Australian Biography

Phillip Law - full interview transcript

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How much privacy did the men on the ship have?

How much what?

Privacy? Privacy? Privacy?

Oh. This varied as we climb the scale. I was lucky enough in ships always to move up the scale. I didn't ever have to go backwards down the scale. The worst ship of course was the Wyatt Earp. The next ship worst was a little ship called the Totham, that we had to use when the Labuan broke down. Then the Kista Dan was luxury compared with those. And then the Thala Dan was better than that and the Magga Dan was the about the same as the Thala Dan, and then the Nella Dan was more comfortable again. So I kept going to better and better ships, which was fine. Originally in the Totham, men were bunkhouse sort of accommodation, in the focsal, which was awful. In the Kista Dan they had four berth cabins. In the Nella Dan I think it had got back to two berth cabins, although I forget. But anyway, they were very well designed with nice toilet basin and running hot and cold water in each cabin, so the privacy was reasonably good. At stations, it's interesting, that in the old days, in the heroic era, there was nothing wrong with the sorts of buildings they had. They were warm, they were comfortable. The worst part were that they were bunker style accommodation. They would have one big living room with a kitchen in one corner and an office in the other for the officer in charge, then bunks all round so everyone was living communally. One of the first things I decided, was that we had to design some methods of producing one man accommodation in the bedrooms. And we played around with all sorts of put and take and space to try and organise something. The men at Heard Island at one stage, in about 1952, divided up a circular hut in the most intricate pattern so that individuals were placed in it. I finally worked out that if you are economising on space in the bedroom, the sort of thing you've got to start using is the upper airspace because in any room there's all this space up here that's not being used for accommodation. So we designed a bedroom that, over an area about six foot six square, had a bunk overhead. Under the bunk, you had ... if the bunk is there, and here we had a writing table with a window and hanging space and a chest of drawers and there'd be room for a man to walk in front of that you see. So you could get ... There was no door, we had curtain. You pushed through the curtain. You could sit at the table or climb a ladder into your bunk, or use the wardrobe or the chest of drawers. So every man had his little cubicle and that was utterly private. Everyone was supposed to knock before they came in, and each man had his little private place that he could furnish with his own photographs and memorabilia and so on. Decorations.

How did the men cope without sex for such a long period ... periods of time?

It's not nearly as important as people would think. You sublimate by working intensely hard. Most men would go back to their work after dinner at night, instead of going to the recreation room. It's physically very virile and active. There's a lot of camaraderie and male companionship. And I used to stay to the men, 'Look, you're not going to have any sex down there so just forget about as much as you can and don't think about it'. And I said, 'Don't do what the American expeditioners do'. They just put up nude photographs around the place. I said, 'If you're going to have nude Playboy type photographs, that's just reminding you of something you're not going to have, so the less you have of that sort of business, the happier you'll be'. And it's interesting that there was quite an extreme contrast between an Australian station and an American station. I was shocked when I went to an American station to see everything plastered with nude photographs and Playboy tear outs and things, and you look at an Australian station, you wouldn't see one.

Any homosexuality?

No. We had only one case of any ... that I knew of, any overt homosexuality. And he wasn't really homosexual, he was a bisexual. He sort of bloke that if you couldn't get a woman, the man was the next best thing, you know. He was a lower deck sailor type and he put the hard word on two or three blokes when he was down there, but no one took him up so that's the end of that. I found that I had a bit of sorting to do in trying to avoid homosexuals in the interview. And of course, from checking on past careers and referees and things you could generally sort it out. So we used to avoid homosexuals. And then the psychological test would tend to show up a lot also. I found it was really easy to pick, what you might call, the female homosexual, who had the poofter type gestures and mannerisms. But a hard, tough male homosexual, who didn't have those characteristics, is almost impossible to pick, and I think that we were just fortunate that we didn't have any of those sorts of problems. Whether there was any covert, absolutely secret homosexuality, one would never know, but I think it would have shown up in such a closed community if it had been going on. But certainly, neither I or any of my men I've talked to about this, has ever been able to show any particular person as being homosexual.

These days the selection process may not allow you to make that distinction.

