Sunday, June 28, 2015

Arctic Adventure: Sides with Science

Review by Bill Doughty

A good Navy read during hot summer months is the chilling true tale by Hampton Sides, "In the Kingdom of Ice: The Grand and Terrible Polar Voyage of the USS Jeannette" (2014, Doubleday).

Sides, author of "Ghost Soldiers," takes us to the late 19th century when science was still revealing the truth about earth's geography.

Explorers like Hudson, Barents and Barrington believed in an open polar sea. They sought to find warm currents and a temperate land beyond the ice. Navy charts at the time were incorrect.

Vain efforts to prove an open sea at the North Pole were fueled by assumptions of a deranged German mapmaker named August Petermann. He's just one of the interesting characters in the drama. 

Another is newspaper magnate James Gordon Bennett Jr., the obscenely wealthy owner of "The New York Herald." The eccentric newspaper publisher capitalized on strong feelings of nationalism and saw rich profits to be gained by backing a voyage to the Arctic. Bennett funded a U.S. Navy public-private venture to discover something that didn't exist.

This is a tale of life and death, courage and resilience.

The Navy's maps indicating a "supposed open polar sea" were developed by a naval officer respected for his oceanography, Silas Bent, who had previously served as flag lieutenant under Commodore Matthew C. Perry aboard USS Mississippi.

The Jeannette mission to the Arctic was launched in early July 1879, just 27 years after Perry sailed his "black ships" into Japan, 14 years after the Civil War (in which Silas Bent would resign his commission to side with the Confederacy) and 20 years before the Navy established a base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. 

Parts of the world were still being opened to trade, ships were just being converted from canvas to steam, and Thomas Edison was about to light up entire streets with his greatest invention.

One hero of the voyage is captain of the USS Jeannette, Lt. Cmdr. George Washington De Long of New York.

De Long became captivated by the Cold North on an earlier journey up "the ragged west coast of the world's largest island, Greenland."
"De Long's disdain for the polar landscape soon wore off ... something began to take hold of him. He became more and more intrigued by the Arctic, by its lonely grandeur, by its mirages and strange tricks of light, its mock moons and blood-red halos, its thick, misty atmospheres, which altered and magnified sounds, leaving the impression that one was living under a dome. He felt as though he were breathing rarefied air. He became intrigued by the phenomenon of the "ice blink," the spectral glow in the low sky that indicated the presence of a large frozen pack ahead. The scenery grew more impressive: ice-gouged fjords, towering bergs calved fresh from glaciers, the crisp sound of cold surf lapping against the pack ringed seals peeking through gaps in the ice, bowhead whales spouting in the deep gray channel. This was the purest wilderness De Long had ever seen, and he began to fall in love with it."
Sides describes De Long as frustrated by Navy bureaucracy and red tape yet fully embracing the stern, disciplinarian style of shipboard leadership, quoting a contemporary of his, Mark Twain. According to Sides:
"De Long blamed the Navy for some of his worst traits. He once wrote, 'Ship life is a hard thing on the temper. Mark Twain in his Innocents Abroad says that going to sea develops all of man's bad qualities and brings out new ones that he did not suppose himself mean enough for. I wonder if that accounts for all the rough edges of my character.' He admitted that he could be 'hard on men,' but such was the nature of a naval officer's life. 'I can only say I never allow any argument,' De Long once wrote. 'It is my office to command and theirs to obey.''"
Prior to heading north, De Long brought USS Jeannette to the Mare Island Shipyard where double trusses, new iron beam reinforcement and extra pitch were installed and applied. Mare represented the nation's original "rebalance" to the Pacific and was considered a "western outpost of America's burgeoning might."

The Navy's Chief Engineer at the turn of the 20th century, George W. Melville
Another hero of the voyage is innovative engineer George W. Melville. Years later, Melville would become chief engineer for the Navy, earning the rank of rear admiral. As the 20th century dawned, Melville "presided over an expansive redesign of the fleet, largely completing its conversion from wood to metal, and from wind to steam power.  When he retired, in 1903, the U.S. Navy boasted one of the most powerful modernized fleets in the world."

Sides, known for revealing the personalities of long-dead characters, excels here in describing more than a dozen men of De Long's ill-fated mission.  The author shows the hard choices the sailors and civilians faced so they could survive: ice or sea, boats or sleds – which dogs to cull – what to eat.

Arctic-bound USS Jeannette becomes icebound.
Books were an important part of the mission, as inspiration both before and during the months at sea: books by Twain, Stephen Crane, Walt Whitman, Edgar Allan Poe, Jules Verne, Mary Shelley and Frederick Marryat, of the British Royal Navy, whose swashbuckling tales ignited in De Long "a profound desire to enter the Naval Academy."

"Kingdom" is a fascinating book, recommended by retired Adm. James Stavridis and another favorite Navy Read author, Nathaniel Philbrick, who calls this book a "dazzling page turner ... full of unforgettable characters and vividly described scenes." For example:
"Much of their journey seemed like a dream, a long whiteout of undifferentiated days punctuated by a few moments of haunting clarity: A snowy owl staring at them. A pile of decrepit sleds they smashed up for firewood. The corpse of a native buried in a box on a hill. A crow, circling and circling and circling."
Hampton Sides used original documents and reports from the voyage, coupled with contemporaneous newspapers and letters, including some heartbreaking correspondence between De Long and his wife Emma – featured in each chapter. The author's notes and selected bibliography span 34 pages and more than 140 years.

Pick up "In the Kingdom of Ice" to read more about De Long and Melville's daring adventure, the entropy of their mission in search of the open polar sea, and the revelations found in the frozen and unforgiving Arctic. Some survived. Others perished. Those who did not return alive were called by the Secretary of the Navy, "martyrs in the cause of science."

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