A GUNNER’S WHITE CHRISTMAS: ANTARCTICA ~ 1973
In about October 1973, three other Gunners from 161 Battery and I were sent to Antarctica on a Tour of Duty, as part of VXE6 Squadron, US Navy Air Devrons. Brian ‘Gott’ Eggerton, Dick ‘Maori Dick’ Wilson and I were Lance Bombardiers and Warren ‘Snow’ Berkett was a Gunner. We were the first members of 161 Battery to serve in Antarctica.
At first we worked in the cargo yard at “Chi-Chi” (American slang for Christchurch) and then, once we were proficient in using the American equipment and driving on the wrong side of the road, we were flown to the Ice aboard a C141 Starlifter. Just before we left we were given several briefings by American Naval officers and at the end of one such lecture when asked if there were any questions, Snow Berkett put his hand up and asked the inevitable “What about females in Antarctica, Sir?” to which the American Lieutenant Commander replied “Don’t worry about women down there, Kiwi, because there’s one behind every tree!” (It wasn’t until we had been down there for about a week that it dawned on all of us that there weren’t any trees on the entire bloody continent!)
There were, I think, about 20 Kiwis in our contingent and we lived in a Jamesway Hut out at William’s Field beside the Ice Runway. The Task Force actually operated two runways, the ice runway and the snow runway; the ice runway could take a heavier payload but was constructed on annual ice and at odd times and hours seals and penguins would pop up out of airholes and make their presence felt, as well as causing considerable concern amongst us as to just how thick the annual ice actually was. We operated as Aircraft Loaders and worked 12 hour shifts (12 on and 12 off), loading and unloading C130 Hercules which ferried supplies and personnel to many of the outlying stations, and as well C141 Starlifters that flew in from either the United States or New Zealand. It was daylight 24 hours of the day and we ate 4 meals, including a full meal at 24.00 hrs called “mid-rats”.
The long hours and hard work kept us very busy and as it got closer to the 25th of December, Captain AN Fowler USN, the Task Force Commander decided that the “Ice” would close down for Christmas Day and celebrate the birth of Christ. Captain Fowler also decreed that each and every sailor (and Kiwi) could purchase 1 bottle of spirits and 1 bottle of wine… there was no restriction on beer. Now, about a week out from Christmas the New Zealanders at Scott Base invited us to a home-cooked meal of roast lamb, spuds and cabbage; after the richness of the American food that we had been living on, the down-home Kiwi ‘tucker’ was much appreciated. It was also good to talk with fellow Kiwis and catch up on the news from home.
The beer we drank that night were cans of Budweiser and also Schlitz and it was free!!! “Strange?” I thought, and then both Snow Berkett and I waited until everyone was very happy and then we quizzed ‘Tich’ the Postmaster of Scott Base about the free beer. He explained to us that it was old stock that the Americans wouldn’t drink, and the Chief of the PX (American for Garrison Club) sold it at a much cheaper rate than normal.
On the 23rd of December, Captain van Draanen, our New Zealand officer, and Staff Sergeant Sam Bigg-Wither (brother of Fred Bigg-Wither of 161 Battery) called a meeting of all of our contingent and it was decided that we should all put in $10 US and buy a case of beer each for the Christmas celebrations. It was also decided that a truckie, Noel Burgoyne and I should drive into “Mack Town” (McMurdo Station) and pick it up in the ‘Kiwi Express’. The ‘Kiwi Express’ was a large US Army ‘Duce and a Half’ truck with oversized tyres and chains on it; it also had a Kiwi painted on the side wearing a pair of army combat boots. As we had put in $10 US each the Kiwi Express was large enough to carry the 20 cases of beer.
