Interview of Max C. Brewer by Karen Nichols Brewster
Creators:Brewer, Max C.
Contributors:Brewster, Karen Nichols
Subjects (LCSH):Arctic regions -- Discovery and exploration -- Interviews
Arctic regions -- Discovery and exploration -- Interviews
Naval Arctic Research Laboratory -- Interviews
MetadataShow full item record
Publisher:Byrd Polar Research Center Archival Program
Series/Report no.:Polar Oral History Program
Part I: Max Brewer, born in Canada in 1924, moved with his family to the United States in 1934, and enjoyed dual Canadian-United States citizenship. Growing up in Spokane, Washington, he learned hard work in various ways, including making ice cream in a creamery, and live-trapping martens for breeding stock across the border in British Columbia. During World War II he served in the meteorological program of the US Army Air Corps. After the war he studied geological engineering at Washington University in St. Louis. Under this program he visited Fairbanks, Alaska in 1948 as part of a Geological Survey project, using electrical resistivity methods, to map the permafrost, an endeavor of particular interest to the oil industry, among others. He worked on several similar projects at other locations. In September, 1950, having graduated from college, he agreed to participate in another Geological Survey project in Barrow, Alaska. A Laboratory designed for study of the permafrost, and other projects, was established, initially with close cooperation from the US Navy. For the first time in his life Brewer saw sea ice. The Navy closed its operations in 1953, but much of its equipment was made available to the Laboratory, which continued on a reduced basis. Brewer took temperatures in the permafrost as the temperature changed over the period of a year; some measurements continued for 12 years. He spent his first winter at Barrow in 1950-51, a lonely time since few others were around. His daily routine usually consisted of “eat, sleep, and work,” but his interest in the research underway remained high. There were occasional games of pinochle and bridge, and every Saturday 5 cans of beer and coke. Ultimately he spent four years at the Laboratory in Barrow. One of the projects that came up during this time was Project Lincoln, a feasibility study for the DEW line. In the fall of 1954 he married Mary Lou, one of the nurses at Barrow, and the Geological Survey transferred Brewer to Menlo Park in San Francisco. Even so he continued to work closely with former associates at Barrow, and he provided technical stipulations for the construction of roads, air strips, and foundations for DEW sites in the western third of the DEW line from Tuk-Tuk to Cape Beaufort. In the fall of 1956 Brewer returned to Barrow as Director of what had become the National Arctic Research Laboratory (NARL). By then the University of Alaska had become its prime contractor. John Reid, a reserve Navy Commander, was the Assistant Director. Brewer had had some graduate work in geophysics (although he never finished his degree), and it was thought he could be helpful with IGY (International Geophysical Year) projects in 1957. The previous Directors had all been biologists, and had typically remained on site at Barrow only for the summer months, essentially a part-time job. But the emphasis at NARL was shifting from the biological to the geophysical sciences, and a full-time directorship was required. Also, projects undertaken as part of the IGY required a year-round station. Fletcher’s Ice Island, which included a 5000 feet long airstrip, was established by the Air Force on an ice floe. The Navy furnished ice observers, and provided some seasonable availability of aircraft. It was decided in 1958 that the Laboratory should have its own aircraft, and it purchased two Cessna 180’s. The ice observers flew 14 hour days, including 10 hours each flight over the ice. Barrow was two hours away. Allan Beal was recruited as an oceanographer for the Laboratory. In 1959 the Air Force established a station (Station Charlie) on an ice floe. Initially the runway was 5000 feet, but a crack in the ice later reduced the runway to 3500 feet, and the Air Force abandoned the site. The Navy, no longer partnering with the Air Force, built a new station, and this became the basis for an expanded Laboratory on the ice station. Much thought was given to construction of the living and working quarters. Various kinds of science were done at the station, including geophysics (seismic, magnetic, gravity), oceanography, both physical and biological, and snow and ice studies. Typically these studies required about a dozen scientists on the ice floe station. Among the key results obtained from research on the ice flow were accurate readings of Ocean water depths and temperatures, and extracting bottom cores to determine sedimentation rates, and to extract from the cores biological remains of various animals. Upper atmosphere research was also carried out on the aurora. Selection of the proper location of an ice station is of the utmost importance, including accessibility from Barrow and the availability of ice breakers. In 1960 Brewer sailed on the Burton Island