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Picture Library catalogue: United States Navy Antarctic Expeditions Operation Deep Freeze 1955-98

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United States Navy Antarctic Expeditions Operation Deep Freeze 1955-98

Operation Deep Freeze was a series of expeditions between 1955 and 1998, signalling a renewal in American interest in the Antarctic. These expeditions were military operations run and supported by various American military agencies. Rear Admiral Byrd was Officer in Charge; and so the most senior US representative monitoring political, scientific, legislative and operational activities making up the US Antarctic programme.

The photographs in the Freeze Frame project concern operation Deep Freeze on their first exercise between November 1955 and March 1956, and are negatives of photographs taken by Lt. Commander M.J. Foster, R.N., when British observer on "Operation Deep Freeze" 1955-56. P56/68/3 - 68/39/27 (gift) measure 35 x 25 mm, P57/2/1- 14 (purchase) measure 100 x 80 mm.

The primary mission of the 1955-56 operation was to establish two stations along the Ross Sea and the transportation of personnel, equipment, and supplies to build two stations in the interior the following spring. In addition they would undertake reconnaissance by aircraft and tractor and carry out scientific projects.

1800 men were taken to the Antarctic to carry out this work. To get the men and all the necessary supplies southwards they used a number of ships: three ice-breakers USS Edisto,USS Glacier and USCGC Eastwind; two cargo ships USS Arneb and USS Wyandot, a tanker the USS Nespelen and cargo ship USNS Greenville Victory. In addition they took a number of aeroplanes and helicopters to be used for surveying and the transportation of supplies once at the Antarctic.

The intention was to build two base camps, one in the region of the Bay of Whales and the other at McMurdo Sound. They had hoped to build Little America V (which was to be the chief scientific station in the 1957-58 IGY) where the previous Little America base camps had been built, but this was no longer a possibility as the ice walls in the Bay of Whales had collided and this, combined with ice barrier break off, meant that the lowest ice shelf was only 30 feet above the sea which would cause problems for the unloading of ships and the establishment of a base. Instead Kainan Bay 20 miles to the east was chosen as the location of the base camp. Although there were no buildings constructed, Little America V was formally commissioned on 4 January 1956. They had brought with them prefabricated huts which they had practiced constructing in large refrigerators back home and by 10 January the building’s shells were erected.

Meanwhile at McMurdo Sound a second base was being established. It was important to establish a base here, as this would be the support base for the building of the base at the South Pole the following year. On 14 December they had entered the pack ice of the Ross Sea, and once they were in thicker ice near McMurdo South they were able to set up a preliminary land station and find a suitable place for a landing strip for the planes which would be flying in from New Zealand. By 19 December they were ready to receive planes. A long range plane took off from here, reaching the south pole confirming that the snow was not as soft as originally thought and therefore if would be possible to land.

In addition the flights from McMurdo Sound surveyed 800,000 square miles of Antarctica which had never been seen before. Flights from here also discovered the highest point of the ice dome at 14,000 feet. On 18 January due to poor ice conditions on the runway the flights had to stop and the planes returned to New Zealand.

In January 1956 the expedition was hit by tragedy when a 30-tonne D-8 weasel tractor was left on the bay ice for delivery to Hut Point 40 miles away. A navy driver, Williams attempted to take the tractor across a narrow crack in the ice but the ice broke and Williams fell into the icy water and, unable to escape from his cab, he sank with the tractor. This was not the only tractor related death during the operation, two months after Williams, Kiel died when his tractor fell into a crevasse. The Air Operating Facility at McMurdo Sound was named William AirOpFac and the 6,000 foot airstrip at Little America was called the Max Kiel Airfield in their memory.

Another potential tragedy was averted when one of the Otter planes was hit by bad weather and was forced to crash-land on a mountainous plateau 2,700 feet high. They managed to construct shelter, with three sleeping in the plane and four in a hole dug out under one wing. They had lost power to the plane but using a hand-powered radio, the ‘Gibson Girl’, they were able to crank out SOS messages which were picked up back at base. They had enough food for seven men for three days and so it was very strictly rationed out, giving each man around 1000 calories a day. The minimum recommended daily intake in cold Antarctic conditions is 4,000 calories. They knew their position to be 110 miles northeast of Little America, and 50 from Okuma Bay (where the USS Glacier was moored). With limited food supplies but with sled and skis they decided to make for the bay. Meanwhile a search and rescue mission had been launched with planes and helicopters scanning for them. Finally the wreck of the plane was spotted and it was possible to follow the men’s tracks. On the sixth day after the crash the men were air lifted back to base.

The bases at Little America and McMurdo Sound were now self-supporting, and during February the ships began to return to the US, leaving 93 men wintering at McMurdo Sound and 73 at Little America V. These men began scientific observations and prepared for the following year’s activities including the construction of two more base stations - the Byrd and the Pole Stations. Many subsequent investigations were carried out in Antarctica by the United States under the name Operation Deep Freeze. The US Navy withdrew officially from Antarctica in 1998.

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Data in this catalogue was last updated on Tuesday, 13th June 2023.