Operation Highjump

The Expedition Begins

The first ship to leave its home port was the icebreaker USCGC NORTHWIND, casting off from the Boston Navy Yard on November 25, 1946. On the 28th she arrived at Norfolk, VA and joined the flagship USS MOUNT OLYMPUS, seaplane tender USS PINE ISLAND and destroyer USS BROWNSON for final preparations. Finally, on December 2, all was ready. Shortly before noon, Admiral Byrd went aboard the USS MOUNT OLYMPUS for a final lunch with Dick Cruzen. Afterwards, Byrd stepped ashore and announced that he would wait to sail on the carrier USS PHILIPPINE SEA some thirty days later. Byrd appointed Paul Siple to represent him as the War Department's chief representative on the expedition and with that, the USS PINE ISLAND cast off, to be followed shortly thereafter by the other three ships. The tiny fleet moved down the Roads, past Old Point Comfort, Cape Henry and finally into the open sea where they abruptly turned south for their 10,000-mile voyage to Antarctica. December 2nd also found the ships of the Pacific Fleet pulling away from various California ports: the seaplane tender USS CURRITUCK and destroyer USS HENDERSON from San Diego, the oiler USS CACAPON from San Pedro and the cargo ship USS YANCEY from Port Hueneme. The cargo ship USS MERRICK was still busy loading gear and would pull out of Port Hueneme on December 5. The Atlantic Fleet sailed around Cuba through the Windward Passage and across the Caribbean to Panama. On December 7, the four ships passed through the canal, docking at Balboa on the Pacific side. Waiting for them was the submarine USS SENNET and oiler USS CANISTEO, since they had previously been assigned to the Central American station. By December 10 all the ships had arrived and as they left Panama behind, the ships fanned our over many hundreds of miles as they made their voyage south.


Operations in Antarctica

Central Group Activities

The Central Group rendezvoused at Scott Island on December 30, 1946, in order to follow the USCGC NORTHWIND through the pack ice into the open waters of the Ross Sea. The modern icebreaker is one of the most distinctive and remarkable vessels ever designed. And from this distinctive group of ships came the hardest working vessels of their kind: the Wind-class sisters built during and just after World War II. A total of seven were built by the Western Pipe and Steel Company of San Pedro, California. However, four of them were sailing with a Soviet flag in 1946-7 as part of the lend-lease program with the Soviets, and the last ship was not returned until 1952. (When the American crew arrived at Bremerhaven to take over the ship, subsequently renamed STATEN ISLAND, it was in horrific condition. The ship's desk drawers were crammed with rotting tins of fish and the flight deck area was smeared with chicken blood and feathers. It would take two cruises to the Arctic before the stench would disappear). Of the three remaining vessels, only the USCGC NORTHWIND was immediately available, as the USS BURTON ISLAND was still in service and the EASTWIND was scheduled for service in the Arctic. By default, the USCGC NORTHWIND would mean success or failure as the thrust began.

When it became apparent that the ice presented a serious danger to the USS SENNET, the submarine was towed back to Scott Island. The remainder of the group reached the Bay of Whales on January 15, 1947, with the USCGC NORTHWIND breaking out a harbor in the bay ice for them. Over the following two days, landing parties went ashore and selected a site for Little America IV, somewhat north of Little America III, the West Base of the UNITED STATES ANTARCTIC SERVICE EXPEDITION 1939-41. Construction of the base and accompanying aircraft facilities commenced immediately thereafter. Quite an assortment of vehicles were used in this undertaking, including tractors, jeeps, weasels, bulldozers and other tracked equipment. On January 21, young sailor Vance Woodall, from the USS YANCEY, was working on the ice in the unloading area when a tractor nearby picked up a load of snow roller sleds to move in to the barrier cache area. The D6 tractors were proving too heavy to ride on top of the snow that lay on the surface of the bay ice. In order to gain sufficient towing purchase, the drivers had to let the steel treads plow into the snow until reaching the hard ice. As a result, one tread would often grip the ice before the other, throwing the tractor violently from side to side until both treads took equally. The official accident report states that Woodall unfortunately caught both his right arm and head in the slats of the roller just as the tractor suddenly lurched ahead. Woodall's spinal column was severed "high in the neck" and the navy veteran of only seven months died instantly. By February 6 Little America consisted of a multitude of tents, a sole Quonset hut, three compacted snow runways and a short airstrip made of steel matting. At one point, the number of persons stationed at the base approached 300, but eventually this number had to be greatly reduced so that the remaining individuals could be readily evacuated by the USS BURTON ISLAND.

