BOOK-ENDS: ANTARCTICA 1973
We had been on the Ice for several weeks and had settled into the VXE6 Squadron routine. As cargo handlers we worked 12 hours on and 12 hours off, seven days of the week with no breaks. It was hard work but I really enjoyed it as we were actually loading the planes that were building the “New” South Pole Station.
The sun was above the horizon 24 hours a day and the easiest way to tell the time was if the sun was over your left shoulder when we arrived at the Ice Runway then it was 2200, if it was over your right shoulder it was 1000 hrs.
My team of cargo handlers was made up of Staff Sergeant Sam Bigg-Wither who was the team boss, Lance Bombardier Dick Wilson, Lance Corporal Dennis Nathan, Driver Noel Burgoyne and I. We wore American dungaree uniforms and American rank badges; mine was an eagle (crow) with two chevrons beneath it.
Back in Mac Town a couple of the other Kiwi’s worked with a monster of an American, a guy called “Dink” Dinkenspeel. I don’t remember exactly how big Dink was but it was close to seven feet… he was bloody huge. The call sign for the office in Mac Town was “Hill Cargo” and our call sign out on the Runway was “Ice Cargo.” The radios were very handy because the one thing that you could never count on was the weather and if it closed in, it generally did so very fast and the SOP’s for all men serving on the Ice was that if the weather closed in you simply hunkered down where you were and waited for the “All Clear” to come in from “Terminal Ops” at McMurdo. Sometimes you were trapped out there on the Ice for a day or two. It didn’t really matter as the whole of Antarctica was a freezer and we had stacked entire boxes of good Texas T Bone steaks under our hut, plus several cases of California shrimps for use in emergencies. As well, we had dozens of cases of canned New Zealand “Fresh Up” apple juice, complete with the Kiwi runner John Walker’s face on the lid of each case. I think the longest a group of Kiwi cargo handlers were caught out on the Ice Runway during a white out was about 9 days.
Antarctica at the time was described as “The World’s Last Frontier” and generally any little error tended to compound itself due to the harshness of the terrain. A couple of examples that spring to mind were a See Bee (US Naval Construction Battalion) carpenter, who was working outside at McMurdo hammering in some nails into some boards he was working on. Naturally enough as he was working he grabbed a handful of nails and stuck them in his mouth… a very common habit amongst carpenters. However he was working in about Minus 18 Celsius and the nails immediately became stuck to his lips. He had to go back inside the complex and thaw his mouth out with a cup of coffee.
Another See Bee was clamping a pipe which ran along the ground at Mac Town (Ross Island), and up towards the old Nuke power station. He had straddled the pipe and couldn’t get the purchase that he required, and then without thinking he removed his gloves to get a better grip… big mistake. He was instantly frozen to the pipe by the palms of his hands and the only way we could separate him from the pipe was to urinate on his hands.
It was SOP’s amongst all personnel, military and scientists that whenever you went outside you had to be dressed (or carrying) your complete survival equipment, which included: T/shirt and underpants, thermal socks, waffle-weaves (thermal underwear), dungaree uniform, woollen jersey, woollen gloves and leather shell, bunny-boots (huge white thermal boots), overtrousers and thermal liner, combat jacket with thermal liner and wolverine hood, bear claws (large thermal overgloves that ran from fingers to elbow, woollen scarf, thermal cap with fold-down ear covers, regulation issue sun glasses… A warm day at McMurdo was about minus 15 through to minus 20 Celsius. The cold itself was not a problem, but rather the wind chill factor that was the real danger.
During the worst storms and white out conditions the scientists generally continued to take and measure their samples and this was at times a very hazardous thing and lives were lost. This also happened while I was in Antarctica. An American scientist at an outlying station had gone to check his instruments and he hadn’t returned. McMurdo station was informed and although we all knew that the guy was dead we had to wait until the weather cleared before his death could be confirmed. His name escapes me but from memory he was a microbiologist working with USARP. I understand that he fell off a mountain in the Asgard Range.
I can’t remember exactly how they got his body back to McMurdo but I think it was by one of the squadrons Iroquois helicopters. The squadron had either two or three very powerful UH-1D’s, which were painted bright red and used the call-signs “Gentle-14”, “Gentle-15”, and “Gentle-18”. These helicopters did sterling work on the Ice, including many rescues. On a clear day we used to get a real kick out of watching them climb to about the aircraft’s ceiling and then hover as the rescue crew parachuted out of them… and all the while Mount Erebus smoking quietly and draped in snow making the perfect picture postcard backdrop.
Once the chopper crew had uplifted the body of the scientist, it was brought back to McMurdo and formally identified. Later that same day there was a memorial service held for him in “The Chapel of the Snows” (a church that held both Christian and Jewish services each week) in Mac Town, and then as the Americans always do, his body was to be returned to the United States as quickly as possible. We were nearing the end of our shift and we had been warned that a “Herby” (white out) was forming out in McMurdo Sound. We were all fairly well jaded and were hoping that our relief team would drive up shortly in the “Kiwi Express” (our Deuce and a Half truck) so that we could get back to the Snow Runway, hot food, hot showers and cold beer.
