Operation Highjump

Activities & Discoveries



The year is 1946. Pictured is a PBM crew at Bikini Island in the mid-Pacific during the atomic bomb tests "Able" and "Baker". VH-4 Squadron was based at Ebeye in the same area. Some of these men went on to participate with the Western Group in OPERATION HIGHJUMP after disbanding the squadron. In the CENTER, kneeling, is Pilot William Kreitzer. LEFT of Kreitzer is Navigator Bob Gillock and to the RIGHT is Navigator Jay Reynolds.

In 1946, the Bikini Atoll in the Pacific Ocean was "ground zero" for a nuclear weapons test, code-named OPERATION CROSSROADS. US Navy aircraft provided photographic, transport and air-sea rescue services from their base at Kwajalein, 90 miles away in the Marshall Islands. The aircraft had instruments installed to monitor shock waves and radioactivity.

At the conclusion of the the Bikini Atoll atomic bomb tests, VH-4 Squadron, under the command of LCDR W.J. Rogers, Jr., was ordered stateside for decommissioning at Naval Air Station North Island, California. However, upon arrival at the first en route stop in Kaneohe Bay, Hawaii, LCDR Rogers was ordered to report to COMAIRPAC headquarters where he received a classified dispatch from CNO to COMAIRPAC recommending that 9 pilots and 15 enlisted men from VH-4 Squadron "volunteer" for an expedition to Antarctica, code named OPERATION HIGHJUMP.


Sending the slow, cumbersome seaplanes to the Antarctic to fly in a frigid, hostile environment seemed totally irrational at first thought, however sense could be made from such a decision when one considered their long-range flight capabilities as well as their ability to operate in open sea conditions around the entire continent rather than restricted to land-based operations. The PBM Martin Mariner seaplane was satisfactorily equipped to meet the many technical requirements of such an operation. The planes had served admirably in many open sea recoveries of downed pilots. The VH-4 Squadron was often involved in semi-open sea maneuvers during OPERATION CROSSROADS. However, neither the aircraft nor the crewmen were experienced and properly equipped for the extreme weather conditions which awaited them. For example, the planes were lacking adequate deicing and navigation equipment. But the pilots and crews of VH-4 were otherwise well experienced and available. The plane commanders were certainly qualified and would adapt quickly to flying conditions in the Antarctic.

They would be subjected to numerous intangibles upon reaching the Antarctic. Since most of the interior of the continent was uncharted, elevations of the terrain was, for the most part, an unknown. Couple that with poor weather forecasting and you have a recipe for exceptional danger. A PBM crew flying off the USS PINE ISLAND (Eastern Group) would experience the unforgiving flying conditions firsthand as they crashed on Thurston Island, resulting in the first loss of American life in the Antarctic. Antarctica is known to have the highest winds on the face of the earth and weather conditions can change dramatically in only minutes.

Since the squadron was due to be decommissioned, pilots and enlisted crew vacancies were not refilled as the squadron slowly disbanded. As a result, when the squadron touched down in Hawaii, there were only 10 pilots and approximately 50 crewmembers available for the "volunteer" expedition. When questioning the alternative to accepting the "voluntary" assignment the answer was, "probably reassignment as a replacement pilot or crew to a squadron in the Far East." Nine pilots and 15 crewmembers eventually volunteered. They may not have been completely willing, but they nevertheless were true volunteers in every sense of the word. Classification of OPERATION HIGHJUMP was so sensitive that the pilots and crew were instructed to keep the details of their assignment under wraps, even from their wives and family members. Most, if not all of the men, chose to ignore this order.

After the decommissioning of VH-4 in San Diego, California, the OPERATION HIGHJUMP volunteers reported to COMFAIRWING 5 at Naval Air Station Norfolk, Virginia on November 1, 1946 to begin preparations for the expedition. Demands and priority for sophisticated equipment for OPERATION HIGHJUMP apparently was never passed down to the logistics people at the naval air station. The highly classified nature of the expedition only compounded the problems. Somehow news of the "classified" expedition was leaked to the newspapers since the local papers announced that the Western Group was on its way to the Antarctic. Although a breach of secrecy, once this news hit the papers equipping of the expedition picked up steam.