Meanwhile, shortly after noon on Thursday, January 2, 1947, the carrier USS PHILIPPINE SEA , with Admiral Byrd on its bridge, slowly pulled away from the pier at the Norfolk Navy Base as bands played and the local command saluted farewell.

The USS PHILIPPINE SEA had been finishing up a shakedown exercise off Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, when orders were received that she would be participating in Operation Highjump. The brand new ship hurried north with an exuberant crew cheering the news . . . this was certainly more exciting than routine shore leave in Hong Kong or Panama! But what a task they had before them. Since she would be going through the canal, changes had to be made in the hull and flight deck structures. A massive shipment of parts for twenty sleds came in from the Supply Office of the Boston Navy Yard and quickly assembled for use by the Byrd party. A quantity of "Byrd cloth" was shipped in "for the construction of various items of cold weather clothing and equipment". An HO3S1 helicopter was flown aboard along with approximately one hundred tons of miscellaneous equipment for use by the other ships participating in Highjump. Next came the six R4D transport planes. They were obviously too big to be flown in at sea so it took a little imagination to get them aboard. Since there was no landing field adjacent to the dock, a mile-long swath had to be cut right through the middle of the naval base, from the field to the docks. What a site it was as drivers had to "pilot" the planes through the narrow pathway, with sailors sitting on the wings to prevent a sudden burst of wind from picking the plane up and hurling it against the sides of buildings, fences and machinery, often within inches of the wingtips. Last aboard would be Byrd, just hours before shoving off.

The USS PHILIPPINE SEA reached the Canal Zone on January 7, 1947, and the next day started the slow journey through the locks. Byrd and his men departed Balboa for the Antarctic on January 10. The ship steamed south at twenty knots toward Scott Island. By January 22 the vessel had reached 58°48'S, and "it was assumed icebergs could be encountered during the day". One of the helicopters was readied for takeoff and as it lifted from the deck, the pilot neglected to gain further altitude before veering off to the side of the carrier. As the copter swept over the port side, the sudden down-wash of wind, together with the loss of the flight deck surface as a cushion, sucked the aircraft right into the water. Fortunately the pilot bailed out and was rescued by a lifeboat. On January 25, they rendezvoused with the USCGC NORTHWIND, USS CACAPON, USS SENNET and USS BROWNSON near Scott Island. Four days later, on January 29, the first two R4D's successfully took off from the flight deck of the USS PHILIPPINE SEA for the risky flight to Little America IV; Admiral Byrd was aboard the first plane. By January 30, all six R4D's had arrived safely at Little America IV. The carrier's objective had now been completed. Carrying the only outbound mail from OPERATION HIGHJUMP ships during their Antarctic deployment, the USS PHILIPPINE SEA turned and headed for Balboa, Canal Zone. She arrived there on February 18 and ten days later was back at Quonset Point, Rhode Island.

Back at Little America, every opportunity was taken to keep the aircraft flying. Several photographic missions were flown, including a two-aircraft flight to the South Pole on February 15-16. A final flight attempt was made on the 22nd, but was turned back due to poor weather, thus terminating Little America-based flight operations for the expedition. On the ground, investigations were conducted in the immediate vicinity of Little America. A tractor party departed Little America for the Rockefeller Mountains on February 12, but had to return prematurely to the base a week later due to the impending evacuation.

Finally completing shakedown trials, the USS BURTON ISLAND departed San Diego, California at 1530 hours on January 17, 1947. By February 6 she had reached the northern edge of the Ross Sea pack. Two days later she contacted the ships of the Central Group at 72°S and delivered mail for these vessels. On February 13 she headed for McMurdo Sound, arriving on the 16th, where she acted as a weather station until the 20th. Following this duty, she steamed for Little America to commence evacuation of the base. The USS BURTON ISLAND reached Little America on February 22 and evacuation operations commenced immediately. The remaining base personnel boarded the icebreaker shortly thereafter, and she departed the Bay of Whales on February 23, 1947.

