May 23, 1928 Wreck of the Airship Italia

The little fox terrier Titina would accompany Captain Nobile on his every mission. This time she resisted, with everything a little dog could muster.  Maybe it was a premonition, and maybe not.  For the first time Nobile ignored the little dog’s behavior and picked her up, to bring her on board.

The semi-rigid airship Italia departed from Milan on April 15, 1928, headed for the Arctic.  Italia carried some 17,000 pounds of fuel and supplies, a crew of 13, two journalists, three scientists and an expedition mascot.

A favorite of the rising Fascist party in Italy, Captain Umberto Nobile was never far from his beloved dog, a little Fox Terrier he called Titina.

Before each mission, Nobile would pay close attention to the mood and demeanor of the terrier.  Some said even more so, than to that of his men.

Titina would accompany Nobile on his every mission but this time she resisted, with everything a little dog could muster.  Maybe it was a premonition, and maybe not.  For the first time Nobile ignored the little dog’s behavior and picked her up, to bring her on board.ItaliaTwo years earlier, the Norge (“NOR-gay”) had demonstrated that such an airship, could reach the north pole.  This time they were coming back, for further exploration.

italia mapThe first of five planned sorties began on May 11, before turning back only eight hours later in near-blizzard conditions.  The second trip took place in virtually perfect weather conditions with unlimited visibility.  The craft covered 4,000 km (2,500 miles), setting the stage for the third and final trip.

At 04:28 on May 23, 1928, the airship Italia departed on her final voyage.

Strong tailwinds aided the passage as Italia traveled north along the Greenland coast, arriving at the north pole only 19 hours after departing Spitzbergen.

Though wind conditions prevented scientists from descending onto the ice sheet, the midnight arrival was itself, a victory.  Nobile dropped an Italian flag at the pole and a cross, personally given him by the Pope.  Jubilant radio messages were sent as the triumphant crew polished off a bottle of cognac, in celebration.

Trouble began almost immediately, as the tailwinds that brought them to the pole were now strong headwinds heading south to King’s Bay. Fuel consumption was doubled as the airship struggled to make headway.  After 24 hours, they were only halfway back.

A cascade of events took place on the morning of the 25th, causing Italia to be tail-heavy and falling at a rate of two feet per second. Captain Nobile ordered Chief technician Natale Cecion to dump ballast chain, but the steep deck angle complicated the task. Seconds later, the airship hit the jagged ice below, smashing the control cabin and spilling ten crew members and a Fox Terrier, onto the ice.

“The wide 50-meter-long red strip of aniline paint that had seeped from the spherical containers the airship’s crew used for measuring altitude resembled a bloodstained trail left by an injured beast”. – Czechoslovakian physicist, Frantisek Behounek

With a broken leg and feeling as though his intestines were damaged beyond repair, Captain Nobile thought to himself, at least he wouldn’t have to witness the prolonged death agonies, of his comrades.  Senior Cecione likewise suffered a broken leg.  Engine operator Vincenzo Pomella was already dead.

Now relieved of the gondola’s weight, the envelope of the ship began to rise with a gaping tear where the control cabin used to be.

What followed was a pure act of selfless heroism, a remarkable display of calm under the most extreme sort of pressure. As the airship italia-crashfloated away, Chief Engineer Ettore Arduino threw everything he could get his hands on, down to the men on the ice. These were supplies intended for the descent to the pole, but they were now the only thing that stood between life and death.

Arduino himself and the rest of the crew drifted away with the now helpless airship.

Ten men and a dog were stranded on the drifting ice pack.

Those who were able to  do so immediately set about, searching for supplies.  They scavenged across the ice and found a radio, and jury-rigged a mast from crash debris.  A tent was set up and dyed a bright red, using that same aniline paint.

A colt revolver was found along with a box of cartridges.  Five days later, Swedish meteorologist Finn Malmgren would use it to kill a polar bear, adding considerably to their food supplies.

The aftermath of the Italia disaster is a story in itself, a rescue unfolding over nearly two months and involving six countries, 18 vessels, 21 aircraft and 1,500 men.  Many would-be rescuers became stranded themselves or vanished into the arctic, never to be seen again.  Rescue operations were brought to a halt with seventeen dead, between Italia’s crew and her rescuers.

Roald Amundsen
Raould Amundsen

The famous polar explorer Raould Amundsen, the man who first reached the pole in 1926, disappeared on June 18 while on a rescue mission with Norwegian pilot Leif Dietrichson, French pilot René Guilbaud, and a three-man French crew.

The American woman Bess Magids, engaged to be married to Amundsen, was already on the way to Norway, for the wedding that would never take place.

Rescue expeditions were launched from Denmark, Finland, France, Italy, Norway, Soviet Russia, Sweden and the United States.

Forty-nine days would come and go, before the last of the crash survivors and stranded would-be rescuers, would be found.  The red tent was relocated several times to avoid getting wet, on the shrinking ice pack

Umberto Nobile was a subject of scorn, for allowing himself to be rescued before his men.  And for bringing Titina, thus elevating the life of the dog over the lives of his men.   Titina herself was sick with scurvy when rescued from the ice and went to a dentist, to have several teeth removed.  Rumor has it that Nobile had them replaced, with gold teeth.

The fate of the journalist, the three mechanics and the scientist who drifted away on the Airship Italia remains a mystery, to this day.

March 7, 1912 The Heroic Age of Polar Exploration

The final camp became their tomb, a high cairn of snow erected over it. Ship’s carpenters built a wooden cross, inscribed with a line from Alfred Lord Tennyson’s poem Ulysses: “To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield”.

