“The continent of Antarctica comprises about one-tenth of the earth’s land surface, not including the offshore islands and the cold seas that encircle that continent. If the general objective of science is to increase man’s understanding of the earth and of all that is on it--and of the universe of which it is part--then the size of Antarctica is reason enough to study it. When the U.S. Government decided that America should participate in an international program of Antarctic research, the President directed the Secretary of Defense to provide logistic support. The Secretary of Defense selected the Navy as the military service best able to do the job.
The International Geophysical Year was a cooperative, worldwide program of scientific observations that extended from July 1, 1957, to December 31, 1958. Scientists from over 60 nations participated in this massive effort. Twelve of these countries conducted active programs in the Antarctic; Argentina, Australia, Belgium, Chile, France, Japan, New Zealand, Norway, South Africa, the U.S.S.R., the United Kingdom, and the United States.”1
Operation Deep Freeze
Operation Deep Freeze opened the door forever to the vast Antarctic continent with a landmass of over six million square miles, equal to that of the United States and Europe combined. The first phase of the historical Operation Deep Freeze was the United States Navy’s contribution to the support of the International Geophysical Year (IGY), July 1957-December 1958. Fifty-eight nations of varied political philosophies joined together to enlarge man’s knowledge of his physical environment.2
The United States Navy organized Operation Deep Freeze with Naval Mobile Construction Battalion Special, Task Force 43, for their polar expedition. Rear Admiral George J. Dufek led the Naval Support Forces Antarctic as their commander. Task Force 43 consisted of nine ships, three icebreakers, three cargo ships, one tanker, two oilers, and one Naval Mobile Construction Battalion. The battalion was specifically structured to provide construction capability and aircraft support at four designated sites at the South Polar continent.
“Science is the only reason for the existence of Operation DEEP FREEZE. The United States has long been a leader in scientific research. And science has paid its way in the partnership by being one of the sources of America’s strength...The scientific work done in the Antarctic is primarily basic research. This is different from the type of research encountered in military service or in industry; they deal mostly in applied research. The difference between the two kinds of research is rather simple. Basic research is concerned with increasing man’s store of knowledge, not with immediate practical applications. Applied research seeks answers to specific problems."1
Naval Mobile Construction Battalion SPECIAL was commissioned on 18 August, 1955 at Naval Construction Battalion Center Davisville, Rhode Island. The Battalion was composed of an all volunteer force who were selectively chosen based on their mental aptitude, physical fitness, and job comprehension. Several thousand applicants vied for a position on the Antarctica operation, but only the best were chosen. One hundred and seventy-eight enlisted men with fourteen officers made the cut. Joining the Seabees were aviation, supply, medical, dental, and communications personnel to round out NMCB-SPECIAL.2
Due to the limited personnel support facilities in Antarctica and the inclusion of three Air Force, one Coast Guard, two civilian weather service personnel, and two Walt Disney Production personnel, NMCB-SPECIAL’s wintering-over party was reduced to 166 enlisted men, just prior to the departure of the ship.
The main objective of NMCB-SPECIAL was to construct two main and two satellite IGY bases. All designated construction was to be in place and operational prior to the return of Task Force 43, Operation Deep Freeze II, December 1956.
One base was to be established near Admiral Byrd’s 1928 Little America I base on the east perimeter of the Ross Ice Shelf. The other, 450 miles to the west at McMurdo Sound near Mount Erebus. At McMurdo, Seabees were also tasked with the construction of a landing strip for the C-124 Hercules Aircraft as well as other aircraft and a station at the Geographical South Pole. Little America Seabees had the task of constructing Byrd Station, 650 miles to the east in Marie-Byrd Land.
On 20 December, two P2V Neptune and two R5D Skymaster aircraft landed at a hastily prepared ice runway at what was to become William Air Operating Facility. 2 Support personnel as well as ship’s company assisted in off-loading and moving supplies from shipside to temporary staging areas while Seabee construction crews laid out and commenced building the main bases.
Within hours the power plants were operating, toilet facilities were moved indoors, and berthing areas started to take form.
13 months after setting foot on Antarctica, the last Seabee on the continent from the first winter-over boarded a helicopter from Little American V to the CURTIS on 23 January, 1957. Seabees remained a pivotal compliment to the operations of Antarctica until 1994.2
Operation Deep Freeze had numerous phases through 1994. In 1961 the United States signed The Antarctic Treaty which declared that the United States, and 11 other countries, would occupy Antarctica peacefully and for the purpose of research and exploration. This enabled the United States Government to call on the Navy Seabees for numerous summer and winter expeditions to build, reclaim, and fortify research stations.
(1) RG 05 Geogrphical Files, Antarctica General, Welcome Aboard Packet, Operation Deep Freeze, United States Navy Seabee Museum Archive
(2) RG 01 Naval Construction Force, Naval Mobile Construction Battalion SPECIAL, 1955-58, Box 01, Folder 01, JO3 Jason Torres and Bill Stroup, United States Seabee Musem Archive