Buried at the Bottom of the World

When people die serving their country, to what lengths must a government go to recover the bodies?

James Robbins (front row, right) poses with some of his shipmates. Behind him are Lopez (to the left) and Hendersin (to the right). (Courtesy Lopez Family)
Air & Space Magazine

The year was 1946 and James “Robbie” Robbins was living large. He was 19 years old, tall and dark-haired, and already a World War II veteran with 1,500 hours in Martin PBM Mariner seaplanes. During the war he had patrolled the Atlantic Ocean, from the Caribbean to Greenland; now his territory was the North Atlantic. Though one war had ended, another—the cold war—was beginning, and the U.S. military was fanning out to all corners of the globe to prepare for wherever the next conflict might erupt.

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Robbins flew as part of Project Nanook to establish Thule Air Base, scouting Greenland’s North Star Bay one day, and the next flying a mail run back to Goose Bay, Labrador, and flirting with the nurses at the base there.

Late in the year, he went with the Navy to the opposite pole for Rear Admiral Richard Byrd, 13 ships, 23 aircraft, and 4,700 men were sent to photograph, map, and perhaps even claim the Antarctic continent for the United States. And there was Robbie Robbins, a radar man suddenly ordered to Panama to join the seaplane tender USS Pine Island, loaded with three PBMs and bound for the last continent. It was the start of a tragic adventure that would leave three men dead and six others stranded in the coldest, most inhospitable place on Earth for 13 days.
Now, six decades later, Robbins and relatives of the crewmen who died are trying to get the Navy to recover the bodies that were left behind.

As Robbins remembers it, on December 30, 1946, the Pine Island hove to in the lee of a giant iceberg not far from Thurston Island, about 40 miles from the Antarctic mainland and some 1,500 miles south of Punte Arenas, Chile, and went to work. The expedition had only the two months of the austral summer before weather would make photography and mapping impossible. With a hard blue sky and the weather cold and crisp, George One, as the first of the Pine Island’s three PBM-5 Mariners was code-named, was dropped in the water, fueled, and towed clear. It took off on a 10-hour mission, following the coast westward and photographing the shore. By the time Robbins’ commander, Ralph “Frenchie” LeBlanc, had gathered his crew for the airplane’s second flight, the weather had deteriorated slightly. But weather in that part of the world was always iffy. The crew believed that the weather inland was clear; they figured they had a window and they’d better take it. The Pine Island’s captain, Henry Caldwell, anxious to get a sense of the place, wanted to ride along.

By the time crew members were readying George One for the second flight, the waves were thrashing, yanking the airplane against the lines that tethered it to the assisting boats and roughly jostling the guys inside. Robbins and Caldwell managed to attach four jet-assisted takeoff bottles to the seaplane, but the mooring lines were literally shredding the craft’s aluminum skin. LeBlanc, another World War II veteran with thousands of hours in PBMs, was unperturbed by the conditions. The Pine Island laid a fuel slick to calm the waters and George One cast off and started its run. After what seemed like five miles, the longest run Robbins had ever experienced, LeBlanc fired the JATO bottles and George

One took wing—into a blinding snowstorm.

Robbins says he wasn’t worried, though. He had once received a commendation for a nine-hour flight through fog and clouds in Greenland, and he felt confident in his skills as a radar operator. As Captain Caldwell strapped into the seat in the forward gun turret—now just an observer’s seat—Robbins checked his radarscope. Icebergs below registered strong returns.

As they approached the coast, Robbins reported to the flight deck: “Mountain range 20 miles ahead and scattered icebergs.” The radar return was clear and strong; the terrain matched the charts. But the weather ahead wasn’t clearing. LeBlanc and copilot William Kearns decided to abort the flight and began a long, slow 180-degree turn.

Robbins, standing between the pilots on the airplane’s flight deck, felt a slight bump. He heard LeBlanc and Kearns pour on full power.

And then, nothing. He felt like he was floating. He felt a shaking. His shoulder. He looked up; he was kneeling in snow 20 yards from the cockpit, and the flight engineer, Bill Warr, was standing over him. “We’re all screwed up, Robbie,” Warr said. “I think we’re the only ones alive.”

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