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Interview of John F. Schindler by Karen Nichols Brewster

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Title: Interview of John F. Schindler by Karen Nichols Brewster
Creators: Schindler, John F.
Contributors: Brewster, Karen Nichols
Issue Date: 2007-01-09
Publisher: Byrd Polar Research Center Archival Program
Series/Report no.: Polar Oral History Program
Abstract: John Schindler was born in Chicago to recent German immigrants and spoke German at home as a child. Both parents overcame obstacles, learned English, worked hard all their lives, and created a good life for John and his sister. Most of his higher education was at Michigan State University where he earned two degrees in botany. His Master’s focused on phycology, the study of algae. He spent two years in the army from 1955 to 1957. It proved to be a fortunate experience. He did scientific research on biological and chemical weapons. After discharge he returned to Michigan State with the intention of completing his Ph.D. His major professor, Jerry Prescott, had a research project underway at Point Barrow, Alaska, and when another student dropped out two days before departure, Schindler replaced him at the last minute. Forty-one years later he was still in Alaska. He never completed the Ph.D. Schindler lived in Barrow with his wife and daughter from 1960 to 1971. Max Brewer convinced him to stay there, and gradually trained him to later take over the Barrow Research Laboratory. In time he ran almost everything at the Lab, a huge responsibility since it received some 1000 visitors a year, had its own aircraft, vehicle fleets, and carpenter, mechanic, and welding shops. He learned from Brewer and others accurately how to predict ice conditions. On one occasion, in 1961, Schindler and Brewer crash landed on the ice, and were not rescued for nearly two days. No one was seriously injured, but the plane was lost. Over time Schindler and his family adjusted well enough to the cold, but the long Arctic months of near or total darkness were difficult. His wife, Erna, had been born and raised in tropical Mexico. Many people got despondent in the late fall as the long, dark winter months approached, and suicides increased during those times. Some married couples became “shack nasty” from spending all winter together in close, crowded quarters. January was the worst month of all. Still it was of some slight comfort to realize that Barrow was not as cold as some other places; Fairbanks and Umiat were always worse off. Even so Barrow sometimes experienced wind chills of 100 below zero. During his years at Barrow, Schindler worked on several versions of ARLIS (Arctic Research Laboratory Ice Station), numbers I – VI, all built on either ice or floe islands. An “ice island” is formed from glacial ice, i.e. fresh water, as opposed to an “ice floe” formed from frozen salty sea water. Ice islands were more stable than floe islands; the latter could develop cracks at any time. These large ice platforms drifted over a wide area of the Arctic Ocean in a vast gyre, or circular movement. ARLIS I, also known as Alpha, was built on an ice floe, lasted 10-11 months and had oceanography, marine biology, aurora studies, and sea ice physics. ARLIS II, also known as Bravo, was built on an ice island, and lasted from May, 1961 until May, 1965, and was even more diverse. It was set up on Fletcher’s Ice Island, also known as T-3, Radar Target No. 3. The ice on T-3 was over 150 feet thick, and five and one-half miles by four. This base was operated by the Air Force. ARLIS III, also known as Charlie, focused on auroral studies; IV on underwater sound; V and VI on ice deformation studies. The latter two were later merged into the massive AIDJEX project. Schindler also participated in AIDJEX I. In time the ice stations were shut down. They were expensive and it was difficult to recruit qualified staff. Another activity at the Barrow Research Lab was to launch meteorological sounding rockets for NASA. Since they must be launched in above freezing conditions, this was a challenge when the temperature outside the launching pad was sometimes 25 to 30 below zero. Over the years some 16 to 18 rockets were launched, all successfully. Another project was maintaining a small base on Banks Island. Schindler believes that perhaps his greatest contribution to the Lab was administrative. He hired, for the first time, Assistant Directors for Science, Operations, and Management. When the time came for him to leave there was excellent continuity at the Lab. Schindler was the 7th Director of the Lab. Three more would follow before the Navy closed it down. While serving at the Lab, President Wood of the University of Alaska arranged for faculty appointments for both Schindler (Assistant Professor) and Max Brewer (Associate Professor). This helped both personally and professionally. Schindler occasionally participated in Project Chariot, a base maintained by the Department of Energy, although he was not a formal member of its advisory committee. When Chariot shut down the Lab inherited it as a field station, and some of its equipment was moved to the Lab. At one time the Lab had 14 field stations, all over the North Slope. In determining the best locations for field stations the Lab tried to hit the various ecosystems – the foothills, the oriented lake systems, the Colville River, etc. Managing all of these areas -- the rockets, field stations, the 1,000 annual visitors, etc. -- was a huge responsibility. Max Brewer had been an excellent teacher, and became a lifelong friend. Betty Dickerson, his scheduler, and Jack High, his purchaser, both helped significantly. Fortunately the Lab had plenty of resources. Much of what visiting researchers required was kept on hand -- tents, clothes, sleeping bags, etc. Over time the Lab did not always receive the latest instruments, such as the more expensive microscopes. Max Britton’s rule was that all equipment purchased for a research project must whenever possible be left at the Lab for future use. All in all, as he looks back, Schindler is “very proud of what I did at the Lab.” In the early days of the Lab there was a lot of flexibility in procedures and purchasing, but in time regulations were tightened. When ARLIS II was built the only budgeted item for the base was \$10,000 for a generator. Yet the total cost for establishing an ice station, constructing buildings, finding the ice, and flying in supplies, cost \$180,000. Somehow President Wood of the University of Alaska