Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Hell on Ice begins, June 13, 1881

This day in history the exploratory ship, USS Jeanette broke up in the Arctic Ice, beginning the final act of a most incredible tale of three years of human endurance and dogged leadership by George Washington DeLong Naval Academy class of 1865. The tale is ably told in this volume: Hell On Ice The Saga Of The Jeannette by Commander Edward Ellsberg, USNA class of 1914, one hell of a writer. From the Preface to this book:
In the summer of 1910, a boy of eighteen fresh from the Colorado Rockies, I stood, a new midshipman in awkward sailor whites, before that monument and read the inscription to Lieutenant Commander G. W. De Long and the officers and men who perished with him in the Jeanette Expedition of 1879 in search of the North Pole. Casually I noted that no one was buried beneath that cross, and since I had never heard before either of De Long or of the Jeannette, I wandered off to study the monuments to naval heroes whose deeds shone out in the histories I had read the officers who in the wars with Tripoli had humbled the Barbary pirates; those who in the Civil War had braved Confederate forts and ironclad rams to save the Union; and most of all to stand before the tomb of John Paul Jones, the father of our Navy and a valiant seaman, fit companion to the great commanders of all ages. Over the next twenty years I heard again occasionally of De Long in connection with the successful expeditions to the North and to the South Poles, finally reached by Peary and by Amundsen and those who followed in their footsteps. But except as a dismal early failure, De Long's expedition seemed to have no significance, until some seven years ago a brief article by a friend of mine, Commander Louis J. Gulliver, appeared in the Naval Institute summarizing so splendidly the history of the Jeannette that immediately that old stone cross in Annapolis for me took on a new importance and I began to study what had happened. Reading what I could get my hands on concerning it, I soon enough saw that De Long's early failure was a more brilliant chapter in human straggle and achievement than the later successes of Peary and of Amundsen.

Orson Welles and the Mercury Theatre rendered a fine production of the story, based closely upon the Ellsberg book. Listen HERE.