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Cold War Seabee chilled out in deep freeze of Antarctica

When the Cold War was heating up with fear of a nuclear war between the United States and the Soviet Union, many Americans had constructed backyard bomb shelters in the hopes of surviving.

Bob M. Manke, who grew up in Kenmore, shared those same worries of possible nuclear annihilation, but from a different vantage point.

He was at the bottom of the Earth living in buildings encased with 20 feet of ice at the Navy's Byrd Station in Antarctica.

"We wondered if something happened, would they be able to come in and rescue us," said Manke, who served with the Navy's Seabees, the sailors trained in construction trades. With him at the station were nine other sailors, four of them Seabees, and 11 scientists.

Manke says he and the other Seabees were pretty sure that if nuclear bombs started dropping up in the northern hemisphere, they too would be goners. Here's why:

"We were 900 miles away from McMurdo Sound, the main Navy base in Antarctica, 900 miles away from the South Pole base and 400 miles from the Antarctic Ocean. So we were out in no-man's land."

Making matters even more desolate, cargo planes and other aircraft stopped delivering supplies and ferrying staff to and from Byrd Station between Feb. 12 and Oct. 26 each year because it was dark 24 hours a day during that stretch.

Manke, who enlisted in the Navy at 17 years old with his parents' permission, had followed in his uncle's footsteps as a Seabee. Daniel Manke, a World War II Seabee, knew his nephew was mechanically inclined and suggested the Seabees because he could learn a trade.

"I wanted to become a pipefitter," Manke said.

But how in the world did he wind up serving in Antarctica from Nov. 1, 1959 to Dec. 13, 1960?

Manke says he had been serving at Midway in the Pacific Ocean, far from the reaches of wintry weather, when a chief petty officer asked for volunteers to serve in Antarctica.

"He said, 'If anyone is crazy enough, come and see me in my office.' Right after he spoke, I went to his office and he said, 'Why are you here?' I said, 'I want to volunteer to go to the South Pole.' He said, 'Are you crazy?'

"I said, 'I may be, but that's just what I want to do. I joined the Navy for adventure and travel.' Two weeks later I was on a plane to Rhode Island, the home port of the Atlantic Seabees and we were in training until September 1959. They didn't just send you down there."

* * *

Bob M. Manke, 77

Hometown: Buffalo

Residence: Pendleton

Branch: Navy, Seabees

Rank: 2nd class petty officer

War zone: Cold War

Years of service: Sept. 12, 1957 – March 12, 1961

Most prominent honors: Antarctica Wintering-Over Campaign Medal, National Defense Medal, Good Conduct Medal and a mountain in Antarctica named in his honor

Specialty: Utilitiesman

* * *

The training included lessons on how operate every piece of machinery at Byrd Station to make sure each Seabee would be able to fill in if needed throughout the long and isolated winter months.

"We also had to be fitted for foul weather clothing, boots and the whole bit including a coat that had a hood that extended four inches from your face. What we were given was foul weather gear that was new, but left over from the Korean War."

There were repeated physicals to make sure they were in tiptop condition and screenings to determine if they had the mental tenacity to withstand the separation from civilization.

"We saw three different psychiatrists and at least two of them had to certify us. What the psychiatrists were looking for was if we had the temperament to get along in close quarters and knowing that we could live alone and be stranded. They told us there was no way anyone could get to us until the planes starting flying again."

From the moment Manke arrived at the South Pole, he says he never felt regret.

"We deplaned onto a frozen seawater runway around 7:30 in the morning and the cold hit me and I realized I was going to be cold for a long time," he said.

Actually, he was going to be very cold.

During his months "on the ice" at Byrd Station, the average temperature was 35 degrees below zero. The coldest it ever got was 78 degrees below zero and the warmest was 18 degrees below zero.

"There are two seasons in Antarctica, winter and summer. In the summer it is light 24 hours a day and in the winter it is complete darkness 24 hours a day."

So, in a manner of speaking, they had to make hay while the sun was shining.

"Our work schedule in the summer was from 6 a.m. until 9 p.m. That was Monday through Saturday. On Sunday we worked eight hours. Our big entertainment was on Sunday evening when we had a movie."

During the winter, Manke was the only Seabee who still had to go outside every day.

"I refueled a heater for a small topside building where weathermen released a weather balloon every 12 hours," he said.

In describing the coldest day of his stay at minus-78 degrees, he said, "It takes your breath away. But it was just a few more degrees colder than what we were used to."

He adds that this Antarctic experience happened in the days before wind chill factors were taken into account.

"And there were days where we would work outside with winds up to 100 miles per hour and 60 degrees below zero," he said.

According to the National Weather Service, those conditions translate into a wind chill factor of 130 degrees below zero; or, as one meteorologist said, "literally off the charts."

Navy Seabee Bob M. Manke, on the sled, ended up in Antarctica after his chief petty officer asked if there was anyone “crazy enough” to volunteer for the mission. (Robert Kirkham/Buffalo News) 

Another challenge, Manke said, was that the station was 9,000 feet above sea level and, as a result, the air was extremely thin.

"That's something your body gets accustomed to," he said.

But why were the station's main buildings encased in 20 feet of ice?

"They had been built in the summer of 1957 and it was decided to pile snow around them up to the roof lines. The heat of the buildings turned the snow into ice. They had figured it would provide insulation from the cold and we'd use less fuel. Well the winds down there were constant and piled another 10 feet of snow on top of the roofs when I got there two years later," he said.

In a way, Antarctica was like a desert, only instead of blowing sand, it was blowing snow, Manke explained.

"We had two entrances into the main buildings. They were staircases that went down."

And what was it like to be isolated from civilization?

"It didn't bother me. I knew in my mind we were there for that time. It wasn't like being alone. There were twenty other people. We knew we couldn't get out. They had put this into our heads back in Rhode Island and we'd had a chance there to back out."

Besides, he says, there were a couple of benefits: "You can't catch a cold because it's just too cold for germs to spread, and the water that we melted for drinking was the purest in the world. No germs at all."

When his 13 months were completed with "Operation Deep Freeze V," he and his fellow service members were flown to Christchurch, New Zealand.

"We had five days there to get normal again. It was summer and quite warm. It was just nice returning to civilization," he said, adding that as a reward from the Navy, each sailor had a mountain in Antarctica named in his honor. "My mountain is Mount Manke."

After the Navy, Manke returned home and put his skills as a pipe fitter to work, first at Western Electric. When that plant on Kenmore Avenue in the Town of Tonawanda closed, he went across the street and was hired at the General Motors forge. When the forge closed, he transferred to GM's Harrison Radiator in Lockport and retired in 2006.

The Navy training, he said, opened doors for him as a civilian with decades of steady employment.

He and the former Barbara Fronczak have been married 56 years and have raised three children. They now have eight grandchildren and one great-grandchild.

And while he experienced some of the harshest winter conditions in the world at the South Pole, Manke says Western New York winters are no day at the beach.

Of his Antarctica service, Manke says he has put together a 75-minute presentation complete with photographs and when invited, he shares it with community and church groups. In fact, if anyone is interested, he says he can be reached at bobantqplys@aol.com.

Oh, and one other thing.

Manke is grateful that he and his Navy colleagues never had to find out if they would have survived a nuclear attack brought on by the Cold War.

And amid the often-heated rhetoric between North Korea and the United States – not to mention the false alarm of an incoming nuclear attack on Hawaii – Manke says he hopes such a catastrophe never happens.

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