It's an interesting point. I don't know what the situation would be today. Just as they've allowed women down there, it's highly probable like in the army, they would allow homosexuals. Then again, it starts with all this, what the implications would be. I know that since they've been having women at the station there has been sexual attachment between some of the women and some of the men, and so I suppose if a homosexual would be down there you'd have some form of some attachment. Whether that would form any form of disruption. As in the case of heterosexualism in the stations, I think the danger is jealousy. You see, if you have a sexual relationship between a man and a woman and someone else becomes intensely jealous, you might have some incident of violence, or serious physical injury or murder, you know. These things can happen. The same thing might possibly happen in a homosexual situation. But, the odds against it are pretty high. I think the chance of a heterosexual relationship or a homosexual relationship in Antarctica passing along quite quietly - the odds are very high that that would be the case, rather than a disruption.

If we just go back to the Wyatt Earp, which you've described as ... scientifically anyway, as not entirely successful, what did you do after that journey?

I got back from the Wyatt Earp and I'd been only seconded for one year as chief scientist, so in August 1948, I was back in the Physics Department at the university. And then I had to apply for the job which was advertised, 'Assistant Officer in Charge' in brackets 'Scientific', and I've only found out in the last couple of years, through my biographer, a lady, who did the research on the archival material that the then leader, Stewart Campbell, did everything possible for six months to try and stop me getting the job. We were kind of incompatible but I was very careful to retain a good subordinate relationship with him. I never had any open row with Stewart Campbell but I found he disliked me and he was determined I was not going to get this job.

Why? Do you know why?

He ... no, I don't know at all. I was utterly surprised. I've always done my best to preserve his credit and give him credit for having set this thing going. I wrote a very good obituary for him, which I certainly wouldn't have written if I'd found out what a bastard he was really in trying to prevent my appointment. It's quite a story. But it's really a very dirty episode, and I'm only lucky that the Department of External Affairs could see through this and appointed me anyway. If you think of it, my whole Antarctic career might have been blocked off because of this man's opposition.

So you went ahead and planned your second trip?

Ah well the ... When I got back to the University, I had the idea of extending my cosmic ray latitude variation experiment. I'd done the Antarctic side and I decided to move it up over the tropics. So with my contacts now, I was able to say to the army, to put me on a troop ship and let me go up to Kure in Japan, from where they were returning occupation troops to Australia. And this was a story in itself, a quite remarkable story, but I won't go into that here.

What did the trip teach you in terms of what you were trying to do with your life?

It gave me further experience of army organisations. Particularly in Tokyo and Kure I saw occupation forces and the whole regime work. It helped me, I think, in learning about the Department of External Affairs and how diplomats operate in foreign countries, and so on. And I kicked around a fair bit on the troop ship on the way back, [which was] full of New Zealanders. I set up a boxing troop. We used to have boxing competition on board ship and I was acting as a sort of coach for the boys. And music contests and playing the piano accordion and the clarinet, and it was a lovely trip.

And around this time, did you think Australia should be establishing a base in the Antarctic, or what did you think should be happening there?

Well, right from the beginning I was obsessed with this idea of getting a base in the Antarctica. One of the big differences between me and Stewart Campbell was that Stewart Campbell went back to his position in the Department of Civil Aviation because he tried to find a ship around the world without success. He could see that without a ship he couldn't establish an Antarctic station. He wasn't the slightest bit interested in Heard and Macquarie Islands, so he went back to his job and I took over. Now I was interested in Heard and Macquarie because they were doing ... beginning to do some very interesting geophysics and other studies, biological studies. So I could see that I could be quite content doing the scientific work at Heard and Macquarie over whatever number of years it took before I could get down to Antarctica. But I was determined to get to Antarctica and ...

Why did you want to do that?

Oh well, it was the sort of the pinnacle of the whole business I was in. Having been ... Oh, one of the first things I did was to get myself appointed Australian observer with the Norwegian-British-Swedish expedition that went down to the Weddell Sea in 1950. And I went down with them from Cape Town and watched a station, Maudheim, being built. And for the two or three weeks I was there, I saw what happened when you landed in the Antarctica, how you went about building the station, and I learnt a tremendous amount from the Norwegian captain on the little ship, Norsel, because he was a superb ice captain. And we travelled over 2,000 miles through pack ice and I watched every possible manoeuvre and every technique, including the technique of using explosives to free a ship jammed in ice, which I used later. Much ... despite the opposition of the captains, who never wanted me to explode dynamite under their ships. So I think that by the time 1954 came along for us to establish Mawson Station I was better prepared almost than anyone in history except Amundsen, to lead such an expedition. I had my background of skiing and mountaineering. I'd been back and forth to Heard Island and Macquarie Island. I'd been down on the Wyatt Earp. I'd been down on the Norsel and I was a scientist and I knew the whole scientific background of things. So altogether I was feeling pretty confident when it came to 1954.

