Interview of J. McKim Malville by Brian Shoemaker
Creators:Malville, J. McKim
MetadataShow full item record
Publisher:Byrd Polar Research Center Archival Program
Series/Report no.:Polar Oral History Program
Dr. McKim Malville, a graduate of the California School of Technology with a B.S degree in Physics, took part as an auroral specialist in Antarctica during the International Geophysical Year (IGY) of 1956-1957. He was attracted to the idea of Antarctica because of his background in mountaineering and climbing, and his study of the careers of Antarctic explorers. He chose to focus on the Weddell Sea, especially the Filchner Ice Shelf, since both were largely unexplored at the time, and the expedition would be led by Finn Ronne, next to Admiral Richard Byrd the most experienced Antarctic explorer. The summer of 1956 was spent at Yerkes Observatory in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin working with Dr. Joseph Chamberlain to use a spectograph to measure radiation and its impact on the colors of the aurora. The spectograph was brand new and Malville, a recent college graduate, was handed the rare opportunity to perfect its use. Also, largely on his own, he designed an individual research project to measure the radiation of ionized atmospheric sodium when it appears in the aurora. The voyage to Antarctica aboard the Wyandot took three months. Finn Ronne made no effort at all during that time to speak to civilian scientists, persons he may have considered beneath him, even though just 40 men would soon be spending a year together in close quarters. Ronne was not given to team building. Nor did he ever eat in the Officer’s Mess. It was probably a sign of things to come, although not recognized as such at the time. The Navy men referred to the civilians as “Sandcrabs,” supposedly not a derogatory term. Upon approaching Antarctica the Wyandot was completely locked in the ice for two or three weeks. The ice breaker, Staten Island, initially was unable to free them, and the Wyandot suffered significant damage, including tips sheared off her propellers, and taking on some water from cracks. The scientists heard rumors that the damages might prevent them from ever reaching Antarctica, or that Captain Dan McCord might lose his command. In time, however, the ship was freed, a landing site determined, and with the help of the Seabees much of the new base was built within ten days on the Filchner Ice Shelf. The civilians all pitched in to complete construction of the base, but at times they lamented that their various construction responsibilities delayed them from doing their basic scientific experiments. Malville had to personally build all of the features of the aurora tower after its basic structure had been completed. Unlike the other scientists, all of whom who were members of teams, he had complete responsibility for his own projects. The aurora tower had three domes. One contained a spectograph for photographic recordings. A second dome contained a Walsky camera that took pictures of the sky every minute throughout the winter. The third dome contained a photometer used for measuring atmospheric sodium, which was Malville’s personal research project. Simultaneously the glaciologists and the traverse party were testing their own equipment. One worrisome finding was that the crevasse detector was not always reliable. Also, a clutch burned out on one of the Sno Cats. To the great anger of the young scientists on the traverse party Finn Ronne refused to ask for a replacement clutch, or even to allow the men to send out messages to ask for advice on how to repair the clutch. When the civilian scientists complained, since they saw their projects endangered, Ronne kicked them out of the officer’s mess. Before this happened eating with Ronne in the officer’s mess had been “incredibly awkward” since no one was allowed to speak unless Ronne had addressed them first. No small talk among the men was permitted. He was also “tremendously tough” on his four junior officers. Aside from their initial outrage over Ronne’s handling of the clutch issue, eating with the enlisted men was for the civilian scientists much more enjoyable. Eventually Hugo Newberg, a glaciologist, made radio contact with an Argentine base on Antarctica, and learned how to repair the clutch. But the civilian scientists anger with Ronne did not abate. He refused to allow them any radio contact with anyone outside of the base. There was a feeling of imprisonment. On another occasion Malville volunteered to give an evening lecture on the nature of the aurora, and he suggested that the other civilian scientists do the same on their own projects. He posted a notice on the bulletin board. Ronne was “outraged” that Malville had not consulted him first, and in a negative face-to-face encounter