Operation Highjump

Pre Highjump: Naval Operations 1945-46

Admiral Byrd's comments in his press release of November 12, 1946, stated that " . . . the purposes of the operation are primarily of a military nature, that is to train naval personnel and to test ships, planes and equipment under frigid zone conditions. . . A major purpose of the expedition is to learn how the Navy's standard, everyday equipment will perform under everyday conditions". The Soviets were paying close attention to this project and editorialized in their naval journal, Red Fleet, following Byrd's press conference that "U.S. measures in Antarctica testify that American military circles are seeking to subject the [polar] regions to their control and to create there permanent bases for their armed forces".

Soviet-American relations were rapidly deteriorating throughout 1946 and with American interest in both polar regions steaming up, Russian anxiety was escalating with each passing day. The Soviets were quick to realize that if a Third World War broke out between Russia and the West, a strategic battleground would most likely be in the North Polar region. It was in Americas best interest to expose and prepare their men, ships and equipment to the extremes of the polar regions as quickly and efficiently as possible.

The American political environment of 1946 also played a valuable role in OPERATION HIGHJUMP . Following the end of World War II, many political debates around the country focused on the merits of a single unified military command under a single department of national defense. At first, navy brass embraced the notion. However, as more details came forth, fears arose of a navy dominated by the arrogant and chafing young generals of the air force who would subordinate the Navy to simple coastal defense procedures. Talk was floating around Washington that the marine corps would operate under the army while aircraft carriers would be under the direction of the air force. Obviously, the consolidation would save the American taxpayers a great deal of money but the navy would simply have no part of it. Consequently, the navy lost a great deal of public support. By the middle of 1946, admirals were searching for a way to dramatize the navy's efficiency. This anxiety, coupled with the escalating cold war, created the opportunity to heavily expand on polar exploration.

The first naval program of polar exploration was OPERATION FROSTBITE in the fall and winter of 1945-46. A handful of ships accompanied the new aircraft carrier USS MIDWAY to the Davis Straits, off the coast of Greenland, where men and equipment "underwent a grueling test. Torn by high seas and raging blizzards in extreme cold and with drifts of snow across the flight deck, they operated under the most exacting conditions to prove that such operations are feasible". However, OPERATION FROSTBITE had not been conducted far enough to the north. Arctic summers are simply too mild to adequately expose and train men for subzero temperatures. Thus, in order to train a large enough navy for polar conditions, testing would be required in regions of severest weather for a prolonged period of time.

On February 12, 1946, Congress approved Public Law 296 directing the chief of the U.S. Weather Bureau to establish "an international meteorological reporting network in the Arctic regions of the Western Hemisphere". The Weather Bureau turned to the army and navy and together, the three agencies came up with a plan to build reporting stations that summer at Thule, Greenland and at the southern tip of Melville Island in the Canadian Arctic. The U.S. Atlantic Fleet commander, Admiral Marc A. Mitscher, selected a few ships, designated them Task Force 68, and appointed Captain Richard Cruzen as commander of OPERATION NANOOK. Admiral Curzen's first orders, issued May 31, 1946, called for a general plan whose second phase consisted "of operations to establish weather observation and reporting stations of the U.S. Weather Bureau" in the Canadian Arctic and Greenland. Additionally, Cruzen ordered one icebreaker, the EASTWIND, along with a seaplane tender, the NORTON SOUND, to operate "in the general vicinity of the southern limit of the ice pack which is expected to be encountered in the Baffin Bay area". This may have been a peaceful project to make weather observations in the Arctic, but an interesting argument could be made that these stations would be additionally used as intelligence gathering sites. Regardless, with these two projects the U.S. Navy began its effort to systematically expose men and machine to the rigors of polar life.

The Byrd "Family" and Highjump

So, what role did Byrd and his companions, particularly Paul Siple, play during this time? Actually, they found much of their research work underwritten by the government, all in the name of national defense. Paul Siple not only set men to work in Alaska and Greenland during World War II; he also traveled to Europe to advise Eisenhower and his generals on the best way to avoid an epidemic of trench foot among his men. In the spring of 1945, Siple traveled to the Philippines to advice MacArthur "on winter clothing and protection of forces preparing to invade the main islands of Japan". After the end of the war, Siple found himself working in the federal service as a civilian scientist in the army chief of staff's Office of Research and Development. He was a brilliant man and could have easily taught at the university level in his own science or geography department, but few universities in 1945 contained these departments and no money was available to establish his own research center, particularly in something as exotic as polar study. Instead, he became a willing participant in the cold war. He later wrote, "My new career was to involve the application of my environmental research concepts to Army equipment and personnel in any environment they might be called upon to fight to preserve the free way of life. My interest was to broaden to the entire aspects of basic research and the segment with which I was a charter scientist eventually developed into the Army Research Office".

