty

Electronics technicians did not stand under way watches, which probably annoyed those crewmembers who did. The tradeoff was that we were on call 24 hours a day to handle any failure of the radar or communication systems. During the regular workday, we would perform preventive maintenance or make routine general repairs.

While on picket station aboard USS Calcaterra, I awoke one night to “Spinelli, wake up, the 10 is down.” Of course, this meant the AN/SPS-10 surface search radar was not working, and the ship was operating blind. All the SPA-8 and SPA-4 repeaters showed the same pattern of pulses that should not have been there. I’d seen this problem once before. I went to the transmitter room, where a newly minted ensign met me.

Icebergs surrounded the ship, and without radar, this was not an enviable situation. The ensign was as nervous as one could imagine, and he kept asking me how long it would take to repair. I remember saying, “Ten minutes after I figure out what’s wrong.” He went to the bridge and reported to the commanding officer (CO) while I diagnosed the problem.

The CO, obviously concerned by whatever the ensign told him, came down to the transmitter room and asked how long before it would be fixed. In the time it took for the nervous ensign to go to the bridge, update the CO, and for the CO to walk to the transmitter room, I had already replaced the failing part and restored the system to operation.

Roll to port

On another picket aboard USS Thomas J. Gary, I awoke at about 2 a.m. to those same words: “Spinelli, wake up, the 10 is down.”

The problem was relatively easy to see: The radar antenna high on the mast was turning but there was no such indication on any of the repeaters of that rotation. An hour later, I concluded the problem was either a bad servo (an automatic device that uses error-sensing feedback to correct the performance of a mechanism) at the antenna or a broken cable. The CO came down and asked for an estimated time to repair.

I explained the situation, and he said, “The aerographers tell me the best weather we’re going to have for the next few days is right now.” I immediately knew he wanted me to climb the mast while the ship was pitching and rolling in the cold Antarctic night.

So up the mast I went with some hand tools. I could only climb as the ship rolled to port. During a port roll, my body would be against the ladder. On a starboard roll, I’d be hanging off the ladder with my back to the sea. This was a no-brainer: only climb on port rolls.

Eventually I arrived at the upper radar platform, strapped myself to the railing and opened the antenna pedestal’s access plate. It took all of 10 seconds to see a broken wire on the servo and another minute or two to make the repair. I then scrambled back down the mast — on port rolls — fired up the system, and watched the smile on the CO’s face.

These vintage DERs had a nasty habit of blowing boilers, generators, evaporators, and just about anything else, as they were never intended to be operational 20-plus years. We were fortunate to have the services of Sims Engineering in Dunedin. Over the years, Ted Sims became proficient at replacing major assemblies by cutting plates from the ship’s hull and using hoists and cranes to remove and replace just about any item that needed attention.

Amazing memories

So, what was the most exciting memory from these deployments? There were many, but without question, it would be the December 1965 picket at 60º south.

We had a reporter/photographer from the Otago Daily Times newspaper aboard USS Calcaterra. On this picket, the CO, Lt. Cmdr. William C. Earle, performed some amazing feats of ship handling by bringing Calcaterra alongside icebergs for close inspection. On this picket, we sailed below the Antarctic Circle and spent Christmas Day at the Balleny Islands.

After the March 1968 deployments by USS Calcaterra and USS Mills, the Navy discontinued the weather picket ship program. Technology finally caught up with the old ships, as satellites took over the weather and navigation duties. Of course, a satellite would never be able to assist if an airplane needed to ditch at sea, but then I’m not aware of any situation through 1968, or after, where an aircraft making the flight between Christchurch and McMurdo had to ditch at sea. [Editor's Note: That's still true today.]

Those were amazing years, and to have the opportunity to completely circle the Earth on a U.S. Navy ship twice would be exciting by anyone’s standard. It was a great experience, and one that influenced me for the next 40 years. Of course, today it’s much more pleasant to travel these long distances on a Boeing 747 while sipping champagne and watching movies.

Gene Spinelli’s Navy enlistment ended in June 1967. Shortly after becoming a civilian, he joined the IBM Corporation from which he retired after nearly 40 years of service. Today, Gene is semi-retired and lives with his wife in Colorado, doing occasional consulting projects in the IT industry. Gene can be heard on the Amateur Radio bands as K5GS.

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