Antarctica: A Personal Experience

By John G. Hagner




It was November, 1946. Our ship, the USS PHILIPPINE SEA (the largest aircraft carrier of the Essex class) was being outfitted for its historic voyage to Antarctica . . . the southernmost tip of the globe. The expedition was headed up by the noted polar explorer, Rear Admiral Richard E. Byrd.

After spending a couple of weeks at Newport, Rhode Island, the Phil Sea, with twenty-five hundred officers and crew, cruised south to Norfolk, Virginia to pick up additional supplies. When the loading was completed, the ship continued on its journey, heading for the Panama Canal.

For a seventeen year old 'swabby,' who hadn't ventured any farther from his hometown of Baltimore, Maryland, than to visit Washington, D.C., this was an exciting experience. Little did I know, or could imagine, what would be in store for me, a first-time crosser of the Equator.

We stopped at Cristobal, on the north side of the Panama Canal . . . spent a day and a night on liberty. It took our ship a full day to get through the locks of the canal. When we arrived at the other side, it was Balboa.

My job at the time of approaching the Equator was Chaplain's Assistant. I got that job by confiding to the Chaplain that I wanted a job that offered me a career when I was out of the Navy. Prior to then, I was in the Deck Division and 20mm Gunnery loader and operator.

It was exciting to watch Admiral Byrd, early in the morning hours, accompanied by a Marine security guard, running the length of the flight deck. Often times the guard would be seen lagging behind. The Admiral was in his late fifties then, and this was his method to keep in tip-top physical condition.

Passing the South American coastline, it was difficult to comprehend the fact that it would be only a short while before the whole picture would change from a warm, tropical setting, to massive chunks of ice floes and bergs . . . with not a tree in sight.

It was announced over the ship's loud speaker that we would soon be crossing the legendary Equator. We were informed that an unforgettable experience was in store for those of us who had never been in this territory. I was excited, and yet apprehensive. I heard through the 'scuttlebutt' that there would be some sort of initiation, and we who were called 'pollywogs' would be the ones to undergo this initiation. Soon I was to realize that it was nothing, absolutely nothing like the ones I experienced in my school years. 'Shellbacks' were those who had been across the Equator and had gone through the initiation. They were the ones who would 'do it to us!'

The day of admission was upon us! Dress uniform of the day: Undress blues, shirt on backward, blue sneakers with socks, cap turned inside-out with brim turned down. We wore woolen turtleneck sweaters, inside-out. This was a gross infliction on our mental behavior as the temperature was well over 100 degrees.

'King Neptune' was portrayed by our Chief Boatswain's Mate . . . one of the roughest, toughest hombres on board. His word was 'law!' Nobody crossed him and got away with it. I decided to shy from his like whenever I could. He was be-decked in a grass skirt, King's crown, an ill-fitting bra and was brandishing a forked spear. Two of his maidens were also Boatswain's Mates, dressed similar, but without crown. They were all wearing silly wigs made from ship's mops! 'Baby Neptune' . . . that was a sight to behold. He was a short, stocky Chief Gunner's Mate . . . must have weighed in excess of three hundred pounds, and stood just five feet five inches. This stout fellow appeared in an oversized bed sheet, draped around his middle, diaper fashion!

The Boatswain's whistle sounded for the start of the festivities. Admiral Byrd proclaimed the day of reckoning and the activities began. He offered his heartfelt condolences to those of us who were to take the plunge of this arduous ordeal! We were instructed, or I should say ordered, to line up single-file at a starting marker. Our first obstacle was to take a short walk up to 'Neptunus Rex.' He was the one who gave us our consequences. My task was to approach Baby Neptune. He was seated on a milking stool. Something yellowish was dripping from his belly, at the navel. I discovered when I approached closer that it was hot horseradish mustard.

"Lick it!", he ordered.

"What?", I questioned, with reluctance and in a pleading manner.

"I said, lick it off!", the Chief insisted, with stronger tones.

"Oh God!" I thought. What a sad predicament I'm in. Well, anyway, the sooner I do it, the sooner I can get on with whatever was in store. I did it. It was so hot, I thought my tonsils were going to drop off. The taste lingered for several minutes . . . even after I had swallowed it.

Next up . . . the hospital bed. I thought I was going to be able to lie down and rest a bit before my next traumatic experience. No such thing! I was ordered to open wide. When I did, a baby bottle, half-filled with Milk of Magnesia, was stuck in my mouth.

