Clarence Mast: On the Coast of Antarctica

Written by David Green.


Not many people in the area can say they’ve spent substantial stretches of time in both the Arctic and Antarctic, but rural Wauseon resident Clarence Mast is well acquainted with both regions.

And he was part of one of the most comprehensive worldwide scientific collaborations in history.

As an operator of heavy equipment in the Navy Seabees, Clarence spent 369 days spanning 1958 and 1959 at Wilkes Station on the coast of Antarctica. It was the responsibility of his 17-man Navy contingent to maintain a base camp on the southernmost continent while an international team of 11 researchers conducted numerous studies.clarence

The 18-month period between July 1, 1957 and December 31, 1958 was designated the International Geophysical Year, a worldwide scientific effort that included researchers from nearly 70 nations.

The program, designed to occur during an episode of maximum sunspot activity, aimed to answer a variety of geophysical questions, but two areas were of special interest to scientists—the planet’s total ice content, and the aurora, better known as the northern and southern lights.

One of the best places to investigate these issues is the Antarctic, which led researchers to man more than 15 stations around the continent.

But Clarence, who was 20 when he signed up for the duty in 1957, wasn’t very interested in the scientific aspect of the work. He was a recently activated reservist who needed an assignment, so when word of the job opportunity reached the Grosse Ile, Mich., Navy base where he was stationed, he volunteered.

At the time, he didn’t know he was signing up for a year of utter isolation in one of the harshest environments imaginable.

FROM TOP TO BOTTOM—Clarence’s journey actually began in the Arctic, where he and his fellow Seabees went for cold weather training. Afterward, the men were shipped back to Rhode Island before boarding a cargo ship for the trip south.

It took more than a month for the vessel to navigate the path to Antarctica, which included a trip across the Panama Canal and stops in New Zealand and Australia.

The men finally arrived at their new home in January 1958—summer in Antarctica, where temperatures average 32 degrees.

Thanks to modern technology, researchers can now use helicopters and airplanes to travel to and from Antarctica, but that wasn’t the case in 1958.

“When we landed on the continent, they told us, ‘This is your last chance to back out. After we leave, there’s no coming back,’” Clarence said. “But we all decided to stay.”

Within a short time, Clarence learned what it meant to be truly cut off from the rest of the world.

“They say that black is the absence of color,” Clarence said. “But at Wilkes Station, I learned about the absence of sound. If you walked just a few hundred yards from the station, there was absolutely nothing to hear.”

Voluntarily marooned with 27 other men for more than a year, he said it would have been easy to grow despondent if he didn’t have his work to focus on. There was plenty of it to go around.

ROUTINE DELAYS—The Seabees worked Monday through Saturday and rested on Sunday. Clarence said it wasn’t uncommon, however, for a week’s progress to be erased during their day off.

Although it rarely snowed, temperatures almost never reached the melting point. Antarctica’s extreme winds turned the ever-present snow into an ultra-fine powder that  could infiltrate even the most tightly sealed vehicles and buildings.

This led to a lot of digging for the Seabees.

On Monday mornings, they often woke to find their vehicles completely buried in snow drifts. After digging out the vehicles, workers also had to empty out cabs and engine compartments. Then they had to get the vehicles running—the harsh Antarctic environment can take its toll on even the hardiest engines, Clarence said.

As a result, Clarence and his fellow Seabees sometimes spent all day Monday readying the machines for work that had to be delayed until Tuesday.

Tuesday’s work produced snafus, as well. Wilkes Station was powered by five diesel generators, three of which were always in operation. One of Clarence’s responsibilities was to assist in transporting 55-gallon drums of diesel fuel from the station’s stock pile to the refueling area. However, the barrels were often buried in snow and sometimes frozen together—so their chain lift had trouble freeing them from the stacks.

“When we would finally pop one loose, there was no telling what direction it was going to go,” he said.

The Seabees’ other daily duties included digging out the tunnels that connected Wilkes Station’s various buildings, maintaining weather vanes and antenna cables, bulldozing paths through the snow, and raising and lowering the American flag.

This last task proved tricky.

“Navy regulations said the American flag had to be raised at eight in the morning and taken down at sunset,” Clarence said. “When you have 24 hours of sunlight, when do you lower the flag?”

LEISURE TIME—Sixty-seven movies were among their leisure supplies. Many nights began with a few Seabees popping a garbage can full of popcorn before they and the rest of the crew undertook marathon movie-watching sessions. Clarence said he watched John Wayne and Robert Stack in “The High and the Mighty” more times than he cares to remember. Sadly, by the sixth month, the workers had depleted their year’s supply of popcorn and had to move on to more creative activities.

Crew members were free to sign out a weasel—an amphibious sledge used for laying tracks—and drive as far into the whiteness as they wanted.

“You could go out, turn around and come back,” Clarence said.

It wasn’t very enjoyable at the beginning, but then Seabees turned one of the weasels into a convertible by lopping off the roof of its cab. Without the added weight, they could get the machine—dubbed the Flying Purple People Eater—running at a near 20 mile per hour clip. A Dutch scientist had the foresight to bring along his skis, and towing him around was a good way to occupy the time.

In addition, the workers were awarded $50  a month in hazard pay if they kept up their demolition skills. Clarence and the crew accomplished this by conducting what he terms scientific studies of ice thickness. With explosives.

“We tested the ice thickness religiously,” he said. “We concluded that it was thick.”

With all the work and activities to be engaged in, it was easy to ignore the isolation, he said.

“If you allowed yourself to get depressed, it was your own fault,” he said.

But Clarence couldn’t help feeling a little downcast after talking to his family. About once a week, around 2 a.m., weather conditions would be good enough for the radio operator to reach Toledo on his ham radio. The operator in Toledo could patch the message through to Clarence’s family by phone.

“After talking to them, you really started to miss them,” he said.

But he had a hobby to cheer himself up.

SUPER 8—Clarence was a home movie enthusiast, and he had his Super 8 motion picture camera cold-fitted for the excursion to the polar extremes.

Over the course of his year-long stay at Wilkes Station, he estimates he recorded more than eight hours of footage, much of it of local wildlife.

The station was located within walking distance of a rookery where a population of Adelie penguins was nesting. Clarence has several minutes of footage of the penguins marching back and forth in single file lines to the rock crest, as well as footage of them piling sand-colored pebbles to use as nests.

Clarence also caught leopard seals, an elephant seal, an emperor penguin and various other Antarctic birds on camera.

An advantage to being the camera man, he found, was that while he was filming, he didn’t have to work. His co-workers wizened up to the ruse pretty quickly.

HOMECOMING—An ice cutter finally swung by to pick up the crew in January 1959. Aside from his family, Clarence found it was fresh food—meat and vegetables—that he missed the most.

Because there was no mail service to Wilkes Station, the Seabees were all inundated with a year’s worth of communications from family and friends. Clarence remembers a particularly delicious batch of cookies his neighbor sent that he shared with his fellow crewmen. It was only upon returning to home that he learned the cookies were nearly a year old.

“They were still good,” he said.


– July 6, 2006 
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