The ships of the Central Group took various routes on the homeward journey. The USS MERRICK received extensive rudder damage from the ice floes and had to be towed by the USCGC NORTHWIND back to Port Chalmers, New Zealand, for repairs. All the ships had taken a significant amount of abuse from the ice. The bows and sides of the flagship and cargo vessels USS MERRICK and USS YANCEY became severely dented, as rivets were sprung and propellers damaged. Nevertheless, they all made it back. The USS MERRICK was in drydock for a month but eventually sailed north on March 22, 1947, arriving in San Diego on April 12th. Meanwhile, the USCGC NORTHWIND, USS MOUNT OLYMPUS and USS BURTON ISAND departed Wellington, New Zealand, on March 14, 1947. The USCGC NORTHWIND arrived in Seattle, Washington, on April 6, 1947. The USS BURTON ISLAND arrived at San Pedro, California, on March 31, 1947 and the USS MOUNT OLYMPUS slipped through the Canal on April 7th and arrived in Washington, D.C. on April 14. The Yancey had a more interesting return voyage. She departed Port Chalmers on March 5 and arrived at Pago Pago, Samoa, on the 11th. She left Samoa on the 27th and steered for Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, with the Navy YTL-153 in tow. Under steam at about 7.5 knots, she arrived at Pearl on the 14th of April. The long voyage for the crew and ship finally ended on May 2, 1947, when they settled into Port Hueneme, California. The submarine USS SENNET served as a stand-by rescue vessel for the R4D flights from the USS PHILIPPINE SEA to Little America through the 30th of January. On February 4 she set course for Wellington, New Zealand. She left New Zealand on the 15th of February and arrived at her mooring at Submarine Base Balboa, Canal Zone, on March 13, 1947.


The Western Group rendezvoused at the Marquesas Islands on December 12, 1946, and sailing on parallel paths, they reached the edge of the pack ice northeast of the Balleny Islands on Christmas Eve day. The USS HENDERSON and USS CACAPON fanned out to serve as weather stations while flight operations from the USS CURRITUCK began on December 24. Perhaps Dufek and his men struggled with the Antarctic elements off the Thurston Peninsula, but Captain Charles A. Bond and his Western Group were blessed by comparison. Their primary weather problem was related to fog. Additionally, considering that none of the sailors aboard the three ships and ever seen Antarctic service before, things couldn't have gone much better. Captain John Clark of the USS CURRITUCK wrote, "The acute personnel situation then current in the Navy by reason of the demobilization fully affected this vessel". Of major concern was the Engineering Department, where the inexperienced men "were encountering numerous difficulties with all phases of the plant. The ship was to continue to be handicapped by critical personnel shortages throughout the entire operation". The handling of the PBM's were a concern, too. "A continuous and searching analysis was made of all phases of plane handling". Clark was acutely aware of the special weather conditions encountered in the South Polar region and the need to "reduce all plane handling times to a minimum except crane operating time and that of actual fueling from the ship's side, which were, or course, uncontrollable". With much practice, the plane handling time was actually cut by two-thirds.

A few flights were attempted but fog continued to plague them until New Year's Day, 1947. The fog lifted and the first mapping flight of about seven hours was flown along the Oates Coast with complete success. Free from fighting the elements his colleague Dufek was encountering, Bond was able to concentrate his attention on mastering the weather. "The ship was continuously looking for good weather and for ice bays in the pack ice for wind protection, being guided in the former by the aerologist's recommendations". The pilots were encouraged and enthused by Bond's leadership and the resulting accuracy of the aerology and radar tracking teams, both on the USS CURRITUCK and aboard the aircraft. Whereas the pilots at Little America IV fought dense cloud formations rising to thirteen or fourteen thousand feet, the Western Group, flying along Wilkes Land, found that even if the overcast was dense, "ordinarily you would break out in the clear soon. On the average the cloud layer wasn't any more than 4 or 5,000 feet thick with not too much icing . . . it would be absolutely clear on top".

Icebergs were encountered, but as Clark recalled, "Bergs were shown by radar with fidelity and the ship maneuvered in and out among them easily". Bond was pleased as significant air operations resulted in unquestioned successes. After the seven-hour mission on New Years Day, flights were made on the 2nd, 4th, 5th and 6th over the continent from their staging area in the Balleny Islands. "Operations were eminently successful and a substantial portion of the area assignment had been completed by this time". Their first assignment completed, Cruzen radioed from the Central Group instructing Bond to cease operations and sail the USS CURRITUCK eastward to the vicinity of Scott Island in order to reconnoiter for the USCGC NORTHWIND and its bedeviled flock in the Ross Sea. The USS CURRITUCK reached Scott Island on the 10th and both patrol planes flew reconnaissance missions on the 11th and 12th, but no leads could be seen for their trapped colleagues in the ice below. Dismissed by Cruzen after their unsuccessful air operations, the USS CURRITUCK headed west again past the Adélie Coast and on to Wilkes Land along the Sabrina, Knox and Queen Mary Coasts.

