by Brian Lamar, NCBC Public Affairs Officer
December 1 is Antarctica Day, which is an international day set aside to honor the peace treaty signed by 12 nations to dedicate efforts on Antarctica to peace and scientific purposes.
Each year, thousands of scientists and Ph.D. candidates find themselves on the most desolate and remote reaches of the Earth, Antarctica.
The effort to keep these scientists resupplied with everything possible they would need during their self-imposed exile from modern society is such an undertaking, the logistical might of the United States Navy is called in on a regular basis.
Although only a handful of military personnel receive the simultaneous responsibility and privilege each year to step on the frozen continent, two thirds of the Naval Construction Battalion Center’s command triad, Commanding Officers Capt. Jeff Powell and Command Master Chief Mike Lopez, have carried on the long logistical mission that has been running since the 1950s.
“It is commonly said that if you take all the people in the world who have been to Antarctica and placed them together, it wouldn’t even fill a football stadium,” said NCBC’s CMC Mike Lopez, who participated in two separate missions to Antarctica.
Personnel who spend enough time on the hunk of ice qualify for a rare ribbon for their ribbon rack. Currently to qualify for the Antarctica Service Medal, personnel must train or serve 10 days stationed on the Antarctic continent, or aboard vessels in Antarctic waters, defined as south of 60 degrees latitude, according to DOD MANUAL 1348.33.
Powell, who visited Antarctica twice, once for 18 days as an Assistant Officer in Charge in 2000 and another 18-day visit in 2001 as Officer in Charge of a detail tasked with the resupply mission where all sorts of equipment, food and scientific equipment were delivered, believes that his days in Antarctica stand out in his mind through his career as unique and humorous.
“Join the Navy. See the world. That includes the bottom of it,” said Powell, who has now served on each continent except South America.
Even though Lopez and Powell look back on their time at the bottom of the world fondly, they do remember the dangers associated with being in the coldest, driest and windiest area of the planet.
“We make a stop in New Zealand where you get a week to adjust to the time difference, receive cold weather gear and training. Because of the hostile conditions, if you are found outside without the appropriate equipment or with water, you can find yourself in physical peril pretty quickly,” said Powell.
Although being in Antarctica is extreme, the travel to get there is no picnic either.
“The flight there is pretty scary. You fly fully loaded and there is a go/no go point in the flight where there isn’t enough fuel to turn around and get back. So if the weather conditions turn bad, you still will have to land. The plane I was on was a C-130 with Skis on it. It lands on the ice with the skis,” said Powell.
As a testament to the perils of working in Antarctica, there is a Seabee memorial honoring a Seabee who fell to his death that Powell led a hike of troops to in order to pay their respects.
“My second time flying into Antarctica, we took a C-130 because it was explained that the ice was too thin for a C-17. That was when I realized we were landing directly onto a sheet of ice,” said Lopez.
At the beginning of the Seabee mission in Antarctica, in order to detect crevasses, Seabees used equipment that would be considered primitive by today’s sensitive technology to pick out a safe route through the ice fields. More than once, they failed to detect any danger. In one case, Richard T. Williams, CD3, USN, a heavy equipment driver of the MCB (Special), was killed when his D8 Caterpillar fell through a bridge that had been placed over a crack in the ice at McMurdo Sound. His body and tractor were never recovered.
Currently, there are several DoD assets that perform resupply missions to benefit the scientists of the National Science Foundation and other organizations. The favorite resupply items are called “freshies” which are any fresh fruits or vegetables.
To see more info about scientific discoveries on Antarctica, go to: https://www.nsf.gov/news/news_