icebreaker, commanded by the reservist, Griffith Evans, and traversed the coast from Barrow to Barter Island, on to Banks Island and McClure Strait, and continued for 210 additional miles into the ice pack. It was here that the ice station, ARLIS-I –the successor to Ice Station Charlie-- would be established. Captain Evans asked about the availability of sufficient fresh water. No problem. The ice flow had plenty of fresh water, and Brewer showed the sailors how to recover it. The site was surrounded by smaller ice floes, a desirable feature. In late September, 1960, construction started on the ice station. In just two days 10 huts were constructed. A Weasel was used to pull the generators in place. In March of 1961 the site was evacuated, and ARLIS-II was started in March, 1961, on another ice floe. Most of the materials and equipment from ARLIS-I were retrieved, and used in the new station. On one of the many supply flights to the ice station, one of the airplanes, a DC-3, crashed from a recent crack in the ice. Eventually after using some ingenious improvisation the plane was repaired and flown safely to Barrow, and later on to Los Angeles for a complete overhaul. Meanwhile, ARLIS-II, drifted further and further away. Once it was within 90 miles of the Pole, crossed the international dateline for 18 months, floated out of the Beaufort gyro, and came down between Greenland and Iceland. The last flight out of ARLIS-II was April, 1965. In succeeding years ice stations ARLIS-III, IV, V, and VI were built. All were temporary stations. In the fall of 1961 the Air Force abandoned their own ice station, T-3, but left all of their equipment and facilities on the drafting ice floe. It was discovered in February, 1962, and so the Navy and Brewer placed a skeleton crew aboard, and for a time operated two ice stations simultaneously. Another ice project was AIDJEX, which stood for Arctic Ice Dynamics Joint Expedition, which operated in 1975. . Brewer served as Director of the Naval Arctic Research Laboratory until 1971. During that period the Lab operated some 20 field stations, most of which were associated with biological aspects. It also maintained for research purposes a vivarium, or zoo, and this included squirrels, birds, lemmings, and eventually 7 bears, 14 wolverines, and 52 wolves, mainly black. The vararium was notably successful in raising young wolves, and a few wolverines. Some of the skills that Brewer learned as a youngster in British Columbia trapping live martens were useful once again. He was an expert in feeding and caring for trapped and captured animals. One tiny wolverine, or kit, just six days old, was rescued from the wild after her mother was killed, and lived 17 years. After a time female wolverines would gently lick salt off of his fingers, but the males remained aloof. In July, 1971, Governor Egan of Alaska named Brewer Commissioner of Environmental Conservation for the state of Alaska. He served until December, 1974. He also served as Chief Engineer and as a Consultant to the Secretary of the Navy regarding the proposed increased drilling in the Petroleum Reserve of northern Alaska. On October 23 Brewer’s environmental impact statement for the entire Reserve (429 pages) was delivered to president Gerald Ford for his signature. He, along with Max Britton, was also asked to review the final contract with the oil companies for drilling. At about the same time responsibility for oversight of the Reserve was transferred from the Navy to the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) of the Department of the Interior. On June 5, 1977, he was named Chief of Operations for the United States Geological Survey (USGS). Among other responsibilities he continued to be active in the support of scientific programs on the Petroleum Reserve through 1984. He continued to be Director of the Laboratory, including responsibility for disposal of property and equipment as the Laboratory was slowly shut down, and monitoring environmental safeguards, such as proper management of reserve pits in the drilling areas. He retired from the USGS after 55 years of service in 1994. Since his official retirement Max Brewer has been anything but idle. He has traveled extensively, lived and worked in China for over 8 months Reflecting on his long and successful career, Max Brewer highlighted three major accomplishments. First, he took pride in developing engineering methods that are in concert with the environment. For instance, the new Laboratory at Barrow remains in superb condition after 33 years of use in a difficult environment. He provided the specifications for roads, air strips, and foundation pilings for the western third of the DEW line. Second, he conducted his operations in an efficient business manner. Third, the Laboratory was a training ground for nearly all the managers who had been in the North Slope Borough for the last 25 years. Many natives were hired, especially summer jobs for young persons finishing High School or headed for college. He conceded that some of his associates has used the word “dictator” in reference to his management style, but contended he has always tried to use his authority