But no single person was more responsible for OPERATION HIGHJUMP than Richard E. Byrd. Byrd's reputation flourished throughout the war. He was appointed a special assistant to the chief of naval operations, Admiral Ernest J. King, and was a close, personal friend of President Roosevelt. Between 1941 and 1945 he traveled to the war fronts in Europe, Alaska and the North Pacific. But the spirited admiral of 1930's Antarctic fame never commanded a single fighting ship during the war. Now, with the war ended, the navy suddenly discovered they needed Richard Byrd. If it was to avoid being stripped of its role, particularly the role of naval aviation, then some plan to dramatize its value would have to be quickly put forward. According to Paul Siple, it was Byrd who persuaded the Secretary of the Navy James Forrestal and the Chief of Naval Operations Chester Nimitz into launching a huge naval expedition to the Antarctic. Besides, Forrestal's obsession with the Soviet menace was finding increasing sympathy and support on Capitol Hill. Another close ally was Richard Byrd's brother, Senator Harry Flood Byrd, then head of the powerful family machine that ran the Democratic party of Virginia. Harry was a key figure in the Democratic politics of "the solid South" of the 1930's and 1940's. Harry had a high degree of clout on the Hill and many presidents, particularly new presidents with shaky popularity, embraced him. Normally, Harry got for Richard whatever Richard wanted and in 1946, Richard wanted to go back to Antarctica. How the navy high command convinced Congress to fund the expensive expedition is a mystery to this day. The navy had not been in charge of a South Polar expedition since the exploration by Charles Wilkes a hundred years earlier. One can only speculate that the country was excited about sending forth the largest Antarctic expedition in history, under peace-time conditions, on an adventure apparently not involving death and destruction. The "Soviet menace", accompanied by the threat of war in the Arctic, may have been reason alone.

The U.S. Navy strongly emphasized that OPERATION HIGHJUMP was going to be a navy show, with naval interests predominating over scientific studies. Admiral Ramsey's preliminary orders of August 26, 1946, stated that "The Chief of Naval Operations only will deal with other governmental agencies" pertaining to OPERATION HIGHJUMP. "No diplomatic negotiations are required. No foreign observers will be accepted". Thus, it seemed there would be little room for civilian scientists and observers. Subsequently, the chief of naval operations sent a letter around to several other governmental agencies and departments as an invitation to participate modestly in Highjump. According to the Army Observers Report, "The War Department responded willingly to a Navy invitation to send observers on this important expedition and increased its representation to sixteen, ten more than originally allotted by the Navy. The personnel included four men with prior Antarctic Service", including Paul Siple. Also invited to participate were observers from the army, Weather Bureau, Coast and Geodetic Survey, Geological Survey and the Fish and Wildlife Service. Recommended scientific studies included aerological measurements (synoptic observations, radar meteorology, intensity of solar radiation), terrestrial magnetic observations, aerial geological studies (including "Aerial Prospecting for Atomic Energy Source Materials"), cosmic ray studies, etc. Notable scientists and researchers included Jack Hough, Bill Metcalf and David Barnes from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. As soon as the ships returned from OPERATION NANOOK, on September 18, planning was intensified and an official sailing date of December 2 was announced.

Final Plans

With the exception of Cruzen, the entire cast of ships and men would eventually be changed. The leader of the expedition would be Richard Byrd, who would base his operations at Little America and would later attempt to fly down to, and perhaps beyond, the South Pole. In order to expose as many men as possible to polar conditions, none of the ships used in OPERATION NANOOK would be sent south. Instead, the commanders of the Pacific and Atlantic Fleets were to each designate six ships for the expedition. The expedition flagship, USS MOUNT OLYMPUS, came from the Atlantic Fleet. The ship was crammed with comparatively crude communications and electronic equipment for the time. Also coming from the Atlantic Fleet was the icebreaker USCGC NORTHWIND, the seaplane tender USS PINE ISLAND, the fleet oiler USS CANISTEO, the destroyer USS BROWNSON, the submarine USS SENNET and, last to depart and similarly arrive in Antarctica, the new fleet aircraft carrier USS PHILIPPINE SEA. The Pacific Fleet would supply the destroyer USS HENDERSON, the cargo ships USS YANCEY and USS MERRICK , the seaplane tender USS CURRITUCK , the fleet oiler USS CACAPON and the navy icebreaker USS BURTON ISLAND.

