Challenges: Phillip Law and Antarctica
A Transcript of Fred Elliott's
Presentation at the Phil Law Antarctic Science Symposium
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.