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Navy Comes In From Cold, Ends Antarctica Operations

Science: Ventura County base will no longer provide logistical support for America's civilian scientists.

March 13, 1998|RICHARD WARCHOL | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

PORT HUENEME — It was 42 years ago that the Navy began cutting the first path and building the first shelter in Antarctica, breaking the ice for American researchers studying some of the most compelling scientific questions on Earth.

Since the mid-1950s, scientists have learned much on the highest, driest, coldest and windiest continent, determining the likely cause of the Antarctic ozone hole, discovering a meteorite that suggested life on Mars, and filming the crash of a massive comet into Jupiter.

On Thursday, during a ceremony at the Port Hueneme Navy base--where Operation Deep Freeze has been based since 1975--the Navy marked the end of an era, formally disestablishing the U.S. Naval Support Force, Antarctica.

"It's a sad day for the Navy," said Capt. C.H. "Hugh" Smith, Deep Freeze's last commander. "It's not something we want to celebrate, but it's one whose time has come."

No longer will the Ventura County base provide transportation and construction support for the nation's civilian scientists in Antarctica.

In a cost-saving decision driven by downsizing at the end of the Cold War, the Navy is turning over logistical support for American scientists in Antarctica to the Air Force and New York Air National Guard, which have served explorations of the North Pole for years.

The Navy's VXE-6 squadron based at Ventura County's Point Mugu will continue to provide limited air support for researchers for one more year.

The austere beauty of Antarctica has lured Navy types back for tour after tour since logistical support began in late 1955.

"By far, it is the most interesting, rewarding and memorable thing I have ever done in my entire life," said Charlie Bevilacqua, 67, who arrived with the Navy's first construction crew in Antarctica. "Until they put me in a rocket and send me to the moon, nothing will compare to Antarctica."

However, the Antarctica of today is a far different place than the one naval pioneers encountered.

Several nations now run scientific research stations on the continent. The United States' McMurdo Station, the largest base, serves as home to 1,200 military personnel and scientists each summer. McMurdo has power lines, water pipes, telephones, stores, clubs and bars.

"What the Navy has done is made the U.S. program the envy of all the other countries that are involved in polar science," said Erick Chiang, head of the National Science Foundation's polar research office.

But in the eyes of the Defense Department, Smith said, the 780 Navy personnel who once supported National Science Foundation efforts each year is the equivalent of a crew to staff an Aegis cruiser.

With the Pentagon reducing the size of the service, Navy officials decided to focus their remaining forces on the war mission.

Operation Deep Freeze "wasn't war fighting," Smith said. "It was in support of science. It was a good thing, but . . . if it's not war fighting, we're not going to be doing it."

Thursday's ceremony drew scores of military veterans and civilians who spent time on "the ice"--from Bevilacqua, who in 1956 became one of the first humans ever to set foot on the geologic South Pole, to Chief Petty Officer Pat Woodard, the last member of Operation Deep Freeze to step off the continent.

The Navy's presence in Antarctica dates back to Operation High Jump in 1946, the most aggressive expedition to Antarctica ever attempted.

The expedition also began the legacy of the Navy Seabees on the continent. In 1956, Seabees began constructing the first buildings, airfields and harbors on Antarctica, including the first Navy base on the Ross Ice Shelf.

Bevilacqua was a young Seabee who specialized in concrete and carpentry work. He remembers those first days when the Navy construction crews slept in tents and empty wood crates that had carried electrical generators.

He also recalls the time when a tractor driven by his friend Richard T. Williams fell through the thinning bay ice, marking the first of 50 deaths associated with Deep Freeze operations.

And he vividly remembers parachuting from a plane with a team of 18 other Seabees in an effort to pinpoint the geologic South Pole--and establish a camp there.

"When we got to the South Pole, there was absolutely nothing there," Bevilacqua said. "We didn't even know where the South Pole was."

But even before the High Jump and Deep Freeze operations began, it was Rear Adm. Richard E. Byrd who set the stage for the United States' presence in Antarctica.

During a privately funded expedition in 1928, Byrd established a tiny base on the Ross Ice Shelf called "Little America," from which he and three companions departed for the first flight to the South Pole on Nov. 29, 1929.

"I think he'd be sad," said Byrd's grandson, Robert Byrd Breyer of Los Angeles, who attended the ceremony with his mother--Byrd's daughter--Katharine Breyer.

"He was always a realist," Robert Breyer said of his grandfather. "He'd understand."

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