George N. Beardsley's Antarctic Adventure:
The USS BROWNSON (DD-868) was commissioned on November 17, 1945. Named in honor of Admiral William H. Brownson, who had a record of forty-two years continuous service in the U.S. Navy. He graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy in 1865 and served as Superintendent of the institution from 1902 to 1905; as Commander in Chief, U.S. Asiatic Squadron from 1906 to 1907 and as Chief of the Bureau of Navigation from 1907 until his resignation from active service.
The USS BROWNSON is the second ship of the U.S. Navy to be named in honor of Admiral Brownson. The first, DD-518, was commissioned February 3, 1943, and was sunk by enemy action off the island of New Britain, during the second Guadalcanal campaign on December 26, 1943.
The USS BROWNSON'S keel was laid on February 13, 1945 at Bethlehem Steel Co., Staten Island, N.Y. and was launched on July 7, 1945. Ensign Caroline Brownson Hart, granddaughter of Admiral Brownson, was sponsor for the ship. She underwent her shakedown cruise at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba from January to March 1946. The USS BROWNSON is a Gearing Class Destroyer. Her first Commanding Officer was Cmdr. William R. Cox, a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, class of 1933.
This is not intended to be a history of the USS BROWNSON, although she had a long and distinguished career and was a very active ship until her decommissioning in September 1976 when she was struck from the Naval Register. This is the story of the USS BROWNSON'S first major undertaking, a very historic and significant cruise: the Antarctic Expedition of 1946-1947 known as OPERATION HIGHJUMP. This expedition included thirteen ships and over 4700 men. It was, and still is I believe, the largest Antarctic expedition ever organized.
On the 2nd of November 1946, Cmdr. Harry M.S. Gimber, Jr., graduate of the Naval Academy Class of 1932, relieved Captain Cox of command of the USS BROWNSON. She reported for duty with the Commander, Task Force 68 on the 2nd December 1946 and sailed for the Antarctic in company with the USS PINE ISLAND (a seaplane tender) and the USS CANISTEO (oiler). These three ships comprised the Eastern Group of the expedition. The Central Groups included the USS MOUNT OLYMPUS (the Flagship), USS BURTON ISLAND (Icebreaker), the USCGC NORTHWIND (Icebreaker), USS SENNET (Submarine), the USS YANCEY and the USS MERRICK (Attack Cargo Ships). The Western Group included the USS CURRITUCK (Seaplane tender), USS CACAPON (Oiler), and the USS HENDERSON (Destroyer). The Eastern and Central Groups sailed from Norfolk, VA and the Western Group from California. The Eastern group was commanded by Capt. G.J. Dufek. The Task Force Commander was Rear Admiral Richard E. Byrd, who did not sail with the original contingent of ships but came down later when the USS PHILIPPINE SEA (Aircraft Carrier), sailed from Norfolk on January 2, 1947. This would be Admiral Byrd's fourth and last Antarctic expedition. [Ed. note: Byrd participated in IGY / OPERATION DEEPFREEZE]. Admiral Cruzen and Captain Dufek accompanied Admiral Byrd on his US ANTARCTIC SERVICE EXPEDITION 1939-41.
Upon leaving Norfolk on December 2, 1946 we didn't have to wait very long to realize the ship was underway. Sailing around Cape Hatteras is always an experience due to the continuous rough seas at this area. This first day and night out of port was no different for the USS BROWNSON. I believe we were served spaghetti for supper. Needless to say the Mess Hall was a complete mess with trays of food all over.
On December 7 the USS BROWNSON, after cruising through the Caribbean Sea, entered the Panama Canal. Because this was the first time for me, it was a great experience to see how the locks operate on each end and how a ship maneuvers through. Between the two sets of locks there is a fresh water lake. Most ships going through will wash down their decks with fresh water. We stayed in Panama until December 10 and then shoved off at 0900 and started our final leg of the journey to the Antarctic by heading south along the western coast of South America.
