VWW in Antarctica

 My father, who died in 1998, was a sailor.  This is a story about the past, about him.  It’s also a story about the present, because of something he left me.   (This story accompanies the photo album of the same name, VWW in Antarctica, at this Shutterfly site.)

When I was growing up, I remember, now and then, seeing a Huyler’s one-pound candy tin among my dad’s things.   On the can’s side, in my his distinctive hand, was written “Film from South Pole Not Developed.”  And indeed that’s what it contained: 19 rolls of 127, 116, and 616 film by Ansco, Pace, Agfa, and Kodak, with expiration dates stamped on the boxes that spanned the years from 1936 to 1948.  Fourteen rolls were sealed with the “exposed” tape, and five rolls apparently remained unexposed.

But I’m ahead of myself already.  A s a child and as a youth I paid little attention to the can of film or to my father’s occasional references to his trip to the South Pole with Admiral Byrd.  Dad was a Seaman 1st Class with the U.S. Coast Guard — an enlistment that seemed improbable in the first place because he was totally deaf due to childhood inner ear infections.  His eardrums and his tiny inner-ear bones were completely gone, and his inner ears were completely exposed to the outside.  But — and how, I’ll never know — he did enlist with that impediment right after his 1946 high school graduation, was assigned to the Coast Guard cutter, Northwind, and was one of 4,700 men and women on 13 ships who, from August 1946 to February 1947, participated in Operation Highjump, officially titled The United States Navy Antarctic Developments Program.  (The operation ended in February, but it took some additional weeks for his ship to return to the States.)

I wasn’t totally uninterested in his stories.  In kindergarten — (How lucidly I remember this, and it was in 1956!) — I was scolded for telling the class that my dad had gone to the South Pole (technically, he had not reached the Pole itself), and that he and a friend had found a walrus walking on a beach.  It stands out still in my memory, being scolded about lying, for there are no beaches at the South Pole and walruses don’t walk.

I could claim only that I had seen a picture of it, which I never saw again until nearly 50 years had passed, and indeed I now own that photo of my father and a fellow seaman posed alongside a dead sea lion, photographed by a third person, of course, who must have given him a copy.  My dad is the smiling lad on the right.  I will concede that it is not a beach, and the “walrus” isn’t walking, but couldn’t a teacher suspect that there is truth in a six-year-old’s story rather than discredit the whole story because the child has bungled a couple of details?

I also remember Dad talking about the Royal Order of Blue-noses, which applies only to those who had crossed the Arctic Circle, which he did not.  But he did belong to the Royal Order of Shellbacks for crossing the equator, the Royal Order of Penguins for crossing the Antarctic Circle, and the order of the Golden Dragon for crossing the International Date Line twelve times.  The paragraph in a letter to his brother, Wesley, which lists these three orders, ends with the line: “I’ve got all kinds of pictures of the trip that I can show you.”

Poignantly for me, Dad never showed his pictures to his brother.  Wesley was killed by a land mine in Korea in 1952, and Dad never saw his own photos either.  It was May 5, 2018, when the majority of them arrived in my inbox, more than 70 years after they were taken.

Dad was a radarman (S 1/C RDM) on the Northwind, and I recall listening, as a child, to his description of the crow’s nest, high on the mast of the ship, to which he had to climb as part of his duties.  He would describe scraping and painting the hull of the ship.  He talked about the ice forming on the decks, and he would demonstrate hand signals which conveyed the letters of the alphabet.  I can’t add much more than these scant recollections except that, when Hawaii became a state, and Dad said he had been there once, I thought he was pulling my leg.  By the time my -teen years began and he continued sharing his stories with my younger siblings I finally left off listening to them. Until I was much older I had no framework on which to hang his stories, no scale for the meaning of them, no perspective — no reason to commit any of it to memory.

Significantly, in one of his letters to Wesley, he suggested that the two of them head for Europe after Dad’s tour in the Coast Guard.   He also wrote that he knew he would be going ashore in Seattle and he speculated how soon he would get home to Maine to see Wesley, whose address in Windham made clear that, at that time, he was in “reform” school.   Dad never made it to Europe, and he was a long time getting home as well.   As soon as he landed in Seattle he was admitted to a hospital for ear surgery.  I don’t know the extent of it at the time, but he continued to have operations on his ears throughout my childhood.

As a teenager I became interested in optics.  I joined the local astronomy club and did a science project where I ground a telescope mirror, did another science project where I built a crude camera that successfully exposed negatives through a microscope. I eventually obtained an inexpensive Kodak Pony camera for general use but one that had all the manual settings, which I readily learned to use.  I had become the dedicated photographer in the family.  When I was in my forties and Dad was enjoying a humble retirement in genteel poverty, with no space to store most of his worldly possessions, he asked Mom to give me the familiar Huyler can of film from his Antarctic expedition.  I supposed he thought I might try to develop them myself.  I had been developing my own Ektachrome slides by then.

By the time that can of exposed film came into my possession, though — the 1990s — digital photography was already in its ascendancy.  By that time as well, all of the rolls in that can were right around 50 years old.  One-day film processing labs could still be found, but they handled only the C41-process 35mm film.  Commercial processing labs that would deign to handle antique rolls of exposed film were scarce, far away, and expensive.  I was left with the burden of knowing that I would not be able to justify the cost of having all those rolls processed — were it even possible to find a lab that would handle them, but left also with the burden of continuing to preserve an heirloom with so much poignant potential hidden within.

