Into the Long Night
Venturing to Antarctica with Admiral Byrd
When Admiral Richard Byrd set off on his second expedition to Antarctica in 1933, he pulled Epaminondas James Demas out of MIT to join him. The explorer justified his action in a letter to Institute president Karl Compton with a convincing argument: “I believe it would break his heart if he had to stay behind.
But Pete Demas was not a weak-hearted man. During his time at MIT, where he briefly studied aeronautic theory, he lived in the Boston Navy Yard with fellow polar explorer Arnold Clarke ‘36 on the Bear of Oakland, an old whaling ship that Byrd had reconditioned so it could go on the Antarctic expedition. And the 28-year-old Greek-born airplane mechanic already had considerable adventure under his belt before he arrived at the Institute. Not only had Demas worked on Lindbergh’s Spirit of St. Louis and at Hoover Field, Washington, DC’s first commercial airport, but he had accompanied Byrd on three expeditions–two to the Arctic (including his 1926 North Pole expedition) and one to Antarctica. “All you needed to take along was your strength,” he said of the North Pole expedition in a November 1932 article in the Tech. “The rest was provided.”
Byrd promised Compton that he would keep the young man at his books, but it was a promise he very likely did not keep. Demas, who served as tractor chief and engineer with the second Antarctic expedition, had more urgent matters to attend to. He and the other 55 men at the Little America station in Antarctica sometimes faced temperatures below -40 °F. The extreme weather took its toll on the expedition’s heavily used equipment, and things frequently broke down. Demas appears in Byrd’s accounts covered in engine oil, the flesh on his hands “burned and shriveled by the frost in the metal which they were forever handling.”
Demas spent months overhauling equipment with three other men in a rickety, freezing garage “which always seemed on the verge of tumbling down,” Byrd wrote in his expedition account Discovery. He was resourceful and tenacious, but he could also be reckless: Demas once risked his life to save a tractor teetering on the edge of a crevasse. The danger had lain hidden beneath the ice until the tractor treads passed over it, and Demas–after escaping to safety–jumped back into the cab to rock the tractor clear.
The expedition did its best to deliver science that justified these hazards. The men conducted the first seismic investigations of the Ross Ice Shelf and determined that the ice thickness varied between 1,000 and 2,000 feet–comfortably within today’s range of 600 to 4,000 feet. They also performed the most southerly cosmic-ray and meteor observations achieved at the time. Thomas Poulter, the expedition’s chief scientist, organized a network of 70 observatories around the world to work with Little America as explorers scanned the skies during the four dark months of winter. He divvied up the observatories into longitudinal swaths so that Earth’s rotation brought one set of observatories into darkness as another moved into daylight. This system allowed continuous surveillance in synchrony with the Antarctic sky watchers. From these observations, Poulter estimated that at least one billion meteoroids strike Earth’s atmosphere each day–pretty accurate, especially considering that the men conducted observations pressed up against the roof of a crowded makeshift dome that doubled as Poulter’s bedroom.
In all, the expedition produced research in nearly two dozen areas, including glaciology, zoology, and terrestrial magnetism, laying the groundwork for future Antarctic science. By 2008, the U.S. Antarctic Program was sending more than 800 scientists and other workers to the continent each year.
Demas was no research scientist, but it’s unlikely that the admiral regretted pulling him out of MIT. Indeed, Demas helped saved Byrd’s life in the long winter night of 1934. While conducting meteorological observations alone at the inland Advance Base (more than 100 miles from Little America), Byrd began to suffer from carbon monoxide poisoning caused by emissions from his stove. He slowly deteriorated from May to late July, when his radio transmissions became so broken and incoherent that the men organized an expedition across the desolate ice to save him. Engines failed and the rescuers lost their bearings in hurricane-like storms: it took three attempts before Demas and two others rolled into Advance Base. By then, Byrd was barely able to stand. The men remained at the camp for more than two months, until Byrd was well enough to be flown back to Little America.
The expedition returned to the States in early 1935, but it appears that Demas did not go back to MIT. He worked in California for Douglas Aircraft and Lockheed Aircraft, and in 1945, he received a patent for a heavy-duty, compact scale. In 1979, 44 years after the expedition, he died in California at the age of 74, his heart unbroken to the end.
–Camille M. Carlisle, SM ‘10