Just before we arrived at Mack Town I remembered what Tich the Postmaster had told Snow and me and so instead of driving to the actual PX we drove up to the last large warehouse which Tich had described to us when we were at Scott Base. We then turned the truck around and backed it up against the loading ramp. Presently an American Chief Petty Officer came outside and asked us what we wanted, to which I explained that we had come to buy some of his ‘old beer’. “Kiwi, that shit tastes like swamp water” was his reply “but if you want it, you can have it… so how much do you want?” “$200 dollars worth” I replied. ““Go-Damn Kiwi!” the chief yelled “That’s one shitload of beer!”
We had already started loading the truck when it suddenly dawned on me to ask how much each case of swamp water was going to cost. “This old stock sells for a quarter a case, son” was the answer “And I think that it’s gonna be too much for this beast so best you call for some backup”. In Antarctica a single can of beer sold for a quarter (.25 cents) and here we were getting 24 cans for the same price… it was the Gunner equivalent of winning the ‘Art Union!’… (a quick mental maths… 24 cans to a case, 4 cases to a dollar, 4 cases times $200 US… equals? equals? I gave up, the Chief was right it was a shitload of beer no matter who’s counting). In a short space of time we filled up the Kiwi Express, including inside the cab and then radioed up for another vehicle to come and assist us. Snow Berkett arrived in a Dodge Power Wagon which we also filled, and the remainder was uplifted by our 2IC, a young Territorial officer who was somewhat overwhelmed by the situation.
When we got back to Williams Field we swore the young Territorial officer to secrecy and then split the beer in half, hiding 200 cases in and around our Jamesway Hut and the other half in and around the VXE6 Squadron Bar. The American troopies told their officers that it was ours, and we told Captain van Draanen that it was owned by the ‘Yanks’. Next, before anyone in authority could become interested in our beer purchases, God himself very kindly intervened on our behalf by sending us a “Herbie” (whiteout), and it was considered too hazardous for flying operations and so the whole of Operation Deep Freeze stood down and began to celebrate the birth of Jesus… it was the 23rd of December 1973.
We stacked as much beer as possible inside the Squadron Bar so that it could thaw out and then once it was liquid again, we then put it in the chiller to cool it down. The Squadron Bar was about 30 odd feet below the top of the Ice and we also piled up cases of beer all the way up the steps, and then hid the remainder under a heap of snow on top of the Bar’s location. The chores were all now done as so we began to celebrate! Two days later when Christmas arrived, our American comrades who had steadfastly refused to drink our ‘swamp water’ had partied so hard that they had run out of their spirits and wine. It was only then that they decided to gingerly taste ‘last years vintage’ of Budweiser… in fact the beer was actually pretty ok; there was the odd slimy green stuff on the inside of about one can in ten, but you just gave that can ‘the deep six’ and carried on. The next day was the 26th of December and we Kiwi’s staggered to our feet and began to get ready for our next shift out on the runway, the sky was clear and the wind was still so it was obviously a perfect day for flying. It was then explained to us that “today” is Christmas Day in the States and the true Christmas Day… and so it was off with our ‘Bunny Boots’ and ‘Bear Claws’ and back into the party mode… American Christmas!!! We loved every minute of it.
On the 27th of December (NZDTG), without having drunk all of our swamp water, we were back on duty at Willy Field loading and unloading planes and assisting in the construction of the building of the “New” South Pole Station. In fact it was the only time in my entire military career of 25 years and about 5 different uniforms that I ever actually built something, as in the Gunners virtually everything I ever looked at I either put a hole through, or simply blew to pieces.
VXE6 Squadron US Navy (Air Devrons) was probably the most professional military unit that I ever had the honour to serve with. Nothing was ever a bother to them and they would willingly give you the ‘shirt off their back’ and in fact in numerous cases that’s exactly what they lost, as well as base ball caps, flying jackets and aviator sunglasses. The squadron’s motto was “If it will fit it will fly” and it was that dedication to duty, their comrades serving in the numerous scientific outposts and stations that dotted Antarctica at that period in history knew they could always rely on. We never did finish all of that beer, and when Ben Ngapo and the relief team arrived in January of 1974 they inherited what was left.
©Copyright 2001 by Mike Subritzky