Living in Antarctica: Sherman resident shares story

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In 1957, following the death of Joseph Stalin and just before the rumble of the Vietnam War, the world’s eyes turned to Antarctica. This continent only played one of several parts of the International Geophysical Year, a scientific project that united 67 countries in studying cosmic rays, geomagnetism, ionospheric physics, gravity and more.

The United States began a series of missions to Antarctica, beginning with Operation Deep Freeze I. It was the second team ever sent to Antarctica for exploration purposes, led by U.S. Navy Captain Finn Ronne. Among his crew was current Sherman resident and previous Navy pilot William Sumrall.

“Our initial purpose (in Antarctica) was to do a little exploring, mainly the primary reason was to resupply the scientists,” Sumrall said. ”… Our base was only going to be there for two years; we’d be there for one year, another group would take over, and then everything (at the base) would be left.”

At the time, Sumrall had only been in the Navy two years. After returning from the Atlantic Ocean during the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Navy asked him if he would volunteer to join a team in Antarctica for 18 months, offering any volunteers their choice of duty after they left and $150 a month per diem — a significant amount for the time.

“I thought this thing over and I said ‘… I’d get my wings, and then for the first year I’d be down there in the Antarctic hiding out, not having to do any dirty work aboard the ship as a junior officer, and I’d be getting $150 more than anybody else that was the same rank,’” Sumrall said. “And I said, ‘I can put up with that for a year.’”

The 21-year-old joined a team of 39 men who’d agreed to live in the Antarctic at Ellsworth Station, located off Antarctica’s peninsula at Gould Bay. The group consisted of nine scientists and 30 Navy volunteers, including Ronne.

They traveled by ship along South America to the end of Chile, and from there continued down to the Antarctic.

“Of course we had a lot of trouble with the ice,” Sumrall said. “We thought that we were going to have to turn around and go to South America to get our ship repaired, because we were breaking off propellers and having holes knocked into the ship.”

The troubles with the ice meant the team was late arriving at the location of their base. The Navy SeaBees, men whose job focused mainly in the construction and building of bases, did not have much time to assemble the base before they had to leave with the ships, leaving the work to the 39 men.

Ronne was not satisfied with the inspection of the base, calling the work only half-finished in his book “Antarctic Command.” According to Ronne, he had trouble getting the men to work and complete the base in a timely fashion — they had only a few short months before winter arrived and they would be left in the bitter cold and the complete darkness of the Antarctic winter.

In addition to this troubling thought, once they had arrived at the Antarctic the men were told that the Navy could not afford to pay them the $150 per diem. It was a tough blow for many of them.

This was not the end of the conflict, however. Throughout his book, Ronne makes it clear that he had a specific idea for how the base should be run. If it did not meet his standards, he was not afraid to say something about it. This caused frustration for some of the Navy men, but especially to the civilian scientists, who were not accustomed to the Navy way of life and found this method of management difficult to adjust to.

One instance of this occurs as the base was constructed. Sumrall and helicopter pilot Lt. Jaburg were loading aluminum frames with a forklift. When Ronne saw this, he called their efforts, “inefficient” in his book, and stepped in to stop the men from loading the 40-pound frames with the 15-ton forklift.

Sumrall remembered this incident with a laugh.

“In the winter time you leave those diesel tractors running because you’re not going to get them started again in those kinds of temperatures, so the (forklift was) going to run anyway,” he said. “So me and Jaburg were out there using (the forklift) to lift those (frames) because we had snow falling out the ying yang, big old boots and heavy parkas on, and those things weighed 40 pounds apiece. (Ronne) expected us to pick them up and start toting them everywhere, when we got that tractor sitting right there and we could use that. But that’s the way he is all through that book. He’s just looking for something to get onto you about, but he doesn’t get onto the Navy people as much as he gets onto those scientists.”

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