Meanwhile, "Training was constant and intensive from November 5 through November 23 with flight crews attending numerous classes on aerial mapping, tri-metrogon photography, cold weather operations in seaplanes, flight planning, polar grid navigation and the use of the astro compass. Technical training for the radiomen and radar operations was also accomplished." (Captain Robert H. Gillock, USN retired, Captain Paul J. Derocher, USN retired, Mariner/Marlin Newsletter, February 2001, pg. 26). All of the men were trained in the use of survival gear as sleds, axes, stoves and tents were to be carried aboard the aircraft while flying their missions.

The three PBM-5 "Mariners" were delivered to the group in mid-November and flight-tested. Meanwhile, upon completion of their training the men were issued standard navy heavy-weather winter flight gear together with charts of the Antarctic. They were assigned to the USS CURRITUCK, which together with the USS HENDERSON (Destroyer) and USS CACAPON (Fleet Oiler), would become Task Group 68.2, a.k.a. the Western Group. On November 26, all three PBM's of the Western Group departed NAS Norfolk for San Diego via NAS Pensacola and NAS Corpus Christi. Four days later the planes arrived in San Diego and on December 1, the final PBM was hoisted aboard the USS CURRITUCK. Their participation in the expedition would begin the next day when the ship got underway for the southern polar region. Their mission was to explore and photograph the eastern longitude of Antarctica.


The first flight of the Western Group was made on December 24, 1946. On January 1, 1947, a 9.2-hour flight was made to the vicinity of the magnetic South Pole. However, the special 3-phase gyro used for navigation was incorrectly wired. Fortunately, the USS CURRITUCK picked up the aircraft's emergency IFF signal which was responsible for guiding the aircraft back to the ship. Upon returning to the ship it was discovered that the aircraft was some 100 miles in error. Early on in the expedition, the planes of the Western Group were dispatched to help save the submarine USS SENNET. A participant with the Central Group, she was the first submarine to venture into Antarctic waters. Squeezed by the ice and threatened to be crushed, the PBM's would search for leads to open water. The PBM's were unsuccessful in their search, however the USS SENNET was eventually freed from the grips of the ice, escaping to open waters in the Ross Sea where she would serve as a weather reporting station.

The pilots quickly adapted themselves to flying in the Antarctic. Careful attention was paid to making landings so that no undue stress would be placed on the aircraft. Takeoffs and landings were often made parallel to the ocean swells and all takeoffs were JATO (Jet-assisted takeoff) assisted. Takeoff weight could not exceed 22 tons as that was the maximum weight the hoisting hook on the USS CURRITUCK could support. Upon landing, the crews worked like a well-oiled machine in their ability to retrieve and hoist the plane onto the ship within a matter of minutes.

The Western Group was pressured to get to their Antarctic base of operations in the shortest possible time. Most of what is told here was originally considered hearsay, but was later established as fact. The Western Group's primary objective was to explore and photograph, by air, as much of the Antarctic continent within its operational area as possible. This region, never before seen by human eyes, would be claimed by them for the United States of America. "Flying within predetermined grids, contiguous territorial areas were identified by their coordinates and recorded and claimed for the United States by the patrol plane commander. Each claim was witnessed by three other crew members. After a copy was made for transmittal to the State Department, the original copy of the claim was placed in a waterproof container to which approximately 10 feet of line and a small United States flag were attached. The canister and flag were then thrown overboard to land on the claimed territory, the crew being careful to avoid having the line and canister entangle in the aircraft's tail." (Captain Robert Gillock, USN Ret., Captain Paul Derocher, USN Ret., Mariner/Marlin Newsletter, February 2001 pg. 27).

