By Gayne C. Young
A lot of expeditions to Antarctica fail.
None, however, failed as miserably as the United States Antarctic Service Expedition of 1939.
Also referred to as Byrd’s Third Antarctic Expedition, the Antarctic Service Expedition was sponsored by the United States Navy, the State Department, the Department of the Interior, the Treasury, and with additional support from donations and gifts made by private citizens, corporations, and institutions. President Franklin D. Roosevelt stated that the expedition served to establish two permanent bases on the continent. In order to help achieve these goals a completely new vehicle was designed and manufactured. It was a colossal dumpster fire.
Built by the Pullman Company in Chicago, IL, the Antarctic Snow Cruiser was a contraption unlike anything ever built before or since. The $300,000 (around six million in today’s money) monstrosity was over 55 feet in length, nearly 20 feet wide, and stood 16 feet tall. It weighed a massive 75,000 pounds and had a fuel capacity of 6,000 gallons. Power came from two diesel engines, two generators, and four electric motors. The interior housed a control cabin, combination kitchen/darkroom, machine shop, fuel storage, food storage, two spare tires, living quarters, and room for a crew of five humans and one Labrador Husky. The Cruiser boasted a top speed of 30 mph, a range of 5,000 miles, and was designed to be completely self-sufficient for over a year in the worst that the southern continent could deliver. There was even a biplane on the roof.
Think of it as a Winnebago on steroids.
Lots of steroids.
Despite the impressive array of technology and brute force that went into the Antarctic Snow Cruiser—not to mention the over-the-top price tag—it was about as well designed and useful as a screen door on a submarine. The Cruiser was driven over 1,000 miles from Chicago to Boston for publicity purposes. During the trip it caused numerous traffic jams, was involved in several accidents, and drove off a bridge and into a streambed where it sat stuck for three days outside Gomer, Ohio.
Once in Antarctica, the vehicle collapsed the ramp it was driving off the ship and got stuck in the snow. It turned out that the massive 10-foot-diameter tires were ill-equipped for snow and ice as they were slick and offered no traction at all. The fact that the tires didn’t work in snow shouldn’t have surprised anyone, because they had never been tested in such conditions. In fact, the only place they were tested was on paved highways and on sand dunes in Indiana.
Once the Antarctic Snow Cruiser was freed it proved to be absolutely worthless. It kept getting stuck, and for some reason operated best in reverse. None of this mattered however as the outbreak of World War II saw the expedition canceled and the men brought back stateside to help in the war effort.
The Cruiser was abandoned on the snow but found once more in 1946 by members of Operation Highjump (an insane expedition wherein some believe the US made contact with both a Nazi base and highly intelligent aliens). The vehicle was in good condition and made operational after some repairs, but remained useless in most every way except for a shelter. It was left only to be rediscovered in 1958. Although sitting under 23 feet of snow, the vehicle remained intact and in good shape—albeit still useless.