 PBM Landing at "Bunger's Oasis"

Unfortunately, no flights were possible between January 13 and the 21st because of the huge northerly swell. On January 22 the swells at last moderated and the weather remained acceptable for additional flights. Over the next week, long and successful photomapping missions progressed to the west. Suddenly, on either January 30 or February 1 (the record is unclear), PBM pilot Lieutenant Commander David E. Bunger lifted from the bay and headed south for the continent some hundred miles distant. At this time the USS CURRITUCK was off the Shackleton Ice Shelf on the Queen Mary Coast of Wilkes Land. Reaching the coastline, Bunger flew west with cameras humming. Suddenly the men in the cockpit saw a dark spot come up over the barren white horizon and as they drew closer, they couldn't believe their eyes. Byrd later described it as a "land of blue and green lakes and brown hills in an otherwise limitless expanse of ice". Bunger and his men carefully inspected the region and then raced back to the ship to tell the others of their discovery. Several days later Bunger and his flight crew returned for another look, finding one of the lakes big enough to land on. Bunger carefully landed the "flying boat" and slowly came to a stop. The water was actually quite warm for Antarctica, about 30°, as the men dipped their hands in to the elbow. The lake was filled with red, blue and green algae which gave the lakes their distinctive color. The fly boys "seemed to have dropped out of the twentieth century into a landscape of thousands of years ago when land was just starting to emerge from one of the great ice ages", Byrd later wrote. Byrd called the discovery "by far the most important, so far as the public interest was concerned of the expedition".

As early as 1947, men now wondered if this was the first sign of global warming. As Paul Siple disgustingly reported, discussion between the scientists as to the nature of "Bungers Oasis" had not even begun "before the eleven press representatives aboard the USS MOUNT OLYMPUS had fired off dispatches to the outside world describing the oasis as a 'Shangri-La' and implying that it was warmed by a mysterious source of heat and might be supporting vegetation". Siple gave high marks to the crew of the PBM for landing and making an attempt to examine the lake, however Bunger "had no technical tools to examine his find". He even had to guess the temperature of the water since no thermometer was aboard. But they did have an empty bottle aboard which they filled with water from the lake. Unfortunately, "the water in the bottle turned out to be brackish, a clue to the fact that the 'lake' was actually an arm of the open sea".

By the end of January, inclement weather had forced the airmen to skip over the existing gap between 150°E and 145°E longitude, which later expeditions would fill in. Mapping missions continued day after day covering a 1500-mile long area between 141°E and 115°E longitude. Wilkes Land proved to be a "featureless ice sheet that ranged from 6,000 to 9.500 feet above sea level. No mountains were lofty enough to thrust their heads into the frigid winds above this white blanket, although valleys and ridges in the ice surface up to 100 miles inland gave a hint of rough terrain underneath".

The weather turned typically Antarctic as the first week of February arrived. Seas became rough and snow storms frequent as flight operations were limited to only three days during the month. During that time, the USS CURRITUCK sailed hundreds of miles around the coastline, from 115°E to 40°E longitude, all around Wilkes Land, the American Highland fronting the Indian Ocean and on to Queen Maud Land. When the planes were able to fly, outstanding results would be the norm. These results would be of significant importance in the selection of base sites some ten years later during the IGY. On February 12, when the USS CURRITUCK was off the Princess Ragnhild Coast of Queen Maud Land, pilots W. R. Kreitzer and F. L. Reinbolt lifted off in their PBM for a routine photo mission to map 300 miles of coastline. What had previously been drawn in as coastline now proved to be towering shelf ice rising high above the sea. As they turned south, they suddenly discovered a range of ice-crystal mountains, luminously blue against the dark sky, rising more than two miles into the air. Flying near the mountain peaks, Kreitzer and Reinbolt followed the range for nearly one hundred miles before turning back. One of them later told Byrd, "It was like a landscape on another planet".

On March 1, the final flights were made in the vicinity of Ingrid Christensen Coast. The USS CACAPON fueled the USS HENDERSON and USS CURRITUCK on March 3 and all three ships sailed for Sydney, Australia, arriving there on March 14. All three ships departed Sydney on March 20. The USS CURRITUCK arrived at the Canal Zone on April 9, traveled through the locks and arrived in Norfolk, Virginia on April 18, 1947. The USS HENDERSON entered San Diego Bay channel on April 6 and the USS CACAPON arrived at San Pedro, California on April 8, 1947.