By 1998 Dad had been a lifelong smoker and lung cancer finally caught up with him.  Complications from lung surgery quickly dealt the final blow.  The only photo I had ever seen, from his trip on Operation Highjump, had been the one with the sea lion, and that one had been squirreled away somewhere from the time I was in kindergarten until after he died.  It was only since then, with boxes of his mementos to go through, that I discovered the photo and so much more to go with it.

Other interesting things emerged from among his personal treasures, too.  But that can of South Pole film haunted me.  What good would it do to pass it on to one of my children?  What if I paid someone a thousand dollars to process it and nothing came from it?  What if there was really something there but I just threw it away, as must happen to so many boring possessions that are discarded after a family member dies?

In January 2015, I had been following a Facebook page called PetaPixel, and on 16 January 2015 they featured a professional photographer, Levi Bettweiser, who runs what he calls the Rescued Film Project on the side (www.rescuedfilm.com). I immediately contacted him.  He immediately replied enthusiastically, then sent me a lead-lined pouch in which to mail him the 19 rolls of film.  On 25 January he e-mailed me to say that CBS News would be featuring his project and he would be developing Dad’s film while CBS was there.  He was confident, after looking at the rolls once they arrived, that they would definitely yield recoverable photos but we could only speculate on what would be in those rolls.

I was almost certain that all that film would be fragile if not fragmented beyond recovery, moldy perhaps, over-exposed from light leakage around the edges, or in some other way be beyond rescue.  (I remember the day I dared to pry the lid from the can, which I did in a nearly-dark basement, fearing that cracking it open would admit permanently-damaging light.)  By the time I had discovered the Rescued Film Project, my father, his two sisters, and his two brothers, were all long gone.  If any photos were to come to light, (and I’m the oldest of Dad’s six children), it had to fall to me to make the right decisions and to interpret the results.

As it turned out, if the CBS News piece was ever done I didn’t hear of it. About three months later, though, in April 2015, I was happy to receive, by email, 20 images from two of those rolls.  Eight of them were from a terribly decayed roll of film — just as I suspected.  They depicted several girls, posed individually or in groups, at what appeared to be a girls’ camp.  In one, and only one, image I recognized my father’s sister Dorothy, the unsmiling girl on the right in the front row.  This, I suspect, was from the roll whose box had an expiration date in 1936 or the one from 1939.  Dottie was born in 1922, and she was probably a teenager away at summer camp in the mid-’30.  The other 12 images were clearly taken at sea with subjects such as an airplane on a ship’s deck and some sailors engaged in some training, or something like that.

The 20 images returned by The Rescued Film Project were splendidly high-resolution black and white photos, but they left me wondering what had become of the remaining rolls.  By 2018, I had lost the email messages from early 2015, and I couldn’t recall whether there was mention of more to come.

I waited, though.  Just waited.  Life has been busy, so I gave it no more thought than an occasional wistful sigh whenever my eyes lit upon the empty Huyler’s can on a basement shelf.

At last, three years after those first 20 images were returned to me, I received a surprise email from The Rescued Film Project.  Out of the rest of the film that I donated, six more rolls had yielded 63 more images!  The results can all be found right here: https://woodburygenealogy.shutterfly.com/pictures/30.  (Well, most of them.  A few were too far gone or too unintelligible to be included.)

These are, indeed, photos from the Byrd expedition.  Very amateur photos they are, by a 19-year-old seaman with a snapshot camera, but they bring closure to the mystery of what the old candy can contained.  They are mostly typical views taken on the deck of a ship or from ship to ship, a few with other sailors in them.  Icebergs or an Antarctic ice shelf appear distantly in some photos.  Another photo depicts a few uniformed women taken from behind, apparently taken while they were still in dock in Curtis Bay, Maryland or Norfolk, Virginia.  A small aircraft carrier appears in a couple of the images at sea (perhaps the USS Philippine Sea), a helicopter on deck in a couple other shots.  Dad himself is not in any of these, but we have to assume he was the photographer for all the rescued film rolls.

What makes this project complete, for me, are these pieces:

1. I took photos of the rolls of film before I sent them, to document the contents of the can.

2. I still have the Huyler’s candy can.

3. I now have the actual, truly rescued photos, at last.

4. I have a photo of my father, in uniform, marked on the back that it was taken in Norfolk, Virginia in 1946, posed of course just before the mission set sail.

5. I have four envelopes that he sent home during the voyage, two still containing letters to his younger brother, Wesley — “Woody” — who was killed in Korea in 1952).  Three of the envelopes are colorfully ornamented with a cachet of Operation Highjump.  The fourth is plain, but was postmarked in Honolulu, during his return voyage.  The two envelopes not addressed to his brother are addressed to his grandmother, Goldie Jensen, but no longer contain the letters.

6. Some pages of his stationery include a vignette of the Northwind, so I have a picture of his ship which nicely matches a ship in a few of the photos.

I have the pleasant task, now, of compiling all of these elements into a package, starting with this “share site” at Shutterfly, so that my five younger siblings, (yes, born between 1950 and 1964, we’re all still living), can appreciate all of it.

The project, as I describe it, contains nothing of historical significance.  Maybe the Coast Guard would find these photos interesting, since they document a specific mission.  Otherwise, it means something only to Dad’s children and those grandchildren who remember him.  Future generations, as well, will have a record of this ancestor that they otherwise never would have had.  I am very grateful to The Rescued Film Project for that.

=David A. Woodbury=

Below is a representation of the photos that can be found at the Shutterfly site mentioned in the above article.

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