And did you have a lot of support for this?

Yes. The support in 1954 was superb because Casey was the Minister by then and he was not only supportive of the expeditions, he was a very keen aviator and it was through his support that we were able, over those years when he was there, to have tremendous air support, so much so that we built the first aircraft hanger in Antarctica, and had a ... the RAAF set up a flight of three men to winter over in Antarctica, and fly aircraft in the winter months. It is something we have never done since at our stations. Nowadays, they do everything by ship-borne aircraft, either fixed-wing or helicopters and nothing through the winter months.

What about the rest of the government?

Well we had the ... The ANARE is really a composite body. The Antarctic Division is the administrative arm of ANARE, but ANARE constitutes the Department of the Antarctic Division and the department responsible for meteorology, the department responsible for the Bureau of Mineral Resources, the department responsible for national mapping, and a number of university departments. So the ANARE acts as a umbrella organisation to co-ordinate all these scientific activities and build composite programmes.

Did you have to do any persuading of people that this project of yours, that you were so passionate about, was a good idea?

You spend all your time persuading people. I learnt over the years that governments almost never initiate anything. The whole point of government is to brush people off and stop them doing things, so that only the tough ones can battle their way through. So everything that happened in Antarctica was the result of a great amount of pressure from me over those years: writing submissions, arguing, pushing, talking to the minister, talking, lobbying, trying to convince Treasury that you needed the funds and how much you needed, arguing with the Public Service Board about what staff you needed to do certain scientific projects. It was a battle, the whole time.

Why was it a battle, do you think? Why were they not more supportive?

Well they're supportive in so far as their own jobs allow them to be. They're under pressure from all sorts of people like me, trying to persuade them to do things. And, as I said, most bureaucracy is concerned with blocking things off because they get swamped with requests of all sorts. Just imagine the number of environmental requests that any government gets today. So bureaucrats learn to say, 'No, for God's sake, no!' So bureaucrats learn to say no to everything and it's only the people that come back the second, third or forth time and worry the hell out of them that finally get the approval to go ahead. Very rarely do you get some enthusiastic support: 'Oh what a wonderful idea, let's go and do that'. That's not the way this world works.

So tell me about setting off in the Kista Dan for this big voyage?

Well it was tremendously exciting to see this almost brand new ship come up the Yarra and berth at North Wharf, and to go on board and see my leaders' cabin and ensconce myself in relative luxury in this cabin, and then to sail down, first to Macquarie Island. We had quite an adventurous series of landings and back to Melbourne to load up. The tremendous pressure to get everything ready in time and to get it all loaded on the ship in the right sort of order so that the right things come out first, in the order in which you plan it. And we had to go to Kerguelen on the way. Having been to Heard Island we'd go to Kerguelen to pick up more fuel, and then down to try and find Mawson Station. And this was an exercise in itself. It's not as though that's where you're going and you go. There's a whole Antarctic continent and we have to decide where to put a station. And I had got some photographs from our embassy in Washington of photographs taken by the United States' Operation High Jump, of parts of the Australian coastline of Antarctica. And from that with a magnifying glass, I picked out a few possible places: rocky edifices, on the Ice Coast that might possibly work out to be all right, and I deliberately persuaded the planning committee to go across to McRobertson Land in the west, rather than go down to Mawson's area. Mawson was very keen to go to Commonwealth Bay, where he had been. But I knew scientifically it would be much better to go to McRobertson Land because it's on the Auroral zone. The Auroral zone only encompasses certain very rare parts of Antarctica, so geophysically that would be very exciting. And we knew too that there were mountains inland from that McRobertson Land area and that the Amery Ice Shelf area was interesting. So there was a whole region that had much more interest than the Commonwealth Bay area, so we decided, in the planning committee, to go to that particular area. But having decided that, it was up to me to find out which particular spot, and I was lucky again, first in having an aircraft, because without aircraft I think we would have had the greatest difficulty in finding the spot for Mawson Station, because there are a lot of off-lying islands that block your view at sea level and it's like looking for a needle in a haystack trying to find a certain outcrop on the shore. But I had been lucky again in that when I got back from the Norwegian-British-Swedish expedition in 1950 - somehow I find it quite difficult to explain how I managed this - but I managed to persuade the government to buy a hut which that particular expedition had been unable to put onto its ship because of lack of cargo space at Cape Town, and to buy two of their Auster aircraft, when they'd finished with them. So in 1952, at the end of the Norwegian-British-Swedish expedition, I was able to bring back from South Africa ... [INTERRUPTION - SLATE]

If you could just pick up on the aircraft?