There was quite a lot of apprehension among all the "polliwogs" (those who had never crossed the equator) because the ship would be crossing the equator and we all had heard rumors that the induction ceremonies were quite severe. What we heard were not all rumors. I won't go into detail of the agonies we experienced, but for two days it was complete hell. I'm sure all you former "polliwogs" know exactly what I am talking about. At that time I thought to myself, how great it will be when I cross the equator again as a certified "shellback" and instead of "taking it" I will give out the punishment. But for the rest of the time I spent in the Navy, I never had the opportunity.
The ships on their initial cruise had experienced the rough water around Hatteras, cruised the Caribbean Sea, traveled through the Panama Canal, and the "polliwogs" endured the rigors of "Crossing the Equator". Now as of December 13, 1946 we were steaming due south and getting closer each day to Antarctica, the "Ice Country". Each day now got a little cooler and as we got further south the days became longer and the nights shorter. On December 23 I noted in my diary that I was topside at 21:30 and the sun was still shining. On the morning of December 24, I experienced another first. We spotted our first iceberg. A really awesome sight. It was a huge one and when it was first sighted it was approximately 10 miles away. We passed a few more large icebergs and some smaller ones on this day. It also snowed for the first time since the ship left Norfolk. I guess it would seem apropos that on the day before Christmas and Christmas Eve, that icebergs were sighted and that it snowed.
Christmas Day started with more icebergs passing by. In the mess hall we were served the traditional Christmas meal, roast turkey and all the fixings. I believe that all of us that were on the USS BROWNSON in this desolate place, including myself, felt a certain loneliness, and wished that we were home with our families and loved ones. And so it was that the Skipper, commander Gimber, sent out a dispatch to all officers and men of the Brownson. It was so appropriate at that time and for where we were that I would like to include it in this story. This is how the dispatch read:
"Most of us are farther away from our homes and loved ones on this Christmas of 1946 than we have ever been before. Not merely in time alone, but the area in which we steam seems far-removed from the familiar things and places we know. In our aloneness we may see with better perspective, with greater clarity of vision, the eternal truths taught to men by Jesus, whose birthday is today celebrated. If we do, my hope is that in our thoughts this day will develop a renewed affection for our families and a fuller realization of the significance of that phrase still resounding across the years, 'Peace on earth, good will towards men'. Recognizing the special virtues of the way of life taught by Christ, let us on this day resolve that in our daily lives we will try a bit harder to apply his teachings. A little more consideration, a little more tolerance and understanding, a little more kindness shown to our fellow shipmates will go far toward making this cruise and our enforced absence easier to bear. The Captain takes this opportunity to wish all hands a "Merry Christmas". God Bless You All."
This Christmas message was a morale booster, not only for me, but the whole crew.
The days following Christmas in Antarctica were fairly normal; crossing through the ice fields and passing the ice bergs of all sizes. At this stage we're getting used to all the ice with the seals and even the penguins, which we found to our amazement, were very friendly since they had never seen humans before.
The day after Christmas, December 26, 1946 was not entirely normal. The USS BROWNSON achieved another possible "first". We might have been the first destroyer to cross the Antarctic Circle. Eventually we would crisscross the line several times. I am not sure about this distinction, but even if the USS BROWNSON was not the first, there are not many ships at that time that can boast about achieving this milestone.
