The Cardboard Christmas Bear and the Music Stand

My Christmas legacy from my daughter Jill is a Christmas bear ornament, a music stand, music, her love the Great Lakes and other bodies of water and her life.

Jill made a cardboard bear Christmas tree ornament at a time when I believed as firmly as a whole note that she would care for me in a peaceful old age and lay my weary self to rest with a violin or guitar tribute. Probably both. Not that I spent much time thinking about my death, then. Life still had possibilities, although they were not as endless as they had seemed in my twenties, they were still there. I never thought about Jill’s death because I knew she would outlive me.

She did not outlive me.

Those words cover days and nights trying to continue as normal, not inflicting my grief on other people, but being drowned by it as surely as she was drowned while kayaking in that river. Ironically, she kayaked safely in Lake Michigan and in Alaska, but drowned in a river in Tennessee.

Silently, I added custom made lyrics and melodies to the Elizabeth Kuber Ross stages of grief. Most of the time, disbelief was more harmony than melody. For me, there was nothing more real than watching the wind blow Jill’s ashes over her beloved Lake Michigan. My grief composition included zombie days, sleepless nights, hamster wheels of regret, stiletto memories, and endless notes of sorrow, vibrating with things like taking her violin and guitar out of her camper, finding all of the music she had played including some of the music we played together.

The blue notes included her jeep, her camper, her diaries, her life. The grade school art and diaries and cards and her Christmas bear tore at my heart so savagely that I wanted to tear them up in little pieces to join the pieces of my heart. I did not tear them up. I stowed them away along with my music and shut the lid on the memories as firmly as I closed the lid on the piano. For good measure, I sat some books on the lid, both literally and figuratively.

Or I thought I had. Then I found Jill’s Christmas bear. She had tucked the bear in one of her elementary school diaries, the kind that says, “I love you mom from your doughter Jill.”

I held it to my heart wondering how many pieces a heart can break into before it dissolves completely. Memories seeped from under the closed piano lid and there we were again. The ear squeaking violin lessons in second and third grade, the fourth and fifth grade orchestra, bus trips downtown to the junior symphony orchestra. High school orchestra and band concerts. At home, her violin and my piano and accordion blended well enough for us to play together at a local nursing home for several years. We loved music together. We loved each other together.

Then her earthly music stopped, and my earthly music was so muted with grief that I did not think I would ever hear it full volume again.

I looked, really looked at Jill’s Christmas bear. Wasn’t his mouth open just the tiniest bit? Was he trying to sing? She overflowed her growing up years with songs like Angels Watching Over Me, Old MacDonald, and even some of Glenn Miller and other old songs that I loved to sing and play. Then she stopped singing in favor of playing her violin, and later her guitar and mandolin. I was afraid that adult life had reduced her songs to syllables and sixteenth notes.

Then I found the C/D she had sent me. She had written and played tracks of original music and had them professionally recorded. I listened, really listened to her C/D. She sang one of her original songs.

I transferred the bear from his paper hideaway to the Christmas tree. She loved Christmas, and I know that in the musical part of heaven where she lives, she is singing Christmas carols. I play her C/D often and listen to her voice. I know in the musical part of heaven where she lives, she is singing and playing many of her original songs. Christmas carols contain words like mother, child, joy, music, sing, and faith.

Faith says the music of the waves back dropped her trip to heaven. Faith says she is in the Christmas music I play and sing with my grandchildren. Faith says that Christmas sorrow can contain grace notes of Christmas joy. Even though through all of the Christmas carols I hear the refrain, “I wish she were here.”

Christmas songs also contain words like despair in I heard the Bells on Christmas Day. Sometimes despair is part of my grief song. Despair at the empty days without her visibly in my life. Faith says she is in heaven and faith and imagination say that she is singing and playing right along with me, but I still do not hear her voice on the telephone or enjoy her sitting across the table from me. Memories can crash like a fist on piano keys. Music and faith can work together in lockstep with grief, even at Christmas, but Christmas can be a twilight season amid all of the fairy lights and Christmas decorations.

There are words from the carol “It Came Upon A Midnight Clear….’for lo the days are hasting on… Sometimes grief hastens on, other times it lingers for a lifetime. Either way, grief is not something you move forward from. It is something you move forward with.

My daughter Jill left me a Christmas bear ornament and a music stand and her life here and in heaven. I have put her music on her music stand again and started to play it again. I scattered her ashes in Lake Michigan as she requested. I have resumed my love affair with the Great Lakes. Her Christmas bear smiles from my Christmas tree and when I open my ears and my heart enough to listen through my grief, I hear her playing along with me.