Yes. I think it's quite extraordinary, that in 1952, I was able to persuade the government to give me money to purchase one hut and two Auster aircraft from the Norwegian-British-Swedish expedition, when they'd finished with them, at a time long before I had approval to even put a station into Antarctica. So this was a sort of preparatory move in the hope that at a later date I would get approval.

You were quite determined?

Yes. So, it was a bit of long term planning in the way.

What was the actual trip like, on the ship?

Well, on which ship?

On the Kista Dan?

Oh, well, I'll come to that now. In 1952, I had designed ... with the chief naval architect of the Shipbuilding Board, I'd designed an Antarctic ship, which in the absence of anything around the world, we were going to get the Australian Government to build for us. Just when we were about to start building that, I learnt that a firm in Denmark had built a polar ship to service the lead mines in East Greenland and that ship would be used in the Northern summer and tied up in the northern winter. So it struck me that we could use it in the northern winter, which is our summer. So I worked through some shipping agents in London to arrange that we'd be able to charter the ship. And then I went to the planning committee and said, 'Look I've got a ship and what about it? Can we use that ship and charter it and now we'll be able to set up an Antarctic station?' and we were able to persuade the government to do it. And the result was that the Kista Dan, this newly built ship, was brought out here rather than being tied up in Denmark for the winter. So off we went. I've explained how we went to Heard Island and then up to Kerguelen and down to Mawson. And I should say that one of the reasons I was able to persuade the government to allow us to set up Mawson station, I said, 'If you do that, I'm prepared to close down Heard Island and we'll shift some of the huts and the diesel engines and the radio. You can get an Antarctic station on the cheap. Instead of having fourteen men, like on Heard Island, I will only have ten men in Antarctica. And this was the cheapest way you'll ever find to set up a new station'. And on those terms we did. The result was the following year we closed down Heard Island.

How many men were there on this trip, on the Kista Dan?

There were the ten, who were going to be left, and there was myself and there would be another two or three, I suppose, of supernumeraries. I've forgotten exactly how many. And then there would be a crew of about fifteen or twenty. There'd be about thirty to forty men altogether on the ship. Right, having worked out from my aircraft flights, that the point I'd examined with the magnifying glass looked pretty good. It was a horseshoe of rock, perched on the edge of the ice cap and I hoped that when we got there, we could get through the opening of the mouth of the horseshoe. It was very doubtful, because if you have a horseshoe shaped thing, the chances are that across this opening there'd be a reef under the surface, closing it off. So my hope was that somehow the water would be deep enough at that entrance to get us into this harbour. Once in there we'd be beautifully protected from the wind and we'd be able to unload very easily. But when we got down there we'd made good progress through pack ice and begun to see the mountains in behind Mawson and the Antarctic Plateau and everything looked wonderful. Then we ran into, what you call, fast ice, which is winter sea ice that has not broken up into pack ice and it's just a vast unbroken sheet of solid ice. And when we tried to push into that we found that we couldn't make progress fast enough. We were only going about 200 or 300 yards a day, which was hopeless. But we started pushing in and we knew that sooner or later a storm would break it up and we'd be able to get through. It was a question of whether it would happen in time for us. And so to save time, I decided that having flown in on one of these little Auster aircraft and taking off beside the ship on skis, I flew in and landed on skis outside this horseshoe, and then walked in and had a look at it all, and decided that it was perfect. And having flown back to the ship, I got Dovers, who was to be the officer in charge of that station, and about another three fellows to take the weasel ... a couple of weasels and a couple of living caravans and to start moving over the sea ice to go in to Horseshoe Harbour. The idea being that as the ship was making laborious progress through this ice we could be running little ferry trips with the weasels to try and get something going on establishing the station. But they'd only got in somewhere near Horseshoe Harbour when they were hit by a hurricane and to save themselves they pulled up on a little island and anchored there, barges down, and one weasel broke through and was stuck in the ice just before they could get there. Meanwhile, back at the ship, we had a terrifying experience that has never happened since to the same degree. That is the hurricane produced immense pressure in this fast ice and it all began to crack and break up, and under pressure, where there'd be a crack, it would all heap up and break down and these great pressure ridges would be forming out on the ice and the ship was then pushed over onto one side and the ice ... For the first couple of minutes it was quite frightening because we thought the ship would be crushed but then we found the ship was stronger than the ice. And ... [INTERRUPTION - SLATE]