"Suck it!", the Shellback ordered. "Drink it all!", he insisted.

The more I sucked, the harder it got to swallow. It was as if I was tasting cod liver oil, or something similar, like when I was a youngster. I didn't care for that one bit, either. It seemed a long time before I got it all to go down. Others had to go through this as well as me, but I wasn't too concerned about anybody but myself.

Next stop . . . a climb up a rope ladder to a platform ten feet high. It was a water tank, lined with heavy canvas which held water two feet deep. The water was saturated with silt, slime and oil that had been 'spent', and it seemed to slither on the surface. When ordered to jump into it, I asked if there was any other way around this. A tall, brawny Petty Officer looked down at me and snickered with, "not on your life, sonny . . . jump . . . and I mean . . . now!" I saluted, respectfully as was the custom, thanked him and jumped in holding my nose and closing my eyes, hoping not to get any of the slop in my mouth. I landed on my feet but slipped on the oil and went under. I staggered to the other side of the tank and started to climb up the rope ladder. A Shellback aided me, to leave room for the next victim!

I was then put in shackles. I had to walk around in a circle several times. The chains were getting heavier and heavier and it seemed forever before they were removed.

The end was nearing as I saw a lineup of twenty or so Shellbacks that had formed a straight line the length of the flight deck on both sides, facing each other. I could see what was going on with other fellows who had been in front of me. Every Shellback was brandishing a two and a half foot long canvas-sewn rope and was slashing at the rear ends of fellow pollywogs. By this time, the oily substance had saturated our bodies and we were as slippery as eels. The deck was as slick as ice. Matters worsened when I attempted to run. The beating I took was bad enough, but because of the slipperiness of the deck, I fell several times and was inflicted with painful poundings from all sides. Finally, I had reached the end of the line of Shellbacks. Thinking it was all over, I, along with several of my buddies, were pounced on with torn pillow cases filled with chicken feathers. The feathers stuck like glue to our bodies. Our bottoms were blood red from the beating we encountered. The pain was excruciating. We were now Shellbacks! Sore, nauseated and tired, we staggered, some of us on our hands and knees, to our quarters. The day was long coming to an end! It seemed days before we felt like sitting upright on chairs. Crossing the Equator was an experience I will never forget. We were presented a certificate of merit.



The first sighting of an iceberg came a few days following the crossing of the Equator. They were called 'growlers' due to the loud noise they made when they pounded against another berg.

The Air Division had their work cut out for them. Their mission was to prepare for the Admiral's departure in one of the six R4D transport planes that were to take off with the assistance of 'JATO,' a jet-propelled capsule. This was to mark the first in a series of such ventures with jet-powered aircraft.

It was 4:00 AM when the first plane departed. It contained provisions. Admiral Byrd, on board the second plane, waved to us as it jetted off in fine fashion. After several hours of patient waiting, word was received that the Admiral had landed safely. Then the remaining four aircraft commenced to take off.

Naval history had been made that day. I have always felt that I would have given a month's salary to have been on the plane that transported the famed Admiral Richard E. Byrd to Little America, his destination.

I was proud to have been asked, and agreed to illustrate an insignia on plane number five. I painted a hula dancer in a grass skirt, dancing beside a palm tree, on a floe of ice. The plane's captain called it, "The Hawaiian Showboat."


ARTIST'S WORK: Hagner's special cacheted envelope flown on an historic R4D flight from the USS PHILIPPINE SEA to Little America


Another closeup example of Hagner's cachet


The mission, as far as the PHILIPPINE SEA was concerned, was nearly over. There were two dozen ships involved in OPERATION HIGHJUMP, as the mission was called. There was even a submarine. It nearly met with disaster when it became trapped in pack-ice. The icebreaker USCGC NORTHWIND came to its rescue and towed it out to sea. A portion of the sub's bow was torn off in the effort. It was welded back together.

There were several experiments that were to be done before we departed. Our ship was involved in some of them.

The following day, after the planes had left the ship, several scientists boarded a Sikorsky helicopter to search for icebergs that were suspected to be in the vicinity. Fog and snow with blizzard-force was prevalent. On occasion, a berg would bang up against our ship, shaking the steel structure. Icebergs only show one-tenth out of the water. Its massiveness is below the surface. It spreads out like a mushroom in readiness to devour anything that comes within its path.

