Boots on Ice: The U.S. Navy in Antarctica

By Dan Smaczny, National Museum of the American Sailor Contract Curator

“Few men during their lifetime come anywhere near exhausting the resources dwelling within them. There are deep wells of strength that are never used.”[1] – Admiral Richard E. Byrd

From Commander Charles Wilkes early exploration in 1839 to 2019’s Operation Deep Freeze, United States Navy Sailors called upon the “resources dwelling within them, when it came to braving the bitter cold of Antarctica.

In the sixteenth century, Ferdinand Magellan and Sir Francis Drake explored the seas near the southern tip of South America. It wasn’t until February 1821, however, that Connecticut seal hunter John Davis arguably became the first person to land on the Antarctic continent.[2] Almost twenty years later, United States Navy Commander Charles Wilkes led eighty-two officers, nine naturalists, scientists and artists, and 342 sailors on the South Seas Exploring Expedition, a surveying and charting mission, into Antarctic waters in February 1839.[3] During the Expedition’s second voyage to the Antarctic in January 1840, he spotted the Antarctic land mass area now known as Wilkes Land.[4]

Drawing from Charles Wilkes’ official report to the U.S. Navy, on his exploration of South Pacific and Antarctica.

This drawing is from Charles Wilkes’ official report to the U.S. Navy on his multi-year journey to the South Pacific and Antarctica with the sloop-of-war USS Vincennces in the background. Naval History and Heritage Command Collection

Beginning in 1928, Commander Richard E. Byrd led several Antarctic operations for the U.S. Navy. His expedition established a base called “Little America” on the Ross Ice Shelf near the Bay of Whales, Antarctica.

Commander Richard Byrd and his dog Igloo, April 12, 1930.

Commander Byrd dressed in furs, with his dog “Igloo”, outside a hut during his Antarctic Expedition, April 12, 1930. Official U.S. Navy Photograph, National Archives Records Administration.

There he and his team recorded temperatures between -72 degrees and 17 degrees Fahrenheit. Byrd made headlines across the world when he and his crew of three; pilot Bernt Balchen, aerial photographer Captain Ashley McKinley and former Navy test pilot and Chief Aviation Pilot, Harold June serving as co-pilot and radioman flew a 1928 Ford 4-AT-B Tri-Motor Airplane named Floyd Bennett, over the South Pole on a flight that began on November 28, 1929.[5][6]

Byrd’s next expedition in 1933-35, achieved scientific firsts such as the first seismic investigations in Antarctica and the first observations of cosmic rays and meteors at such extreme southern latitudes. Byrd, by then a Rear Admiral, nearly died from carbon monoxide poisoning during a months long solo stay at Advance Base.[7]

During 1946-1947, 4,700 men and thirteen ships were part of the U.S. Navy Antarctic Developments Project, also known as Operation High Jump. Rear Admiral R.H. Cruzen was the Task Force Commander while Byrd led the scientific and technical aspects of the expedition. The expedition captured a staggering 70,000 aerial photographs of the desolate continent.[8] Following up High Jump, the Navy and Byrd conducted Operation Windmill in 1947-48. One of Windmill’s main tasks was to perform a ground survey to increase the usefulness of the aerial photographs taken during Operation High Jump.


The Antarctica Service Medal is awarded to members of Antarctic expeditions and personnel of the permanent Antarctica stations or for service in contiguous waters, starting with the United States Navy Operation High Jump. National Museum of the American Sailor Collection.

Operation Deep Freeze I established multiple Antarctic bases in 1955-1956. These bases included McMurdo Station and South Pole Station, the latter of which was officially named Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station in 1961.[9] The Antarctic Treaty, signed by twelve countries on December 1, 1959 also went into effect in 1961. Fifty-three countries now hold to the treaty that states “Antarctica shall be used for peaceful purposes only.”[10] Delbert Black, the first Master Chief Petty Officer of the Navy from 1967 to 1971 and Antarctica Service Medal recipient visited the 1,200 Sailors stationed in Antarctica for Deep Freeze. “You know what amazed me?” Black said, “I never heard a single real gripe. I think this is because of the close relationships between the officers and men, the closest I have ever seen.”[11]

Dog teams on runway of McMurdo Sound, Antarctica., November 4, 1960.