“Do You Hear What I Hear?” A Christmas Carol and a Prayer for Peace

Noel and Gloria Regney wrote Do You Hear What I hear? a timeless Christmas prayer for peace during the Cuban Missile Crisis in the Cold War

In October 1962, musician Noel Regney walked through the streets of Manhattan, the weight of despair in his heart reflected on the unsmiling faces of the people that he passed on the street. A war of words and maneuvers called the Cold War held the world in an icy grip, with the United States and the Soviet Union the principal combatants.

During these last two weeks in October 1962, the United States and the Soviet Union were heating the Cold War to the nuclear boiling point in a confrontation over the Soviet Union installing missiles capable of striking most of the continental United States in Cuba, just ninety miles away. History labeled this confrontation the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Noel Regney Feels the Weight of Despair and the Lightness of Hope

Said the night wind to the little lamb, /Do you see what I see/Way up in the sky little lamb, /Do you see what I see/A star, a star, dancing in the night/With a tail as big as a kite, /With a tail as big as a kite.

Noel Regney felt terrified for his family, his country, and for the survival of the human race. He had fought in World War II and had experienced the fear and terror of war and death firsthand. Now he worried that the secure life he had built for himself and his family in the United States teetered on nuclear brinkmanship.

He tried to think about something else. Christmas, the time of peace on earth and good will, hovered just a few months away and a record producer had asked him to write a Christmas song. He later recalled that he thought he would never write a Christmas song because Christmas had become so commercial.

Then on his way home, Noel saw two mothers taking their babies for a walk in their strollers. He watched the two babies looking at each other and smiling and his mood lifted from despair to hope. Noel’s mind turned to poetry and babies and lambs. By the time he arrived home, he had composed the lyrics of Do You Hear What I Hear? in his head.

Noel and Gloria Shayne Regney Compose Do You Hear What I Hear? Together

Said the little lamb to the shepherd boy, / “Do you hear what I hear? / Ringing through the sky, shepherd boy, /Do you hear what I hear? /a song, a song, high above the tree/with a voice as big as the sea.

As soon as Noel Regney arrived home, he jotted down the lyrics that he had written in his head, and he asked his wife Gloria to write the music to match his words. The Regneys usually collaborated using the exact opposite method – Gloria would write the words and Noel would write the music. This time they switched roles.

Gloria Regney later said, “Noel wrote a beautiful song, and I wrote the music. We could not sing it through; it broke us up. We cried. Our little song broke us up. You must realize there was a threat of nuclear war at the time.”

Noel Regney Experienced War Firsthand

Said the shepherd boy to the mighty king, / “Do you know what I know? /In your palace warm, mighty king, /Do you know what I know? /A Child, a Child shivers in the cold—/Let us bring him silver and gold.”

Noel Regney seemed destined for a brilliant music career in his native France. He studied at Strasbourg Conservatory and at the Conservatorie National de Paris. Then Hitler’s Nazi troops invaded France and the Germans forcibly drafted Noel Regney into the Army. While in the German Army, Noel joined the French underground. He collected information and warned French resistance fighters of upcoming attacks from the Germans, and he still wore the German Army uniform while he conducted his missions.

One mission in particular haunted Noel Regney. The French underground assigned him to lead a group of German soldiers into a trap so that French fighters could catch them in a crossfire. The memory of dead German soldiers falling to the ground haunted Noel. The French fighters suffered only minor injuries, and although Noel, too, was shot he sustained minor injuries. Shortly after the raid, Noel deserted the German army and lived with the French underground until the war ended.

After the war ended, Noel worked as the musical director of the Indochinese Service of Radio France from 1948 to 1950. After that he became musical director at Lido, a popular Paris nightclub. In 1951, Noel Regney left France for a world tour as musical director for the French singer Lucienne Boyer.

Noel Regney Moves to Manhattan and Marries a Musician

Said the king to the people everywhere, / “Listen to what I say! /Pray for peace, people, everywhere, /Listen to what I say! /The Child, The Child sleeping in the night/He will bring us goodness and light, /He will bring us goodness and light.”

In 1952, Noel Regney immigrated to the United States and moved to Manhattan. As well as writing serious musical compositions he composed, arranged and conducted music for many early TV shows and wrote commercial jingles for radio.

