Not a direct quote I am certain, but it is what I imagine Charles Moore whispered to his three young children in the fall of 1957 as he headed off on the adventure of a lifetime. He was first headed from his home near San Francisco, California to Christchurch, New Zealand. A flight path I know all too well and a journey that takes at least three calendar days if there are no delays. As a passenger, since the man was also a pilot, he would continue to fly south. Charles would fly just about as far South on planet Earth as a person could in 1957. He landed at McMurdo Station, Antarctica. The only aircraft to ever fly and land further south at that time was when the US Navy’s Douglas DC-3 made the very first landing at the South Pole only one year prior.
Charles had been tasked with documenting and reporting on Operation Deep Freeze III. Borrowing its name from a never published James Bond novel (so I assume), Operation Deep Freeze began in 1955. Due to the extreme locale, it needed to be carried out in multiple phases. The goal was to build “permanent” research stations at both McMurdo Station, on the coast, as well as the South Pole itself. All of this was in preparation for the first International Geophysical Year (IGY). The IGY was a collaborative effort of many nations with the intent to explore the unexplored and document previously undocumented phenomena all around the globe. With his military experience and employment with United Press, Charles was up for the challenge of accompanying the US Navy on their mission.
He agreed to forgo Christmas at home with his family, another path I know all too well. My mother was one of his three young children, Charles is my grandfather. Gone for more than six months, my grandfather traversed the frozen continent alongside the Navy task force from McMurdo Station to the South Pole, and back. Antarctica is larger than the United States and Mexico combined. All of those little white slivers at the bottoms of maps in textbooks and classrooms are very misleading. The altitude also takes some getting used to and since any snowfall at the pole never melts, it gradually grows higher every year. I only became aware of the elevation after reading this letter that he wrote to his wife’s parents (my great-grandparents) in Portland, Oregon on December 26, 1957.
Charles’ mention of the penguins was referencing the group of Adelie and Emperor Penguins that had been shipped to the Portland, Oregon Zoo. Sadly for his children, he was not able to take any home with him. The penguins’ arrival in Portland is a hilarious side story worthy of a Disney movie plot and can be read here: Penguins of Peninsula Park.
It was lucky for mail to be delivered to the men (there were only men) at the Bottom Of The World once every few months. While my mom does not have any letters that they may have written and sent to him, we do have a few of the ones he wrote back. At least one to each of his children, his wife Isabelle, and the one pictured above to his parents-in-law. On the fronts of some of the envelopes you can read “By first plane to land at the South Pole during IGY, Deep Freeze III, and first mail plane to return from the Pole”. Also on the fronts of two envelopes is a scribbled signature, E. Hillary. It took a geologist to point them out and ask, “Is that Hillary? As in, Sir Edmund Hillary!?.” I had no idea as my mother and I had both overlooked the small scribble. As it turns out, it is indeed Sir Edmund Hillary’s autograph. After becoming the first man to reach the summit of Mt. Everest, Hillary was leading the New Zealand contingent of the IGY. At least at one point, possibly more, Hillary’s path overlapped my grandfather’s.
Today there is a sort of highway, though really more of a packed down snowy trail, traversing the approximately 1,000 miles between McMurdo and the Amundsen-Scott South Pole station. Which definitely did not exist 60 years ago. The only previous trans-Antarctic overland expeditions were in 1911-1912 when Amundsen and Scott (Norwegian and British, respectively, and for whom the South Pole Station is named after) independently made treks to the South Pole. While both groups completed their goal of reaching the pole, Scott’s team did not survive the return trip due to combinations of scurvy, hypothermia, exhaustion, starvation. Based on my grandfather’s letter mentioning their Christmas Day feast and fresh vegetables from New Zealand, Operation Deep Freeze III was much better supplied. Instead of relying on dogs and sleds, the Navy men had their diesel-powered snowcats, which are essentially tanks specially designed for ice and snow. Since the well-traveled “highway” did not exist, special teams had to go out ahead of the snowcats to test the ice for crevasses that hide under snow and could swallow an entire team.
The detailed description of the entire arduous mission in this US Navy memo lies in such contrast next to Charles’ remarkably casual letter back home. We do not know all the details of the six months Charles spent with the Navy task force, but my mother and I have been able to piece together quite a lot. What we don’t have are copies of any articles and reports that he sent back to United Press to be published. If anyone reading this has any leads to share about additional Operation Deep Freeze III details and published articles by Charles R. Moore, we would be hugely grateful.
Exactly 60 years after my grandfather took his journey to Antarctica, I find myself bobbing around on a scientific drilling ship in the Amundsen Sea, just offshore from the West Antarctic Ice Sheet (WAIS). I am working with scientists from all over the world who are here to collect sediment samples from underneath the furthest stretches of the WAIS. The samples contain a record of melts and freezes over the millennia. This will give us a glimpse as to what may have been happening on Earth before the presence of such intrepid humans. I am in awe when I think about my grandfather being on that very first IGY expedition and here I am, so very close to the same spot, alongside scientists/explorers still searching and discovering. I watch icebergs pass by us every day, remnants of the ice sheet that the ship has to incessantly dodge. Little bits coming off the continent I so wish I could set foot on just as he did. Maybe next time.
Karsten Gohl is the Co-chief scientist of our Amundsen Sea Expedition and he graciously let me borrow his coat to take this photo.