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Standish Backus (1910-1989)


Mt. Erebus
Standish Backus #38

The great "sacred" mountain of the Antarctic, this 13,000 foot active volcano is among the most majestic, beautiful, inspiring and forbidding prominences on earth. So domineering that one is aware of its existence visually from well over 100 miles distance; so aloof that it seems to maintain its own mantle of weather apart from anything being experienced by our lowly fleet at her feet (though quite capable of throwing 100 knots of wind in our direction when bored with her other moods); so terrifying that to step boldly at random on her flanks would amount to becoming engulfed instantly in some vast crevasse; so benign in the soft, warm light of the low sun as to permit her to take high place among the sentimental scenic settings in the world. In such a mood as the latter have I tempted to record a brief moment of Erebus. Vessels represented, from the left, MSTS Greenville Victory, Arneb, Nespelen, YOG-34, Wyandot, Navy icebreaker Edisto, Coast Guard icebreaker Eastwind.


Southwest Blow in McMurdo Sound
Standish Backus #50
Watercolor on paper, 1956


"First signs of Antarctic autumn wreathed Mt. Erebus in wind-filled clouds which blew vast loose snow flurries from the ice surface hampering efforts to unload the cargo vessels. These in turn had to keep on steaming to maintain their hold on the ice and to shift quickly as ice floes would break off and drift toward them. Temperatures near the zero mark served notice that time was running out for the intruders in their puny ships from the north."--Commander Standish Backus

Mount Erebus (elevation 12,444 feet) is the most active volcano in the region of Antarctica.


Setting the Trail Markers
Standish Backus #54
Watercolor on paper, 1956


This was one of the men's first tasks upon arrival. With the danger of shifting ice and hidden crevasses, a safe, clearly marked walking trail was essential.


Williams Air Operating Facility, McMurdo Sound
Standish Backus #53
Watercolor on paper, 1956


The establishment of an Air Operating Facility in the vicinity of the Ross Ice Shelf was one of Operation Deepfreeze I's primary objectives.


One-Mile Pump Station
Standish Backus #35
Watercolor, 1956


Six miles of unbreakable sea ice at the southern end of McMurdo Sound necessitated establishing a portable pipeline through which aviation gasoline and arctic diesel oil were discharged from the ships to waiting tanks erected by Seabees at one-mile intervals. These camps also doubled as the Antarctic version of the drive-in restaurant, sometimes providing hot coffee for the pipeline patrol and crews of the passing tractor trains. At the ice-edge in the background, off loading cargo lies the Coast Guard icebreaker Eastwind, next to the tanker Nespelen, and YOG-34.


Cold and Fatigue
Standish Backus #55
and ink, crayon, wax, 1956


Twelve-hour shifts with bleak living conditions and two meals a day were the lot of the engineers and technical men in the early days of base construction at Hut Point. Heavy toil in the face of bitter winds and driving snow had its cutting, eroding and glazing effect on personnel. Individually, when they could get away from their tasks, they would make their way to the mess tent where they hoped to find a colossal pot of steaming hot coffee. Over a mug of java they would seek to relax long enough to permit some personality to emerge from one frozen in animation. Then again they would have to return to driving themselves hard to forget their hard life.


The Fatal Hazard
Standish Backus #56
Oil on canvasboard, 1956


On any glacial ice, but more especially on any part of the Antarctic continental glacier [containing 85% of all the ice on earth], a traveler lives constantly under the Damoclean threat that a crevasse may be under him. Without warning the snow that has bridges over the yawning maw, rendering it indistinguishable, may give way. Men and machines may be instantly swallowed down forever, down perhaps hundreds of feet of indolent, ice-blur depths.

Methods of crevasse detection are at best laborious and something less than efficient. Tractor driver Max Kiel fell victim to a huge crevasse while driving his D-8 caterpillar, the largest unit of a tractor-train operating some 250 miles southeast of Little America. At McMurdo Sound, a similar vehicle traversing the bay ice broke through and plunged into 400 fathoms of water, carrying driver Williams with if for Operation Deepfreeze I's only other fatality.


The Champ
Standish Backus #41
Watercolor on paper, 1956


"Facial Hirsuteness, whether a product of expediency or glory, has always been an accepted mode for well-dressed polar inhabitants. Many members of the Operation Deepfreeze entered the hairy sweepstakes whole-heartedly with their whole chins. Winners of local honors frequently were as surprised at what happened when they stopped shaving as the losers were dismayed by what refused to grow." --Commander Standish Backus


Online Exhibits that feature Standish Backus's work

The Navy Art of Standish Backus
The Japanese Surrender at Tokyo Bay
World War II Navy Art: A Vision of History
Operation Deepfreeze I: 1955-56:

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07 March 2003