A Philatelic Introduction to B.A.E. III

United States Antarctic Service Expedition 1939-41


Joseph Lynch, Jr., ASPP


-------------- The track of the Bear between bases

The THIRD BYRD ANTARCTIC EXPEDITION -- a misnomer if ever there was one. Yet, this is understandable for several reasons:

  • Rear Admiral Richard E. Byrd and Antarctica were synonymous to the American people and the American press.
  • Byrd provided one of the expedition support ships when he leased the BEAR OF OAKLAND to the U.S. Navy for $1.00 a year.
  • Byrd had already made advance preparations for his third expedition and had raised almost one quarter of a million dollars to help finance the expedition.
  • Byrd was appointed Commanding Officer of the expedition by President Roosevelt.

In reality, the 1939-41 expedition to Antarctica was officially titled the UNITED STATES ANTARCTIC SERVICE EXPEDITION and was funded by acts of Congress in the amount of $350,000. The expedition came exactly 100 years after the first U.S. Government-funded expedition which did research in this area, the UNITED STATES EXPLORING EXPEDITION 1838-42, led by Charles Wilkes. The Service was organized to settle, on a continuing basis, an area of the Antarctic continent somewhere between 78°W and 148°W. The planners had both political and scientific motives. The U.S.A.S.E. was to be the spearhead for a continuous presence in Antarctica through the establishment of two perpetually operating bases on the "White Continent". The main purpose of the Service was to take steps which would help support any future claims to territory in Antarctica by the United States Government. Exploration of the region and establishment of permanently occupied bases were considered the best means to that end. This probably is why the Department of the Interior's Division of Territories and Island Possessions was given administrative control of the expedition:

An elaborate scientific program was also planned and prepared for the expedition. Thus with all these things in mind, the U.S. Government, for the first time in one hundred years, was sending an expedition to the Antarctic continent.

Other bastions of officialdom joined in the venture: State Department, Treasury (Coast Guard) and the Navy. Their leader was the United States premier polar personality, Admiral Richard E. Byrd. In the process of organizing his third Antarctic adventure, the Admiral was relieved from having to perform the distasteful task of having to plead for personal financing for another expedition. He never again would have to foot the bill for a U.S. Antarctic expedition. Byrd's presence unofficially prompted the moniker, "Byrd III," just as OPERATION HIGHJUMP and OPERATION DEEPFREEZE sometimes are called "Byrd IV" and "Byrd V". Officially, however, the privately sponsored Byrd expeditions only number two ( 1928-30 and 1933-35 ).

Unfortunately, a cloud hung over the expedition in the form of provision 9(c) of President Roosevelts' orders of November 25, 1939, which read to the effect that all expedition members would have to surrender upon return journals, diaries, memoranda, remarks, writings, charts, drawings, sketches, paintings, photographs, films, plates, as well as all specimens of every kind collected or prepared during their absence from the United States. This provision was never enforced but only because an open rebellion took place which demanded its drastic change or elimination.

The U.S.A.S.E. was the largest expedition to go to Antarctica up to that time and its scientific and exploratory programs were the most successful of any expedition. Virtually all planned work was carried out. Due to its hasty termination and the evacuation of both bases in 1941 because of threatening war, the U.S.A.S.E. is probably the most poorly reported large expedition in history.

Admiral Byrd remained with the expedition only until the bases were established. He returned to the United States with the support ships in March, 1940, and did not return to Antarctica during the 1940-41 season.

President Roosevelts' orders directed that two bases be established. West Base was built several miles northeast of earlier Little America (Little America II) near the edge of the barrier. It was occupied on January 20, 1940 by 33 men under command of Dr. Paul A. Siple and was called Little America III. East Base was established on the southern side of Neny Fiord in Marguerite Bay at approximately 68°10'S, 67°W. On March 19, 1940, the base was occupied by 26 men under command of Richard B. Black.

Plans also called for the use of a mobile base called the Snow Cruiser, which was an immense vehicle designed by the Research Foundation of the Armour Institute of Technology. The Cruiser was 55 feet long, 20 feet wide, 16 feet high and weighed 33 tons. It was powered by four wheels with individual driving motors and could accommodate a crew of four. The U.S.A.S.E. hoped that this mobile base would carry its crew and "piggyback" airplane far into the interior of Antarctica, perhaps to the Pole itself. All dreams of using the Cruiser evaporated when it was discovered that the vehicle was unable to move over the ridges of snow that formed in front of its wheels. The Cruiser finally, after much effort, made it to the West Base where it was enclosed in a snow block structure. F. Alton Wade and the other three crew members joined forces with the West Base Party. Left behind when the expedition was evacuated in 1941, the Snow Cruiser was subsequently found in 1957 under many feet of snow by Deepfreeze personnel. (Ed. Note: It eventually went to the bottom of the sea in 1964).