One day he walked into the dining room of a Manhattan hotel and saw a beautiful woman playing popular music on the piano. He introduced himself and in a month he and Gloria Shayne were married. Their daughter Gabrielle Regney describes her mother as “an extraordinary pianist and composer who has perfect pitch.”

Noel Regney and Gloria Shayne Regney composed music together and separately. The songs they composed together include Rain, Rain, Go Away, recorded by Bobby Vinton, but Do You Hear What Hear? is their Christmas classic masterpiece.

Some of Gloria’s popular songs include Goodbye Cruel World, and The Men in My Little Girl’s Life, and Almost There. In 1963 Noel composed Dominique, made world famous by the Singing Nun and in 1971, he wrote Slovenly Peter, a concert suite derived from a German folktale. In 1974, he wrote a five-part cantata called I Believe in Life. Gloria and Noel divorced in 1973. Noel Regney died in 2002 and Gloria Shayne Regney Baker died in 2008.

Bing Crosby, Perry Como, Robert Goulet, Susan Boyle, and Andy Williams are just a few of the artists that have recorded the more than 120 versions of Do You Hear What I Hear? in musical styles from jazz to reggae. Bing Crosby’s version in 1963 sold more than a million copies.

According to his obituary, Noel Regney favored the Robert Goulet version of the song.

“I am amazed that people can think they know the song- and not know it is a prayer for peace, but we are so bombarded by sound and our attention spans are so short that we now listen only to catchy beginnings,” he said in a 1985 interview.

“Listen to what I say, pray for peace people everywhere.”

Robert Goulet Version, “Do You Hear What I Hear?”

Pentatonix Version, “Do You Hear What I Hear?”


Honor the Merchant Marine in Every Port

Like all sailors, Merchant Marine sailors forge connections to each other and the ships and waterways they sail. Michael James Monahan, born in Covington, Kentucky, was no exception. The story of Merchant Marine machinist Michael James Monahan took place in different settings than Ashtabula and the Ashtabula Maritime and Surface Transportation Museum or lakeshore ports like Cleveland and Conneaut, but the connections are as solid as a ship’s anchor.

Ashtabula citizens Joe Cook and Wallace E. Wason, were two World War II veterans who were not in the Merchant Mariners, but were instrumental in creating the Merchant Marine Memorial in Point Park, a few oar strokes from the museum’s front door, and establishing the Ohio Valley Chapter of the American Merchant Marine Veterans. Cincinnati resident Bert Hinds, regional vice president of the American Merchant Marine veterans, told part of Michael James Monahan’s story in a manuscript from the Merchant Marine collection in the library of the Ashtabula Maritime and Surface Transportation Museum.

Michael James Monahan

Throughout the navigation ages, Great Lakes and ocean sailor casualties have washed home on beaches to be tenderly cared for by the people on land. Sailors in the Merchant Marine were among those casualties, especially during World War II. They laid down their lives with a will for freedom and many were fated to end their earthly voyages ashore in places that were not their original homes.

Michael James Monahan, originally from Kentucky, was one of these Merchant Marine sailors. In April 1942, his body washed up on St. Augustine Beach, and the coroner listed exposure in the Atlantic Ocean waters after a German submarine torpedoed his ship as his cause of death.

Michael James Monahan was born on June 7, 1893, in Covington, Kentucky. His father is listed in some documents as Michael James Monahan, and in others, Michael B. Monahan and his mother is listed as Mary Monahan. The same conflicting information appears for his father Michael’s birthplace. Some census records say he was born in Ireland and others in Maine. His mother Mary was born in Ohio. Michael had two sisters, Jeanette and Helen.

His World War I draft registration shows that Michael was born on June 7, 1893, in Kentucky. The registration information also reveals that he had light brown hair, blue eyes, a slender build, and was short of stature.

Census records and other documents list Michael’s birthday anywhere from 1893 to 1896. By the time Michael had completed four years of high school and was working as a machinist, the family had moved to Newport, Kentucky.

The 1920 Census puts Michael still living in Newport, Kentucky with his father Michael and his sister Jeanette. He worked as a machinist in a foundry.

By 1930, Michael had joined the Merchant Marine. The 1930 Merchant Seaman Schedule of the United States Federal Census locates his home port as Port Arthur, Texas and indicated he served on the Steamer Gulflight.

