A Philatelic Introduction to B.A.E. II: The Postal History


Paul Skowron, ASPP


Admiral Byrd's second expedition to the Antarctic left Boston Harbor, September 25, 1933, and lasted some 21 months. By that time it had returned to Boston where it was officially closed on June 17, 1935. During that period of time the largest scientific expedition that had ever been launched added vast amounts of knowledge to the study of the Antarctic region. Most of the glory and hoopla of the first expedition was absent. What wasn't absent was the exhausting work and hardship endured by expedition members. So much hardship in fact, it almost killed the expedition leader. Rescued from his deadly scientific outpost by expedition members during the long polar night, Admiral Byrd continued on in weakened health to lead his men and administer to the business of running a scientific expedition.

In the area of U.S. postal history, this adventure contains a wealth of material and events. Traveling the approximately 22,000 miles round trip brought the members of the crew to many areas that are documented philatelically. The issuance of a U.S. postage stamp to commemorate the event plus the offer to allow covers to be serviced at Little America provides collectors with a bonanza of philatelic material. Let's go into a bit more detail concerning the stamp issues.

On September 22, 1933, the U.S. Post Office Department issued a memo to all post offices notifying them of the details for the preparation of mail to Little America. Some important items of note include: only Little America stamps can be used; a 50¢ charge per letter in addition to the 3¢ postage rate; all orders placed prior to October 8, 1933, sent directly to the ships docked in Norfolk, VA; all orders placed after October 8, but prior to final acceptance date of November 1, 1934, sent to Washington D.C. The procedure for sending your letter to Little America was actually quite easy. You simply placed your self-addressed envelope(s) along with a postal money order for 50¢ per cover into a stamped envelope addressed to the expedition. All that was needed for an address was a simple "Adm. Byrd Expedition, Norfolk, VA" or later, "Washington, D.C."

Upon arrival at expedition headquarters in Norfolk, cancellation requests were serviced by Adm. Byrd's staff. The vast majority of Little America covers bear small blue marks near or under the stamp(s). These notations were put there by the staff to indicate how many stamps to affix each cover. The covers were then loaded into special waterproof mail bags and taken to the docks for loading on board either of two expedition ships, the JACOB RUPPERT or the BEAR OF OAKLAND. The procedure for covers sent to Washington, D.C. for servicing was similar except that the mail was loaded onto contract mail ships headed for New Zealand.

As a favor to the National Geographic Society for expedition sponsorship, the society vice president, Mr. John LaGorce, was appointed as Postmaster of Little America. Serving as special sea-post clerks on board the JACOB RUPPERT were: Richard S. Russell and Fred C. Voight. However, the Postmaster of Little America never set foot on Antarctic ice to perform his duties. Instead, to carry out the bone numbing job of servicing the mountain of mail, expedition member Leroy Clark was appointed Assistant Postmaster. We will hear more about Mr. Clark later on.

The ships departed Boston Harbor and after a few more stops along the coast to load supplies were headed out to sea for the Panama Canal. The ships departed the coast on October 22nd for the JACOB RUPPERT and November 2nd for the BEAR OF OAKLAND. Adm. Byrd and the bulk of the mail were on board the flagship JACOB RUPPERT, a steel-hulled freighter he had leased for a dollar a year! The other vessel, the BEAR OF OAKLAND, was a romantic looking 19th century sailing ship with auxiliary engines. Built as an icebreaker with a five foot thick oaken hull, it was the main ice vessel of the expedition. Being somewhat speedier, the JACOB RUPPERT arrived in Wellington, New Zealand ahead of the BEAR OF OAKLAND, December 5, 1933 for the JACOB RUPPERT and January 6, 1934 for the BEAR OF OAKLAND. After loading more cargo, the ships departed enroute to Antarctica on December 12, 1933 for the JACOB RUPPERT and January 11, 1934 for the Bear.

The JACOB RUPPERT , with Adm. Byrd, Leroy Clark and the mail bags containing some 56,000 pieces of first cancellation mail, docked alongside Antarctic ice on January 17, 1934. The BEAR OF OAKLAND docked on January 30, 1934. After the supplies and equipment had started to become stockpiled at Little America, a tent was set up as the first Little America Post Office. Leroy Clark started in with his hand canceler and ink pad along with a portable hand-cranked machine canceler on the pile of mail that was building up outside his tent. The date in the cancels was never intended to change daily as is normal. January 30th was chosen to show on all mail in celebration of President Roosevelt's birthday. All of several varieties of first cancellation handcancel types show the correct Jan. 30, 1934 date. However, for some reason undetermined at this time, Leroy Clark set the date on his machine canceler to read two different dates! A small percentage of the covers were correctly canceled, while the greater majority are canceled Jan. 31, 1934. In the time he had to cancel mail before the ships had to return to New Zealand, Leroy Clark was able to finish approximately 6,000 covers. As the weather started to worsen the Post Office tent was no longer functional and all operations were moved to more secure quarters inside one of the buildings.