worked this out. At the Lab every single purchase was recorded by hand in the so-called “black book.” The total budget for the base when Schindler was hired in 1960 was about \$400,000, but his last budget was for \$2,500,000. The total costs were actually much higher since the Air Force paid for many items, including food, power generation, and vehicle maintenance. The Navy paid for airplanes, equipment, food for the field, and staff salaries and science. Civilian contractors, hired by the military services, actually managed these programs. The Navy was responsible for building the new Barrow Research Lab. Max Brewer fought tenaciously with the Navy to achieve the best base possible. He had great support from Max Britton stationed in Washington, D.C. Brewer’s tenaciousness caused a lot of ripples in the Arctic, but he was liked by everybody. His arguments were never personal. It was agreed by all that he could get things done. When Max Brewer ran the Lab it was a “one man show,” and Schindler’s contribution was to create an effective chain of command. Max Britton, the “boss” in Washington, D.C., would show up at the Lab about twice a year, and was always tactful and helpful in his criticisms and suggestions. Dr. Wood, President of the University of Alaska, rightly viewed the Lab as an adjunct of the University, although the Navy always retained ultimate control. Operational matters were handled through the Navy, but administration, bookkeeping, paying bills, etc., was handled through the University. The Air Force also played a part. It was something of a “strange situation” but with rare exceptions all parties worked well together. Max Britton, in Washington, was shrewd in dealing with the Navy. He won support for a scientific study of lemming “suicides” by comparing the overcrowding of lemmings in their burrows with crew quarters on submarines. Max Brewer, at the Lab, was equally effective, but the vagaries of Arctic weather conditions, and the occasional unreliability of radio communications, caused some unavoidable problems and complaints. By the time that Schindler left the base in 1971 field radios had been obtained, although the tent camps never had them. Men in the field used collapsible canvas “fold boats” on the rivers, but they were unstable. More than once, one tipped over and food and supplies floated down the river. Brewer had an uncanny talent for juggling various responsibilities, and getting everything done “very, very well.” Ice stations typically had a minimum of 3 or 4 people, and sometimes 8 or 9. All had to be mechanically adept and able to function in cold and dark conditions. According to Schindler most of the staff were either seeking adventure, or fleeing a bad situation. One man, deeply in debt, spent a year on an ice island. In the late 1960’s there was a murder – some say it was an accident -- on ice station T-3. The culprit was convicted of manslaughter, and sentenced to time served. Ice stations ARLIS I and II were serviced by DC-3’s, Cessnas, and C-130’s. An entire pre-fabricated building could be packed into a DC-3, and assembled in just three hours. They could also carry Weasels and D-6 cats. Later ARLIS versions were only maintained for 3 or 4 months, and needed less heavy equipment. When an ice station was abandoned most of the equipment was removed, but the buildings were left. One of the abandoned stations drifted around the southern tip of Greenland, and others drifted into Russian waters. Some were stripped by Greenlanders or others. Schindler reports that personal and working relations were very good between the scientists and the local people, including the Eskimos. He was associated with development of the Barrow gas field, although it preceded and outlasted him. After he left in Lab in January, 1974, he went to work for Resource Science Corporation – Alaska, a holding company for Williams Brothers. Schindler served as a consultant, but did actual work as well. He hired over 180 quality control engineers as inspectors for the gas pipeline. Later Schindler worked for Husky Oil Corporation from 1976 to 1981. He wrote Environmental Impact Studies (EIS), and served as the right-hand man for Wes Westfall, the head of Husky. This was a huge operation with a budget of up to 120 million dollars for a single year. From 1982 to 1993 he worked in various capacities, including writing Environmental Impact Studies, for the Minerals Management Service (MMS) of the Department of the Interior. Looking back on his long Arctic career Schindler had some regret that his career evolved mainly into administration, and not the pure science he had envisioned early on. He regrets also that he had never finished his Ph.D. He takes great pride in his contributions to the Arctic ice stations; he was there from the beginning. He had excellent relations with the Navy, including Admiral Ralph Weymouth. Schindler feels also that he was instrumental in cultivating a respect for the environment within the Husky Oil Company. He values also the many pleasant experiences he had in Iceland, although he thought authorities there were unduly suspicious of NATO. The Arctic had been his entire career, and he was fascinated by the area. As his wife, Erna, put it “The Arctic is not a place. It’s a disease and my husband has it.” He recounts various personal experiences while working at NARL at Barrow. The experience could be tedious, and was especially difficult for the women. His wife Erna, worked as a bookkeeper mainly to escape from the Quonset Hut that was their home. There were instances of heated discussions, even arguments, with Max Brewer and others, but ultimately all were harmoniously resolved. Max Brewer and Max Britton served as mentors to Schindler. Scientifically, the Lab did very important research on permafrost, and biology as it related to the oil pipeline. Important discoveries were also made because of the Ice Stations, including discovery of the Barrow sea canyon. Major Topics Role and Significance of the Arctic Ice Stations, including ARLIS Contributions of the National Arctic Research Laboratory (NARL) at Barrow, Alaska Personal challenges for men and women living in the Arctic Environmental issues and challenges in the Arctic region Contributions of leading administrators at NARL, the Navy, and Washington, D.C. Growing recognition of the need for Environmental Impact Studies
URI: http://hdl.handle.net/1811/24310
Other Identifiers: Record Group Number: 56.93
Rights: Restrictions: This item is not restricted.
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