Polar explorer recalls "peaceful invasion"

November 03, 1997


Staff Writer

MERCERSBURG, Pa. - Gordon Vink grew up in Waynesboro, Pa., graduated from Waynesboro High School and joined an expedition to the bottom of the world.

Vink, 72, is retired and does some volunteer work. His memory of the four months he spent in Antarctica with Adm. Richard E. Byrd in the winter and spring of 1946-47 is fading. Scrapbooks filled with photos, newspaper clippings, his diary and a 19-page history of the expedition that he wrote last year help his recall.

The expedition, called High Jump, was Byrd's next-to-last sojourn to the South Pole. His first was from 1928 to 1930. He went again from 1935 to 1937 and again from 1939 to 1941. His last trip was in 1955-56.


Byrd, who was born in Winchester, Va., in 1888, flew over the South Pole three times - in 1929, 1947 during High Jump and again in 1955. He died in 1957.

High Jump sailed from Norfolk, Va., with 4,400 sailors, Marines, Seabees and civilian scientists in 13 ships in late November 1946.

"It was the largest peaceful invasion in history," Vink said.

It took a month to reach Antarctica.

Vink went from high school to the Navy in 1943. He was sent to school for officers training, including a year at Franklin & Marshall College, and three years at the University of Pennsylvania where he graduated in February 1946.

Eventually, he was assigned as a deck officer on a fleet oiler that became part of Byrd's fleet.

The expedition's goal, in addition to more exploration and mapping, was to test how men and equipment would fare in a frigid zone, Vink said.

The Seabees set up a base of canvas tents that was to be their home for four months, Vink said.

When the fleet reached Antarctica, it broke into three groups. The main group went to the Ross Ice Shelf, the site of the first Little America that Byrd established in 1928, and unloaded the Seabees and main expedition. One group went up the west side of the continent and Vink's traveled to the east side.

Vink's ship sat out the expedition in the Weddell Sea, serving as a weather ship for flight operations.

One of the planes in his group crashed, killing three of its nine-man crew. The surviving six were rescued more than two weeks later, he said.

Two other sailors died in accidents. One was crushed by a construction tractor and one walked into the whirling blades of a helicopter, he said.

Expedition life meant constant cold and boredom. Summer temperatures ranged from 15 below to 25 above zero. Sometimes fog blocked out the sun for weeks at a time.

"My hands and feet were always cold. We had movies and radio and I read about 50 books," he said.

The fresh food ran out after the first month. "We ate rice three meals a day and powdered milk and eggs," he said.

Vink only went ashore once during the expedition. His group brought a penguin back to the ship to keep as a pet.

"I guess it wasn't the right environment for it because it died," he said.

The expedition got around on tracked vehicles, by plane and by dog sled. One of the huskies had a litter of pups during the expedition, he said.

He remembers the icebergs and the need to keep them away from the ship.

"One was 10 miles long. That's as far as from here to Greencastle," he said.

He grew a long beard during his stay, one he wanted to show off at Waynesboro's sesquicentennial celebration when he got back home. His captain made him shave it off before he left the ship, he said.

Vink stayed in the Navy for three more years, including a tour in Korea. He spent his civilian career in sales and moved to Mercersburg in 1962.

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