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The Navy Art of Standish Backus

Antarctic Expedition

Returing to active duty, Backus accompanied Admiral Richard Byrd to the Antarctic for four months in 1955-56 to record images of the exploration. Labelled "Operation Deep Freeze", this expedition did preliminary work for the one in July 1956, which widely explored the Antarctic in commemoration of the Geophysical Year. Backus participated in many phases of the expedition, working under severe conditions. Party members ventured out by means of skis and "old fashioned foot-sloggin," usually equipped with extra gear and provisions in case an emergency kept them away for an extended period.

Backus documented the operation with photographs and drawings, using a liquid lead pencil that resisted smudging and freezing. His paintings, created after his return, included the operations of ships and planes, construction of Antarctic bases at McMurdo Sound, icebreaking operations, the unloading of cargo, and Antarctic wildlife. He was particularly taken by the "magnificently powerful mountain terrain."

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.


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.


Standish Backus #43
Drawing on Scratchboard,1956

The approved method of fastening a ship to the Antarctic Continent is to moor it to a dead man buried in the ice. A dead man is a husky piece of timber frozen into the firm sea ice with a steel cable strap passed around it through the ships hawser so that it may be released instantly should an ice alert or blizzard warning be sounded. Symbolically it might represent man's tenuous and probably temporary hold on Antarctica.


Emergency on the Flight Deck
Standish Backus #51
Watercolor, 1956


A scrambling, heroic effort had to be made on several occasions by the deck force of the ice breaker to save the helicopters which were breaking loose from their mooring in the mountainous seas between New Zealand and Antarctica. These vital pieces of equipment built by Sikorsky weigh some four tons each and with the ship rolling upwards of fifty degrees had become almost unmanageable and a threat to the lives of all on deck, who had to run great risks to secure them from crashing over the side.


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.

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01 August 2001