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Admiral Richard H. Cruzen and Operation Highjump

Above: Link to the full Academy Award winning documentary, ‘The Secret Land.’ Produced in 1948, this documentary covers Operation Highjump and the Navy’s exploration of Antarctica.

Text below from article “Burton Island” by Naval History and Heritage Command – original article may be viewed at:

In late 1946, the Navy desperately needed the services of the not-yet-commissioned icebreaker Burton Island (AG-88)for the First Antarctic Developments Project. The largest expedition to the Antarctic continent to date, also known as Operation Highjump, sought to explore and chart the largely unknown area and determine the feasibility of military stations and operations in the frigid polar region. Construction of Burton Island was completed two weeks ahead of schedule, and on 1 October 1946, prior to commissioning, plans for her participating in the expedition were formulated and supplies ordered to allow her to get underway for Antarctica as quickly as possible. Without undergoing a typical post-commissioning shakedown period, Burton Island conducted at sea training (10–15 January 1947) and sailed from San Pedro to San Diego on 16 January.

Training Group San Diego inspected the new ship the following morning, and deemed her ready for service. On the afternoon of 17 January, Burton Island departed San Diego en route to Scott Island in the Ross Sea, Antarctica. Crossing the equator on 23 January, the ship reported that “King Neptune and Royal Party came aboard, inspected all Pollywogs and commenced initiation… converting all pollywogs to shellbacks.”
The new icebreaker spotted her first iceberg on 5 February 1947. Task Group (TG) 68.1 noted that Burton Island’s “baptism of ice” came the next day when she encountered the ice pack for the first time and made her way westward, moving through heavy pack ice along the way. On 8 February, Burton Island rendezvoused with the other units of the task group—amphibious force command ship Mount Olympus (AGC-8), attack cargo ships Yancey (AKA-93) and Merrick (AKA-97), and the U.S. Coast Guard icebreaker Northwind (WAG-282)—all of which had arrived on station in mid-January. Submarine Sennet (SS-408) also served with the task group but did not opereate in the area when Burton Island joined the other four ships; as Sennet apparently left the Antarctic on 4 February, having encountered challenges to operating in the icy conditions.

With the two icebreakers leading the way through bad weather and low visibility, the ships convoyed through the pack ice of the Ross Sea. On the morning of 10 February, Mount Olympus became stuck in the ice, requiring Burton Island’s assistance to break free. That evening, blizzard conditions forced the entire convoy to stop to ride out the storm, but the group resumed its way through the ice pack the next day, the two icebreakers scouting ahead for a suitable course. On 11 February, a strong gust of wind blew Merrick into an ice floe, disabling her rudder and requiring Northwind to tow her through the ice. Consequently, [Rear Admiral] Richard H. CruzenCommander Task Force (TF) 68, broke his flag in Burton Island on 13 February, and the previous flagship Northwind, with the crippled cargo ship in tow and Yancey acting as escort, set course for New Zealand to bring Merrick to dry dock for repairs.

Now traveling independently, Burton Island steamed toward Ross Island, arriving on 16 February 1947. Encountering thick pack ice, Burton Island hove to in McMurdo Sound, and the ship’s HO3S-1 helicopter made reconnaissance flights in the area for possible landing sites for planes and ships. On 19 February, the helo, with Rear Adm. Cruzen embarked as a passenger, discovered and landed at Hut Point, a base camp on Ross Island near McMurdo Sound, where Capt. Robert F. Scott, RN, had landed during his 1902 Antarctic expedition. The helo made a second trip to the well-preserved site shortly after returning to the ship but damaged the tail rotor while landing, rendering the vehicle unable to take off. The icebreaker closed the helicopter’s position and sent a party to assess the situation. The operation’s Task Group report states that the helicopter’s crew discovered an old sledge, still in good condition, at Scott’s hut and used it to travel more than ten miles back to the icebreaker. As Burton Island maneuvered to prevent the ice from freezing the ship in, the repair party returned to the helo with the required parts, repaired the rotor, and flew the helicopter back to the ship.

Burton Island next headed for Bay of Whales, location of the research base Little America IV and the expedition party led by retired Rear Adm. Richard E. Byrd. The icebreaker arrived on the morning of 22 February 1947. While they had originally anticipated evacuating the base for 1 March, the Antarctic ice proved to be heavier than expected, growing thicker each day, and Cruzen consulted with Byrd decided to evacuate within 48 hours to ensure that Burton Island would be able to make it through the rapidly encroaching ice upon the narrow entrance to the bay. After embarking the 197-member Byrd expedition party, Burton Island set out from the Bay of Whales just before midnight on 23 February.

After steaming through the Ross Ice Shelf toward Scott Island, the icebreaker rendezvoused with Mount Olympus on the morning of 27 February — the ship crossed the International Date [Line] the preceding day and advanced her clocks 24 hours. Byrd and most of his expedition transferred to the awaiting ship, and Cruzen shifted his flag to Mount Olympus as well. Burton Island then set course for Port Chalmers, New Zealand. The seas between Antarctica and New Zealand are notoriously rough, and icebreakers, with their round-bottomed hulls that help them crush through thick, dense ice, tend to roll from side to side, sometimes quite precariously, in open water. A 1960 article in the Christian Science Monitor colorfully noted that “with the slightest bit of rough weather [icebreakers] roll around like elephants in a shallow pool.” Designed to right herself after rolling as much as 72 degrees, Burton Island rolled by as much as 51 degrees during the transit to Port Chalmers, and her cruise book observed that: “It is when she rolls heavily, as only an icebreaker can, that the crew looks forward to the ice, or in most cases her home port.” 

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