A conference was held in early autumn at the Naval Hydrographic Office in Suitland, Maryland, to prepare charts and navigational aids for OPERATION HIGHJUMP . They soon realized that the most dependable charts of the Ross Sea were from the British Admiralty. Copies were made and sent to all the ships. Cruzen, Byrd and others gave serious thought to goals and priorities of the expedition and jointly came to the conclusion that the single, most spectacular objective should be the complete aerial mapping of the Antarctic coastline and as much of the interior as possible. The expedition would divide into three groups with the Central Group, led by the Coast Guard Cutter USCGC NORTHWIND, thrusting into the ice pack of the Ross Sea. Followed closely behind would be the cargo ships USS YANCEY and USS MERRICK, the submarine USS SENNET (sent along to test operational capabilities under polar conditions). and the flagship USS MOUNT OLYMPUS. (The navy's new icebreaker USS BURTON ISLAND, a member of the Central Group, was still undergoing basic training and sea trials off the California coast when OPERATION HIGHJUMP was launched).

Charts and navigational aids used for OPERATION HIGHJUMP were assembled at a gathering of minds at the Hydrographic Office in Suitland, Maryland, early in the fall of 1946. The Ross Sea charts prepared by the British Admiralty seemed to be the most reliable and were subsequently reproduced and dispatched to all the ships. As a consequence, the USCGC NORTHWIND would rely exclusively on these charts to guide the ships of the Central Group through the ice pack and into the Ross Sea. Admirals Byrd and Cruzen (promoted to rear admiral prior to their departure) determined that the highest priority of the expedition should be the virtually complete aerial mapping of the Antarctic rim and as much of the interior as possible. The expedition would be divided into three groups. The Central Group, led by the USCGC NORTHWIND, would include the USS YANCEY and USS MERRICK cargo ships, the submarine USS SENNET (sent along specifically to test its capabilities under polar conditions) and the flagship of the expedition, the USS MOUNT OLYMPUS . The navy's icebreaker USS BURTON ISLAND would arrive late in the final stages of OPERATION HIGHJUMP. Once alongside the shelf ice at the Bay of Whales, Little America IV would be established. A landing strip for the six R4D (military version of the DC-3) transport planes would be laid out, serving as a base of operations for the aerial mapping missions to follow. In order to carry out this mission, the Central Group would be supported by the aircraft carrier USS PHILIPPINE SEA which would carry the planes, along with Admiral Byrd, to the edge of the ice pack. From here the planes would make the risky six-hour flight to Little America IV. To assist the planes in takeoff from the narrow flight deck, Jet-Assisted Take-Off (JATO) bottles, filled with jet fuel, would be attached under the wings and ignited just seconds after the plane began to roll, thereby dramatically increasing the speed necessary for take-off. The R4D's were the heaviest aircraft ever to launch from a carrier. They would also be the first to take off on one end with wheels and land on the other end with skis. They had only 400 feet of take-off to work with, otherwise their wide wingspan would collide with the carrier's superstructure. First to depart would be Admiral Byrd, with skilled polar flyer William "Trigger" Hawkes at the controls.

On either side of the Central Group and the USS PHILIPPINE SEA would be the Eastern and Western Groups. The Eastern Group, built around the seaplane tender USS PINE ISLAND, would rendezvous at Peter I Island and from there would move toward zero degrees longitude (Greenwich Meridian). Joining the USS PINE ISLAND would be the oiler USS CANISTEO and the destroyer USS BROWNSON. The Western Group would be built around the seaplane tender USS CURRITUCK. The USS CURRITUCK would rendezvous, together with the oiler USS CACAPON and destroyer USS HENDERSON, at the Balleny Islands and then proceed on a westward course around Antarctica until, hopefully, it met up with the Eastern Group. Each of the seaplane tenders would be supplied with three Martin Mariner PBM flying boats, the largest and most modern seaplanes built during World War II. Plans were made to daily lower each plane into the sea, from where they would take off on flights of many hours in an attempt to photograph as much of the coast and interior as possible.

PBM GEORGE TWO and the tragic crash of GEORGE ONE

If all went according to plan, and the crews performed flawlessly, then there was a chance, as Admiral Byrd later wrote, "that a complete circle could be closed around the continent. It was hoped that in a few weeks more would be learned of the great unknown than had come from a century of previous exploration by land and sea".