Presently our radio crackled into life and Terminal Op’s informed us that a C130 was inbound, and that it would not be stopping but was to uplift a single item of cargo and take off before the white out arrived. The message was rather cryptic and we were also informed that the item for transfer was being brought out to us on the “Blue Goose” (the Blue Goose” was the call sign for a very powerful pickup truck which I think was a Dodge Power Wagon).
By now we had moved out into the cargo yard and were climbing high points (ice hills) keeping our eyes peeled on the movement of the white out which was now clearly visible and slowly moving across the sounds, the Blue Goose, and also the inbound C130.
As soon as the Blue Goose arrived at the Cargo Yard the driver yelled at us the he had the “Cadaver” and to get onboard the back of the pick-up as there was no time to lose. Four of us jumped onto the back of the pick-up and sat down on the long silver trunk that was on the back. Being Kiwi’s none of us had ever heard the word “Cadaver” before and it meant nothing to us. Dennis Nathan idly looked down at his feet and saw a brown US Government label and when he turned it over he saw the words HUMAN REMAINS printed on it. With a scream he yelled to Dick Wilson “Kehuas” (Ghosts) and without even looking back both Maoris leapt off the back of the pick-up and into the nearest snow drift.
That left just Noel Burgoyne and me to load the aircraft.
We arrived at the runway just as the aircraft was turning for it’s take off run and the engines were still roaring. It was almost impossible to hear the instructions from the American Loadmaster and with sign language we backed the Blue Goose right up to the ramp which he had laid horizontal and between the three of us we somehow or other managed to slide the zinc body box onto the ramp, and with all haste tension it down. The aircraft had started to move as we finished and jumped off; then with a roar it was down the runway and airborne once again. It was that close.
We got back onto the Blue Goose and watched as the aircraft rose clear of the mountains, heading back stateside and then by the time we got back to the cargo yard, the Kiwi Express had arrived and we were relieved. When we got back to Willy Field I had a well earned “two minute” shower, and then said a quiet prayer for the family of the scientist we had just shipped home.
A week later we had completed 30 days on the Ice and so a parade was organised in our Jamesway Hut and an American USMC Captain arrived and read out a citation in regards our service on the Ice and then pinned a beautiful blue medal on each of us. On the obverse side was a picture of an explorer standing in the snow and the words “Antarctica Service” and on the reverse was a compass rose surmounting a map of the Antarctic continent and the words “For Courage, Sacrifice and Devotion.” The medals came in a box with a breast ribbon, miniature medal and as well a lapel badge, but as the New Zealand Government didn’t recognise Antarctica service as counting for anything, the medals simply went back in the box and into our kitbags as soon as the parade was over.
About a week after that, word came down through the Squadron that the pilot of the C130 that had taken back the body of the scientist was inbound and that he wanted to meet with the two Kiwi’s who had loaded his aircraft. Naturally enough Noel Burgoyne and I put our hands up immediately, as being a week after getting a medal we thought we might have qualified for something else. As it was our 12 hours off, we drove down to the Ice Runway and waited for the aircraft to land. We were both pretty pleased with ourselves and thought that at the very least we must be going to get a citation of some kind.
The C130 landed, taxied up to the Cargo Yard then turned around and dropped its’ ramp before shutting down. The pilot and all of his aircrew got out and came over towards us. He looked to be quite a big guy and at any rate he had a booming voice. His first words to us were “Are you guys the two god damned book-ends who loaded a cadaver onto my bird the wrong way?”
I looked at Noel and he looked at me and neither of us had ever seen a body box before, and knew absolutely nothing about how they actually worked. With his entire aircrew gathered about us the angry pilot then began to give us a blow by blow account of exactly what we had done wrong. First we had loaded the box onto the ramp which, once raised, placed the cadaver at a 45% angle. Next, we had placed the body box facing exactly the wrong way and this was to have dire consequences when they broke down and were required to spend a couple of days in “Chi Chi” (Christchurch). Apparently body boxes have pressure valves in them and as we had placed the box “back to front” onto the ramp, once they arrived at Christchurch and were laid over, the cadaver thawed out and various body fluids ran through the aircraft creating a complete contamination when the aircraft arrived back in the States.
When we finally explained to the pilot that we had never seen a body box before, he began to mellow out and explained to us that every single cargo handler in the US Armed Forces had been trained on the stowage of body boxes; remember this was 1973 and the United States was still heavily committed to the Vietnam War.
I learnt two new words when I was in Antarctica, the first word was “Cadaver”, and the second one was “Book-Ends” which is basically a derogatory Americanism for two guys who are friends and “Odd Balls”. The nickname stuck to me and Noel for the rest of the time we were on the Ice and did anything together. Americans have a brilliant sharply honed sense of humour and of course we were often the butt of jokes that were said in good humour.
I never saw another body box for about 10 years and that time was when I was on Peacekeeping Operations during the wind down of the guerrilla war in Rhodesia, but that Shipmates is another story.
I am proud of my service with the US Navy and would do it all again if given the opportunity. The American Airdevron Squadron that I served with, VXE6 Squadron, “The Puckered Pete’s” were a real special breed of men. Very professional at their job, they were the last true pioneers in the frozen wastes of the Southern Oceans and the land of the midnight sun. During the time that the Squadron served in Antarctica, 24 Officers and Enlisted men from VXE6 Squadron lost their lives in the service of mankind.
©Copyright 2001 by Mike Subritzky