Monday, 22 July 2013

Deaths at Mawson Station

Today the flags will be flown at half mast today in remembrance of the death of Reginald Sullivan at Wilkes in 1968.

Living and working in Antarctica is very dangerous and over the years there have been many deaths at each of the four Australian stations as well as out in the field. As far as I know, Mawson has lost three good men. As you sail into Davis and Mawson stations one of the first things you see are stone graves with white cross's which really brings home the reality of the savage environment we have come to live in.

Graves at the entrance to Davis station
Graves on west arm at Mawson station

I have often wondered if the graves were just symbolic or there really is people buried in them, so I did some research and discovered they are actually buried there. As much as I love this place there is no way I want to be buried under a pile of rocks down here but I would think times have now changed and they wouldn't let it happen even if you wanted to. These days death is much less common due to modern OHS rules and modern equipment and telecommunications but the environment is still the same. 

The following are extracts from the Mawson station logs detailing the deaths of Robert White 18/10/1963, Kenneth Wilson 18/8/1972 and Geoff Cameron 24/3/1974. It gives a good insight to the tight bond between expeditioners and the impact such an event has on your life down here. The effort and fine detail the men put into the funerals is quite moving. With all due respect to the deceased and families involved I think it's important that they are remembered and their stories are told.          
Geoff Cameron 24th March 1974

This afternoon Geoff Cameron [1] was killed in an accident while tobogganing on a slope to the east of the station. A number of people were out enjoying perfect weather, skiing and trying out the new toboggan Geoff and Gary had built. The slope used is a long gentle slope, a consolidated drift behind a serac -ed hill of ice, but the slope has a steep fall to the western side. He evidently veered to the left and catapulted over this fall, plunging some 40 feet to a blue ice surface, fracturing his skull on impact. I[2] was one of the skiers, and was at the top of the slope and out of sight of the incident. Dadswell, Heap, Clark and Heustridge were also present, and some saw his fall. Walter saw the incident from a distance – looking from the station.

All made haste down to the body, arriving at different times. It was clear he was at least critically injured – blood was coming from his ears. Dadswell was the first sent to get the M.O. Heustridge & I attempted to find a pulse and breathing, but unable to detect any, were not convinced that there were none. The skull was distorted, but the extent was not clear without moving him, so he was left lying on his stomach, for fear that we would injure his brain. We covered him with parkas. Bill Griffiths arrived about 15 minutes later, with a number of helpers. After a short examination he pronounced life extinct.

The body was bought back to the hangar on the rescue sledge. Bill, assisted by jerry and Ron, performed a post-mortem examination in the hangar. An ANTEMERG was sent to Melbourne on the 6.20pm MBT shed, advising of the death. A Coroners Court will be held tomorrow. Technically, it should wait until instructions are received, but I believe it important for morale not to delay. The bureaucratic details can be sorted out later. We are shocked. He was a fine man, a gentle, thoughtful, earnest, well-intentioned, kind and decent person, who in the month we've been here has given himself entirely to the work and pleasure of the station. He was a gentleman by the ancient definition. He was a man.

All in the party have responded in the best possible way. It is a humbling experience to have so fine a group of men at one's command – this is so sadly plain in an event like this. 
The field party[3] have made good time and reached a point 6 miles this side of Twintop.

25th March

This morning a coded cable to follow the ANTEMERG was sent. As a result we spoke on an VNM sched at 10.30am. Sulzberger on behalf of Director had acted promptly on all matters relating to the death. I am very grateful for this, especially for the early breaking of the news.

A Coroners Court was held in the Recreation Room commencing at 11am, and adjourning for lunch and sitting again after lunch. seven witnesses were called, and a deposition from an eight accepted. Frank Johnson acted as clerk of the court, and a full transcript was recorded. 
The Deputy coroner recorded a finding of death by "Accident, or misadventure", occurring shortly before 4pm local time on 24th March, about one mile east of Mawson. 
The body of the deceased is lying in the hangar. A coffin has ben made. Terry, Werner and Graham Heustridge worked until six in the morning to finish it. This is typical of the marvellous response from this party.