December 30 started out as a beautiful day. A little warmer than the previous days, and the sun was a pleasant sight. The ship, at his time was cruising through the ice fields, and moving very slowly due to the thick ice. It was on this day that we received a dispatch that a plane from the USS PINE ISLAND was missing over the continent and presumed lost. The plane, known as GEORGE ONE, was on a mapping operation. On this ill-fated flight was Lt. (jg) Ralph "Frenchie" LeBlanc, Pilot; Lt. (jg) Bill Kearns, Co-pilot; Chief Photographer's Mate Owen McCarty; Ensign Maxwell Lopez, Navigator; Aviation Radioman First Class Wendell K. Hendersin; Aviation Machinist's Mate First Class Frederick W. Williams, who was also the plane's flight engineer; William Warr, the plane's mechanic; Aviation Radioman Second Class James H. Robbins; and at the last moment, Captain Henry Caldwell, commanding Officer of the USS PINE ISLAND who had hitched a ride as an observer. Anxious moments turned into anxious days as we aboard the USS BROWNSON waited for word that the plane was found. Finally on January 11, 1947, another one of the USS PINE ISLAND'S planes spotted the wreck of GEORGE ONE. It had grazed something solid and then blew up. The survivors wrote a large message on the wing of the plane, informing those aloft that Lopez, Hendersin, and Williams were dead, which left six survivors. Captain Caldwell had been riding in the Plexiglas nose of the plane and was thrown out through the glass and into the snow with a cut across his nose and several chipped and loosened teeth and also a broken ankle. Co-pilot Kearns was thrown out the cockpit window. He miraculously missed the whirling starboard propeller and landed in the soft drifting snow which cushioned his fall. He experienced a badly injured shoulder. Owen McCarty suffered a large gash on the top of his head and also a jammed right thumb which was out of joint. William Warr suffered only a small cut on his scalp and a slightly injured back. James Robbins suffered from post crash shock and apparently nothing physical. Pilot LeBlanc was injured the worst. He was strapped in the seat and was burned extensively. His face, arms and legs were burned black. He was the only survivor that was not thrown clear of the wreckage. The six survivors experienced so many adversities: the weather conditions, their numerous injuries, the desolate ice and snow landscape, it is an absolute miracle that they were found and rescued. An enormous amount of credit would have to go to the two men who, after landing their plane GEORGE THREE in the water, rowed to shore in a rubber life raft. After experiencing many difficulties themselves, they came upon the six survivors and then all proceeded to return to the rescue plane. The two men on the rescue mission were the pilot of GEORGE THREE , Lt. Cmdr. Howell and Photographer's Mate First Class Dick Conger. The survival of the six men and the rescue mission would have to go down as one of the most heroic and courageous feats in naval history. The six men survived under conditions of incredible suffering. The USS BROWNSON played an important part in the rescue operation because we met the USS PINE ISLAND on January 18, 1947 and picked up and transported the survivors over to the aircraft carrier USS PHILIPPINE SEA on January 26th. Due to the extremely rough sea the job of transferring the men to the USS PHILIPPINE SEA was a difficult task, especially Lt. (j.g.) LeBlanc who had to go over on a stretcher. Once aboard the aircraft carrier his legs had to be amputated. I would like to mention what Dick conger said after the rescue mission: "I saw quite a bit during the war, but I can say with a great margin of safety that I never saw so many gallant men nor so many deeds of real heroism as I did that night on the ice. How those men ever traveled over that ice and those crevasses I guess will always remain a mystery to me". And I might add, a mystery to all those involved in the search and rescue mission. This would be the first Byrd Antarctic Expedition to lose any lives (Ed. note: also the first American loss of life), a final tragic postscript to this integral part of OPERATION HIGHJUMP.
A full account of this "Escape from a Frozen Hell" and the full story of OPERATION HIGHJUMP was written in the book by Lisle A. Rose, Assault on Eternity, published by the United States Naval Institute, Annapolis, Maryland. [Ed. note: Crash survivor James Robbins has kindly presented me with a copy of his unpublished work, Antarctic Mayday, which is his personal account of the tragedy. The complete story is available on this website.]
January 29 was a beautiful day. The sun was shining brightly and the sea was calm. It was on this day that the USS BROWNSON had the task of serving as plane guard and rescue ship for the large R4D planes taking off from the USS PHILIPPINE SEA. We followed a few hundred yards behind the carrier and were doing 33 knots. This made everything on the ship shake quite a bit, including the bulkheads. The first plane off carried Admiral Richard Byrd. After the second plane took off successfully, the last four planes took off "after receiving word that the first two had arrived safely at 'Little America IV'. These R4D airplanes were the largest planes to take off from an aircraft carrier. They were all equipped with jet (JATO) tanks for a quicker lift off. From the area where the USS PHILIPPINE SEA was, the distance to the destination 'Little America IV' was about 700 miles and four flying hours. The first four planes had relatively normal flights to 'Little America IV'. The last two planes experienced some difficulty because of severe weather conditions they encountered. Plane number six was the last to land, but not before some anxious moments for everyone involved aboard the ships and personnel at 'Little America IV'. Their plane had radio trouble and the homing signal from the USS MOUNT OLYMPUS cut out. They actually became lost for some time, but ,made it safely. The pilot, Marine Major Robert R. Weir, flew his plane by "guess direction". All of these R4D planes were equipped with special skis which were fitted three inches above the wheels. This would enable the planes to take off from the carrier deck and then land on the snow and ice runway of 'Little America IV'.
