A Tragedy on the Ice

Frederick W. Williams

On December 30, 1946, a Martin Mariner PBM "flying boat" with a crew of nine rose from the Antarctic sea on an exploratory flight to the Antarctic continent in the vicinity of Ellsworth Land. As a participant in the Antarctic Developments Project 1946-47, code-named OPERATION HIGHJUMP, they were part of a three-pronged attack to photograph and map the Antarctic coastline and certain inland areas.

As they lifted from the water at 2:44 a.m., the USS PINE ISLAND, to which they were attached, slowly disappeared behind them as they flew due south on their mission. Approximately four hours later, the Ice would claim it's first American lives.

Six men would live to return from that flight. This is the story of one that didn't.


An Adventuresome Young Man Joins
the US NAVY . . .

Frederick Warren Williams was born on December 19th, 1920 in Huntingdon, Tennessee. The proud parents were Mr. and Mrs. James Williams. He had one brother and two sisters.

Fred attended Clarksburg High School, near Huntingdon. Known as a fearsome and adventureous young man, Fred was 20 years old when he entered the US Navy in 1940. During WWII he fought many fierce battles in the Pacific theatre and was seriously wounded in the battle of the Marshall Islands. Fred would complete six years of service with the navy and in July, 1946, he re-enlisted for another two years. While home that July on a 75-day furlough, Fred shared his enthusiasm over the prospects of being on the Byrd Expedition.

Officially titled "The United States Navy Antarctic Developments Project", OPERATION HIGHJUMP remains to this day the largest expedition ever to visit Antarctica. In addition to demonstrating a continuing interest in Antarctica on the part of the United States, the major goals of the expedition included aerial photography of a substantial portion of the Antarctic coastline as well as certain inland areas, gaining experience in operations in polar climate conditions and testing equipment designed for use in cold regions of the world. Many of the personnel which would travel with HIGHJUMP were still in the Arctic, participating in OPERATION NANOOK, when assignments to the Antarctic expedition commenced on August 26, 1946. Although vessels were still being assigned to the expedition as late as mid-October, the majority of the thirteen ships in the HIGHJUMP task force began sailing for the Antarctic in early December.


Bound for the Antarctic


USS PINE ISLAND departed Norfolk, VA on December 2, 1946 and transited the Panama Canal some five days later. She crossed the Antarctic Circle on December 12 and arrived in Antarctic waters on Christmas Day.


Fred Posts this Card on the Pacific Side of the Panama Canal




Fred writes to his parents and sister Iva Mae . . .

Dearest Mom, Dad & Mae,

Well, how is everyone at home today. With me everything is fine. I received a couple letters yesterday that have been trying to catch up with me ever since I left Pensacola Fla. ...

Mae I want you to play Santa Clause for me.

Take one of my checks and give yourself $20.00, get Mom & Dad something that you think they would like.

Buy something for each one of George's kids and give it to them when they come up for Xmas. Get something for George & Thelma ...

Tell those kids when they come up that I passed Old Santa Clause on his way up from the South Pole, and sent their presents back by him ...

Love to all,
Your Sailor
Fred W.



Aviation Machinist Mate Fred Williams Handling the Cable

GEORGE ONE is Lifted OVer the SIde

GEORGE ONE was lifted over the side on December 26 but an accident occurred when a launch boat ran into one of the pontoons and damaged it to the extent that repairs were necessary. She was hauled back on board and was repaired by using parts removed from GEORGE THREE. Meanwhile, Mother Nature came calling and soon they found themselves in a driving snowstorm. Three days later, on December 29, the weather improved and GEORGE ONE was again lowered over the side of the ship and made ready for flight.

Shortly after 1 p.m. Crew 1, with Lt. Cmdr. John Howell as pilot, flew offf in GEORGE ONE on its historic flight to the continent. At 6:30 p.m., Howell reported CAVU (Ceiling and Visibility Unlimited) conditions at the continent. A green light was given to Crew 2 and shortly thereafter, with Capt. James Ball as pilot, GEORGE TWO took off for the coast.

When Howell and the crew of GEORGE ONE arrived back at the ship around midnight, they reported the weather was beginning to change at the continent. Capt. Ball, on GEORGE TWO, radioed in around 1 a.m. and reported that although the weather wasn't great, it wasn't bad enough to call off the next flight. GEORGE ONE was gassed up and made ready for a second flight. It was now Crew 3's turn at the action..


Fate Uses Tooth In Game of Death

More than thirty men made up the flight department on USS PINE ISLAND. A specific crew was assigned to each of the aircraft, GEORGE ONE, GEORGE TWO and GEORGE THREE. Although scheduled to fly GEORGE THREE, it was Crew Three that would be aboard GEORGE ONE on the tragic flight of December 30, 1946. Crew Three was comprised of:

Ralph "Frenchy" LeBlanc, Pilot
William "Bill" Kearns, Co-pilot
Maxwell Lopez, Navigator
Jim "Robbie" Robbins, Aviation Radioman 2nd Class
Wendell "Bud" Hendersin, Radioman
Richard "Dick" Dickens, Crew Chief -- Aviation Machinist's Mate 1st Class
William (Bill) Warr, Aviation Machinist's Mate 2nd Class
Owen "Mac" McCarty, Cheif Photographer's Mate

Dickens would join his crew on the flight deck as flight preparations were made, but an abscessed tooth, which had been earlier removed, would prevent him from going on the flight. The ship's surgeon reportedly told him that he could experience profuse bleeding at high altitude or his impacted sinuses could cause ear damage, either malady forcing them to turn back. As a result, Aviation Machinist's Mate Fred Williams was chosen as his replacement. Going along for the ride would be the ship's captain and former Annapolis football star, Captain Henry Caldwell.