Two support ships were used by the U.S.A.S.E. Admiral Byrd's BEAR OF OAKLAND was leased to the U.S. Navy on September 11, 1939, for $1.00 a year and became USS BEAR (AG-29). This former Coast Guard vessel was an oak-hulled square rigger that made use of both sails and diesel engine power. Her commanding officer was Lt. Cdr. Richard H. Cruzen, USN, and navigation officer was Lt. George Dufek, USN. The ice pilot aboard was Bendik Johansen. The second ship, the USMS NORTH STAR, was a 1434-ton wooden ice ship that was built in 1932 for the Interior Department's Bureau of Indian Affairs. Her master was Capt. Isak Lystad and she was manned by her regular crew. The USMS NORTH STAR continued her regular job of resupplying northern ports in Alaska when she was not supporting the U.S.A.S.E. When the Bear returned to the United States in 1941 she continued in the service of the U.S. Navy.

The U.S.A.S.E. was supplied with four aircraft. A twin-engined Barkley-Grow seaplane was carried aboard the USS BEAR during her exploratory cruises of 1939-40. Flights made between the USS BEAR and the Antarctic continent added some 800 miles of coastline to future maps. The plane returned to the United States with the USS BEAR in 1940. A single-engine bi-wing Beechcraft was supposed to be used in connection with the Snow Cruiser. It carried on in support of West Base operations when the Cruiser was abandoned. Both East and West Bases were provided with twin-engined Curtiss-Wright Condor biplanes. The aircraft was used extensively in exploratory and support flights. The East Base Condor was instrumental in the evacuation of the men in March, 1941, when neither the USS BEAR or USMS NORTH STAR could approach the base due to heavy ice conditions.

Other mechanical facilities were provided the U.S.A.S.E. for the bulldogging work of transporting cargo from ship to base, constructing the camps and laying supply caches in the field. East Base made use of an army artillery tractor; West Base a crawler type tractor. Both bases had a stripped down light army tank. The real workers turned out to be the 160 sled dogs used for the long distance trail journeys.

One hundred and twenty-five men formed the crews of the ships and the two base parties on this third expedition under the command of Richard E. Byrd. Only a small portion were experienced Antarctic personnel but many became leading figures in future expeditions. Only 14 polar veterans participated on the expedition: Admiral Byrd, Thomas Poulter, Bendik Johansen, Paul A. Siple, Jack Bursey, F. Alton Wade, Clay Bailey, Vernon Boyd, Louis Colombo, Ike Schlossbach, Joseph Healy, Finn Ronne, Frederick Dustin and Richard Black.

Scientifically speaking, the U.S.A.S.E. was both well planned and productive. Programs were conducted by the members of the scientific staff in auroral phenomena, bacteriology, botany, cosmic ray, glaciology, magnetism, medicine, meteorology, micro paleontology, ornithology, petrography and petrology, physiography, physiology, radio, seismology, structural geology and zoology.

Geographical exploration at West Base was carried on by five field parties and two aircraft. The spring sledge parties began operations in surveying, geology, biology and meteorology about mid-October, 1940. Aerial reconnaissance and survey flights were made between 178°W and 128°E and as far south as 84°30'. A thousand usable aerial survey photographs were the reward of these flights. By January 7, 1941, all trail parties had returned to Little America, only three days before the arrival of the USS BEAR.

The parties at East Base had an advantage over those at West Base because of the twilight prevailing at noon during mid-winter. This allowed them more freedom in making advance preparations for spring operations. The two most important goals were, a) to cross the Palmer Peninsula and explore the coast to the east, and b) make a search to the southwest for that portion of Antarctica which might be laid claim to by the United States.

As early as July and August trail parties were laying caches along prospective routes to both sides of the peninsula. In late October a weather station was set up on a plateau a mile above the base. This was the first of its kind on the Antarctic continent and it was kept in operation for over two months. In mid-November a party set out for the Weddell Coast. Crossing the Palmer Peninsula, they sledged to 71°51'S before turning back on December 23, 1940.

When plans failed to set up an advance base on Charcot Island, the men knew it would be an impossible task to reach the unknown territory west of longitude 78°. A flight was made on December 22, 1940, which traced and photographed the coast to 85°W. A second flight was made on December 28 to 77°W and verified the insularity of Alexander I Island, which was proven only a few days earlier by Ronne and Eklund.

On December 30 an extended flight was made along the Weddell Coast to 74°37'S but had to turn back before reaching the corner of the Weddell Seat at the southern shore. By January 28, 1941, all parties were back at East Base awaiting the arrival of the USS BEAR and USMS NORTH STAR. War clouds had forced Congress to curtail further funding of the U.S.A.S.E. and the expedition was ordered back after one winter-over.

West Base was abandoned on February 1, 1941, leaving considerable equipment along with the previously mentioned Snow Cruiser. However, the evacuation of East Base presented a problem. There even was a possibility that the heavy ice conditions in Marguerite Bay might force Black and his 25 companions to winter-over for a second season. A landing strip, however, was established on Mikkelson Island and all East Base personnel were able to be flown out on March 22, 1941. Both ships returned to Boston with the USMS NORTH STAR arriving on May 5, 1941, followed by the USS BEAR on May 18, 1941.

We will now move on to an intense study of the postal history from this expedition, the most challenging of all Byrd expeditions.