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)
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The Navy has recognized the sacrifice of Lopez, Hendersin, and Williams. Seven days after they died, their crewmates buried them in a service presided over by their ship’s commanding officer, as would have been happened had they died during a World War II deployment requiring burial at sea. At the U.S. scientific base at Antarctica’s McMurdo Station is a plaque—designed by veterans of Operation Highjump—honoring the three men as the first Americans to lose their lives in Antarctica; the National Science Foundation, which operates McMurdo, arranged for it to be placed there after the Highjump veterans’ 50th reunion in Norfolk, Virginia, in 1996. The three names are engraved on a wall at the Navy memorial at the Presidio in San Francisco National Cemetery; the wall honors those killed in the Pacific theater. In 1960, at the request of the Navy, the Department of the Interior gave the name “Mount Lopez” to the unmarked and unnamed mountain that was the site of the fatal crash (Lopez was the highest-ranking serviceman killed). Still, the recovery in Greenland and letters from Fabik and Robbins spurred representatives from the Navy, the National Science Foundation, the Army, and the U.S. Geological Survey to meet outside Washington, D.C., in the fall of 2004. The first order of business: After nearly 60 years, could George One be located?

Jerry Mullins, the Geological Survey’s manager of polar programs, found photos of the crash site in the National Archives and used them to narrow the search area to 0.5 square kilometer—124 acres. Satellite maps showed an area without crevasses, close to the ocean.

As it happened, a University of Kansas radar specialist named Prassad Ghogenini was in the midst of a project, under the aegis of the NSF and NASA, that used Chilean navy P-3 Orions to map ice thickness. The NSF asked a P-3 crew to investigate during one of its flights. The airplane’s radars registered strong returns over George One’s coordinates, suggesting metal. Ghogenini estimated the objects were buried under 150 feet of snow and ice.

In December 2004, Vice Admiral G.E. Hoewing, the Navy’s chief of personnel, sent Robbins a letter. “Planning and coordination is currently underway for a recovery attempt from the George One crash site,” Hoewing wrote. “If a plan is found achievable and approved, and funding is allocated, the initial phase…could be conducted late next year.” In a personal note, Hoewing wrote: “Chief, we will do our best to recover your shipmates.”
About this time, Bob Cardin, who had led the 1992 recovery of the World War II-era Lockheed P-38 Lightning Glacier Girl from beneath 265 feet of ice in Greenland, got a call from a Navy lieutenant commander whose name he can’t remember. “I told ’em what kind of equipment they’d need, but they had no money,” Cardin says. He never heard from the Navy again.

Unlike Glacier Girl, which was restored and flown in 2002 (see “Glacier Girl,” Feb./Mar. 2004), George One is in pieces. And Antarctica is not Greenland. Greenland has U.S. military bases and commercial airports; any place on the massive island is a few hours’ flight from anywhere else. Antarctica, on the other hand, remains the loneliest, most isolated place on Earth. Aircraft can fly in and out only two months of the year. Even then, as the doomed 1946 flight demonstrated, pilots can be flying in clear and windless weather one moment, only to find themselves in whiteout conditions a moment later. The only American fuel in Antarctica is controlled by the NSF, and its base at McMurdo Station is 1,250 miles from Thurston Island; Palmer Station, which the NSF also operates, is 1,005 miles away. The British base, Rothera, is closer, but it’s still 799 miles off. The closest fuel cache on the continent—at a base known as Patriot Hills, 629 miles from Thurston Island—is owned by a private firm, Antarctic Logistics and Expeditions.

As for transportation options, there aren’t many. The U.S. government operates two kinds of aircraft in Antarctica: ski-equipped C-130s belonging to the 109th Air Guard, out of Schenectady, New York, and privately owned deHavilland Twin Otters—operated by Kenn Borek Air, based in Calgary, Canada—which migrate south every Antarctic summer. With auxiliary fuel tanks, a Twin Otter’s maximum range is 780 miles. Antarctic Logistics and Expeditions operates Otters and a Basler BT-67, a DC-3 modified with PT-6 turboprop engines.

Despite the challenges, the NSF operates in Antarctica throughout the year, using assets of the Navy, the Air National Guard, and private contractors. Scientists comb the continent, tourists fly in and out, explorers hike and ski its length and breadth. Recovering the men of George One, says Eric Chiang, the NSF’s director of polar research and support, “is possible, and it could probably be done safely. It’s just a matter of where one wants to put resources.”

Chiang believes the weather around Thurston Island is too mercurial to fly a C-130 in. The job would require Twin Otters, which would need to lay a succession of fuel caches to reach the site. “You’re talking about $30 a kilo out of Patriot Hills in an Otter,” says Mike Sharp, owner and operations manager for Antarctic Logistics and Expeditions, “so that’s $145,000 in and $145,000 out, for just one flight. You need a lot of fuel, a lot of people, hot water drills, a big camp, so it’s a big, expensive operation.” And, he says, if there’s been any glacial shifting over the years, there’s no guarantee the bodies will be intact. “If it were my tax dollars,” says Sharp, an Englishman, “I’d say don’t do it.”

But the waters around Thurston Island can be relatively ice-free, and U.S. Coast Guard icebreakers make yearly runs opening channels for freighters supplying U.S. stations, then ferry scientists up and down the coast. The crash site was 10 miles inland in 1946, but as the island’s ice shelf has receded, the site has slipped more than two-thirds of the way toward the sea. Theoretically, an icebreaker could sail close to shore, then deploy helicopters to haul equipment to the site. But again, the Navy would have to pay for the icebreakers, and they cost $23,000 a day. That’s what Ken Terry proposed: a two-year plan to survey the site, take core samples, then return to recover the remains, estimating a total cost of $1.5 million to $2.1 million.

The Navy studied the options and decided against a recovery attempt. In July 2005, Admiral H. Denby Starling II, commander of the naval air force at U.S. Atlantic Fleet, informed Fabik of his decision. “We are fairly certain,” Starling wrote, “that the radar reflection from the P-3 is George One, buried under 150 feet of ice. While technologies are available to dig to this depth, the mounting and execution of a mission of this type carries significant risk and would require technical expertise not available on my staff. Consequently, I recommended against my organization executing this mission.”

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