A lengthy cable has been coded (actually finished at 4am on 26th!) for transmission to Melbourne ASAP, giving the Coroner's finding, text of the MO's report of death and autopsy report, and incidental information. This is a mighty task with this new code which is more time-consuming than the old one.
The field party have been advised of the death. They are at Twintops. Comms were very poor.

26th March

Melbourne have advised us that the news of the death has been released to the Press. Funeral arrangements are being made. The body is in a flag-draped coffin. The flag has been flying at half-mast for two days. A number of people are preparing the burial site of their own volition.

The field party are still at Twintops. We decided they should come home for the funeral, depoting there rather than trying for beyond Depot A.

27th March

Spoke to Styles[4] today re burial arrangements. 
Field party have not moved

28th March

At 7am, the field party advised they were moving. At 9pm, they reported 16 miles out, expecting to reach GWAMM about 3am, where they will wait till daylight and be down for breakfast - we hope.

After speaking to Melbourne, we are able to fix the time for the funeral service at 10am, to coincide with the memorial service at Williamstown. If the field party are delayed, we will hold off till 2pm.

Burial is to be here, but depending on ACT Coroner to clear it. Consequently, this afternoon all available-hands turned out to cart rocks to the grave site on West Arm – thank goodness the sea-ice is in.

Meanwhile the station just ticks over.

29th March

Spoke with Styles on PNM this morning – confirmation of burial. Tis is at 8am – the field party call up from GWAMM at 8.10, saying they are on the way. They arrive at 9.45. we delay the funeral to 10.15 to permit them time to prepare. The funeral was at 10.15 in the Rec. Room. The weather looked bad – blowing 50kts and the barometer dropping. We decided to bring the burial forward to 2pm.

At 2.10, in heavy wind, we departed from the hangar. The coffin was drawn on a dogsledge by four men, Narra, John, Werner and Ron. It rested on an Australian ensign, and was draped with our ANARE pennant. The pall-bearers, Bill, Garry, terry, Mike H, Tony and Don walked beside the coffin, which was preceded by the OIC and followed by the remainder of the party in single file. The wind was strong on our port quarter, and we had difficulty retaining our footing on smooth ice, so that the procession was rather broken up. All were wearing new Ventiles, trail mitts and mukluks.
[5] On reaching West Arm, we were met by melt pools at the ice edge, and the sledge was manhandled up the slope.

The coffin was taken from the sledge and preceded OIC [6] and sledge-hauling party to the grave, passing between two ranks of the rest of the party. The service was red, the wind snatching the words away into the grey Antarctic gloom. At the conclusion all – and I had only asked for half a dozen – all turned to to bury him, piling rocks on the coffin with the most marvellous common will. It was most moving – it is so gratifying to have such a fine party for such an event. We have 20-odd years of Antarctic experience, and I myself have wintered, & still we marvel at how good a party we have.

 The wind stayed up, but there was little drift, and of course, no sun. we all repaired to the Rec. Room for a Wake, a final farewell to comrade of whom we saw too little.

For the duration of the observances, we suspended station activities – on my authority. We care more for men than data. The one exception was to hold the rad phone sched – to speak to the widow, and assure her of the ceremonies held – Bill, Don & I spoke to her.

Tonight, we have seen Geoff on his way.
                                                      Kenneth Wilson (18/8/1972)

Wednesday 23 August

Welcome return (of field party from Colbeck), they had put in a very long last leg from the Stanton group. The exhausted party was welcomed in awesome silence as the news of the death of Radio operator Ken Wilson was revealed. He had died on Sunday the 18th August at 11.00am at Taylor's Hut. Words cannot describe the impact of such news upon expeditioners. Naturally mine was tremendous sympathy for those who had accompanied him through his illness under such trying field conditions. They had all been through the worst of experiences. Post mortem was held early the next day, Wednesday.