Operations of the Eastern Group commenced in the vicinity of Peter I Island, north of the Bellingshausen Sea, late in December, 1946. The USS PINE ISLAND reported a position near Swain Island on December 23 and on Christmas Eve, the first iceberg was spotted. Without question, the Amundsen and Bellingshausen Seas experience some of the worst weather conditions in the world. To complicate matters with the Eastern Group, frequent foggy weather, howling blizzards and stormy waters made aircraft launching and flight perpetually hazardous. That portion of the global windstream that follows the north / south axis is heated in the tropics and rushed toward the poles in the upper atmosphere. The massive Antarctic ice cap cools this mass and as the air descends, greater cooling takes place. The frigid, cold air is deflected outward once it reaches the Pole. The natural rotation of the earth drives the air mass toward the coastline from a southeasterly direction, often creating hurricane-force winds in the process. Between Cape Leahy and Cape Dart and in the area around Mount Siple in the Amundsen Sea vicinity, this frigid howling windstream often slams head-on into a southward-heading warmer air mass blowing in from the lower Pacific. As a result, a cyclone is created which spins eastward along Ellsworth Land and through the Amundsen and Bellingshausen Seas, gathering velocity as it races up the base of the Antarctic Peninsula across Charcot Island and Marguerite Bay before finally dissipating along the tip of the peninsula or at sea in the Drake Passage.

Heavy swells and frequent snow squalls plagued the USS PINE ISLAND until the weather suddenly improved and cleared in the afternoon of December 29. PBM GEORGE ONE was lowered over the side and fueled without difficulty and shortly after 1:00 p.m. the plane lifted off the water on the first flight to Antarctica with Lieutenant Commander John D. Howell as pilot and Captain George Dufek as observer. Within hours, GEORGE ONE radioed back that weather conditions were favorable for mapping operations over the continent and so GEORGE TWO took to the air later that evening. When GEORGE ONE returned at 11:05 p.m., a third flight was scheduled with an entirely new crew. This flight left at 2:24 in the morning of December 30 (it was, of course, daylight 24 hours / day), with Lieutenant (jg) Ralph Paul "Frenchy" LeBlanc at the controls. His co-pilot was young Lieutenant (jg) Bill Kearns. The rest of the crew consisted of navigator Ensign Maxwell Lopez, Aviation Radioman Second-Class Wendell K. Hendersin, flight engineer Frederick W. Williams, photographer Owen McCarty, mechanic William Warr, Aviation Radioman Second-Class James H. "Jimmy" Robbins and lastly, the skipper of the USS PINE ISLAND, Captain Caldwell.

As GEORGE ONE flew southwest at four hundred feet above the ice, the weather "looked anything but promising", as Kearn's later wrote. The plane flew for three hours before picking up the coastline of Thurston Island (then called the Thurston Peninsula). Co-pilot Kearns took over the controls from a very tired LeBlanc and took the plane up to 1,000 feet in altitude. Unfortunately, the plane began picking up a great deal of ice. The bow station Plexiglas froze over and the cockpit windows frosted over despite all efforts with on-board de-icing equipment. The plane suddenly entered an "ice blink", streams of sunshine trapped beneath the clouds, bouncing off the snow "in a million directions, as if each ice fragment were a tiny mirror". To make matters worse, a fine, driving snow obstructed the surface below. Puzzled in their predicament, the altimeters began giving different readings and as the wings began to ice up, Kearns turned to LeBlanc and said, "I don't like the looks of this. Let's get the hell out of here!" LeBlanc nodded in agreement and as Kearns gently banked the plane, all on board felt a "crunching shock" that "reverberated all along the hull". The plane had obviously grazed something so Kearns immediately applied full throttle as LeBlanc gave full low pitch to the propellers to aid pulling power. Both men pulled back hard on the yoke and GEORGE ONE began to rise steeply. Then the "flying boat" blew up.