GEORGE ONE lifted off the water at 2:44 a.m. on the morning of December 30. Hendersin radioed back to the ship they were heading due south into a 12-knot wind. Visibility was approximately 2 miles with patches of snow and fog in the vicinity. Every 15 minutes course heading and airspeed was communicated to the USS PINE ISLAND which in turn allowed the ship to track their course south. Upon reaching the continent, they were instructed to begin photographing inland and then head east to link up with the photographs taken by Capt. Ball's crew on GEORGE TWO.

As they neared the continent, a dense fog descended upon them. They had no idea how high the fog extended and since there was heavy, thick clouds in the area, they were forced to fly at an altitude no higher than 800 feet. Shortly after 6:10 a.m., GEORGE ONE radioed back this message:


Only five minutes later, Hendersin radioed back the final report:


Co-pilot Kearns suddenly spotted land and the plane turned for the rocky coastline just ahead. A minute later the weather closed in around them.

The Crash

What happened next is best described by radar operator Jim Robbins, in his own words . . .

"My radar had nothing to see except the top of the mountain range peaks that had rugged terrain with good reflective surfaces. They were 15 miles away as indicated on my radar. This agreed with our very erroneous charts and we were still fogged in flying at 800ft (mostly below the weather) and about to turn back as there was no CAVU over the coast as indicated by the crew on GEORGE ONE's earlier flight. Before we had a chance to turn around, we hit a bump that caused an explosion. We had torn a hole in the hull and hull gas tank which caused the 145 octane to come pouring out. The engine exhaust flames set it all off immediately. Probably the biggest airplane explosion ever, back in 1946! The entire hull completely disintegrated! Most os us were thrown out in the same general direction from the flight deck (CIC on a ship. ) Two of us went through the propellers and died instantly.

Bill Kearns was blown right through the windshield in front of the co-pilot's seat, Warr was blown way down the hill behind us. It was snowing like the devil! Williams was seated next to our flight engineer Warr, watching the instrument panel with him. After the explosion we found him beside the flaming fire pit and internally hurt very seriously (see my Antarctic Mayday story), bleeding from the mouth and nose. He died a couple of hours later. The photographer, McCarty had been sleeping in the tunnel by his trimetrigon camera and tunnel hatch. He was evidentally thrown around in there (the tunnel section remained pretty well intact and became our foul weather home). Frenchy was left hanging by his seat belt in the flames caused by the remaining fuel from the hull tank (1600 gallons ) still burning. Our honored guest observer, the Capt. of the USS PINE ISLAND, sea plane tender super deluxe, was strapped into a very special new bow seat that replaced the old bow turret. It was encased in a clear plexiglass dome with the most beautiful possible view ever! He was blown right through it. He appeared to be in fairly good shape except for his nose which was obviously badly broken. We later noted that he had a bad limp.

The US Geological Survey people, after studying that area thoroughly, noted that tha area starting from the coastline was such a smooth and gradual incline all the way to about 1500ft that the radar had no reflections, thus nothing for it to see."

Crash Photo 11 JAN 1947

GEORGE TWO / The Rescue Plane

Robbins found three sleeping bags in the snow, giving one to each of those most severely injured. As a blizzard raged around them, all but Williams moved into the fuselage for shelter as it had remained mostly intact. It was their opinion that Williams was so severely injured that moving him would surely result in his death. While the men huddled together inside, Williams was heard outside calling "Robbie? Robbie? Help me Robbie." The moaning and calling was more than the men could bear. Robbins went out into the blizzard a second and third time, risking his own life, huddling alongside Williams while offering words of encouragement. It was awful to see a man suffer so much but they were helpless to do anything at this point. The man was dying and everyone knew it. Williams' crying slowly subsided, growing calmer as time went by. About two and a half hours after the crash, Robbins crawled outside and found Fred Williams had died in his sleep, mercifully removed from the bitter Antarctic cold.

On January 11, GEORGE TWO flew over the crash site, spotting the survivors you see standing and waving near the tail section of the plane in the photograph to the right. Robbins had painted a message on the wing, "LOPEZ HENDERSIN WILLIAMS DEAD".

The survivors were rescued later that day by GEORGE THREE. Unfortunately, the three who didn't make it were left buried under the wing where they remain to this day.


A farewell "Thanksgiving" Dinner is given in honor of those who perished in the crash of GEORGE ONE. 13 JANUARY 1947


A Worst Nightmare Comes True

From the MEMPHIS PRESS-SCIMITAR, word arrives of the death of a son:

"A cold winter drizzle yesterday shrouded the little farm cottage near Clarksburg that was the home to "Fred." Many neighbors and kinspeople gathered to offer their sympathy.

'We heard it on the radio before we got the telegram,' the father, Jim Williams, explained. Fred's sister, Iva Mae, produced the crumpled message that had climaxed days and nights of anxious waiting and hoping.

'I deeply regret to inform you that your son, Frederick Warren Williams, aviation machinist's mate first class, USN, previously reported missing on Dec. 20, is now known to have died while in the service of his country,' read the telegram which was signed by Vice Admiral Louis Denfield.

'We hoped so much that it wouldn't be Fred,' Mrs. Williams, who is now confined to her bed, said, 'but if it hadn't, it would have been some other mother's boy.'


Condolence Letters Arrive

A Letter to the Family from Photographer's Mate Owen McCarty

A Letter to the Family from the Co-pilot Lt. (jg.) William Kearns

A Letter to the Family from Capt. Caldwell


Fred Williams was barely 26 years old when his life was suddenly taken while in the line of duty for his country, a country he so dearly loved. May he rest in peace.

I wish to personally thank the family members of Fred Williams who came forward with all the documents, newspaper clippings of the day, photographs and letters necessary to present Fred's story as it should be told.

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