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Deep Freeze: Hampton Roads sailors to help resupply civilian US Antarctic Program

U.S. sailors from Navy Cargo Handling Battalion 1 offload a 40-foot half rack container with building supplies in support of Operation Deep Freeze from the MAERSK Illinois, Jan. 31, 2014.<br>Brandon Bacon/U.S. Navy
U.S. sailors from Navy Cargo Handling Battalion 1 offload a 40-foot half rack container with building supplies in support of Operation Deep Freeze from the MAERSK Illinois, Jan. 31, 2014.

Sailors from Hampton Roads, Va., assigned to a cargo-handling unit are preparing for an infrequent and frigid mission: deploying to Antarctica. As part of Operation Deep Freeze, they'll help bring 20 million pounds of supplies to civilian scientists and researchers who live on the frosty continent year-round.

During a local cold spell last week, sailors assigned to Cargo Handling Battalion One practiced moving and offloading supplies from a mock-up cargo ship in a forested area near the York River at Yorktown Naval Weapons Station, Cheatham Annex.

With temperatures in the 40s, it may seem downright tropical for some sailors compared with where they're going.

The mission later this month coincides with summer in Antarctica, although temperatures likely will remain below 32 degrees for the duration of their stay into February.

"I'm actually from the South," said Petty Officer 2nd Class Angelina Colon, a logistics specialist making her first such trip. "So I'm going to be freezing."

Researchers under the U.S. Antarctic Program are examining wildlife, atmospheric conditions and how the continent formed, among other things. The program is run under the auspices of the National Science Foundation.

Although the research stations are run by civilians, the program depends on the military to bring it supplies and fuel.

"We do one resupply a year," NSF spokesman Peter West said. "It's easier to get vessels in when the ice is thinnest."

The MV Ocean Giant, an ice-class cargo ship chartered by the Norfolk-based Military Sealift Command, still must navigate a 15-mile ice channel to get to McMurdo Station.

"There's a lot of floating ice and crushed ice she'll have to go through," said John Thackrah, executive director of Military Sealift Command. “Summertime in Antarctica is a very relative term."

McMurdo Station is a former Navy air base that is the world's southernmost port. It is the largest of three scientific stations run by the U.S. Antarctic Program, with more than 1,000 people working there during the Southern Hemisphere's summer.

McMurdo Station isn't a typical port. Its pier is built from ice covered with dirt to help protect it from the sun. While sturdy, the pier isn't able to support large cranes, so the Ocean Giant carries its own to load and unload cargo.

Once the ship arrives, about 50 sailors from Cargo Handling Battalion One will begin offloading it. Sailors will load the ship with anything that needs to return to the United States, including experiments, garbage and recyclables. West said about 70 percent of items used in Antarctica are recycled.

Sailors will work in two 12-hour shifts to take advantage of the 24 hours of daylight that occurs in Antarctica during its summer, said Lt. Dave Shayeson, one of two officers in charge of the battalion. It is one of the most uncommon deployments the Navy conducts.

"It's a very small percentage of people that get to do this, so it's the trip of a lifetime," Shayeson said.

The Navy has a long history of working in Antarctica but doesn't maintain a presence there. The first Navy expedition occurred in its waters in 1839, and the U.S. established a small base of operations there in 1929 to explore further inland. The Navy began building scientific stations on the continent in 1955 during the first Operation Deep Freeze and has been resupplying them ever since.

Sailors said the cold and 24 hours of sunlight likely will be their biggest challenges during the few weeks they're on site, but they're looking forward to the experience.

"It's something that not everybody gets to do, and I'm blessed to be able to do this," Colon said.

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