The following days, normal duties prevailed. The sun would shine some of the time and some of the time the sea was pretty rough, especially on the USS BROWNSON. We took some good rolls, at one time the ship did a 41° roll. Along with the bad weather, we were still cruising through some heavy ice fields. A good size piece of ice hit the bow and put a dent and a hole in it. The ship definitely required repair when we returned home. As the ship would roll extensively water would flood the deck and when it was cold enough it would freeze. At times, the ship looked like a giant icicle. Some days G.Q. was sounded and the guns would be fired at a nearby iceberg. One night it was so rough topside we had to eat chow in the mess hall sitting on the deck. It was impossible to sit on the benches.
On February 14 the sea was fairly calm and we pulled alongside the USS PINE ISLAND to refuel. At this time, Captain Dufek, who had been aboard the USS BROWNSON decided to return to the USS PINE ISLAND. A boatswain's chair was rigged and he started to swing across the high line. As he was about halfway over, a giant swell caused the two ships to lean toward each other. The Captain's line slackened and the chair dipped very close to the water. As both ships righted themselves, the line snapped taut and the chair went up fast and as it did the Captain hit his head on the top of the cage in which the chair was encased. In a matter of seconds the line snapped and the Captain fell into the icy water. He was able to free himself from the chair immediately. The crew of the USS BROWNSON unhooked the fuel hoses and the ship made a 360° turn under full steam and lowered a motor whaleboat approximately thirty yards from where the Captain was. The total time of the rescue was seven minutes. He was back aboard the USS BROWNSON in eleven minutes and immediately was put into the shower, clothes and all. He didn't even catch a cold! The redoubtable USS BROWNSON came through again making an heroic rescue, thanks to Cmdr. Gimber and the crew.
On February 15, the USS BROWNSON started its journey to go around the "Horn". We were approximately 400 miles south of the tip of South America on our way to the Weddell Sea, traveling west to east. "Rounding the Horn" is an experience for any sailor, but more so if you're a "Tin Can Sailor". The ship had to maneuver through some very heavy swells. We were tossed around like a tin can. At times the ship took water all the way to gun mount, one which meant personnel on the bridge watch got drenched with freezing spray. You can imagine how the conditions in the mess hall, boiler rooms and the sleeping quarters were. I believe the biggest roll the ship encountered was 59°. At the time we felt it was going to be worse. Now, we all aboard the USS BROWNSON are known as "Horned Shellbacks". We have rounded the "Horn" successfully. As it says on our certification, we can "spit into the wind". After steaming around the Antarctic peninsula we entered the Weddell Sea. On February 17 we saw darkness for the first time in over two months. It was only for two hours but it was something different. I never did get used to the twenty four hour days of sun and light. For many days we experienced very rough seas and bitter cold. The crew was forced to clear the ice off of the ship that had accumulated from the spray caused by the ship rolling and pitching. While the ship stayed in the Weddell Sea the water was very rough and the weather remained bitter cold. Most of the days we had G.Q. and usually fired the guns at passing icebergs.
On February 28 the USS BROWNSON crossed the Greenwich Meridian into the Eastern Hemisphere. The next day the Captain held personnel inspection and when he approached me in line with my good sized beard that I had grown to protect my face from the extremely cold wind, he asked if this was the "House of David Division?" I cannot remember exactly what answer I gave him. At 2400 on March 3 we received word over the radio that all operations were to be canceled and the ship was to proceed to Rio de Janeiro, arriving on March 18th. The sea was still fairly rough but as we steamed northward the climate became warmer each day. Also, the days became a little shorter and the nights longer. It certainly was a big change to be on deck and see the moon and stars. As we steamed closer to "Rio" the days were getting pretty hot. In fact, we were allowed to swim off the side of the ship at certain times.