Wednesday 23 August

[7], Mark and myself witnessed the P.M. and it was discovered that the cause of death by perforated stomach ulcers, general peritonitis (acute) and general Toxaemia. A death certificate was drawn up. Post mortem results and notification of the death and conditions surrounding it were fwdd to H.O. the news was thence relayed to Mrs Anne Wilson, Ken's wife and subsequently made public only after every man's N of K was notified at my request. Flag flown at ½ mast, coffin made, body within taken to hangar after specimen taken by Doctor.

Thursday 24 August

Station in a state of deep mourning only absolute essential done.

Friday 25th August

Morale lifting a little. Movies shown as a diversionary aid. Things naturally very quiet.

Saturday 26th August

Thankfully the weather good and projects on as usual. Interestingly enough the dog trippers who accompanied Ken were all extremely dejected, down in weight and were indifferent towards everything signifying that what they had been through in the form of 2 violent blizzards, the death and the long push home had shattered them. A quiet Saturday night.

Sunday 27 August      
A general exodus from camp in an attempt to restore things to normal – it helped. Film at night capped off a much more lively afternoon in the Rec Room.

Wednesday 30 August

 Fine day 00F slight 20Kn wind. It has been divulged that Ken be buried at Mawson in a grave on West Arm adjacent Bob White's grave. All hands in working bee carry rocks over the harbour to form cairn for coffin. Certainly a moving sight. What a great team of blokes we have here. Morale good – jokes, jibes and 'stirs' flying about the station.

Thursday 31 August

Beautiful weather continuing with no wind and 120F. The pyro layers(?) are nearing completion but as is always the case on an Antarctic base there's always something to be done, the governors on the Dorman diesel generators got stuck, and a rush down to the power house to switch them off prevented a total burn out. Keith has completed Ken's cross and Ole has drilled the hole to take it. Max Cutcliffe gashes his wrist badly – August is hell on us!

Friday 1 September

Ken's funeral service held – all of doggies man haul the coffin on a dog sled over to West arm. They became pall bearers whilst the radio boys bear the coffin to the grave site. Service completed under superb Antarctic conditions. Cairn constructed and a great bloke put to rest.

                                                       Robert White (18/10/1963)

 In contrast to the other two deaths there is very little information on the death of Robert White. The log entries by OIC Ray McMahon are brief to say the least. On the 18th the only words are ‘Bob died!’ on the previous day he wrote ‘White admitted to hospital’ – again the only entry for the day.

A search was made of the national archives in 2005 and they found additional entries in the original log, which they hold.

17th October 1963

White slipped on sea ice while running with dogs

1. Apparently hit hard on posterior

2. Seen walking very easily with caution later on

3. Visited M.O.

4. Collapsed in mess. Carried unconscious to surgery

18th October

Bob White died at 0619 this morning

Artificial respiration applied until 1130. No avail 

[1] Geoff Cameron was a carpenter and this was his first ANARE expedition. He'd been at Mawson for only 28 days.
[2] Dave Luders was the OIC and he was previously OIC at Casey in 1972.
[3] Dave McCormack was a member of the field party.
[4] Don Styles was the AAD Acting Director. On retirement he described his greatest disappointment as not being successful in convincing government to establish a permanent rock runaway at Davis.
[5] Winter boots, similar to Sorrels
[6] The Mawson OIC was Neil Roberts a famous ex-footballer for St Kilda who won the Brownlow medal for best and fairest in 1958. In an article in 2008 this is what he wrote about his Mawson experience. ‘‘It was the hardest thing I’ve had to do. It was a rugged life. ‘‘I didn’t think I would have to bury a man,’’ he said. Roberts would have gone back, but in 1976, he and Ron Barassi were involved in a serious car smash in Lismore in NSW.
[7] The MO, Des Parker, went on to become the AAD's medical officer. He also assisted in the evacuation of a biologist, Roger Barker, who had fallen from a cliff on Macquarie Island in January 1979. 