At some point before the mail was put into the mailbags for it's return, Adm. Byrd discovered that Leroy Clark had made an error in the machine canceled covers. The decision was made to hold back from delivery all those machine canceled covers with the correct date. These correctly dated covers would be delivered the following year with a delayed marking and the San Francisco receiving mark applied to them. Leroy Clark's machine canceler was set up to show seven wavy lines in the killers. Any Little America cover machine canceled by Mr. Clark shows this trait.

After the First Cancellation covers were delivered, people started discovering that the dates were wrong. Also, since only a small percentage of the 56,000 pieces of mail were returned, lots of people wanted to know where their covers were! In an attempt to answer the question of delayed mail, the expedition headquarters issued a statement that contained the following telegram from Adm. Byrd: "All U.S. mail at Little America is safe, combination of unforeseen conditions in unloading arising from necessity of protecting lives of men, transporting supplies to Little America and initiating scientific program made it impossible to clear all mail from Little America Post Office this season. All mail pouches safely stored and will be returned with all Second Cancellations when expedition leaves Little America."

Although the content of the memo is true, it does not mention anything about the problems Adm. Byrd was encountering with Leroy Clark and his failure to perform his postal duties. Admittedly, Clark did have many problems that were due to severe cold encountered at the camp. Postal canceling devices and ink were not intended to function at freezing temperatures and freeze-ups did hamper Clarks work. However, there was a severe problem with Clark and his unadaptability to the polar conditions. The long "Polar Night" and severe weather conditions took their toll on Clark, and his companions reacted by ostracizing him. Adm. Byrd attributed his poor performance to emotional and physical distress. Therefore, sometime during the summer or fall of 1934, Adm. Byrd and the U.S.P.O.D. decided that the postal situation at Little America was out of hand. The decision was made to send a P.O.D. canceling expert to remedy the situation with the relief ships in 1935. "Canceling Mechanician" Charles F. Anderson departed Washington, D.C. along with 62,000 pieces of Second Cancellation mail and new cancelers on November 7, 1934. He arrived at the Antarctic aboard the BEAR OF OAKLAND on January 20, 1935. Upon his arrival, Anderson discovered that Leroy Clark had mis-canceled another 15,000 or so covers and that the bulk of the remaining 35,000 unserviced covers, still in mail bags, were either buried outside in the snow or strewn about the landscape. Although his stay at Little America was brief, it was very hectic. After a marathon canceling session lasting 16 days, Anderson canceled all the remaining First Cancellation covers, the 62,000 Second Cancellation covers and a lot of crew mail. All this with only sixteen hours sleep! Anderson changed the die in the canceling machine to finish the remaining First Cancellation mail. He replaced it with a six wavy line killer but left the wrong date in place. He also brought with him several different hand-cancelers to help in his work. There exist today several varieties with long killer bars as well as short killers, all mis-dated as the machine types.

For the Second Cancellation mail, Anderson changed the die in the canceling machine to read Jan. 30, 1935 and left the six wavy line killer in place. He also brought with him several hand cancelers that he prepared for use on Second Cancellation mail. There are short, medium and long killer types all dated Jan. 30, 1935.

Second Cancellation covers are normally rubber stamped in black ink with the "Penguin" cachet. This cachet shows two penguins, one carrying a mail bag and handing a letter to the other one. Below the two penguins is four lines of text. There exists today four varieties of this cachet which can be differentiated by the size and the location of the copyright mark located above the word "Expedition" in the text.

It should be noted that special postcards prepared by the expedition were brought by the BEAR OF OAKLAND to Little America for servicing. This series of cards shows different scenes photographed during Byrd's first Antarctic expedition. On the reverse they are hand signed below a rubber stamped text by the captain of the BEAR OF OAKLAND, Robert A.J. English, and franked with the Little America stamps. Some were hand canceled with the correct Jan. 30, 1934 date and returned with the First Cancellation mail. Others were not returned then but were canceled by Anderson upon his arrival in 1935.

After completion of his marathon cancellation job, Anderson took the mailbags to the ships for loading. After repeated attempts failed due to dangerous ice conditions, Anderson ended his nearly 24 hour dockside guardianship of the mailbags as all were safely loaded. The expedition departed Little America on Feb. 6, 1935. One can only hope that Charles Anderson finally got a good night's sleep!

While in New Zealand, Anderson and all the mail was transferred to the contract mail ship SS MARIPOSA. After a short stop in Los Angeles, the ship docked in San Francisco where Anderson unloaded the mail at the Ferry Annex Post Office. It was here that the machine and hand receiving marks dated March 25, 1935 were placed on the backs of the expedition mail. While only one type of hand cancel is known to exist, there are seven varieties of machine cancels known. All appear at quick glance to be the same, but the length of the slogan box and overall length do vary incrementally. From San Francisco the mail was sent to collectors around the world. Little America covers exist addressed to such far away places as northern Canada, China and Niuafo'ou, home of the famous Tonga Tin Can Mail!