As the 'copter took off, many observers watched as it climbed to an altitude of one hundred and fifty feet. Suddenly, it veered off to its starboard side and crashed down into the icy water just off the ship's port side, a couple of hundred yards away.

"Man overboard!" one of the sailors shouted. A boatswain's whistle sounded and two lifeboats were immediately launched. Within five minutes, a lifeboat was speeding toward the stricken helicopter. All brave men on board were in the water, struggling for their survival. The 'copter was starting to sink. Because of the heavy foul-weather clothing the men were wearing they, too, could not stay afloat. In less than three minutes the men were reached and plucked from a freezing watery grave. In another few minutes they would have frozen to death. No sooner had they been pulled into the lifeboat then the 'copter sank to the indigo bottom. It seemed to have stayed afloat just so long to get the men clear . . . disappearing forever!

Antarctica has its summer months in November, December and January. This is the opposite of the United States. When February approaches, it is almost impossible for survival at the South Pole. This is when the blizzards come. Today, however, there are inhabitants there all year-round, undertaking experiments of every nature. When we were there, there was twenty-four hours of daylight. When winter sets in, this changes to total darkness. There is no sun.

Weather balloons were sent aloft daily to keep a close watch for changing winds and climate differences. Admiral Byrd had sent several reports from his headquarters at Little America, one of which was a personal message that read, "The penguins were glad to see me back!"

A new discovery was made by the Admiral. From the air he saw, photographed and recorded exciting sightings of luxurious green valleys, brown mountains of shimmering beauty and lush vegetation abounding over hundreds of square miles of flat land. It was determined that this area was completely shut off from the driving blizzards that are so plentiful at various times of the winter months. Mountain ranges that reached thousands of feet into the skies were responsible for this incredible phenomenon. Temperatures were warmer, including the water temperature.

The closest we ever came to sighting penguins was a mile or so away. They were seen daily, frolicking and bounding from one floating piece of ice to another. As far as penguins are concerned, there are several species. Emperors are the largest, measuring more than four feet in length. King penguins are next in line. Adelie penguins are much shorter . . . eighteen inches to two feet tall. Emperors and Kings have a beautiful yellow-orange crest at each side of their neck. No polar bears inhabit the South Pole . . . they are only at the North Pole. There are two kinds of seals in Antarctica . . . Weddells and Leopards. The Leopard seals feed on unfortunate Adelie penguins who venture into waters where they are devoured in one gulp! Sperm whales are sometimes visible in the Antarctic waters, searching for and storing up the small crustaceans of the chilly depths, on their way to migratory regions. The largest bird in existence inhabits this area . . . the Albatross. It has a wingspan of more than fourteen feet and is friendly toward the penguin.

Antarctica was, and is, truly an enchanted continent. Both beautiful and sinister. A land of everlasting mystery. I was extremely impressed with all the majesty of Antarctica. At times the sun's rays glanced off ice crystals, illuminating jewel-like stones with iridescent colors of purples, greens, pinks and golds, gently rising, promiscuously against the distant horizon, in an ever-changing panorama of rainbow hues. The grandeur of this continent is infinitely more impressive than our own Grand Canyon. The glory of nature has been created there and is incomparable with any other spot on earth.

ORDER OF THE PENGUIN presented to John Hagner, signed R E BYRD and D S CORNWELL


FOOTNOTE: I was a seaman first class when I experienced the expedition to the South Pole (ANTARCTICA). As a collector of memorabilia of this nature, I have collected penguin figurines since 1947 and have in excess of four hundred hand-crafted and manufactured penguins.




John G. Hagner, President and Founder of the Hollywood Stuntmen's Hall of Fame, is a man of many extraordinary talents. John enlisted in the US Navy in 1945 and after boot training, he was assigned to the newly commissioned aircraft carrier USS PHILIPPINE SEA (CV-47). John's assignment to the USS PHILIPPINE SEA brought him one of the most rewarding experiences of his life. In addition to his duties as Chaplain's Assistant, John also participated in the entertainment programs on board ship . . . that activity came naturally to him.

John Hagner, as a young sailor and artist from Baltimore, was most impressed with the beauty of Antarctica. It is a place of lofty mountain ranges, rugged and majestic, covered with intricate formations of ice crystals. Its grandeur is infinitely more impressive than our own Grand Canyon. The Glory, Power and the Majesty of Nature has been created here that is incomparable with any other place on earth. These are the things John saw when he was in Antarctica and the emotions he felt . . . he was touched with the greatness that it was.