in a fashion that was not offensive. Major Topics Formative youthful experiences in British Columbia, Canada, and Spokane, Washington Reflections of the role and success of Ice Stations in the Arctic Ocean, especially around Barrow Recollections of ARLIS-I through ARLIS-VI Brewer’s role as Director of the National Arctic Research Laboratory (NARL) Challenges of conducting scientific research in an Arctic environment Biological research on Arctic wildlife, including wolves, wolverines, and bears International Geophysical Year (IGY) Part II:There is a brief review of the reasons why Brewer became Director of the National Arctic Research Laboratory (NARL) in Barrow, Alaska. Recollections are offered on the role of submarines in Arctic research, including the Nautilus, which was used by George McGinnity, and his wife, Nettie, to discover the Barrow sea canyon. Other submarines that served occasionally at Barrow were the Sargo, Burton Island, and Sea Dragon, sometimes on classified assignments. To navigate safely submarines needed to be aware of converging ice sheets that could form pressure ridges that reduced underwater navigational corridors. Other navigational hazards for submarines are also briefly discussed. A machinist mate from the Burton Island, John Beck, a long-time Navy shop foreman, after his retirement from the Navy in 1961 joined the Laboratory as shop foreman, and he was also in charge of the carpenter shop. Although he was a reluctant flyer he proved resourceful time and again. Once he and Kenny Toovak, who managed the equipment shop, loaded a 3000 lb. generator into a DC-3 while on an ice floe in 62 below temperatures. Paul Churnick worked as an assistant to Beck. Automotive repairs were also handled through the carpenter and equipment shops. On occasion during summer months the Laboratory would have as many as 12 Weasels, 4 to 5 trucks, and 4 to 5 jeeps, all operating. Various scientific programs were represented at the Laboratory, including the Office of Naval Research, the Petroleum Reserve, the United States Geological Survey (USGS), the Cambridge Air Force Laboratory, the Bureau of Yards and Docks, and the Snow Ice Permafrost Research Establishment (SIPRE). The latter was the Army’s Arctic research program. Later the name was changed to Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratory (CRREL). Brewer offered significant assistance to the Stibe expedition which planned making the 180 mile trip from Barrow to the North Pole by sled, and ultimately on to Greenland. Stibe’s party had difficulty in Greenland, and temporarily appeared to be lost. Fortunately Brewer and his crew located the party and dropped them sufficient supplies from the air so that they continued safely on to ARLIS-II. Later a crucial airdrop was also made to members of the Herbert expedition. Brewer also relates details of two brief, unauthorized, landings on Russian ice floe bases by planes from the Laboratory. The flights by lab pilots to the North Pole were never authorized either. Once he spontaneously authorized location of an ice station at a previously unauthorized site, at 73 north rather than 76 or 75 as planned. Another time, strictly on his own authority, he requisitioned 30 Weasels from Korea. Once he paid \$10.00 to local youth to collect several Arctic owls for a study on owls approved for the following fiscal year. The auditor strongly objected to the \$10.00 expenditure since the expense had not been approved for the current year. Surprisingly the dispute went all the way to the Admiral in Washington D.C. as Brewer insisted that an auditor, unfamiliar with the Arctic, should not tell the Lab, or its Director, how to run its business. Brewer prevailed. Admittedly, at various time he never sought or received permission in making crucial decisions. He also skirted the rules in ordering provisions and furniture for the Laboratory. The auditors complained, but Brewer typically got what he wanted. Karen Brewster asked Brewer “Why didn’t you think they’d just fire you?” He replied, “If you’re investigating on the edge of science … when you see an opportunity you have to pursue it.” Some years later the ONR Admiral told Brewer “If I had known what you were doing, you wouldn’t have been doing it.” He then went on to congratulate Brewer and others for a job well done. Brewer used the same forthright manner in dealing with superiors. Max Britton was very sympathetic to what Brewer was doing in the Arctic, and in his semi-annual visits to the Laboratory seldom discussed such things as unauthorized landings on Russian ice stations. He also had good relations with Bill Girkin, the contracting officer. There were some tense encounters with the Air Force, and not infrequent contentious meetings in Washington, D.C., as the Air Force suggested that Brewer and the Lab, ostensibly representing the Navy, but more often than not acting semi-independently, were bilking the Air Force by not paying a proper price for fuel, electricity, vehicle repairs, and so forth. Some adjustments were made, but Brewer usually got what he wanted. As Director of the Laboratory, under rules in place at the time, Brewer was free to make