As we headed north, the USS PINE ISLAND was approximately fifty miles off our port beam and the oiler USS CANISTEO was about fifty miles off our starboard beam. At 0800 on the morning of March 18 we were at the mouth of the harbor of Rio de Janeiro. Prior to entering the harbor a school of porpoises were crisscrossing in front of the bow. It was like they were leading us into the harbor. When the USS BROWNSON entered the harbor we were given a 20-gun salute from the fort that guards the entrance. The harbor is one of the most picturesque and beautiful in the world. And the giant statue of Christ on top of one of the mountains overlooking the city and the harbor is awe inspiring. The weather in Rio was not very good to view the beautiful harbor. Although extremely warm, it rained every day except on Sunday, March 23. I don't think the crew, including myself, were too concerned about the weather. We just wanted to get on the beach for some liberty. After all, the USS BROWNSON had been in the frigid Antarctic region for three and a half months. Believe me, we were ready for some fun in the city and on Copacabana Beach. The only problem, as I remember, was that a few of the guys became a little too excited and consequently our liberty time curfew was lowered from 0100 to 1800 hours!
On March 24 the ship got underway from Rio at about 1000. Most of the days were normal, weather was hot, we usually had G.Q. Sometimes we were allowed to go swimming. March 25 was the only day that was not normal. The USS BROWNSON was being refueled and when the engineering crew was almost finished the nose on the hose gave way and, needless to say, a few of the "below decks" personnel got covered with oil. It made quite a mess but was cleaned up in fast order. On March 29, another abnormal day, the ship accidentally received water in the fuel oil tank in use at the time. The ship had to stop and when the pressure dropped to 450 lbs. all the lights went out until the emergency generators cut in. All of this was happening when we were crossing the equator for the second time.
April 8, 1947 was the big day everyone was anticipating. We came back to Norfolk. The first order of business was to unload the depth charges and ammunition at the Naval Mine Depot and then the USS BROWNSON proceeded to Pier 3 N.O.B. at 1300 hours. OPERATION HIGHJUMP was now officially over.
The following dispatches were received on the USS BROWNSON. The first one was from the Commander, Task Force 68, and it read: "It is with much pleasure and pride in your accomplishments that I pass the following message to you; the Chief of Naval Operations congratulates Task Force 68 on its achievements and on the determined manner in which the Task Force overcame all obstacles to those achievements. Your experience and training in polar waters are a great asset to the Naval Service".
And the second dispatch was from the Commander in Chief of the Atlantic Fleet and it read as follows: "Congratulations to all hands of Task Force 68 on successful completion of a hazardous task under trying conditions. Well done . . ."
The USS BROWNSON, I believe, set a record at the time. She steamed 101 days steadily between Panama and Rio de Janeiro.
It would definitely be a misnomer to say this expedition was just another Navy cruise. It certainly was not. It was a very significant and historic cruise of major proportions. OPERATION HIGHJUMP took place forty-eight years ago but the memory of different aspects of it are still remembered by me. I remember well the sightings of the mammoth whales, the seals as they floated by on ice chunks, the very friendly penguins who had never seen a human being previously, the large icebergs, the continuous inclement weather and the very rough sea which made the ship toss, pitch and roll most of the time. Now I know why they call us destroyer men "Tin Can Sailors". The reality of the danger as we maneuvered through the ice fields ever so slowly, and listening to the ice scrape the sides of the ship as I lay in my bunk wondering what could happen will never leave me. The lone submarine on the expedition, USS SENNET, had quite a bit of trouble and had to be sent back earlier than expected. "Rounding the Horn" and crossing the Antarctic Circle -- not too many sailors can boast about that, but the crew on the USS BROWNSON and the men on the other ships involved in OPERATION HIGHJUMP can.
A few years ago the Navy used a recruitment slogan which said: "It's not just a job, it's an adventure". This expedition was an adventure.
At the end of my diary, I wrote, "I close this, my diary, hoping that in the future it will bring me many memories". It has indeed, and it has helped me tremendously with this story of one destroyer that braved the perils of Antarctica.