Crash Victim Fred Williams


The plane had literally blown apart. Three of the men were dead and the others crawled into what was left of the fuselage to lay stunned and bleeding for hours. The explosion had lifted co-pilot Kearns right out of his seat, whose seat belt was unfastened for the first time in all his years of flying. He flew right out the cockpit window, headed straight for the starboard propeller and somehow missed the blade and instead fell harmlessly into the drifting snow. Landing like a ski jumper, Kearns fell head-over-heels down a slope and when he awoke from his daze, "I was all in one piece -- just full of pain and nearly frozen". All but one of the crew had been blown clear of the wreck. Captain Caldwell had been riding in the nose of the plane when he was pitched out the window and into the snow. His wounds were relatively minor: a cut across the nose, several chipped and loosened teeth and a broken ankle. McCarty had a 9 ½" gash in his scalp which knocked him unconscious for about an hour. He woke up to extreme pain in his right hand caused by a dislocated thumb and when he went to stand up, he could not lift his leg. Warr had suffered only a small cut on his scalp and radioman Robbins came out of the ordeal with only post-crash shock. The other four men were not so lucky. LeBlanc was still in the shattered and burning cockpit, his body held in the grips of his seat belt. Flames from the burning aviation fuel were licking at LeBlanc's body as Kearns reached the wreckage first and rushed through the fire to undo the seat belt. As hard as he tried, Kearn's stiff shoulder wouldn't allow him to set LeBlanc free. Robbins rushed forward to assist and between them, LeBlanc was finally freed. Kearns, Robbins and Warr used their gloved hands to beat the fire out that was consuming LeBlanc's body. Kearns later recalled, "Frenchy's face, arms and legs were burned black and were already starting to swell. He was only half-conscious, writhing in pain and muttering unintelligibly". LeBlanc was covered with a parachute and the search resumed for the others. It was a gruesome find. The official report states that Hendersin died instantly of "extreme multiple injuries" and that Williams went about 2 ½ hours later from the same trauma. Lopez was decapitated ("traumatic amputation of the head"). These were the first men to ever die on an Antarctic expedition connected in any way with Richard E. Byrd.


I invite you to read two compelling stories of this disaster, ANTARCTIC MAYDAY, the personal account of a crash survivor, and TRAGEDY ON THE ICE, the story of an unlucky young man one who didn't make it. Both are published here, the only place you will find these personal accounts of the crash of GEORGE ONE.

Sketch from Jim Robbins' unpublished Antarctic Mayday

Admiral Byrd later wrote of the absolutely terrifying experience this must have been. None of them had ever been to Antarctica before the crash and even though some of them had experienced similar flying conditions in the north polar regions, "One is generally introduced to Antarctica by degrees, and even then it is awe-inspiring. But these young men came out of their daze -- woke up, as it were -- lying on the continent and in one of its most uninhabitable spots. It was like dying and coming to life in another world". McCarty wrote a farewell letter to his family. He figured they'd be found someday and he wanted his wife to know what had happened. For a day and a half the survivors slept or talked as though dazed by drugs. Incredibly, LeBlanc tried to cheer everyone up as he called to McCarty, "Now don't you worry, Mac. Just take it easy. They'll come and get us out of this mess". LeBlanc's pain finally drove him into delirium as he staggered to his feet so that he could "go below and see Doc Williamson". Kearns and the others gently helped him back into his sleeping bag. The men used the remaining section of fuselage as a shelter for the rest of their ordeal.

"Plane number one CW and voice call George One Captain Caldwell flight crew number three overdue since 30 1945 Z. Accordance rescue doctrine have made preparations for search and rescue". This message was radioed to Cruzen in the Central Group. Unfortunately, inclement weather stubbornly refused to allow for search flights. At the crash site, New Year's Eve was celebrated with Warr and Robbins scouring the wreckage for food. A little dried fruit was all that could be found. The next morning they awoke in a better mood and Robbins was able to find more food, frozen solid, along with a frying pan, pressure cooker and some canned heat, possibly enough for a few hot meals. After breakfast, McCarty looked through the wreckage for his wedding ring which had come off in the crash -- he found it. On January 2, the snow finally stopped. More food was discovered in the wreckage, enough to ensure survival for quite some time. The aircraft, in Kearns words, was "a virtual flying laboratory, carrying radar and other equipment far more elaborate than old-time explorers had dreamed of. Nine cameras were set up within her huge frame. Her emergency supplies included food packets, sleeping bags, field tents, medical equipment, and a survival sled. Within the sled were stored additional rations, warm clothing and small arms". The next few days broke clear and cold. On January 5, LeBlanc's condition had deteriorated as a supply of fresh water was now becoming a problem. LeBlanc's hands had swelled and his face had become covered with a hard, black crust. His legs and back had been left with a mass of angry burns. LeBlanc's biggest problem was dehydration and even though the men tried to keep a cup of water next to Frenchy, it would freeze in a matter of minutes. Huge quantities of snow were melted by the Coleman stove in order to obtain only a mouthful of water. This ordeal and daily suffrage would continue until January 11.