Throughout October and November 1946, swift preparations were underway around the country. Admiral Cruzen and his subordinates on both coasts were busy ordering parkas, goggles, boots, thermal underwear, special tents and the matting for Little America's new runway. Special trainers were sent by Byrd and Paul Siple into the New Hampshire woods to work with the dogs. Meanwhile, caterpillar tractors, forklift trucks, "weasels" (powered sleds) and other heavy machinery were being manufactured and loaded onto railroad cars and shipped to docksides in California and Virginia. But all was not well.

Huge concerns were in the minds of planners as, for the very first time in Antarctic history, every vessel used in the expedition would be steel hulled. Steel is certainly stronger than wood, however wood tends to splinter in the viselike grip of pack ice while steel is usually ripped apart. It is true that Byrd successfully maneuvered the ELEANOR BOLLING through the ice pack and around the shelf in 1929, however the ELEANOR BOLLING'S hull was significantly thicker than that of most of the ships used in OPERATION HIGHJUMP. Compounding this problem was the fact that all but a handful of men were totally lacking in adequate training for polar conditions. As Professor Bertrand later noted, "Although personnel of OPERATION NANOOK served as a nucleus for staffing OPERATION HIGHJUMP, the much greater size of the later expedition necessitated the filling of many posts with men who had no previous polar exploration. It was possible to obtain the services of only eleven veterans of previous U.S. Antarctic expeditions. Only two pilots in the Central Group of the Task Force had experience in flying photographic missions". As a matter of fact, none of the seaplane pilots or flight crews had ever flown in Antarctica before. Only Byrd's personal pilot, Commander William M. Hawkes, had polar experience as he had logged hundreds of hours in the treacherous skies of Alaska. Extensive ship movements only made matters worse as the lives of many men and their families were suddenly disrupted, uprooted and shipped across country on the eve of the expedition. The USS MERRICK and USS YANCEY were attached to the Atlantic Fleet when in October they were ordered to sail for Port Hueneme, California, to prepare for the exercise. The MOUNT OLYMPUS, which played a major combat role in the war, and the USS PINE ISLAND had spent most of their lives in the Pacific Fleet and now were suddenly ordered to the Atlantic Fleet for preparations. With all the turmoil, Captain Rees of the USS MOUNT OLYMPUS wrote in exasperation to Admiral Cruzen, "Details as to the nature of the operation are completely unknown. It is therefore urgently requested that this vessel be informed at once as to what special equipment, instruments, clothing, etc. . . the ship must obtain in the limited time remaining. The ship can not be considered a smart ship". The carrier USS PHILIPPINE SEA had completed its shakedown cruise only weeks before, yet now the ship and its crew were expected to launch the largest planes ever sent from a carrier deck, quite possibly under extreme weather conditions. The navy's new icebreaker, the USS BURTON ISLAND , was still undergoing basic sea trials and training off the California coast as OPERATION HIGHJUMP began. This meant that during the earliest and possibly most crucial stages of the expedition, Cruzen and his untrained men would have to rely solely on the USCGC NORTHWIND to get the four thin-skinned ships of the Central Group through the ice pack and into the Ross Sea. Not only that, but if any of the ships from the Eastern or Western Groups ran into trouble, only the USCGC NORTHWIND would be able to assist. If the USCGC NORTHWIND should become disabled herself, the entire Central Group could be left helplessly for weeks, deep in the Ross Sea, certain prey for icebergs and the crushing pack ice.

The inexperience of the men, particularly the fliers, was all too apparent. One of the pilots, Lieutenant (jg) William Kearns, later recalled that volunteer pilots, navigators and air crewmen were gleaned from both the Atlantic and Pacific Fleets "in the fond hope that some experienced men would be among those selected. Since the vast majority of personnel knew nothing about the type of operation for which we were destined, we were forced to dig into books for even the most elementary information". The information was frightening. Temperatures were far colder than the Arctic regions and the fliers could fall prey to an empty, inhuman landscape from which no help could be expected. Traditional navigational aids were of little help as Mercator projections were of no use due to the convergence of meridians at high latitudes and the consequent distortion of areas between the parallels. Thus, a grid system would have to be used. "From the experiences of men who had been to both regions and learned the hard way, we saw that polar flying, even at its best, was never really safe. There were no airways, no weather reporting stations, no convenient alternate airports. We were, in fact, extremely fortunate if we found any charts at all available for the 'Highjump' operating area. With all these facts in mind, some of us began to regret our decisions to become intrepid Antarctic explorers, and to long for the good green lands and the waving palms of Florida". Pilot Thomas R. Henry wrote, "Once a plane rose from the ski strip at Little America, it was virtually imprisoned in the sky for at least five hours; it could come down only with a crash landing on the rough ice surface, which would almost certainly ruin the aircraft itself and seriously endanger the crew". If the mapping objectives of OPERATION HIGHJUMP were to be met, planes would have to be heavily overloaded with photographic equipment and topped-off fuel tanks. Antarctica was simply too large, its weather too unpredictable, not to make every flight fully count in terms of photographic exploration during the brief expedition.

