Sensory Overload – The Trip Home – Copyright 1999 Jack W. Cummings
It is interesting that as your mind gets older some of the seemingly insignificant bits of life that are “saved” in memory. Yet possibly the excitement of certain experiences cause the brain to leave certain things unrecorded, to be lost forever. This was the case, as the shining new C-130 rushed me to the Naval Station McMurdo; I remember nothing about the flight or the trip in from Williams Field, the ice runway. At McMurdo we received copies of our travel orders, (my ultimate destination would be a two year assignment of the Staff of Commander Services Squadron One based at Naval Station San Diego) gorged fresh food, watched “new” movies and waited. In the Radio Shack old acquaintances were renewed, faces were connected to names, and final good byes were said. I recently received an email from one of the radiomen who wintered at McMurdo, Jesse Hopkins RM2. He remembers me telling someone I knew from Philadelphia to tell my Mom that I may bring home a “surprise”. I guess the surprise I was referring to was the extra facial hair, extra weight and that “just wintered over” look on my face. I don’t think I resembled the person she had said goodbye to the previous September.
During the early weeks of the summer, Williams Field operates by the dictates of the weather. Flying conditions can deteriorate in minutes. The fact that you have your orders and a flight departure time does not mean that you will be leaving. I was fortunate; however, it was my “luck” to be returning to Christchurch on an empty C-124 Globemaster. Not the most glamorous departure, but I would have gotten on a camel if it had had wings. The cargo hold of these aircraft had huge doors both fore and aft to facilitate the rapid loading and discharge of cargo. These craft re-supplied the interior bases, such as Pole Station. They never landed, just flew over and kicked their cargo out the rear. Parachutes were rigged to deploy, to slow the descent of cargo, however sometime these chutes did not open. I seem to remember accounts of a D-8 caterpillar tractor that did not make it. Flying in an empty C-124 was loud, cold, noisy and Spartan. This was not your first class airliner, this was beyond coach! There were army stretcher type seats with seat belts, lined up along each side of the cargo bay. Since there were just a few passengers, we could lay down and sleep, hell we could have played basketball if we’d had the equipment.. Though we were flying empty, the trip must have taken ten plus hours.
As we circled the strip on our final approach to what is now Christchurch International, we couldn’t get enough of the view. The South Island of New Zealand is beautiful, but seeing it with eyes that haven’t seen anything green but army fatigues and the inside walls of the station building, was overwhelming. This was green that you could smell, taste and feel. And there it was, just a few hundred feet below us. It was not only green, but it was everything that goes with civilization; fresh everything. Including thousands of faces we had never seen before and would probably never see again. There were young women who take their “holiday” on the South Island, taking the opportunity to meet American Sailors. In 1961, I remember this sea of people on bicycles moving through traffic, in those days the women in New Zealand still wore dresses, even when they rode bicycles. The warm spring days and the young women in their frocks was a feast for this OAE’s eyes.
We did not know just when we would be leaving Christchurch so we made the most of our time. We were given the choice a couple of different flights heading for Hawaii, one would give us about a week before departure, but this could change. After that our first priority was to check into one of the hotels in town that catered to Deep Freeze personnel. I headed for the bath, and spent the next hour soaking in an overflowing claw foot bathtub of hot soapy water. I probably used more water in that bath than I had used the whole year at Hallett. Next was a visit to the hotel dining room, where tables were formally set for each meal – with white table cloths and silver. Each morning the maids “knocked” us up with steaming hot tea, and I think toasted bread. After a few days and nights of roaming the streets and touring the town and surrounding countryside we decided to take the railcar to the West Coast town of Greymouth. Peter Martin, the Station Leader of the Kiwi’s at Hallett had recommended Greymouth as a great place to visit, to get a different feel of the “real” New Zealand and her people. It was a great recommendation then and apparently still is today. Here is what is posted today on the web about the “West Coast Region”:
”The Coast’s reputation for hospitality is legendary – “coasters” display a sincere friendliness and strength of character as unique as their surroundings”. As soon as we were checked into the hotel, we began experiencing first hand this special kind of “friendliness”. We were invited to go with the proprietor and his wife to the annual “Remembrance Day” celebration. We were told at the door that “our money was no good that evening, so don’t expect to pay for anything”. We had a great time and as we were leaving, a couple from a local farm invited us to their home the next day for dinner, and a tour of the coast afterward. What a spectacular place, what wonderful people! After two nights in Greymouth we returned to Christchurch and prepared for our departure. Those few precious days in New Zealand were worth the year of isolation in Antarctica.
Several hours out of Christchurch heading North, probably after a refueling stop at Nandi in the Fiji’s, the MATS DC-6 lost an engine and we were obliged to spend some time on an Island near the equator, I think it was Canton Island. Looking at the map today, it seems logical that it was the one. Of course we were traveling in our dress blue wool uniforms and had no warm weather clothing. Initially we were told that we would be there until a new engine was flown in on the next cargo plane – several days out! However there just happened to be a C-124 coming in that evening headed to Hawaii that they could probably fit us in. They neglected to tell us before boarding that this was fully loaded C-124! How that aircraft ever made it off that runway that hot humid evening is still a mystery to me. I think I counted 5 or 6 runway marker lights after the wheels left the runway, and we must have been halfway to Hickam AFB on the island of Oahu before we got up to cruising altitude. At Hickam we boarded another MATS DC-6 for the last leg home. And again as soon as we passed the point of no return – the pilot had to feather an engine, but we continued on to Travis AFB, California, without further incident.
There is no feeling to compare with the freedom to move about ones country after being isolated on a small spit of land for a year, but I would not trade that year. It was a time for personal testing, a time of growing and a time to find a different direction for my life. Two years later I would start the process again, as I volunteered to return – but that’s another story.
Thank you all for sharing this experience with me, and thank you to those who have responded to my story.
I would like to finish this with some words recently received from Jim Nelson who was on the USS Edisto (AGB-2) during the close of the summer, 1960/61. After riding out a particular nasty storm which almost took them to the bottom, and helping to chip 1400 tons of ice off the ship, a job that took three days, he writes: “We do share an experience that not many of our countrymen have gone through. The ice is no place for a weak person.”
The expeditions which have been sent to explore unknown seas have contributed largely to the stock of human knowledge and they have added renown to nations, luster to diadems. Navies are not all for war. Peace has it’s conquests. Science it’s glories, and no Navy can boast brighter chaplets than those which have gathered in the fields of geographical exploration and physical research.