his own hiring decisions. Clarence Nolan was ARLIS station manager. Frankie Akpik and Charlie Hopson, both native Alaskans, served as station managers. Henry Larson was a huge disappointment as the operator of the Lab’s boat, the Natchik, and he was replaced by both Akpik and Hopson who were experienced in sailing the rough waters of the Bering Sea. Although a civilian, Brewer felt so confident in his position as Director that he routinely signed off on military contracts or orders, including the Army, Navy, and Coast Guard, or something for the Department of the Interior. The Laboratory was viewed as a Navy laboratory, but not as a navy facility. At various times many high-ranking military officers, usually interested in the DEW line, passed through Barrow. At one cocktail party Brewer hosted, among others, 6 admirals and 7 generals. Another occasional guest was Colonel Berndt Balcom who headed search and rescue in Alaska. There was some sentiment in Washington to have the Laboratory designated a navy facility, but Admiral Tom Owen, Chief of Naval Research, said “No way. I will never send a commanding officer to Barrow as long as Brewer is there. He’d eat him alive.” None was ever appointed until after Brewer’s tenure had ended. Subsequently several individuals served as military liaison to the Laboratory. There were times when the presence of a military commanding officer of the Laboratory did not seem to work very well. So much depended on the individuals involved. There were times when the personnel of the Laboratory seemed to be operating in a sort of administrative no man’s land. Brewer was always fully confident, however, in his own decisions, and admitted that some persons criticized him for insufficient communication or explanations. He was especially insistent on retaining tight personal control over such crucial decisions as flight and boat schedules; in fact, he did his own weather predicting. He refused permission for anyone outside of the Laboratory to fly one of its planes despite the fact some visitors were qualified pilots. Sometimes persons were kept waiting outside of his office much longer than they preferred. Although hardly a cautious man, Brewer realized there were instances when because of the dangerous work done through the Laboratory that caution was essential. He lost two men during his tenure, Jay Hirschman, who died on an ice floe of a cancer-induced heart attack, and Bernie [?], a Black Weather Bureau man, accidentally shot to death; other men were lost later, despite heroic efforts made always to save lives, or even to retrieve bodies once death had occurred. Looking back on his long career as Director of the Barrow Laboratory, Brewer had few regrets, but conceded he might have tried to trim his sails a bit, and not tried to have accomplished so much. He also regretted not having taken more trips when the opportunities were there. Among his leading mentors were Max Britton, Pete Sovalik, Kenny Toovak, and Lou Pakiser. Major Topics Brewer’s career as Director of the National Arctic Research Laboratory (NARL) in Barrow, Alaska Relations between civilian and military administrators at NARL Contributions of key support personnel at NARL Varied types of scientific research conducted at or through NARL Key Individuals Mentioned Max Britton, US Navy representative, pp. 2, 15, 27-28, 33, 36, 38, 44, 50 Waldo Lyons, Chief Scientist of the Naval Electronics Laboratory, pp. 3-4 George McGinnity, Laboratory Director, pp. 4 Nettie McGinnity, marine biologist, wife of George, p. 4 John Schindler, Director of the Ice Station, pp. 5 Kenny Toovak, pp. 8-9 Paul Churnick, assistant shop foreman, pp. 8-9 John Beck, pp. 7-10, 15 Dave Tyree, p. 17 Ned Ostenso, p. 17 ? Stibe, Norwegian Arctic explorer, pp. 11-13 Tom Owen, admiral, p. 33 Berndt Balcom, in charge of search and rescue in Alaska, pp. 32-33 Harry Strong, p. 33 Jay Hirschman, died while on an ice floe, pp. 37-40 Bobby Fischer, pilot, pp. 44-45 Pete Sovalik, pp. 46-47
Key Individuals Mentioned Part I: Griffith Evans, Captain of the ice breaker, Burton Island, pp. 31-32 Bobby Fischer, pilot, pp. 36-37, 67 John Schindler, Director of ice station, pp. 41-43 Warren Denner, Ice Station Director, pp. 44 John Kelly, Ice Station Director, pp. 44, 64 Max Britton, Navy representative, pp. 63-64 Part II: Max Britton, US Navy representative, pp. 2, 15, 27-28, 33, 36, 38, 44, 50 Waldo Lyons, Chief Scientist of the Naval Electronics Laboratory, pp. 3-4 George McGinnity, Laboratory Director, pp. 4 Nettie McGinnity, marine biologist, wife of George, p. 4 John Schindler, Director of the Ice Station, pp. 5 Kenny Toovak, pp. 8-9 Paul Churnick, assistant shop foreman, pp. 8-9 John Beck, pp. 7-10, 15 Dave Tyree, p. 17 Ned Ostenso, p. 17 ? Stibe, Norwegian Arctic explorer, pp. 11-13 Tom Owen, admiral, p. 33 Berndt Balcom, in charge of search and rescue in Alaska, pp. 32-33 Harry Strong, p. 33 Jay Hirschman, died while on an ice floe, pp. 37-40 Bobby Fischer, pilot, pp. 44-45 Pete Sovalik, pp. 46-47
Funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation.
Other Identifiers:Record Group Number:56.88
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