The pilots and crews of the Western Group accomplished a great deal during OPERATION HIGHJUMP. Unlike the crash and tragic loss of life on PBM-5 George One (assigned to the USS PINE ISLAND in the Eastern Group), this group experienced no accidents. Accomplishments included:

* Nineteen claims of previously unexplored territory made in the name of the United States. All claims have been recorded by the US State Department and are now on file in the National Archives.

* A total of 405,378 square miles of Antarctic were photographed.

* A total of 36 flights were launched from the open seas off the Antarctic ice pack.


Bunger Hills
Bunger Lakes
Bunger Oasis
66° 17'
66° 17'
66° 17'
100° 47'
100° 47'
100° 47'
Gillock Glacier
Gillock Island
72° 00'
° 26'
24° 08'
° 52'
Gist, Mount
67° 21'
98° 54'
Jennings Glacier
Jennings Lake
Jennings Promontory
71° 57'
70 ° 10'
70 ° 10'
24° 22'
72° 32'
72° 32'
Kreitzer Glacier
Kreitzer Bay
70° 22'
66° 30'
72 ° 13'
72° 36'
109° 30'
22° 10'
Reinbolt Hills
70° 29'
22° 30'
Rogers Glacier
Rogers Peaks
69° 59'
72 ° 15'
73° 04'
24° 31'
Stevenson Glacier
70° 66'
72° 48'
Reynolds Trough
66° 17'
100° 47'



Pilot William J. Rogers, Jr.


McKaskle Hills
Statler Hills
Mistichelli Hills
Maris Ntk.
Peterson Glacier


70° 00'
69° 50'
70° 02'
111° 00'

69° 59'
73° 00'
73° 10'
72° 50'
65° 20'

73° 10'
Pilot David E. Bunger

Smith Ridge

70° 02'
72° 50'
Pilot William R. Kreitzer
Preston Pt.
Spayd Island
Branstetter Rocks
Thil Island
Whisnant Ntk.
70° 17'
70° 33'
70° 07'
70° 08'
70° 00'
71° 45'
72° 12'
72 ° 40'

72° 35'
73° 05'

Located between Australia's MAWSON and DAVIS stations, adjacent to the AMERY ICE SHELF is KREITZER Glacier, JENNINGS Promontory, STEVENSON Glacier, ROGERS Glacier and GILLOCK Island, named after the pilots and crew of the WESTERN GROUP.

The map at the left illustrates several geographic names that can be attributed to discoveries made by the pilots and crews of three PBM-5's assigned to the Western Group. However, data from this little publicized expedition has been scattered much like seeds in the wind. As so appropriately stated by pilot William Kreitzer, "The expedition was an historical event and many of the details have been lost or scattered in various places. The activities of the Western Group is one example. The account by Captain R.H. Gillock in the April 1955 edition of the US Naval Academy's publication SHIPMATE, is one example of a publication that fills in the gap. He was a copilot of mine during that operation. Only therein is published all of the geographical features in Antarctica that were named for pilots of that group by the US Board of Geographical Names. All of our claims are on file in the National Archives. Bob Gillock went there and made copies and distributed them to each pilot."

The last mission flown was March 1, 1947, with W.J Rogers as pilot and Jennings as navigator.

Souvenir mail carried on PBM-5 flights by pilot William Kreitzer, Planes B-1 and B-3
Claim made by pilot William Kreitzer, 4 JANUARY 1947

Three cameras were used to take the Trimetrogon photos. One was pointed vertically while the other two were pointed 45° from the vertical on each side. When the cameras were simultaneously activated, photographs were taken from horizon to horizon. The cameras were operated during exploratory flights for the purpose of making a visual "map" of their route. However, their navigation was not precise as the aircraft compasses were incorrectly wired and sunlines are not accurate. An expedition was carried out the following austral summer (OPERATION WINDMILL) to appropriate shorelines in order to establish precise, accurate positions.

