This invasion of the
continent of Antarctica was named ‘Operation Highjump’ and
comprised of some 4700 military personnel, six helicopters, six Martin PBM
flying boats, two seaplane tenders, fifteen other aircraft, thirteen US Navy
support ships and one aircraft carrier; the USS Philippine Sea (left).
It seems incredible
that so shortly after a war that had decimated most of Europe and crippled
global economies, an expedition to Antarctica was undertaken with so much haste
(it took advantage of the first available Antarctic summer after the war), at
such cost, and with so much military hardware - unless the operation was
absolutely essential to the security of the United States.
At the time of the
operation, the US Navy itself was being taken apart piece by piece as the
battle-tested fleet was decommissioned with its mostly civilian crew bidding
farewell to the seas forever. The Navy was even reduced to further recruitment
to man the few remaining ships in service (1). Tensions across the
globe were also mounting as Russia and America edged into a Cold War, possibly a
Third World War that the US would have to fight with "tragically few ships and
tragically half trained men (2)." This made the sending of nearly 5,000 residual
Navy personnel to a remote part of the planet where so much danger lurked in the
form of icebergs, blizzards and sub-zero temperatures even more of a puzzle.
The operation was also
launched with incredible speed, "a matter of weeks (3)." Perhaps it would not be
uncharitable to conclude that the Americans had some unfinished business
connected with the war in the polar region. Indeed this was later confirmed by
other events and the operation’s leader, Admiral Richard Byrd, himself. However, the official instructions issued by the then
Chief of Naval Operations, Chester W. Nimitz (below right), himself of German descent,
were: to (a) train personnel and test material in the frigid zones; (b)
consolidate and extend American sovereignty over the largest practical area of
the Antarctic continent; (c) to determine the feasibility of establishing and
maintaining bases in the Antarctic and to investigate possible base sites; (d)
to develop techniques for establishing and maintaining air bases on the ice,
(with particular attention to the later applicability of such techniques to
Greenland) and (e) amplify existing knowledge of hydrographic, geographic,
geological, meteorological and electromagnetic conditions in the area (4).
Little other information was released to the media about the
mission, although most journalists were suspicious of its true purpose given the
huge amount of military hardware involved. The US Navy also strongly emphasised
that Operation Highjump was going to be a navy show; Admiral Ramsey’s
preliminary orders of 26th August 1946 stated that "the Chief of
Naval Operations only will deal with other governmental agencies" and that "no
diplomatic negotiations are required. No foreign observers will be accepted."
Not exactly an invitation to scrutiny, even from other arms of the
Admiral Byrd (centre), was a strategic choice as he was a
national hero to the Americans; he had pioneered the technology that would be a
foundation for modern polar exploration and investigation, had been repeatedly
decorated, had undertaken many expeditions to Antarctica and was also the first
man to fly over both poles.
However, the task force itself, remained strictly under the
military command of Rear Admiral Richard Cruzen (above, left).
The ships of the central group entered the ice pack off the
Ross Sea on 31st December 1946 and found conditions as bad as had
been noted for over a century. Icebreakers such as the USCGC Burton Island
(below), a ship that had only recently been commissioned and was still
undergoing sea trials off the Californian coast when Operation High Jump was
launched, fought to cut a way through the ice to help the men land. (Again,
pulling a newly commissioned ship off trials adds to the sense of the urgency of
the overall operation.)
The main force was divided into three groups. The Central
Group comprised of the USS Mt. Olympus (communications); USS Yancey (supply);
USS Merrick (Supply); USS Sennet (submarine); USCGC Burton Island (Icebreaker)
and USCGC Northwind (icebreaker.)
The East Group consisted of the USS Pine
Island (seaplane tender); USS Brownson (destroyer) and the USS Canisteo
Finally there was the West Group which was made up of the USS Currituck (seaplane tender); the USS Henderson (Destroyer) and the USS Capapon
(tanker.) (The operation also had the aircraft carrier USS Philippine and a Base
Group headed by Commander Clifford M. Campbell.
Following its arrival at Antarctica, the force began a
reconnaissance of the continent. Byrd himself was onboard the first of the
planes to take off on 29th January 1947. Rocket propulsion tubes
(JATO bottles) had been attached to the side of the aircraft and the carrier was
manoeuvred for a 35mph run to help get the planes airborne.