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Interview of Clifford Lewis Bekkedahl by Brian Shoemaker

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Title: Interview of Clifford Lewis Bekkedahl by Brian Shoemaker
Creators: Bekkedahl, Clifford Lewis
Contributors: Shoemaker, Brian
Issue Date: 2007-06-29
Publisher: Byrd Polar Research Center Archival Program
Series/Report no.: Polar Oral History Program
Abstract: Cliff Bekkedahl was born and raised in Cleveland, Ohio. He graduated from the public school system in Cleveland, and later graduated from Miami University of Ohio. At Miami he joined the Navy ROTC, and, upon graduation, was assigned to a training voyage on board the USS Arneb, a deep-draft, amphibious cargo assault ship assigned to Operation Deep Freeze I in Antarctica. Many features of the ship had been modified for cold weather duty, including armor plating along the hull and a reinforced bow, although this training voyage was to the Caribbean and not to Antarctica. The inexperienced crew trained for two years and emerged as outstanding seamen. In 1955 the Arneb was designated as the flagship for Operation Deep Freeze I in Antarctica. The Operation was to be commanded by Admiral George Dufek. Bekkedahl, a Lt. JG at the time, extended his enlistment for one year in order to make the trip. He was the navigator of the ship. In preparation for the nine months in Antarctica, in the summer of 1955 the Navy ordered the ship first to take cargo to the Baffin Bay area in northern Canada far north of the Arctic Circle. It was a three-week training trip, and successful in every way. The Sperry Gyro and the mike boats both worked perfectly. The crew learned how to break ice, and never clipped the ship’s prop. The trip was a success, despite the unfortunate fact that the commanding officer, Captain Lawrence Smythe, seemed not to understand the simplest elements of navigation, nor did he get along with the Executive Officer (XO), Joseph Hulings. Soon after returning to home base in Davisville, Rhode Island, the Arneb loaded cargo, including planes and vehicles, for use in Antarctica. The ship departed for Antarctica in October, 1955 for what would turn out to be a trip around the world. On board was Rochus Vogt, a young, brilliant, German student from the University of Chicago, an expert on cosmic rays. There was also aboard a contingent of Seabees. Once the Arneb reached Christchurch, New Zealand, the ship and crew were welcomed warmly by the locals. More than a thousand locals toured the ship each day. Admiral Dufek and his staff had arrived earlier, and were on hand for all the accolades. The Arneb was the first ship from Deep Freeze to anchor in New Zealand. The ice breakers had sailed directly to Antarctica to scout out the ice pack. Before reaching Antarctica the Arneb joined other ships in the Task Force, including the Nesplenen the fleet tanker, the Greenville Victory, a USNS ship, the Wyandot, an AKA, and two ice breakers, the Eastwind and the Glacier. But soon after leaving New Zealand, a remarkable event occurred. Bekkedahl was summoned to Captain Smythe’s quarters to be told that he, the Captain, had gone blind. Bekkedahl was told to inform only the officers including the XO, Joseph Hulings, and that apart from the Captain’s steward, he was the only person who was to enter the Captain’s cabin. The other officers could communicate with the Captain through the voice tube next to the wheel on the bridge. The XO was still banned from the bridge. The next senior Lieutenant after the XO was Lt. Wheeler, but he had little proclivity for ship handling or deck watch. The reality was that four junior officers were responsible for the ship, and none had more than six weeks experience in a polar region. Soon every man on the ship was aware of the problem. Occasionally non crew members came aboard, including scientists from the Geodetic Survey, and Paul Siple, who was working on cosmic rays. The Arneb followed an ice breaker to the landing site on the Ross Ice Shelf, and suffered no damage at all in a dangerous maneuver. The inexperienced Junior Officers rose to the occasion. After three days the other ships, except for the Wyandot, broke away and headed for McMurdo Sound. The core of the Arneb’s mission was to establish Little America V. The Ross Ice Shelf rose some 400 to 500 feet above sea level, and the Base was established at its summit. The Seabees found the best path to the summit, and did much of the construction work on the Base. They also installed “deadmen,” made of railroad ties, which securely anchored the