Seabee Beginnings at the South Pole
Seabees began construction on the first South Pole Station during the “Summer Season” of 1956-1957 – almost 20 years before their famous South Pole Dome. Early construction on Antarctica supported the International Geophysical Year (IGY), a first coalition of 39 nations committed to an 18-month systematic investigation of the Earth’s environment using the latest technologies. Along with seven ships from the Atlantic Fleet and an air wing with extreme cold experience, US Navy support of IGY – designated Task Force 43 – included a special unit of Seabees created to build-up the facilities required to do the science. Seabees were specifically tasked with constructing research facilities between the Ross Ice Shelf and the South Pole.
Construction on the first Amundsen-South Pole station began in November 1956. Seabees faced unbelievably difficult conditions in Antarctica, which were amplified by the remote conditions of the South Pole. Common Seabee activities, such as transporting simple construction materials or maintaining a runway, became dangerous when crossing a frozen continent to supply the new Station. Seabees faced extreme weather, extreme cold, and extreme geographical features such as crevasses, as they sought to make the pole habitable.
In order to keep Seabees safe while they completed construction, the Navy waived some their standard uniforming and grooming regulations. Seabees could wear almost anything that helped them to work comfortably in the extreme conditions. This included a wide variety of headgear, undergarments, wool shirts and “longer than regulation” hair and beards. In addition, special clothing was issued so that work parties in white out conditions could be easily located.
Approximately 25 Seabees began construction at the station with Jamesway hut berthing – basically insulated arched tents based on a Quonset hut design. These temporary structures were almost immediately replaced with flat-roof prefabricated Clements buildings. Knowing that the original structures would be buried within years by blowing snow, a second story was added to many of these structures. These buildings, along with pitched roof buildings known as T-5 huts, were used until the iconic South Pole Dome replaced the original or “Old Pole” Station.
The Amundsen-South Pole Station has been in continuous use since the first Jamesway hut was set-up by these intrepid Seabees. Officially commissioned and dedicated on January 23, 1957, the success of the Amundsen-South Pole stations that replaced the first are intricately woven with the Seabee spirit. Their “Can Do” attitude ensured operational stations remained in place since that first winter-over season of 1957, continuing long after Seabees departed Antarctica that final time in 1994.