Operations aboard the USS PINE ISLAND were frustrating, at best. On New Year's Day, GEORGE TWO was lifted over the side but a dense fog suddenly rolled in. The plane was tied up to the stern by a 300-foot line and at two the next morning, disaster struck. The swells swung the plane around and thrust it into the side of the ship, extensively damaging a wing tip, de-icing boot and aileron. By January 5, GEORGE TWO had been repaired and GEORGE THREE assembled for backup. Both planes were lowered over the side and once again the fog rolled in. Finally, the weather cleared and that afternoon a test flight was ordered. It went off without a hitch and later that evening a search was made over the last reported position of GEORGE ONE but they returned to the ship "because of increasingly bad weather". The following day weather conditions allowed a second flight, but once again the mission was scrapped due to fog and snow. Snow, fog and heavy swells continued to plague the search efforts until the 9th, but even the search that day was turned back due to "very unfavorable weather". Good fortune would finally smile on Dufek and his men on the morning of January 11. At 4:30 a.m., GEORGE TWO, flown by Lieutenant (jg.) James Ball and Lieutenant (jg.) Robert Goff, was hoisted over the side. It lifted from the water at 7:00 a.m. and flew off in the direction of the continent. Later, at the crash site, Kearns suddenly sat up and shouted "Airplane!" They struggled out of their tents and broken plane and there, on the horizon, was Ball's PBM. Everything that could burn, especially the raft, had already been dragged out of the plane, placed in a large pile and doused with gasoline. After the sighting, Caldwell cried, "There she is, lads!" Nearly blowing himself up in the process, Robbins dropped a match on the pile of debris which sent a tall column of smoke high into the sky. The PBM rocked its wing and the men went hysterical, dancing and jumping in the snow. However, the ordeal was not over.

Supplies, including food, clothing, cigarettes, bedding, a rifle and ammunition, even two quarts of whiskey, came floating down by parachute. Then the survivors wrote a large message on the blue wing of the plane, letting those above know that Hendersin, Lopez and Williams had been killed. Meanwhile, co-pilot Goff of GEORGE TWO looked to the north for a landing spot. A few minutes later they returned and dropped a message in a sardine can, "Open water ten air miles to north. If you can make it on foot, join hands in a circle. If not, form straight line. Don't lost courage, we'll pick you up". "Let's go," Kearns said, and all but LeBlanc joined hands.

Ball and Goff, still overhead, were low on fuel and would have to return to the ship. No problem, as Lieutenant Commander Howell was already on his way in GEORGE THREE. Soon Howell was overhead dropping additional supplies to the men below. GEORGE THREE then went back to the shore and landed some two miles out. Conger and Howell loaded a sled and supplies into a life raft and gently lowered themselves into the sea for a brisk row to shore. Once ashore, the sled was loaded and the two men headed off into the interior. It was difficult going and as the two men trudged onward, the weather got colder and colder. Fog rolled in and the possibility of disaster loomed larger and larger. The survivors pushed their way along through huge snow drifts and as the fog drifted in ever closer, the men of GEORGE ONE dropped to the snow in exhaustion. Suddenly all heard a pistol shot. Robbins stood up and saw two figures moving toward them, dragging a sled. As Howell and Conger made their way to the six, they could not believe what they saw. Exhausted, bearded, battered men stood before them, overcome with pain and emotion. Howell quickly got the men moving. By this time, the fog had engulfed the plane and to make matters worse, it started snowing. The return trail was not marked and soon the earlier sled marks and footprints were covered. But fate stepped in at the last moment and the party suddenly arrived at the edge of the shore where they now would wait impatiently for the fog to lift. As it turned out, they would have to wait eight hours for the fog to lift enough for GEORGE THREE to be guided in. All were rowed out to the plane and several hours later the PBM was carefully hoisted aboard the USS PINE ISLAND. All would recover but LeBlanc's legs would be amputated two weeks after the rescue aboard the carrier USS PHILIPPINE SEA.


