A historic ice breaking

 Four high school chums recently reunited on a yacht bound for Sodus Bay and spent much of the trip reminiscing about another boat ride they made together 43 years ago.

On Feb. 16, 1960, Don Haag and Dick Yankloski of Webster, along with Mike Norton of Irondequoit and Jim Hertzel, who now lives in Colorado, were aboard a U.S. Navy icebreaker that made history while exploring Antarctica's eastern coast.

These four young men, who had graduated from Edison Technical and Industrial High School in Rochester just two years before, were crewmen on the USS Glacier, an 8,000-ton ship built for operations in the ice-covered portions of the world. 

Yankloski said he and his three pals never planned to be on a ship headed for Antarctica.

"We had requested duty in Hawaii or France," he explained, "but we should have known we weren't going to get those assignments as new recruits.

"I guess they picked us for the Antarctica duty because they felt we were from the north so the cold wouldn't affect us," said Yankloski, 63, who lives on Klem Road. "We were lucky because we spent time there in the summer when it wasn't as cold, but I still remember we had to watch each other to see if white spots were appearing on our faces, which was a sign of frostbite."

Haag, 64, who lives on Silvercrest Drive, said he and his buddies realized they were going to be sailing in uncharted waters.

"There wasn't anyone to discuss Antarctica with because nobody had been there in the 1950s," said Haag. "It was actually a beautiful place, if you like ice. We also got to see unusual animals like penguins, seals and whales, but after you spent a couple of weeks there the uniqueness wore off."

Norton said he studied up a bit on Antarctica before the foursome set out on this naval adventure "because I was the studious one while the rest of them were working on their cars."

"It was a very interesting place," said Norton. "We saw Little America, which was Antarctica's main polar station, and where Admiral Bird had set up camp when he was exploring Antarctica."

These four young sailors had a two-year stint on the USS Glacier, which also carried scientists who conducted observations, tests and explorations on the ice-covered areas of Antarctica.

"It was a very high-tech expedition for its time," said Hertzel. "The biologists and scientists on board were boring holes in the ice for experiments and manning weather stations there."

Hertzel added that the four wide-eyed boys from Rochester ended up with impressive jobs on the USS Glacier as well.

"We had taken a tough academic load at Edison that included engineering courses that were similar to what you would take in college," Hertzel said. "That qualified us to become sergeants at 18 years old, even though we hadn't gone through the usual training."

"Jim and I were actually given the responsibility of making the ship move," added Yankloski. "They were short on electronic technicians so they put us in charge of fixing the ship's electronic equipment. That was a lot of responsibility for two 19-year-olds."

Haag said having his high school buddies serving on the same ship eased the homesickness, too.

"We relied on each other," said Haas. "Sometimes we were on board ship for 55 days straight without stopping at a port or being in contact with someone in the outside world so it was great to have each other as sounding boards."

Hertzel said the foursome survived two years in a bleak and isolated place "because we each had a distinct personality."

"I was the spokesman, Don was the jokester, Yank was the thinker and Mike was the guy who went along with everything," said Hertzel. "We still play those roles today when we get together."

When they are reunited like they were a few weeks ago on Yankloski's yacht, they also bring up the day they made headlines during their Navy careers. On Feb. 16, 1960, they and their shipmates helped set up the first unmanned weather station on one of the Antarctica peninsulas and were also credited with sending a helicopter on the first flight over to that peninsula. The <I>Glacier<P> crew also broke a record for penetration into the Admundsen Sea, traveling 150 miles past the point that a Russian captain had reached in 1821.

"I remember we were treated as celebrities," recalled Hertzel. "I remember a firm in Fairport, which made BB and pellet guns, sent the four of us pellet rifles to use. It was good public relations for them."

Haag said he doesn't think Antarctica has been in the news since that historic day when he and his friends made headlines in the Rochester newspapers.

"You never hear about much going on down there," Haag joked. "Probably the last time Antarctica hit the headlines was when we were stationed there."

A few months after their historic expedition, these four friends returned home and split up for the first time in years. Norton ended up re-enlisting in the Navy and staying for 25 years while the other three went back to civilian life.

"We all got on with our lives," Haag said, "but we'd still make a point of getting together every year or two. At every reunion we'd pick up where we left off. Now that most of us are retired we're going to increase our get-togethers. I know I haven't made any better friends than these three guys."

"I think we've stayed friends all this time because we had experiences together that were somewhat unique," said Yankloski. "I've never met anyone else who has been to Antarctica."

Hertzel added that the foursome is "even more excited about the ship today than when we were on it."

In fact, these four ex-Navy men are involved in an effort to bring the USS Glacier out of the storage in San Francisco, where it has been since 1987, and dock it in Connecticut where it could serve as an educational resource.

"You can never go back, but I think we all would if we could," said Norton, who spent last weekend in San Francisco helping to get the ship back in tip-top shape. "My dream now is to be on the crew of the USS Glacier in two years when it sails over the North Pole on its way to Connecticut."

by  Karen Boughton Siegelman
Messenger Post Newspapers
September 17, 2003

Photo: Dick Yankloski, Jim Hertzel and Don Haag (l-r) pose on Yankloski's yacht during their recent reunion.