The partially sunken SS Gulflight

Launched on August 8, 1914, the Gulflight was an American tanker that the New York Shipbuilding Company of Camden, New Jersey built for the Gulf Refining Company, later to become Gulf Oil. The Gulflight left Port Arthur on April 10, 1915, with a cargo of gasoline in the tanks and barrels of lubrication oil bound for Rouen, France. A German U-boat, U-30,  torpedoed the Gulflight on May 1, 1915, in the Scilly Isles, making her the first American ship to be torpedoed during World War I. The torpedoing created a diplomatic firestorm which eventually moved the United States closer to declaring war with Germany in 1917.The German government apologized for the Gulflight attack, but did not stop its policy of unrestricted submarine warfare, a strategy which brought the United States into the War two years later after the sinking of the Lusitania and drastic changes in American policy.

The Gulflight did not sink, but instead her owners had her towed into port in the Scilly Isles to be evaluated and unload some of her cargo. After that, she sailed under her own power to Rouen to deliver her remaining cargo and then traveled to Newcastle-upon Tyne for repairs and returned to service.

The 1930 Merchant Seaman Schedule of the U.S. Federal Census located the Gulflight in Port Arthur Texas, and listed Michael James Monahan as associated with the ship. Somehow, he survived the torpedoing of the Gulflight.

In 1937, the Nantucket Chief SS Co. Inc of Port Arthur, Texas bought Gulflight and changed her name to SS Nantucket Chief. A year later, British registry Harris & Dixon Ltd. of London bought her, and they renamed her the SS Refast. On January 26, 1942, German U-582 torpedoed and sank the Refast south of St. Johns Newfoundland.

The 1940 Census listed Michael Monahan as living in New York City since 1935, and working as a machinist

By 1942, Michael was a crewman serving on the SS Gulfamerica. In 1942, the Benthlehem Fairfield Shipyards Inc. of Sparrow’s Point, Maryland completed its construction of the American steam tanker SS Gulfamerica. Operated by the Gulf Oil Company of New York City, she made Philadelphia her homeport. The Gulfamerica’s home voyage was scheduled to take her from Port Arthur, Texas to New York with a cargo of 101,500 barrels of oil.

On the night of April 10, 1942, she traveled unescorted about five miles off of Jacksonville, Florida. The lights of Jacksonville Beach Resort illuminated her in sharp relief, because the authorities had not imposed a blackout. Some of them had to be concerned, however, because shortly after 10 p.m., the Gulfamerica began to zigzag instead of steaming a straight course. Twenty minutes later, a German submarine U-123, Reinhard Hardegen, commander, sighted her and fired at torpedo.

Striking the number seven tank on the starboard side, the torpedo created an explosion and fire. The captain ordered the engines stopped and the ship abandoned and the Gulfamerica sent distress calls. The U-123 fired about twelve shells into the engine room on the port side with her deck gun, trying to destroy the radio antenna and the anticraft gun.

The abandoning ship turned into chaos, one lifeboat capsizing while another with the master and ten crewmen pulled away within ten minutes. Ten minutes later, another boat left holding just three men, while three others abandoned ship on a life raft. Later it, picked up two men from the water.

The torpedo blast and gunfire killed five men and fourteen more men drowned after they jumped into the water. Two officers, two armed guards, and fifteen crewmen were killed in the sinking and twenty-four crew members, and five Navy Armed Guard survived the torpedoing.

United States Coast Guard patrol boats rescued the survivors, taking them to Mayport, Florida. The Gulfamerica settled by her stern with a 40-degree list to starboard, but she did not sink until April 16.

. Michael James Monahan was not one of the survivors. His body washed ashore, and papers found on his body identified him. After the coroner finished identifying Michael Monahan, he was buried in an unmarked grave in St. Lorenzo Cemetery in St Augustine.

The sinking of the Gulfamerica jolted complacent business as usual 1942 authorities to think blackout measures. The U.S. government had been tardy declaring lights out, but Florida Gov. Spessard Holland acted quickly. On April 11, he decreed a “screenout” for coastal lights. By the end of 1942, blackouts and covered car headlights were part of America’s wartime routine.

The Grave with No Marker Acquires Markers and Memory

Five decades and three years passed, and the story of Michael James Monahan was nearly forgotten as was the service of Merchant Marine sailors either forgotten or unrecognized.  Then another Michael, Michael Grogan, a reporter for the St. Augustine Record, happened to be digging through some old newspaper files, and he found brief articles about a man’s body washed ashore on St. Augustine Beach and buried in San Lorenzo Cemetery.

