Conquering the Challenges: Phillip Law and Antarctica
A Transcript of Fred Elliott’s Presentation at the Phil Law Antarctic Science Symposium
On Saturday, the 13th of February, 1954, I was one of a group of men standing in a semicircle at Horseshoe Harbour while Phil read out a proclamation naming the new station “Mawson”. The National Anthem was self- consciously sung and Phil gave Dick Thompson the nod to unfurl the flag, which Dick had attached to a temporary flagpole lashed to a sledge caravan.
Dick tugged the lanyard, but there was some difficulty as the flag refused to unfurl. On the third tug the mast fell down to the general guffaws of the troops.
But this ceremony was important to the Australian Government claims in Antarctica, and they had sent down a reporter and camera-man to cover it.
So we had to do it again for the record.
How did Phil come to be there?
Upstream from here in the early fifties, next to the Spencer Street bridge, the good ship, Wongala, would often dock. It was about 500 tons, had a strong wooden hull and sails as well as engines. However it was not remembered fondly by Phil, although, in a roundabout way, it did him a good turn .
Originally the F.V. Fanefjord, it was launched in 1919 in Norway as a herring boat, and a well- rounded bottom, like Nansen’s Fram, ensured that it would not be nipped by ice as it plied its trade in the arctic seas. That rounded bottom not only gave her the ability to roll in dry dock, it is said, but also ensured that it soon had the reputation of being able to roll violently on wet grass.
In 1933 Lincoln Ellsworth and Sir Hubert Wilkins bought her and changed the name to ‘Wyatt Earp’. After they finished with her in about 1938, following a landing at the Vestfold hills, the Australian navy took her over, renaming her the H.M.A.S. Wyatt Earp.
As an aside here, Ellsworth’s supplies came with the ship and were put in bond store until taken over by ANARE. I seem to remember that Phil had some magnificent fur mittens from that store and when Commander Ike Schlossbach U.S.N (Ret}, who had been with Ellsworth and Wilkins (in fact he had been with almost everyone) came down to Mawson with the 1956 relief party, we were able re-unite him with his old sheepskin flying jacket.
I also remember that the whiskey from those stores. Bottled in the States during the prohibition era, was literally firewater, for it could be used to prime the primus.
In extreme emergencies it could be used to prime the person priming the primus.
As a further aside, I feel that I should say something about those late forties when ANARE began, for they were a time of great hope that the world might return to some sort of normality, and that young men and women could plan for the future with some confidence that they might have a future.
A veil had been lifted and the future beckoned.
There was adventure to be had: there was not even a track out to Ayers Rock and Mt Olga. The de Connollys at Mt Connor lived in a small mud hut, had no radio and only a camel-drawn wagon for transport.
In Tasmania, Federation Peak was still unconquered and Rodondo Island, with its vegetation untouched during the 20,000 years since it had been part of the land bridge to Tasmania, stood unexplored off the Prom for all to see.
It was a good time to be alive.
For Phil the opportunity for adventure came from Sir Douglas Mawson urging the Australian Government to send an expedition south to establish a scientific base, so that Australia’s 1936 claim to a slice of Antarctica might be better recognised, especially in view of Norwegian and American exploration in the area.
He also suggested that his old base at Macquarie be re-established.
The British Government asked that Australia should take over the British claim to Heard Island, so forestalling a possible American claim.
Dr Herbert Evatt, Minister for External Affairs became enthusiastic about the scheme and an Executive Committee on Exploration and Exploitation of the area was formed under the auspices of the Department of External Affairs.
It was decided that Group Captain Stuart Campbell be seconded from the Department of Civil Aviation to become the Executive Officer of the expedition.
Sir Douglas suggested that the HMAS Wyatt Earp be refitted by the navy in Adelaide.
In July of that year Phil was appointed Senior Scientific Officer, and in that capacity he went to Adelaide to make sure that the refit made adequate space available for scientific work.
When sailing back to Melbourne on her he became so seasick that he passed out on a coil of rope on the deck and had to be carried below by four sailors. In fact, he was such a bad case that Commander Oom suggested that he should not sail south, but Oom did not know the calibre of the man.
Phil was not a good sailor, but he never made that an excuse for not fully carrying out his workload. He was a most determined person.
After its failure to reach the Antarctic Continent in 1947, it was obvious that the Wyatt Earp would not be a suitable vessel for further exploration and scientific endeavour around the continent of Antarctica.
And neither was the other naval vessel, HMAS, LST 3501 (later renamed HMAS Labuan) which was used to establish the two island stations at Heard Island and Macquarie Island in 1948. Thus it was that, because the Wyatt Earp was so unsuitable, the establishment of a continental presence was put on hold until suitable shipping became available.
This gave Phil the opportunity to become Director of ANARE, for Group Captain Stewart Campbell could not see himself carrying on with just two sub-antarctic island bases instead of the real thing. He resigned and went back to a permanent position with the Department of Civil Aviation.
Phil, who saw the scientific value of the island stations, took over the Directorship of ANARE in 1949, and that was when I first met him, bouncing with enthusiasm for adventures ahead.