New Zealand dog handlers from Scott Base, Ross Island, exercising their dog teams on the sea ice runway at NAF McMurdo Sound, Antarctica. In the background are VX-6 C-130 Hercules, which are being used for the first year in Antarctica, November 4, 1960. Naval History and Heritage Command.

The U.S. Navy officially withdrew from the Antarctic in 1998. The Navy, however, still provides support to the U.S. Antarctic Program, (first established in 1959 as the U.S. Antarctic Research Program) and the National Science Foundation during actions such as the annual Operation Deep Freeze supply mission.[12] The 2019 mission delivered 498 containers of food, supplies, and equipment to McMurdo Station, which equated to 80% of the provisions needed for the upcoming year.[13]



Go to the Naval History and Heritage Command’s YouTube page to watch video of Operation Deep Freeze and other Antarctic Naval projects. You can also go to NHHC’s Polar Exploration page to learn more about the Navy on the North and South Poles.

For information about the National Museum of the American Sailor visit our website and our Facebook page.

Cover image caption:

U.S. Navy Icebreakers (L-R) USS Burton Island (AGB 1), USS Atka (AGB 3), and USS Glacier (AGB 4) push together to move a huge iceberg from the channel to McMurdo Station, Antarctica, on New Year’s Eve 1965. Naval History and Heritage Command.

Works Cited:

[1] Byrd, Richard E. 2003. Alone: The Classic Polar Adventure. Washington: Island Press. 189. Accessed March 20, 2019.

[2] n.d. An Antarctic Time Line: 1519-1959. Accessed March 18, 2019.

[3] n.d. “Charles Wilkes 1798-1877.” Accessed April 3, 2019.

[4] Naval History and Heritage Command. 2015. “Wilkes I (Torpedo Boat No. 35).” Naval History and Heritage Command. November 18. Accessed March 19, 2019.

[5] Stamford Historical Society. 2009. “Harold I. June: In Appreciation of “Stamford’s Best Known Traveller”.” Stamford Historical Society. Accessed April 4, 2019.

[6] Naval History and Heritage Command, Communication and Outreach Division. 2014. “From Pole to Pole, Richard E. Byrd Sets Navy Exploration Records.” Naval History and Heritage Command. November 29. Accessed March 18, 2019.

[7] n.d. “Richard E. Byrd 1888-1957.” Accessed March 19, 2019.

[8] Coast Guard Aviation Association. n.d. “1946 – Operation HIGH JUMP.” United States Coast Guard Aviation History. Accessed March 20, 2019.

[9] West, Peter. n.d. “A Special Report: U.S. South Pole Station; Navy Station, 1956.” National Science Foundation. Accessed March 20, 2019.

[10] Secretariat of the Antarctic Treaty. n.d. “The Antarctic Treaty.” Secretariat of the Antarctic Treaty. Accessed Month 21, 2019.

[11] Naval History and Heritage Command. 2016. “MCPON Delbert D. Black: First Master Chief Petty Officer of the Navy, Jan. 13, 1967 – Apr. 1, 1971.” Naval History and Heritage Command. August 29. Accessed April 3, 2019.

[12] National Science Foundation. 2018. “United States Antarctic Program Participant Guide, 2018-2020 Edition.” National Science Foundation. Edited by Jim Mastro and Terri Edillon. June. Accessed March 18, 2019.

[13] Naval Today. 2018. “Operation Deep Freeze 2019 underway.” Naval Today. December 31. Accessed April 2, 2019.



One thought on “Boots on Ice: The U.S. Navy in Antarctica

  1. EXCELLENT ! I have 2 goodshipmates who were with VXE – 6. One whom was a Parachute Rigger like myself- and he set the record for parachuting on (above ) the ice , ha. I volunteered several times for that duty 59 – 82 but was not lucky . Instead I had support duty with UDT -11, ( Great ! ) then 12 yrs as a SERE – POW Inst at Warner Springs , Ca. ( Amazing ! ) And 3 yrs at Cubi Pt., P.I. as a JEST , jungle Inst. ( Best ever ! ) All of which equals a record of duty as a ” 9505 Inst”. never to be broken . Having been to the Arctic Circle for survival training with the Canadian military – I realized VXE -6 was ” Extremely Special Duty ” . In my next life , it WILL BE on the top of my Dream Sheet for orders! Thank You and ” Bravo Zulu ” to all. God bless the U.S. Navy. Mel T. Deweese, Ret. USN PR1- PJ, 59 – 82.


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