His curiosity piqued, Michael Grogan visited St. Lorenzo Cemetery, and found the grave, but no marker. He visited the funeral home, found the old death certificate, and wrote a short article about the grave with no tombstone. One of the members of the St. Johns River Chapter of the American Merchant Marine Veterans living in St. Augustine read the story and sent it to John Lockhart, a director of the St. Johns Chapter. John Lockhart researched and discovered that Michael James Monahan had been a machinist on the SS Gulf America.

The funeral home personnel also read Mike Grogan’s story in the St. Augustine Record, and they placed a temporary marker on the grave of Michael James Monahan which the government later replaced with a permanent marker.

To further recognize Michael James Monahan,  the U.S. Maritime Commission and the War Shipping Administration named a Liberty Ship built at the J.A. Jones Construction Company yard in Panama City, Florida the SS Michael James Monahan.

The stories of Michael James Monahan and Michael Grogan impressed yet another Michael, Michael Gannon, a professor at the University of Florida. Professor Gannon found the stories of Merchant Marine Michael Monahan and newspaper reporter Michael Grogan so interesting that he traveled to Germany where he found and interviewed Reinhard Hardegen who lived in Bremen, Germany. Professor Gannon continued his research until he had enough material to write a book that he titled Operation Drumbeat.

Interviewing Reinhard Hardegen

Reinhard Hardegen

Professor Gannon’s interview with Commander Reinhard Hardegen gave additional perspective to the story. Commander Hardegen told Professor Gannon that after the torpedo struck the Gulfamerica, he closed in and used his deck gun to finish off the ship. He noticed that large crowds had gathered on the beach to watch the sinking and its aftermath. Onlookers soon thronged the highways leading from Jacksonville trying to get to the beach for a closer look.

 In a hazardous move, Reinhard Hardegen decided to maneuver around the tanker and attack from the landside, although silhouetted by the shore lights, the U-123 a perfect target for defensive fire. The shallow water also made it imperative for the U -boat to lie only 820 feet from the Gulfamerica which opened up the possibility of return fire or getting swept up in the burning oil fire. After spending some time firing the deck gun, with the Gulfamerica burning fiercely, Reinhard Hardegen decided to leave. Now planes droned overhead, trying to find the submarine with parachute flares and a destroyer and several patrol boats closed in on the water.

The aircraft forced the U-123 to crash dive to the bottom, only sixty-six feet down, and the destroyer USS Dahlgren dropped six depth charges. The submarine sustained heavy damages and convinced the destroyer would return for another attack, Commander Hardegen ordered the secret codes and machinery destroyed and his U-boat abandoned. As the commander, his orders were to open the tower hatch so the crew could escape using escape gear, but he was paralyzed with fear and could not finish the evacuation. Fortunately for Commander Hardegen and for unknown reasons, the Dahlgren did not drop any more depth charges and moved away. The U-123 made emergency repairs and limped away into deeper waters. Commander Hardegen told Professor Gannon, “Only because I was too scared was, I not captured.”

Bert Hinds, regional vice president of the American Merchant Marine veterans, who told part of Michael James Monahan’s story reported the belief of an anonymous Navy Armed Guard survivor who claimed that the real reason Commander Hardegen brought the U-123 about was that an offshore breeze blew the burning oil towards his submarine and by bringing the U-123 about, he kept his ship up wind of the burning oil.

Whatever his reasoning, Commander Hardegen did not fire on civilians and lived to tell his sea story.

The SS Michael James Monahan

In 1993, military authorities were concerned that time had made ammunition from World War II, the Korean War, and some cold war ammunition unstable, and they needed to destroy it. They created Operation Chase to achieve their goal. The U.S. Navy acquired several surplus Liberty ships which were loaded with surplus ammunition and missiles from the Military Sea Transport Service.

The Navy scuttled the first ship, the SS John Shafroth, west of the Golden Gate in deep water. The second Operation Chase ship, originally named Joseph N. Dinand, but renamed the SS Village, was also a Liberty Ship. It exploded shortly after sinking, registering on seismic charts of the Atomic Energy Commission and the U.S. Office of Naval Research.

After these perilous beginnings, all the sinking ships in Operation Chase were fitted with charges to ensure that the cargo of the ships detonated, and these trials convinced officials to distinguish between manmade convention explosions, nuclear explosions, and natural seismic earthquake shocks.