I was at the Melbourne Teachers college (where his father was Principal) and was helping John Bechervaise with a series of travel lectures at the Melbourne Museum. One night Phil was guest lecturer and showed a picture of Big Ben on Heard Island. We put in our bids for a chance to climb it and three and a half years later were on a small vessel, which had docked on the other side of the river to the Wongala, at Number One North Wharf.
This was the M.V. Tottan, which had begun life as a corvette (a U-Boat hunter) hull built on the Clyde by Mr Brown. The end of the war came before it had engines, so it was towed across to Norway where it was fitted out as a coastal passenger ship and powered by u-boat engines from Mr Blohm and Voss in Hamburg.
The passenger boat idea failed to be profitable, so the Tottan was given two holds. an ice bow and a new existence as a sealer.
It was not a happy marriage and I was not alone in wondering whether the U-boat and the corvette were still enemies. For instance, the U-boat engines had a bad habit of ceasing to function at the most inopportune times, the first being just after we cleared the Heads en route to Heard Island.
A story about Phil‘s style of leadership concerns the Tottan.
In 1952 the A.N.A.R.E Store was out at the Air Force depot at Tottenham.
For several months we worked at getting our year’s supplies ready for shipping, under the watchful eyes of the head Storeman, George Smith.One day he asked us to turn up earlier than usual to load the first lot of semi-trailers with cargo. This we did, and while waiting for their return, were filling in time doing as little as possible.
The black Commonwealth limousine arrived: Phil took one look at us loafing and went straight in and started to berate George, who stood quietly until Phil had said his piece.
“Well Phil”, he said, “I asked the blokes to come out early today. We have sent the first loads off and are just waiting the semis to come back for the next ones.”
“Well,” said Phil, “Why didn’t you tell me?” to which George replied, “Jesus Phil, you didn’t f$#..g ask.”
Phil just said, “Oh!”and walked back to the car. I was flabbergasted. You didn’t talk to the Director like that and get away with it, but George could.
The problem of not having a suitable ship was solved when Phil heard that the Danish Lauritzen line had built a ship specifically for the Greenland trade. Although not a real icebreaker, it could handle loose pack ice, had two holds and accommodation for twenty-four passengers.
Phil did some wheeling and dealing with the Government.
By sacrificing Heard Island base and offering to transfer some of its buildings and equipment to the proposed continental station, Phil persuaded the Government to charter the Kista Dan for the 1954 season.
And so began a remarkable association between ANARE and the Lauritzen Line which lasted for thirty years, the last ship being the M.V.Nella Dan, named after Phil’s wife, Nel.
The Kista Dan made an Antarctic station a feasible proposition and I was on her in 1954 when we called in at the French base at Kerguelen, on the way home after a year on Heard Island, and then helping Bob Dovers set up the new Antarctic base, Mawson, on the continent.
I was standing on the wharf with a Frenchman who said to me, “Doctor Law, he is your Director?“ I confirmed this.
“But you do not show him any respect. When we wish to speak to Commandant, M.Armengaud, we make an appointment, but you, you people just call out, “Hey, Phil!”
He did not seem to understand that our respect for Phil was personal – nothing to do with rank; or perhaps Liberte, Egalite, Fraternite loses something in translation.
Phil’s infectious enthusiasm was a vital element in gathering around him a band of men and women who willingly worked long hours at the ANARE headquarters in Melbourne and at the Stations. Men like George Smith, Lem Macey and Dick Thompson come to mind from that time towards the end of 1952. They were loyal, but by no means servile.
But there were times when Phil’s enthusiasm reached the “Gung Ho” category.
After we left the new base at Mawson, Phil took the opportunity to try to get accurate fixes on land features shown in the American “Operation Highjump” which photographed almost all the Antarctic coastline in one hit. They had plenty of spare aircraft carriers.
Scullin Monolith was the first stop. Jim Brooks, Dick Thompson, Dr Arthur Gwynn and Phil were taken in, in a ship’s boat, but found a high ledge of ice attached to the rock prevented them from getting ashore. Phil was all for making a flying leap, but Dick told him not to be a bloody fool. Phil took Dick’s advice.
The most serious case of excess enthusiasm occurred not long after when he insisted that Capt Peterson take the M.V.Kista Dan into the pretty much uncharted waters at the Vestfold Hills. It was too late in the season to be there and, on the night we left, Kista Dan broached in hurricane force winds.
The engine room inclinometer showed a seventy-four degrees list to port at one stage.
Our remaining Auster fouled a life boat and had to be cut loose.
The fourth engineer spent his watch, in cramped quarters, clearing slush ice from the engine water intake which the list had brought to the surface.
It was such a terrifying experience that he never got over it. He never went to sea again.
Phil admitted he had made a grave error of judgement.
Most of us, though, will remember a relaxed and happy Phil sitting in the smoke-filled saloon, cigar in mouth, leading the singing with his piano accordion; cartons of Tuborg and Carslberg skidding round the deck as the Kista rolled, making it an interesting operation to open a can without half the contents hitting the deck head .
“On the rock” and “Off the rock” dings: “Stuck in the ice” and “Getting unstuck” dings; all sorts of dings.
They were memorable times with Phil.