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Interview of Calvin Larsen by Brian Shoemaker

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Title: Interview of Calvin Larsen by Brian Shoemaker
Creators: Larsen, Calvin
Contributors: Shoemaker, Brian
Issue Date: 2006-06-01
Publisher: Byrd Polar Research Center Archival Program
Series/Report no.: Polar Oral History Program
Abstract: Calvin Larsen, distinguished polar photographer, and Lt. Commander USN, enlisted in the Navy at age 17 near the end of WWII before completing High School in Culbertson, Montana. He served at various stations in the Pacific theatre as a photographer before being sent to Pensacola, Florida for both Photographic A School and then Camera Repair School. He excelled at both and was kept on as an instructor. He was promoted to Chief Petty Officer. He produced color films during the Korean War for TV networks, and even some background footage for Hollywood films. His success led to assignments in Motion Picture School and Advanced Photographic School. Larsen was accepted for duty with Operation Deepfreeze in Antarctica, and arrived at Little America aboard the icebreaker USS Glacier in October, 1956. He remained until November, 1957. As the Glacier approached the continent, Larsen, while clinging to a moveable boom in front of the ship, took the first pictures ever of an icebreaker moving through the ice. It was still early spring in Antarctica, and the Glacier was the first ship to break through the ice there at such an early date. Within days of his arrival Larsen was assigned to a six-unit tractor train manned by Seabees that was to carry supplies all the way to Byrd Station, over a 600-mile, one-way, trip. Their route took them across a major crevasse field, the first land expedition ever to try to get so far up on the continent. It was a dangerous plan. A reconnaissance party driving a light Tucker Sno Cat led the way. It carried crevasse detectors, but once found, the crevasses had to be half dropped to stabilize them by setting explosive charges. The Sno Cats then filled in the collapsed crevasse to ground level with packed snow. Once the crevasse was leveled off, a 90-ton tractor, carrying cranes and other heavy supplies, could safely proceed across it. Typically the expedition averaged 2.8 miles per hour and traveled 23 hours, or about 55 miles, each day. There were 2 separate shifts each working about 12 hours. Larsen drove his full 12-hour stint, and then took his photographs afterwards. The trip to Byrd Station took about 2 ½ weeks. The party was assisted by an Army advance reconnaissance party, led by Major “Skip” Dawson and Lt. Philip Smith, who placed a snow cairn with a barrel on it every 25 miles to mark the route. Air Force pilots, including Harvey Speed, flew in and dropped two large, 5000 gallon, rubber fuel tanks at the midpoint (300 miles) of the expedition. En route to the Byrd Station a push rod broke on one of the six tractors, and the entire train had to stop just when a blizzard was predicted. Facing a long, dangerous delay before a new, regulation rod could be flown in, Larsen, and another man, without notifying superiors, used part of a cooking utensil and a blowtorch and fashioned a workable replacement part. Chief Warrant Officer Victor Young, a fine officer, was furious since a non-standard part had been used, but after heated discussion he relented and the party proceeded ahead of the blizzard without incident. Once they arrived at Byrd Station there was absolutely nothing there. The Air Force flew in a construction crew and more supplies, and Larsen returned to Little America on one of the planes. Victor Young led the tractor train back to home base. Larsen was the chief in charge of photography at Little America. As such, he had no formally assigned duties, but he found numerous ways to be busy and helpful. All of the men there pitched in to help whenever possible. There were three other photographers, all enlisted men, in Antarctica at the time, one at McMurdo, one at Wilkes, and one at Weddell Sea. None required any supervision from Larsen. One set of aerial photographs taken by Larsen pinpointed a dangerous crack in the ice near where supplies were being unloaded. Using shape charges the iceberg was blown out to sea and ships incoming to the base had a new and safer place to tie up. Another example of Larsen’s overall utility is when he was ordered by Captain Dickey, Com Nav Antarctica, to fly out to a tractor train where Lt. White seemed unable to discharge his duties. Larsen replaced White as Assistant Commander of the train, and he continued with the train until its safe return to base. In September, 1957, Larsen was part of the landing party at Beardmore Glacier base, a halfway refueling stop en route to the South Pole. It was 63 degrees below zero when they landed and set about immediately to assemble Jamesway huts. Later, he took part in R4D flights to Liv Glacier to retrieve some 54 gallon drums of aviation fuel that had been left there. He also participated in a flight to the South Pole. At the invitation of Dr. Bert Crary, Larsen took part in the Ross Ice Shelf traverse. They reached Roosevelt Island, the place where Peter Shoek, a German glaciologist, fell into a crevasse and broke his back. After much effort he was successfully flown to New Zealand where he recovered. Crary, a civilian scientist, conducted research to determine how much the Ice Shelf that housed the base at Little America was moving. It was determined that the base drifted two miles north while Larsen was there. Meanwhile, Larsen continued taking numerous photographs and making motion pictures of all activities at Little America. This continued even during the winter months when, because of the blizzards, the only access to the outside was through 54 gallon drums which connected to a ladder to the surface. Much late, these photographs were stored either in the National Photo Interpretation Center or the National Archives. He did not have any personal problems with the extended periods of darkness in Antarctica. Darkness began in late April and lasted until August. June 21 was the mid-point, and an occasion for a mid-winter party at the base. Twilight lasted for weeks. Regular work routines were maintained throughout the winter. The base ran on International Zulu time. Larsen was able to communicate about once a month with his wife, Carol, via ham radio. His daughter, Sonya, was born after Larsen arrived in Antarctica. All of the men relied on ham radio for family news. There was a base newsletter printed from time to time, but very quickly the men tended to lose interest in outside world events. After his tour of duty to Antarctica ended in November, 1957, Larsen worked at the Fleet Air Photo Lab at Miramar, California where he was the Production Chief. In January, 1962, Larsen was commissioned. He flew as a navigator in the RA-3’s for 3 ½ years, and then received orders to VX6 to relieve Steve Riley. He agreed to another tour of duty in Antarctica, but it was suddenly cut short because of severe bleeding ulcers. He never returned to Antarctica. Looking back on his first tour to Antarctica Larsen said, knowing what he knew now, that as an enlisted man he would never have agreed to go there. He felt that he and other photographers had been unfairly rated by Commander Flynn, the Seabee Commander, who consistently gave the photographers low annual evaluations. Even so Larsen felt understandable pride at his many accomplishments. He became Head of the Still Picture Department at the Naval Photo Center, and among other achievements there he put the entire Navy on shooting Kodachrome for documentary purposes, a superior type of film with excellent archival qualities. Working as a navigator he also made covert reconnaissance flights throughout the Mediterranean. Major Topics Tour of duty as Chief Photographer to Operation Deepfreeze, Antarctica, Living and working conditions in Antarctica including the winter months Tractor train traverses across long stretches of Antarctica Techniques for crossing dangerous crevasses with heavy equipment Producing thousands of still photographs plus motion picture film on Antarctica Larsen’s post-Antarctic naval career, including his Commissioning in 1962
URI: http://hdl.handle.net/1811/6513
Other Identifiers: Record Group Number: 56.20
Rights: Restrictions: This item is not restricted.
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