The remaining vessels used in Operation Chase were Liberty ships: The SS Santiago; the SS Iglasias; the SS Isaac Van Zandt; the SS Horace Greely; the SS Corporal Eric G. Gibson; the SS Robert Louis Stevenson; and the SS Michael J. Monahan. The Michael J. Monahan was loaded with overaged Polaris missiles that had been stored at Charleston, West Virginia.

The Navy learned invaluable information about underground/underwater nuclear explosions from these tests and they conceivably could have been a deciding factor in keeping the Cold War contained.

Seaman Michael James Monahan

There are many ironies in the story of Seaman Michael James Monahan. He survived one torpedo explosion, he did not survive another torpedo explosion, and his namesake ship sank in another explosion. He washed up onto a Florida beach as a stranger, and the hands of kind strangers buried him. Strangers told his story and became his friends. Michael James Monahan’s story makes him a lasting friend to Merchant Seaman because it became part of the campaign to persuade the United States government to recognize merchant seamen as veterans, which it finally did in 1988.

Seaman Michael James Monahan, part of a brotherhood of mariners with stories to be told and retold.

The peace of St. Augustine Beach

(This article was inspired by information taken from Honoring the U.S. Merchant Marine and the U.S Navy Armed Guard of World War II

A Collection of the 40 Manuscripts about the U. S. Merchant Marine and U.S Navy Armed Guard during World War II published in Joe Cook’s Weekly column in the Ashtabula Star Beacon from May 9, 1997 through February 6, 1998.

Autographed front cover:  Best wishes to Wally Wason, co-founder of the Northeast Ohio chapter of the American Merchant Marine Veterans.

Joe Cook, September 14, 2000. This collection can be found in the library of the Ashtabula Maritime and Surface Transportation Museum.)

South Pole Snow Cruiser

This Ray Gottfried photo shows Byrd’s Snowmobile in its true colors. The story will tell you why it needed a police escort during its journey across states from Illinois to Massachusetts.

On the way to Antarctica It Passed through Ashtabula County

By November 1937, Admiral Richard E. Byrd had already led two private expeditions to Antarctica that he and his backers privately financed. In the Admirals case, privately financed did not mean limited funds, since wealthy Americans including Edsel Ford and John D. Rockefeller, Jr. as well as the American public contributed generously to raise the more than $400,000 cost of these the first two expeditions. People in all walks of financial circumstances responded to the Admiral’s enthusiasm for his expeditions, charisma, and the lure of the largely unknown and unexplored poler region at the bottom of the world. He attracted generous backers for both his first and second forays into Antarctica.

FDR Makes Admiral Byrd’s Third Expedition, the United States Antarctic Service Expedition,  Government Issue

While planning a third expedition to the Antarctic, Admiral Byrd was delighted to learn that that the United States government decided to finance an official American Antarctic expedition. He was even more delighted when on January 7, 1939, President Franklin D. Roosevelt endorsed plans for a government sponsored trip with Admiral Byrd in command. In his order or November 25, 1939, FDR possibly with an experienced ear and eye to Antarctica’s strategic importance and the war clouds gathering in Europe, directed that they establish two permanent bases.

The East Base would be located near Charcot Island, Alexander I Land, or on Marguerite Bay, while the West base would be established near King Edward VII Land or alternatively at a site on the Bay of Whales or near Little America. Eventually, the Expedition established bases off of Little America and Stonington Island, off the Antarctic Peninsula. The expedition members were also directed to explore the Antarctic Coastline while conducting extensive geological, biological, meteorological studies.

When the Byrd’s Third Antarctic Expedition left Boston for the Antarctic on November 15, 1939, besides its 125-man human contingent, it had two ships, Admiral Byrd’s former ship, Bar of Oakland and the North Star, a 1,434-ton ice breaker and four airplanes. The motorized equipment also included a Light Tank and a Carrier, and an innovative hybridized car transformed into snowmobile with facilities on top for an airplane. The Admiral planned to use the fourth airplane, a single engine Beech craft, with his newest technological toy, the Snow Cruiser.

 Thomas C. Poulter Creates the Antarctic Snow Cruiser or Byrd’s Snow Machine

Admiral Byrd’s third expedition enjoyed the additional advantage of the experience and expertise of Thomas C. Poulter. Thomas C. Poulter had been his deputy commander of Admiral Byrd’s Second Expedition from 1933-1935, which gave him firsthand experience with the problems of motor transportation in the Antarctic. During the Admiral’s Second Expedition, second in command Poulter discovered that the crawler tractor, two Ford snowmobiles and three Citroen halftracks that made up the motor pool could move through the snow, but they could not cross the plentiful crevasses. They also were prone to bouts of water condensing and freezing in the fuel lines.

