The Signal Corps has a long association with the exploration of Polar Regions, and the CECOM Historical Archive has collections that reflect over a century of exploratory science, starting with the Signal Corps Arctic Exploration in the 1880s and extending into mid-20th century work in Antarctica.
The CECOM Historical Archive has approximately 30 photographs labeled “Little America,” which help illustrate our connection to this interesting part of American scientific exploration. The photographs are dated from January of 1947, 1955 and 1964, which corresponds with the summer season in the southern hemisphere. The CECOM collection includes additional materials, including the report of the Signal Corps Observer and the Combined Army Observer report on Operation Highjump, along with additional materials related to cold region research.
Rear Admiral Richard Evelyn Byrd staged the first expedition to explore Antarctica from 1928 to 1930. During that time a base camp was established on the Ross Ice Shelf and named “Little America.” Byrd mounted two additional expeditions to Antarctica prior to World War II, the last at the request of the President Franklin Roosevelt.
After World War II Byrd was placed in charge of the U.S. Navy’s Operation Highjump. This Antarctic expedition, his fourth, was the largest and most ambitious exploration of that continent yet attempted and involved 4,700 men, 13 ships (including an aircraft carrier), and 25 airplanes. Operation High Jump’s ship- and land-based aircraft mapped and photographed some 537,000 square miles (1,390,000 square km) of the Antarctic coastline and interior, much of it never seen before. It was as part of Operation Highjump that Amory “Bud" Waite of the U.S. Army Electronic Research and Development Labs at Fort Monmouth, NJ, found himself in "Little America" in 1947 as an Army observer focusing on communications, photography, and electronic and power supply equipment. By 1947, the base was actually “Little America IV,” as shifting ice and deepening snow necessitated reestablishment of the base. Mr. Waite was a veteran of Antarctic exploration, having served as the radio operator and electrician of the “Ice Party” at Little America in 1934.
In 1955 Byrd was made officer in charge of the United States’ Antarctic programs and became the senior authority for government Antarctic matters. In this capacity he helped supervise Operation Deep Freeze, a major scientific and exploratory expedition sent to the Antarctic under Navy auspices as part of the program of the International Geophysical Year. Operation Deep Freeze continues today, with the 2020-2021 launched in September 2020. https://www.whs.mil/News/News-Display/Article/2364205/operation-deep-freeze-kicks-off-2020-2021-main-season/
The Signal Corps had established an Antarctic Research Team at Camp Coldbottom, the Signal Test Site at Little America V. It was here that experiments and tests focused on wave propagation, meteorology, and radio equipment took place in 1955. Mr. Waite was the Coordinator of the Antarctic Research Team for the Signal Engineering Labs. He would end up traveling to the Antarctic at least nine times. The last record the archives has is of his ninth trip in 1962 to test a radio-sounding method he developed for measuring ice thickness. At that time, he finally visited the South Pole itself.
In 1964, Mr. John J. Kelly, from the Atmospheric Physics Branch, and SFC B.R. Caldwell represented the Electronic Development and Research Labs from Fort Monmouth in the Antarctic. SFC Caldwell was believed to be the first and only Signal Corps soldier to ever travel to the South Pole Station, 90 degrees South. The trip was made during January 1964, to install wind chill and atmospheric electricity measuring equipment for Fort Monmouth. Summer temperatures at time were near 35 degrees below zero.
These trips continued the Signal Corp’s long-term focus on meteorology and communications in extreme climates, and led to many future innovations which continue to be built on today.