mooring lines for the Arneb and the Wyandot. An extra long gangway, brought from the states, connected the ships to the Ice Shelf. The crew was now in a 24 hour daylight environment. The first day the crew worked 18 hours. They off-loaded the sleds and other supplies and equipment. Bekkedahl and Spencer Irving, the communications officer, maintained the bridge watch, and became the permanent in-port officers of the deck. One problem was that the ice alongside the ship was deteriorating from unusually warm weather and the warmth of the ship. In order to reach the solid ice required to support a new pier it was necessary to employ an icebreaker. It was two days away, and in the meantime all off-loading operations had to cease. Furthermore, the gangway had to be returned to the ship, a difficult operation. Once the icebreaker drew near the Arneb cast off its lines and lay offshore. Unexpectedly the weather suddenly turned dangerous. In less than an hour a severe storm caused a total whiteout. One could not see a top, a bottom, or the horizon, and the ship was adrift. Some men were adrift in small boats, the “mike” boats (fifty-foot long LCM’s), and the Seabees were stranded ashore on the ice. After 7 or 8 hours the storm blew over, and the icebreaker carved out the decayed ice. Within 10 hours the gangway was installed, and the new pier constructed. No lives were lost and the mission proceeded. As the rest of the cargo was offloaded the men enjoyed occasional recreational moments. Some explored ice caves, or did some skiing. Once the offloading was completed CTF-43, the Command Center for Operation Deep Freeze, was notified that the mission of the Arneb had been completed. The ship stopped at McMurdo Sound for two days. The amphibious mike boats, or LCM’s, could run up on the beach, and unload men and cargo on solid footing. Admiral George Dufek, the actual Commander of Operation Deep Freeze, spent much of his time at McMurdo, but he also visited the Arneb, the flagship of the fleet, on several occasions. The Admiral and other ranking officers were fully aware of the problems with the XO and the Captain and chose to take no action. It was clear that the ship was performing its mission well under the leadership of the junior officers. At Christchurch, New Zealand, en route home, Admiral Dufek sent word to the young officers, “Well done, young men.” Admiral Richard Byrd, nominally the Commander of Deep Freeze, but whose role was limited because of his age and health, also visited the Arneb on one occasion. Byrd and Dufek raised the National Geographic Flag at Little America. Byrd greeted each officer of the ship personally, and left a most favorable impression. Once the ship cleared the ice pack headed for New Zealand Bekkedahl was on the bridge when unexpectedly Captain Symthe appeared. He announced that he seemed to be regaining his eyesight. The further the ship got from Antarctica the better his eyesight. Bekkedahl believed that the Captain had clearly been unsuited for this assignment. He was highly distrustful of people, and a manipulator in many ways. Perhaps his lack of confidence and experience had brought on his temporary blindness. Still led by the junior officers the Arneb continued on a journey that would take it around the world. It visited Australia, traversed the Indian Ocean, proceeded through the Suez Canal, and stopped at Naples, Italy. After sailing to Barcelona, Spain, the ship passed through the Straits of Gibraltar, and back to Norfolk, Virginia. Once they arrived home, over half the crew, including Bekkedahl, re-enlisted. He was offered a regular Navy commission. Looking back, his navy career has been very successful and satisfying. He soon married, had four daughters, and as a Lt. received his first command of a ship, a salvage tug. He later served aboard several ships, and was deployed to Vietnam. His first destroyer command was on the John R. Craig in 1967. In 1969 he became the first non-Naval Academy graduate to be named Executive Assistant to the Superintendent of the US Naval Academy. He worked also with Korean and Japanese naval officers. His last naval assignment was as Aide and Executive Assistant to the Assistant Secretary of the Navy for Manpower Reserve Affairs and Logistics, Ed Hidalgo. He retired in 1979 after 26 years of service. He retained a life-long interest in Antarctica and became editor of the Polar Times.
URI: http://hdl.handle.net/1811/28592
Other Identifiers: Record Group Number: 56.86
Rights: Restrictions: This item is not restricted.
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