By the time the plans for the Third Expedition were being finalized, Thomas Poulter had become Scientific Director at the Armour Institute of Technology and he resolved to build a vehicle that could handle the conditions in Antarctica. He used his resources, both personal and financial to raise the $150,000 it cost to build the Antarctic Snow Cruiser in the Chicago shops of the Pullman Company in only eleven weeks during the summer of 1939.

The Snow Cruiser, also known as Byrd’s Snowmobile, or the Penguin, resembled an elephant or a dinosaur, measuring fifty-five feet, eight inches long and almost twenty feet wide. When the operator extended its wheels, it stood sixteen feet high, with a loaded weight of 75,000 pounds. The Snow Cruiser carried two 150 horsepower Cummins diesel engines which powered generators to run four seventy-five horsepower electric motors, with a motor driving each wheel.

 A Glance Inside the Snow Cruiser

Besides the control cabin, the Snow Cruiser featured a machine shop, four bunks, a laboratory to practice science, and a combination kitchen and darkroom. The rear of the vehicle contained space for spare parts and other items and 2,500 gallons of diesel fuel to provide for 5,000 miles of travel as well as 1,000 gallons of aviation fuel for the Beechcraft airplane riding on the roof. Enough food for an entire year completed the Snow Cruiser’s stores.

The Snow Cruiser’s capabilities ranked as impressive as its size in the mind of Thomas Poulter and looked the part on paper projections. It could do thirty miles per hour on a flat solid surface, climb a 37 percent slope and using its four-wheel steering could turn its own length and crawl like a crab at a 25-degree angle.

 The Snow Cruiser’s tires measuring ten feet in diameter were manufactured at the Goodyear Company in Akron, Ohio. Although the tires were as smooth as a silken smile, Thomas Poulter and his crew believed they could and would travel through the Antarctic snow with workman like traction. The Cruiser’s wheels were fashioned to retract, and workers attached sled runners to its bottom. According to its creators, when the Cruiser reached an Antarctic downgrade, the operator could retract the wheels and the Cruiser would slid down any challenging hill.

Thomas Poulter had firm ideas about crossing crevasses and Snow Cruiser wheels, as well. He set the four huge wheels on the Snow Cruiser with over seventeen feet of overhang at the front and rear. When the Cruiser encountered a crevasse, the operator retracted the front wheels, and the rear wheels pushed the Cruiser halfway across the chasm. Then the operator raised the rear wheels and lowered the front wheels to pull the Cruiser the rest of the way across the gap. The Beechcraft monoplane complete with skis, traveled on top of the Snow Cruiser, ready to perform aerial photography and explore the Antarctic.

Teetering Down the Highways, Including Routes Thirty and Twenty

Since the autumn season had already progressed into October, and the Snow Cruiser had to be at Boston Harbor by mid-November, Thomas Poulter and his four-man crew did not have time to test their vehicle for snow worthiness. Eager to meet their deadline, on October 26, they climbed into the Snow Cruiser in Chicago and began the first leg of their journey to Boston, Massachusetts. The road trip from Chicago to Boston took the Snow Cruiser through northern Indiana and Ohio, following what was then U.S. Route 30, then north to U.S. Route 20 to Erie, Pennsylvania, into New York, and finally, Boston Harbor.

The Snow Cruiser did not travel unnoticed. A machine twenty feet wide and sixteen feet high could not help but attract crowds of curious people in the small towns and cities along the route.

The Snow Cruiser traveling through Van Wert, Ohio

The Snow Cruiser also did not travel trouble free. The Snow Cruiser’s height and width made traveling the two lane, often unpaved roads and narrow bridges of 1939 America a sometimes-adventurous venture. Near Gomer, Ohio, in Allen County, Ohio, along the Lincoln Highway (Route 30), the Snow Cruiser’s hydraulic steering failed, and it ran off the Highway into a ditch, causing a three-day delay in its cross-country trek.

Along Route 20, Thomas and his crew had to stop in Painesville, Ohio, for repairs and at one point, rescue it from a muddy field after it ran off the road. After a few days of successful repairs in Painesville, Byrd’s Snow Cruiser continued along Route 20, stopping in Perry, Geneva, Ashtabula, North Kingsville and other communities along Route 20.

Ruth Tuttle of the Kingsville Library had this picture of Byrd’s Snow Cruiser.