A certain sense of uneasiness flowed through the seaplane crews at Norfolk, Virginia. The follow-up report on their mission stated that the operation "was characterized by a very limited period of personnel training, material inspections and logistic planning". The crews of all six PBM's were drawn from current squadrons and assembled at the Naval Air Station, Norfolk, VA, on November 1, 1946. This gave them only one month to prepare. Meanwhile, the PBM's were winterized and fitted out with some special navigational instruments, as well as the trimetrogon photographic equipment. Survival gear was gathered as the crews were quickly instructed in polar navigation. On November 27 three of the seaplanes flew from Norfolk to San Diego, California, and were lifted aboard the USS CURRITUCK, which was in its final loading phase. Back in Virginia, the other three planes were brought aboard the USS PINE ISLAND. When the USS PINE ISLAND reached the Panama Canal, the planes had to be sent off, later landing at Balboa on the Pacific side, in order to get through the canal.

Despite the many risks of such an adventure, morale actually turned for the better as sailing time approached. Married men, many of whom had spent prolonged months of separation from their spouses during the war, were obviously less enthusiastic than their generally younger, unmarried peers. But, as the official report noted, the general mood was one of a "trip of a lifetime" and of "a big expedition to Antarctica".

As last-minute preparations were underway, diplomats of several nations continued to snip at one another. On November 13, Ellis O. Briggs of the Latin American bureau of the State Department noted that "The [British] Empire continues to bleed over the forthcoming Byrd Antarctic expedition if Mr. Everson of the British Embassy who called on me this morning is to be believed". Briggs told Everson "that our Government is at least as interested in practicing cold water operations as it is in what may be found sub-zero, sub-rosa, sub-ice caps, etc." However, Everson "did not seem altogether soothed". Briggs went on to say that Everson muttered something about Antarctica being British territory and that the United States should have cleared the expedition with His Majesty's government. "If London has any such notions as that, I assume steps will be taken to disabuse our British friends of any belief that we consider Antarctica British", Briggs concluded. Two days later Briggs noted that New Zealand, Australia and Chile had also indicated a rather keen interest in the motives and objectives of OPERATION HIGHJUMP. Would the United States abandon current policy and lay claim to vast areas not only claimed by the above, but also by the French, Norwegians and Argentineans? Briggs noted that representatives of the governments of Australia, New Zealand and Chile requested permission to go along as observers but that permission was firmly opposed by the navy. Finally, on November 27 as the USS YANCEY and USS MERRICK began to cram aboard every last item remaining on the docks at Port Hueneme, Acting Secretary of State Dean Acheson telephoned Briggs to ask if he foresaw any "political difficulties" in the "Byrd expedition". According to the Secretary, President Truman's naval aide, Admiral Leahy, had expressed concern that it might be too bad to have the Chileans, "now so full of good will, acquire hurt feelings". Briggs attempted to put his President at ease, saying that both Chile and Argentina had expressed "some interest" in Highjump, however "I did not believe that relations with either country would be affected in any substantial or noticeable way by the expedition". Perhaps Secretary Acheson was put at ease, but the same can not be said of the President. At the very last moment, probably December 1 or 2, President Harry Truman tried to stop OPERATION HIGHJUMP. Briggs was told that "the navy" had suddenly been called into the Oval Office and told to cancel the expedition. When "the Navy Department remonstrated, pointing out that if the expedition did not sail now the opportunity would be lost, the President is supposed to have relented and allowed the expedition to proceed". Who the President addressed that day is unclear, but it was possibly Nimitz, or more probably James Forrestal. In any event, neither Byrd, Cruzen or the thousands of other men under their command were aware of how close they had come to missing their "trip of a lifetime". By December 3, 1946, most of the ships were at sea; all the rest, but for the USS BURTON ISLAND, were about to depart. OPERATION HIGHJUMP was underway.