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RV Belgica frozen in the ice, 1898

The fourth son of a family of Norwegian shipowners and captains, Roald Amundsen always wanted to go to sea. His mother wanted no such thing and made him promise he’d go to school to become a doctor. Amundsen was 21 when his mother died. He kept his promise until that day.  There would be no more school after that.

Amundsen wanted to become an explorer, taking inspiration from the doomed Franklin Arctic Expedition of 1848, and Fridtjof Nansen’s crossing of Greenland in 1888.

Roald Amundsen
Roald Amundsen

It’s been called the “Heroic Age” of polar exploration. Amundsen was drawn to it as much as he helped create it. He was part of the Antarctic expedition of 1897-99 aboard the RV Belgica, the first to winter in Antarctica. He led the first expedition to successfully navigate Canada’s Northwest Passage between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, in 1903–06.

Amundsen’s attempt to reach the South Pole set out on September 8, 1911. Using skis and dog sleds, Amundsen and his men created supply depots at 80°, 81° and 82° south, along a direct line to the Pole. The effort proved to be premature and had to be abandoned due to extreme cold. A second attempt departed on October 19 with four sledges and 52 dogs, along the previously unknown Axel Heiberg Glacier.  The team of five men and 16 dogs arrived at 90° 0′ S on December 14, 1911,  the first team in history to reach the South Pole.

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Amundsen expedition plants the Norwegian flag on the South Pole, December 14, 1911.

English explorer Robert Falcon Scott had attempted the South Pole in 1901–04, and was doing so once again in 1911. Though he’d had to turn back, the earlier expedition had established the southernmost record for that time, at 88° 23′ S. 97 miles short of the pole.

Unlike Amundsen who adopted the lighter fur-skins of the Inuit, the Scott expedition wore heavy wool clothing, depending on motorized and horse-drawn transport, and man-hauling sledges for the final drive across the polar plateau. Dog teams were expected to meet them only on the way out, on March 1.

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Routes taken by Scott (green) and Amundsen (red) expeditions to the South Pole.

Weak, unacclimatized ponies slowed the depot-laying part of the Scott expedition, four horses dying of cold or having to be shot because they slowed the team. When Scott decided to locate “One-Ton Depot” 35 miles short of its planned location at 80°, expedition member Lawrence Oates warned “Sir, I’m afraid you’ll come to regret not taking my advice.”

Unlike the previous attempt, Scott made it this time, only to find that Amundsen’s Norwegian expedition had beat him by five weeks. The anguish in Scott’s diary entry for January 17, 1912, is clear: “The worst has happened”; “All the day dreams must go”; “Great God! This is an awful place”.

Roald Amundsen returned safely and publicly announced his attainment of the South Pole on March 7, 1912.

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The doomed Scott party used a string to take this “selfie”, the day after becoming 2nd to reach the South Pole

Defeated, the five-man Scott party began the 800-mile, frozen slog back from the Pole on January 19. Team member Edgar Evans’ condition was visibly deteriorating as early as the 23rd. A bad fall on Beardmore Glacier on February 4 left him “dull and incapable”. Another fall on the 17th left him dead at the foot of the glacier.

Dog teams failed to materialize at the appointed time.  By March 16, Lawrence Oates was severely frostbitten. He left his tent for the last time, saying “I am just going outside and may be some time”.  He never returned.

The last three made their final camp on March 19, with 400 miles to go.   A howling blizzard descended on camp the following day and lasted for days, as Scott and his companions wrote good-bye letters to mothers, wives, and others. The last words in his diary, were: “Last entry.  For God’s sake look after our people”.

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Robert Falcon Scott

The frozen corpses of Scott and his comrades were found 8 months later, the last diary entry dated March 29, 1912.  A high cairn of snow was erected over it all, that final camp becoming their tomb. Ship’s carpenters built a wooden cross, inscribing on it the names of those lost: Scott, Edward Wilson, Henry Bowers, Lawrence Oates and Edgar Evans. A line from Alfred Lord Tennyson’s poem, Ulysses, appears on the cross: “To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield”.

They were eleven miles from their next supply depot.

Satellites measured the coldest temperature in recorded history on August 10, 2010 at −93.2 °C (−135.8 °F), in East Antarctica.   The Amundsen-Scott weather station at the South Pole reports the average daily temperature for March, at -50.3°C (-58.54°F).    A century of ice and snow have covered bodies, camp and the cross alike. Now encased 75′ down in the Ross Ice Shelf and inching their way outward, the bodies are expected to reach the Ross Sea sometime around 2276, perhaps to float away in an iceberg.

In 1926, Amundsen and a team of 15 reached the North Pole in the airship Norge. Three previous claims to have attained the North Pole: Frederick Cook (1908), Robert Peary (1909), and Richard E. Byrd (1926), have all been disputed as being of dubious accuracy or downright frauds, leaving Amundsen the undisputed first to have reached both poles.

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The Observation Hill cross memorial to the Scott expedition, erected 1913.

On hearing the details of Scott’s end, Roald Engelbregt Gravning Amundsen is quoted as saying “I would gladly forgo any honour or money if thereby I could have saved Scott his terrible death”.

He and a crew of five disappeared into the Arctic on June 18, 1928, lost in the search for survivors following the crash of the Airship Italia. Despite efforts to find them as late as August 2009, neither aircraft nor bodies were ever found.

Peter Markham Scott, the only child produced by the marriage of Robert Falcon and Kathleen Bruce Scott, went on to found the World Wide Fund for Nature, which operates to this day as the World Wildlife Fund (WWF).

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“I may say that this is the greatest factor—the way in which the expedition is equipped—the way in which every difficulty is foreseen, and precautions taken for meeting or avoiding it. Victory awaits him who has everything in order—luck, people call it. Defeat is certain for him who has neglected to take the necessary precautions in time; this is called bad luck”. —  The South Pole, by Roald Amundsen