Empire on the Ice Sheet: Operation Deep Freeze and Richard Evelyn Byrd

Saturday, January 6, 2018
Atrium (Marriott Wardman Park)
Hillary Sebeny, Florida State University
A peculiar place like Antarctica lacks the kinds of written or oral histories that mark human societies worldwide. It occupies an unusual place in the mind between what is known and what is imagined, and as such has long been documented in ways outside of official papers or correspondence. Photography has long functioned as the essential medium for communicating information about the southernmost continent, and this poster will analyze the United States’ Cold War military activity in Antarctica through images. Using the Operation Deep Freeze images from the Oliver Austin Collection at the Institute on World War II and the Human Experience, this poster will analyze the scope of U.S. military activity in Antarctica in the 1950s. Austin, a PhD in ornithology by training, accompanied Operation Deep Freeze I in 1955 and 1956 as a scientific observer representing the Air Force. His photographs of the expedition provide an excellent perspective on Antarctica in transition during the last moments of American heroic explorer Rear Admiral Richard E. Byrd’s directing influence.

Perhaps no American did as much to shape his country’s idea of the Antarctic as Richard Evelyn Byrd. His expeditions to the southernmost continent, from the late 1920s until his death in 1957, helped to survey a large swath of Antarctica and secure U.S. preeminence in key polar research stations in operation today. Byrd, whose numerous first-hand accounts of his adventures were the stuff of popular legend in the 1930s and 1940s, often went to great lengths to control his own image. Yet, the later years of Byrd’s life saw the explorer’s decline in popular culture, and he struggled to maintain control over the printed narrative of American activity in the Antarctic, even at the cost of close personal relationships.

The celebrated expeditions of the heroic age established indelible images of snow-suited men with sleds and dogs, enormous ships trapped amidst the icy sea, and solitary huts and shelters alone on the white landscape. In the years after 1945, especially in America, however, the idea of a scientific Antarctica had been complicated by the geopolitics of the Cold War. Deep Freeze was concocted as a US naval expedition to prepare for the 1957 International Geophysical Year (IGY), an eighteen-month period of international scientific cooperation that focused largely on earth sciences and presaged the Antarctic Treaty System that went into effect in 1959. The scale of Operation Deep Freeze and US involvement in the IGY speaks to the influential nexus of technology and government patronage occupied by this type of Cold War expedition.

Austin’s original Kodachrome slides from Deep Freeze especially depict the staggering advances in military technology and force in the early Cold War, often emphasizing the size and scale of American naval equipment alongside the natural wonders of Antarctica. Penguins play in the snow alongside icebreaking ships, and bright orange helicopters hover above the desolate white wilderness. This poster will explore the complicated military and scientific histories of American activity in the Antarctic during a time of dramatic international change.

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