As Kreitzer puts it, "If you are familiar with stereo pictures, you know that they are made by taking two pictures some distance apart and viewing each picture with a different eye. We all do that anyway with each eye when viewing an object separately and subsequently combining the images in the brain. A stereo camera has a pair of lens about an inch or so apart to make the two views. The lines from the lens to the subject forms a triangle. If you were to extend the lines behind the camera, the distance between the lines will get longer. If you extend them up to the altitude of the aircraft, they become very far apart. The Trimetrogon photos were used as "stereo pairs" to view selected areas in "stereo".

At left is a copy of an actual claim dropped by pilot William Kreitzer. The claims were dropped at the geographic places noted on each claim. Pilot Kreitzer said, "In my crew, I let the navigators participate and on one occasion, Captain Bond flew with me and dropped one. Other pilots operated differently. The claims were dropped in a waterproof bag together with the US flag. Interesting that they are probably under much snow at this time."

Photos of
Kreitzer Glacier

(Courtesy of W.R. Kreitzer)

Bunger Oasis

Special recognition of the personnel was accomplished by naming geographical locations after all the pilots and most, if not all, of the enlisted crews. Without doubt, the most notable discovery was made by pilot David Bunger on January 30, 1947 when he and navigator Gist sighted an area of open lakes, presumably due to melting glacier ice. A successful, yet risky landing was made on the lake and samples of water were taken. After taking off, he announced that he had just landed on "Bunger's Oasis." A lot of American press was given to the discovery, including a front page article in the New York Times, and the name stuck.

Flights would end on March 1, 1947 due to the onset of the Antarctic winter. Flights were picking up excessive amounts of ice during takeoff. The increased weight prohibited them from taking off. The decision was made to depart for the United States, by way of Sydney, Australia. A total of 103 days were spent at sea before arriving in Sydney.

Surprisingly, territorial claims made by the Western Group, as well as those made by the Central and Eastern Groups, were never officially publicized or proclaimed by the United States. For many years the data was classified and sealed under the cloak of national security. However, rather recently much of the film and documentation has been declassified. Diligent naval scholars and researchers have now determined that territorial claims made during OPERATION HIGHJUMP provided extraordinary leverage to President Eisenhower in his negotiations with foreign governments which led to the Polar Policy Treaty of 1959.

The decision to rapidly activate and organize the expedition a year earlier than originally planned was a stroke of genius. By selecting PBM-5's and their experienced pilots and crews to fly the missions, achievements were made that went well beyond the planners' expectations. Since OPERATION HIGHJUMP pre-empted the planned Russian Antarctic Expedition, it also served as an example of utilizing military assets to further diplomatic objectives. Without doubt, OPERATION HIGHJUMP influenced US polar policy as it presently exists and will continue to do so as we head on into the new millennium.

The only remaining PBM is being restored at a museum in Tucson, AZ. All the others have been destroyed. According to pilot Bill Kreitzer, "It was being flown to the west coast when it had difficulty and landed in the desert. It was later found with a family living in it. A group decided to save it and began to prepare it for flight. The engines were stiff and an automobile had to push the props to get them to move. Finally, it took off with a brave soul piloting it. A plane flew alongside him to tell him his air speed as no insruments on the aircraft were functioning. It is said that wires were hanging down in the cockpit. It is being restored in Tucson and the Mariner Association is assisting in funding the restoration project."

The Explorers

Lt. W.R. Kreitzer (Pilot Crew #3)

Ens. A.J. Reynolds

Lt. J.C. Jennings (Navigator Crew #1)

Lt. R.H. Gillock (Navigator Crew #3)

Capt. J.E. Clark

Lt. Cmdr. W.J. Rogers (Pilot Crew #1)

Cmdr. D. Bunger (Pilot Crew #2)

Letter from Captain J.E. Clark


A note from the Webmaster

A special "thank you" goes to PBM-5 pilot William Kreitzer for his enormous assistance with this piece. Without his dedicated assistance in providing documents and photographs, the story of these courageous men would go untold.