So you can tell me about this hurricane?

The ship I thought would be crushed, but after the first few minutes I noticed that the ice was pushing in and cracking up against the ship.

Sorry, can I interrupt you for just a tick. Did you want that from the beginning? [INTERRUPTION]

Perhaps you go a little bit back in the story to when the hurricane started? Yeah.

When the hurricane started our men pulled up on this island near Mawson, Horseshoe Harbour. By radio I learnt they were safe, and the danger then was to the ship, which looked as though it would be crushed by the ice. And it was the first few minutes that were the most worrying because this tremendous pressure heeled the ship over on one side. I could hear the grinding of the ice against the side and then I noticed that the ice was pushing in and cracking and falling back, and I realised that the ship was stronger than the ice. And the ice continued to do this for about an hour and ice piled up all around the ship and finally great blocks of ice were piling up and falling over onto the deck of the ship. And some were falling back onto the ice beside the ship. At the end of about half an hour, all the pressure stopped and there we were firmly stuck with ice heaped up all around us and these great pressure ridges out through the fast ice, where it had cracked and piled up in ridges. And the next problem was how to get the ship out, because when the hurricane ceased, we found we couldn't move the ship. The captain tried all sorts of devices and nothing work. I even tried explosives and it didn't work. So then we got back to the Chinese manpower sort of system. We got everyone out onto the ice with axes and poles and hammers and saws and pick axes, and we literally broke up the ice down one side of the ship, poled it down in some free water along the side of the ship that we managed to create, and pushed it at the stern of the ship where the propellers churned away and pushed it a bit further away. And we spent two days literally digging out the ship. The captain unloaded the anchor chains out of the forward part of ship onto the ice - great heaps of anchor chains to lighten the front of the ship. And he pumped water and fuel from the floor tanks back up to the after tanks. Everything to lighten the front of the ship, and finally, he was able to get the engines going astern, and putting ice anchors out at the rear of the ship connected onto winches, which were pulling on them, he managed to get the ship to pull backwards into open water. Then we found that the hurricane had literally been an advantage because it had weakened all this fast ice and cracked it up, and we were able to push on through that then and eventually get to Mawson Harbour.

What's it like being in such a dangerous situation?

It's a mixture of fear and exhilaration. The exhilarating part comes from the fact that at last you could do the real Antarctic thing, like all the things you'd have read about. It's all happening to you, you know. And the adventure makes it wonderful., tremendously exciting. And on the other hand, you're fearful because you know if it goes the wrong way you're in pretty desperate trouble. But it's a bit like soldiers at war, you know: 'It can't happen to me' sort of thing. You have this immense confidence that ultimately you're going to be all right, you're going to get out of it. You never ever seem to think that this is going to be the end of you. Although that happened to me later in the later hurricane, which was absolutely terrible. But at this stage, it was fine. I should mention one little thing which was exciting. I told you that I flew in to have a look at Mawson Harbour first. The landing there was quite frightening because in that area, the fast ice was like polished blue glass. There is very little snowfall around Mawson. In the middle of summer, any snow that falls gets blown away and there's an immense amount of melting going on, so the ablation, as they say, of the ice, means that it finishes up as a polished blue sheet and we landed in the little Auster aircraft on skis. There was an iceberg about half a mile ahead but we didn't take any notice of it. And we landed. We wouldn't stop. There's almost no friction on skis on polished blue ice. And we go rattling on and on and on and the iceberg's getting closer and closer and closer. We suddenly realise that we're going to smash up against it and that's the end of us. So I had a very good pilot, Doug Leckie, and I'll speak about him later, a tremendous experienced pilot. [INTERRUPTION - END OF TAPE]

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