The Snow Cruiser made it through to General Electric in Erie, Pennsylvania, for a few days’ worth of more repairs. Finally, the Cruiser and its crew were on the road again, through New York and finally, to Massachusetts.

People in Massachusetts were just as curious about the Byrd Snow Cruiser as those in Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York, and the rest of the country. Crowds of people packed the route of the Snow Cruiser. At Framingham, Massachusetts more than 72,000 cars locked hoods and fenders in what the local papers described as “the world’s worst traffic jam.”

Finally, Thomas Poulter and his crew of four reached Boston Harbor in early November. With a sigh of relief, Thomas drove the Byrd Cruiser aboard the North Star and on November 15, 1939, the North Star departed for Antarctica.

Thomas Poulter sighed relief too soon.

The Snow Cruiser began to reveal its true operating procedures even before it touched Antarctic ice when the expedition arrived at Little America in the Bay of Whales. The workers had to build a timber ramp to unload it, and as they tenderly guided it toward the base, one of the wheels broke through the ramp. Thomas Poulter, ever protective of his creation, applied full power and the Snow Cruiser lurched across the ice with the cheers of the crew in the background.

The cheers of the crew froze in the air when the Snow Cruiser’s smooth, treadles tires would not move it through the snow and ice. They could get no traction, spinning freely, and sinking as deep as three feet in the snow. After trying chains on the rear wheels and attaching the two spare tires to the front wheels, the crew still could not create traction. After more experimenting, they discovered that the tires could achieve some traction when they drove in reverse. They drove the Snow Cruiser completely in reverse for their 92-mile journey.

Besides its lack of traction, the Snow Cruiser could not effectively navigate the ice and snow and crevasses that made up the Antarctic landscape. After the workers dug it out of several snowbanks, Thomas Poulter and his crew decided to make the snow work for the Cruiser. They covered it with timbers and snow and used it as a stationary home base for the scientists to conduct seismologic experiments, cosmic ray measurements and ice core samplings.

Thomas Poulter left Antarctica to return home to the United States on January 24, 1940, still convinced that his Snow Cruiser would eventually conquer the conditions in Antarctica. After Pearl Harbor, as the United States focused on World War II the government cancelled funding for the project and the Snow Cruiser spent the War buried in a snowbank.

After World War II ended, the United States Navy established The United States Navy Antarctic Developments Program in 1946-1947 or Operation HIGHJUMP, which began on August 26, 1946, and ended in late February 1947. Rear Admiral Richard E Byrd, Jr., USN, (Ret), Officer in Charge and his crew were charged with establishing Little America IV as an Antarctic research base. More than halfway through the operation, an expedition team found the Snow Cruiser and were astonished to discover that it needed only air in the tires and minor servicing to bring it to life again.

For a few weeks after turning the ignition and feeling the machine vibrating under their feet, the crew dreamed dreams of an operational Snow Cruiser. Their hopes snapped like a piece of ice breaking from an ice floe when they discovered that the Snow Cruiser still could not get traction and its other disadvantages had not changed during its snowbank burial in World War II.

Eleven years later in 1958, a bulldozer belonging to an international expedition uncovered the Snow Cruiser at Little America III. The expedition members discovered the long bamboo pole that marked the Snow Cruiser’s position, but the bulldozer had to dig through twenty-three feet of snow to unearth/unsnow it. The expedition members excavated to the bottom of the Snow Cruiser’s wheels and accurately measure the amount of snowfall that covered it since it had been abandoned.

When the Snow Cruiser’s rescuers looked inside it, the discovered that things were exactly as the crew had left them, with papers, magazines, and cigarettes resting in place. They too abandoned the Snow Cruiser to the frozen embrace of the Antarctic.

Later expeditions could find no trace of the Snow Cruiser. Rumor had it that the Russians had spirited away the Snow Cruiser during the Cold War, but no solid facts supported that theory. More recent scientific theories put the Snow Cruiser at the bottom of the Southern Ocean or buried more deeply under the Antarctic ice.

The Ross Ice Shelf constantly moves out to sea and in 1963, a large part of the Ice Shelf broke off and floating away, cutting Little America in half. Scientists are not certain which side of the ice shelf sheltered the Snow Cruiser, but most believe that it lies deep in the Southern Ocean.

The excitement and adventure of the Snow Cruiser also lies deep in the memories of Ashtabula County people who saw her lumber by on Route 20 to places most would never see but would remember in their adventurous spirits.