As a youngster, John, along with other kids his age, loved to attend the Saturday matinee movies in their local theater. John became infatuated with stuntmen and by the time he turned 14, he had already assembled a nice collection articles, clippings, stills, photos and artifacts about the stunt profession and its members.

When honorably discharged from the navy, John married and enrolled in the Maryland Institute of Art where John proceeded to polish up his art talents. After taking an art course, his one remaining ambition was to become a stuntman. He packed up his belongings, his collection of stunt memorabilia, his wife, Eleanor, and their three year old son, Don, and headed to California. Arriving in Hollywood, he soon met some of the all-time greats in the stunt profession. It was with David Sharpe that he developed a strong friendship. David, doubling for Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. in the swashbuckling type of stunt work, was to John the example of the highest type of stunts, all of which David performed with utmost grace and perfection.

Two years after he arrived in California, John received his first professional stunt assignment, in a television series called, Adventures in Paradise. He doubled for its star, Gardner McKay. From then on, he appeared in one movie after another, including, The Great Race, The Greatest Story Ever Told, Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, Captain Newman, M.D., Police Woman, and others. He also appeared in TV movies and on regularly scheduled television programs. These included, Bus Stop, Felony Squad, Outer Limits, Hank, Batman, Steve Allen Tonight Show, Truth or Consequences, and others. He has also done live-action appearances and commercials. Although Hagner has much diversification in stunt work, his specialties remain high falls and flight sequences.

After several years in the stunt profession, he required two major operations, not connected with stunt work, and this took him out of the business for a time. After recuperation, he did many portrait drawings of major personalities for the motion picture and TV studios, and for public relation firms of the stars. He also developed a clientele in commercial art and so was able to make a comfortable living from his art talents.

During this time, he was realizing that the stunt field was the only segment of the motion picture industry not recognized or honored. Thinking this was not right, John resolved to do something about it. He held a meeting of stuntmen, stars and other personnel of the motion picture industry. Outlining his thoughts on establishing a Stuntmen's Hall of Fame, his message was enthusiastically received. The idea and purpose of such a Hall of Fame was to honor the stunt profession and its members and to preserve history as any such establishment dedicates itself to. And that remains the overall purpose today.

In 1973, John Hagner incorporated the Hollywood Stuntmen's Hall of Fame and became its President and Founder and Chairman of the Board . . . all positions which he retains today. The Hollywood Stuntmen's Hall of Fame is the world's only Hall of Fame dedicated to the stunt profession.

The Hall of Fame Museum now has 400 footprint blocks containing footprints, handprints and signatures of the world's greatest entertainment figures and stunt performers, including Darth Vader, Charlton Heston, Johnny Weissmuller, Buddy Hackett, Isabel Sanford, George Montgomery, Eddie Fisher and many, many more.

The Hall of Fame's first inductee was stuntman Ted Mapes, in 1978, for outstanding achievement in the stunt profession. Ted had been Jimmy Stewart's stuntman for over 25 years. Mr. Stewart was on hand himself to pay tribute to him and to present him with the statuette, which is the "Dusty" award. At this writing, more than 30 outstanding stunt performers have been inducted into the Hollywood Stuntmen's Hall of Fame.

John, of course, is such an avid collector that no amount of time or trouble is too much if it adds something of value to the collection. One day, Gene Kelly called John and said he would like to donate his dancing shoes to the museum, but he was leaving for the east coast the following morning and he did not like to trust them to the mail service. The following day found John on his way to Beverly Hills, where he picked up Gene's dancing shoes from the Kelly home.


An Example of John's Famous Artwork


John's portrait drawings of famous personalities have gone into Limited Edition. Each print sold is numbered, registered and signed by him. John personally makes each print direct from the original so that every one sold is an exact copy of the original drawing.

John is also an author. His authoritative book, Falling For Stars, was one of the first books ever written on the stunt profession. Ready to go into its third printing, it is found today in libraries and universities throughout the world. He also authored The Greatest Stunts Ever, a pictorial of the world's most complicated stunts.

John is a member of the Screen Actors Guild and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. He frequently attends the prestigious Academy Awards, as a member.

Sadly, the Hollywood Stuntmen's Hall of Fame is currently without a home. Please click the link below to visit John's site . . .