accused him of lacking respect for authority. Ronne told Malville, just out of college and age 21, that he could ruin Malville’s scientific career, and that all civilians on the base were subject to the Uniform Code of Military Justice, and hence could be prosecuted for lack of respect to military superiors. On another occasion while Ronne was watching an evening movie, someone stuck a knife with some ketchup on his door with the note “Beware of the phantom.” Ronne was so furious he kept all the men up to two or three in the morning while every person was interviewed one-by-one in his office, and warned that the knife would be sent to the FBI in Washington to obtain fingerprints. It was said to be like “The Caine Mutiny.” Despite such threats no one ever confessed. Malville suspects it was one of the sailors. Ronne became so angry with the civilian scientists that he set up a secret, or so he thought, radio communication with Admiral Dufek at the Little America base, to complain about the scientists, especially those connected with the traverse party. But some of the enlisted men strung a secret wire so that all the men in the mess hall could listen in real time while Ronne lodged his “secret” complaints. He said “terrible things” to the Admiral about the civilians, “a bunch of rotten eggs,” who refuse to respect his authority, and about the traverse crew who “couldn’t identify a crevasse if their noses were pushed into it.” Ronne’s Executive Officer, McCarthy, who was thought to have warned Ronne about his “self-destructive behavior,” resigned partway through the winter. About this time Ronne made a flight to an Emperor Penguin Rookery, and brought back two live Penguins to the base. He then killed the Penguins, and placed their bodies outside so that the bodies would remain frozen until he could take them home to show his granddaughter. Someone stole the penguins, and they showed up beheaded. Their heads were placed in Ronne’s personal vehicle. This beheading incident put a chill over the camp. What might come next? Later in the season when his aurora researches were completed, Malville was invited to join the traverse party, but Ronne, apparently out of spite, refused to allow it. Furthermore, Malville was “sentenced” by Ronne to wash dishes in the galley for several weeks as punishment for not showing proper respect. Curiously this gave Malville a rare opportunity to engage in some friendly conversation with Ronne in the mess hall, and the two men reconciled to the extent that when Ronne returned to the Penguin Rookery to obtain two more penguins he invited Malville to accompany him. Malville took many photographs and wrote a report for the International Geophysical Year. He also looked for micrometeorites in the ice, something no one had done previously. Since this time much has been done, of course, by later scientists, including discovery of meteorites from Mars. But Malville was the first. He did work especially on micrometeorites. Within a year he published three scientific articles in top journals, and he was not yet a graduate student. Once back home he enrolled at the University of Colorado for graduate studies in Astrogeophysics. His personal reconciliation with Ronne did not last long. Ronne had no real friends on the base as far as Malville could tell. Before leaving Antarctica Malville was able to visit the Argentine base in Antarctica, Belgrano. He left Antarctica on the Wyandot, and made stops at Buenos Aires and Sao Paulo. From there he flew to Washington. There he was able to relate to officials such as Harry Wexler and Merle Tuve the problems at the base with Finn Ronne’s leadership. Despite such problems Malville, on reflection, is very grateful for the opportunity to do significant research in Antarctica. He never returned there, but did much work later on in studying solar eclipses in various parts of the world. Major Topics Scientific research in Antarctica as part of the IGY in 1956-57 Assessment of the difficult leadership style of Commander Finn Ronne First scientific research conducted on Antarctic meteorites and micrometeorites Research on auroras and atmospheric sodium
Key Individuals Mentioned Brown, John, scientist, pp. 15, 31 Chamberlain, Dr. Joseph, auroral physicist, pp. 4-5 Crary, Bert, p. 51 Dufek, Admiral, pp. 26, 51 McCorda, Dan, Captain of the Wyandot, pp. 9-10, 12 Newberg, Hugo, glaciologist, pp. 18-19, 26, 31 Ronne, Finn, celebrated Antarctic explorer, mentioned throughout Skidmore, Don, ionospheric physicist, pp. 15, 39-40, 44 Thiel, Ed, pp. 21, 26, 31 Tuve, Merle, p. 50 Walker, Paul, p. 26 Wexler, Harry, p. 50
Funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation.
Other Identifiers:Record Group Number: 56.70
Rights:Restrictions: This item is not restricted.
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