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Antarctic explorers find mates in area

November 12, 1997

Antarctic explorers find mates in area

By RICHARD F. BELISLE

Staff Writer, Waynesboro

MERCERSBURG, Pa. - Four area men who were part of two of the most important expeditions of the mid-20th century met for the first time Tuesday.

The four, Donald Cole, John M. Waltersdorf, Glen H. Lathrop Jr., and Gordon Vink learned of each other's existence after a story detailing Vink's experiences in High Jump, Admiral Richard E. Byrd's expedition to Antarctica in the winter of 1946-47, ran in the Nov. 3 Morning Herald.

Each of the other three men contacted Vink, and the veterans arranged to meet for lunch Tuesday at the Four Points Hotel in Hagerstown.

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Vink, 72, of Mercersburg, was an officer aboard a Navy fleet oiler in 1946. The ship was assigned to High Jump, Byrd's task force of 4,400 men and 13 ships.

Cole 69, of Williamsport, was a shipfitter who, like Vink, was serving on a fleet oiler that joined High Jump.

Waltersdorf, 71, CEO of Tri-State Electrical Supply Co., Inc. of Hagerstown, was an Army photographer on loan to the Navy to photograph the expedition.

Lathrop, 75, of Mercersburg, then a Navy pilot, went with Byrd to Antarctica during Operation Deep Freeze in the winter of 1955-56. He was part of the outfit that flew Byrd on his third and final flight over the South Pole. Byrd died in 1957.

Vink's ship sailed up the east side of Antarctica and waited in the Weddell Sea to support High Jump, while Cole's did the same on the west side. Neither spent much time off ship, although Cole said he got to walk around on the ice once in a while.

"We had some good snowball fights," Cole said.

Waltersdorf was filming Army maneuvers in California when he was ordered to join Byrd.

Waltersdorf appears in a photo in an October 1947 National Geographic article on High Jump. He's seen filming service personnel making their way up the Ross Ice Shelf.

Waltersdorf's film became part of "The Silent Continent," a 90-minute film that won an Oscar for best documentary in 1949. His name does not appear in the credits.

"When you're in the military you're an unsung hero," Waltersdorf said.

While Vink and Cole lived in relative comfort aboard ship, Waltersdorf and Lathrop had to make do in 16-by-16-foot canvas Army tents heated by oil stoves.

"The purpose of High Jump was to test normal equipment in abnormal conditions. We stuffed the mosquito netting into the holes to block the wind," Waltersdorf said.

Summer temperatures in Antarctica hover around 22 below zero. In the winter the temperature drops to 90 below, they said. The sun never sets in the summer and never shines in the winter.

Lathrop once had the responsibility of officially claiming a tract the size of Texas for the United States.

"I wrote on a piece of paper that I claimed it for the United States of America. I put the paper into a capsule, buried it in the ice, stuck a pole over it and put an American flag on the pole," Lathrop said.

His claim appears on maps as Marie Byrd Land. It was named after the admiral's wife.

Lathrop recalled the time his outfit came upon a hut used by Robert Scott, the ill-fated British explorer who died during an Antarctic expedition.

"We found a leg of lamb on the table. We thawed it out, cooked and ate it. It wasn't good, but it wasn't that bad after lying there for 45 years," Lathrop said.

Lathrop survived two airplane crashes. He was taking off in a helicopter in New Zealand during the voyage to Antarctica when his chopper crashed into the water. The second time he was flying a Navy plane with six passengers aboard when the plane iced up and crashed on a mountain. No one was injured, and all aboard survived. Eight days later, after they had hiked more than 60 miles, they were rescued, he said.

Vink said the foursome plans to meet again this summer for a cookout.

"We'll talk again over some steaks," Vink said.

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