William Warr, Aviation Machinest Mate 2nd Class, Flight Engineer
James Robbins, Aviation Radioman 2nd Class, Radar
Capt. H. H. Caldwell, Commander of USS PINE ISLAND

Lt. jg. William Kearns, Co-pilot
Owen McCarty, Cheif Photography Mate

On January 18, the USS PINE ISLAND rendezvoused with the USS BROWNSON and transferred the crash survivors, who were then taken to the USS PHILIPPINE SEA for transfer back to the United States. Further photographic flights from the USS PINE ISLAND were initiated on the 23rd, covering the Getz Ice Shelf to the vicinity of Thurston Island. Early in February the ship moved to the northeast of Charcot Island and flights were made to Charcot and Alexander Islands and Marguerite Bay. Intentions were to land a party at Charcot Island but the shifting pack ice prevented any possibility. Vessels of the Eastern Group were ordered to proceed to the Weddell Sea on February 14, but unsatisfactory weather prohibited any worthwhile photographic flights. By March 4, the Eastern Group had departed Antarctic waters, arriving at Rio de Janeiro, Brazil on March 18, 1947. The USS PINE ISLAND departed Rio on March 24 and arrived at Cristobal, Canal Zone, on April 6. The next day she transited the Panama Canal and remained in drydock at Balboa, to replace a port screw, until leaving on April 11. Her arrival date in San Diego is unknown. The USS BROWNSON departed Rio on March 24 and arrived at Norfolk, Virginia, on April 8, 1947. The USS CANISTEO departed Rio on March 23 for the United States. On the 25th, she set an independent course for Ascension Island after refueling the USS PINE ISLAND and USS BROWNSON. The official narrative for this ship does not describe the log entries beyond the date of March 25, therefore the return date to the home port in the States is not known to this writer.


The greatest achievement of OPERATION HIGHJUMP was its acquisition of approximately 70,000 aerial photographs of the coast of Antarctic and selected inland areas. But what was expected to be a mapmaker's dream turned out to be a cartographic nightmare when a large percentage of the photographs were rendered useless due to lack of adequate ground control points. Fortunately, this matter was rectified the following year by a much smaller expedition, OPERATION WINDMILL, which succeeded in obtaining most of the needed ground control points. Thus, OPERATION HIGHJUMP was not denied its rightful place in the history books as one of the more productive Antarctic expeditions.

Four brave men gave their lives on this expedition. The crash of the PBM and the death of three crewmen ignited a venomous conflict between "Byrd's boys" and the regular navy. Embittered relations between the two groups would last for more than twenty years. In Byrd's three previous expeditions, not a single life was lost. He and his comrades had taken every precaution to see to it that all men would return safely. Foolhardy risks were simply not taken by Byrd. Paul Siple later noted, in paying tribute to the admiral of the Antarctic, that Byrd invariably preferred a live failure to a dead success. Now the navy, perhaps calloused by the many lives lost during the war, had let three men die on their very first major venture into Antarctic exploration. Highjump had certainly been a rush job, with preparation and training at a minimum in order to race the men and ships south into polar training conditions as quickly as possible. An operation of this nature, particularly due to its size, was bound to contain risks so it is really quite remarkable that more crashes hadn't occurred. All things considered, this expedition was a huge success and thanks to its accomplishments, the ground work was layed for modern day scientific exploration on the ice.

* Although it is assumed there are only written accounts from two of the survivors (Pilot Bill Kearns and Photographer Owen McCarty), a third account actually exists. Written by Radioman Jim Robbins, ANTARCTIC MAYDAY is a heartwrenching story of courage and faith in his own words. This story has never been published and only a few copies exist but fortunately Mr. Robbins has presented me with one for publication on this web site, so be sure to read this compelling story.


" Assault on Eternity: Richard E. Byrd and the Exploration of Antarctica 1946,47 ", by Lisle Rose.

"Operation Deepfreeze", by Rear Admiral George J. Dufek

"Americans in Antarctica 1775-1948", by Kenneth J. Bertrand

"Moments of Terror: The Story of Antarctic Aviation", by David Burke


"Assault on Eternity", by Lisle A. Rose

"Americans in Antarctica 1775-1948", by Kenneth J. Bertrand

"Chronological List of Antarctic Expeditions and Related Historical Events", by Robert K. Headland

"Ice Cap News", the Official Journal of the American Society of Polar Philatelists. HIGHJUMP information courtesy of Joseph Lynch, Jr.

"Moments of Terror: The Story of Antarctic Aviation", by David Burke