The Battle of Antarctica
Talking about his Operation Highjump expedition to Antarctica, Admiral Richard E. Byrd Jr. said the most important result of his discoveries was the effect they could have on the security of the United States. The fantastic speed at which the world is shrinking, he recalled, was one of the most important lessons he learned.
“I have to warn my compatriots,” Byrd said, “that the time has ended when we were able to take refuge in our isolation and rely on the certainty that the distances, the oceans, and the poles were a guarantee of safety.”
On his return to Washington, D.C., after Byrd’s interrogation by Security Services officers, he never uttered another word about Operation Highjump, which was simultaneously classified, thereby legally preventing any of its veterans from ever discussing the mission. Shortly thereafter, the U.S. Navy published a brief and rather evasive summary of the Antarctic expedition’s “achievements,” which nonetheless stated that some losses had been incurred.
Although these were glossed over and minimized, the anonymous report nonetheless admitted that fully half of Byrd’s seaplane and helicopter forces had been lost, and that he himself was nearly brought down in the aircraft he was flying, avoiding a crash only because he jettisoned everything on board in order to stay aloft, save the barest essentials and the reconnaissance films he had just taken. The summary further admits that Task Force 68 did indeed suffer some human casualties, but all were supposedly due to accidental causes.
On December 30, 1946, three men flying George 1, their Martin flying boat, died when it crashed, allegedly during a blizzard. Six surviving crew members were rescued thirteen days later. Another man supposedly died in a construction accident, totaling the number of fatalities. The official summary concludes by explaining that the mission was terminated because of the early approach of winter and worsening weather conditions, which were supposedly just what the Americans had specifically come for and required to test themselves and their equipment. A brief film about Operation Highjump, ironically entitled, “The Secret Land,” was released in 1948. Although it was more of a chest-pounding propaganda piece for the U.S. Navy than a real documentary, it gives viewers some feeling, however incomplete, for the expedition.
The short went otherwise unnoticed by the general public, and soon fell into virtual obscurity. After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, however, millions of the defunct regime’s secret papers were suddenly declassified, among them, surprisingly, a 1947 description of Task Force 68’s mission to Antarctica.
That Joseph Stalin should have known far more about the expedition than the American people is not surprising. America’s close alliance with Stalin during World War II allowed his spies to infiltrate all levels of the U.S. government, including its armed forces. Because of the high positions spies often attained, they had access to classified accounts of undertakings such as Operation Highjump.
Details of the expedition, hidden from the U.S. public and the rest of the outside world, were transmitted by a Soviet operative to the Kremlin, where they languished until their rediscovery before the turn of the twenty-first century. Shortly thereafter, a Moscow Television documentary finally disclosed the Stalin-era report about Task Force 68’s covert experiences in Antarctica.
Quoted in the report is radioman John P. Szelwach, who served aboard the USS Brownson. Szelwach said, “We observed the following: On the horizon, a bright, colorless light. We thought it was another ship. We were below the Antarctic Circle in unchartered waters [off Charcot Island, in the Weddell Sea]. Our radar was activated to no avail. I and my shipmates in the pilothouse port side observed for several minutes the bright lights that ascended about forty-five degrees into the sky very quickly. We couldn’t i.d. the lights, because our radar was limited to two hundred fifty miles in a straight line. Our quartermaster, John Driscoll, recorded this in our log.”
Nearly three hours later, the lights (five of them) reappeared in the same area of the Weddell Sea, and began to rapidly close on the destroyer. Commander H.M.S. Gimber ordered the ship’s 40-millimeter Bofors antiaircraft guns and 20-millimeter Oerlikon cannons to commence firing on the objects, which flew over the Brownson at high speed and low altitude (about two hundred feet), without achieving any hits. According to the Soviet espionage report, this encounter opened a series of brief but fierce skirmishes that lasted over the next several weeks, resulting in “dozens” of officers and men killed or wounded.
The most casualties were suffered by Admiral Byrd’s Central Group, which, as even the sanitized postexpedition U.S. Navy version of the report admitted, had to be evacuated by the Burton Island icebreaker from the Bay of Whales on February 22, 1947. A variety of silvery, strangely configured craft then executed noiseless, menacing passes at the naval units, which fired their ordinance at the triangular and boomerang-like vehicles. No casualties were sustained on either side during these first, fleeting near misses, and the unidentifiable vessels did not return fire before quickly vanishing into the morning sky.
A few hours later, in the early afternoon, an enormous, cigar-shaped object floated silently, like some gargantuan dirigible, low above the surface of the sea. When the unmarked intruder unintentionally drifted within range of the USS Sennet, Commander Joseph B. Icenhower ordered the submarine’s deck guns to commence firing. A direct hit with a five-inch shell amidships caused the huge craft to veer wildly out of control, then crash nose-down into the water. It was Task Force 68’s only kill.
After four days of encounters, in a kind of parting shot, the spherical lights executed a dramatic attack witnessed by Lieutenant John Sayerson, a flying-boat pilot. Sayerson reported: The thing shot vertically out of the water at tremendous velocity, as though pursued by the devil, and flew between the masts [of the ship] at such a high speed that the radio antenna oscillated back and forth in its turbulence.