There is a forth stone grave at Mawson that is symbolic and contains the ashes of Dr Phillip Law and his wife Nellie. Dr Phillip Law established and named Mawson station on the 13th February 1954.


  1. Hi Craig
    Interesting info about those expeditioners...
    There's a video about the Law internment at Mawson at
    See also comment in

  2. Hi Peter,

    Thank's for the info



  3. These stories were very moving Craig.Glad we have the Kellas Islands to remember Bill by down there not a lonely grave.


  4. My father, Werner Haymann, is the man mentioned who assisted in building of Geoff Cameron's coffin and moving it on the dogsledge for the service. His death had great impact on the morale of the men on that 1974 expedition to Mawson, and my father mentioned that it was almost a therapeutic process for the men to build the coffin for him as best as they could. Thanks for providing the information in this post.

  5. Hi Jody,

    Thanks for the comments and my regards to both you and your father. It’s always nice to get some feedback. We had one serious accident during my time at Mawson and I often thought how horrible it would be to have a fellow expeditioner die which led me to research the past deaths at Mawson. As I said in the blog, I was quite moved by the effort and fine detail the fellow expeditioners put into the funerals and the impact it had on them and I thought it was important to honour the deceased by remembering and telling their stories. I also feel there should be a day of remembrance and a short service performed each year for their sacrifice to polar exploration.

    On a different note, a new book was recently launched called “Fixing Antarctica”, by Lynette Finch – a book about my good friend Sydney Kirkby from Mawson who is one of Australia’s greatest explorers.

    You or your father may be interested?



  6. Hi Craig,
    Thanks for your words and remembrance about these men. It always made a bit impact upon me as a child when my father spoke about the death of his fellow expeditioner. I will definitely follow the book up. Unfortunately my father passed away a few years ago, and it is only now I am getting around to go through the many photographs and slides from his time at Mawson. He took over 200 rolls of film with him, and the insight into life back then at the station is fascinating to me!

    Thanks again,

  7. Hi Jody,

    The division (AAD) might be interested in a copy of your fathers photos? They are certainly interested in the older photographs and slides from Mawson. I too find them fascinating. Thankfully I had a digital camera during my time at Mawson.



  8. Hello Craig,

    I am slowly scanning the original photographs, negatives & slides and uploading them to a blog:

    It is a slow process I am fitting around many other things, but I enjoy the time I can get to do it. I also have the transcription of an oral history interview that my father participated in, and will slowly add that as well. It is a fascinating insight into life at Mawson Station back in 1974!

    Best wishes,


  9. Hi Jody,

    It's been a long time since we last spoke. I am writing to you to ask for permission for both myself and Heather to have access to your blog. ( Helen is the daughter of Geoff Cameron. Our email addresses are: ,

    Thanking you



  10. Hi Craig,
    A clarification in the Thursday 31 August entry for Ken Wilson's story, "... the govenor on the Dorman stuck..."
    Prior to the move to Caterpillar diesels powering most things on base, Dorman Diesel gensets were the norm.

    While wintering at Mawson in '93 I visited Colbeck and read the original hut log entries from that trip in 1972.
    Ken falling ill on the run down, the days long blizzard, Kens passing, the inability to establish comms with Mawson due to atmospheric conditions until the day the weather cleared enough to leave.

    Even sitting in the hut reading the entries 21 years later, it was difficult to imagine how they dealt with it all.

    1. Hi Tim,

      Thank you for the clarification. That text was strait out of the Station leaders logbook. I have edited the line so the readers know it was a Dorman Diesel Generator that had the govenor stuck.

      When I was staying in the Colbeck hut I didn't have time to read the logbook, so I wasn't aware of Ken's death. It must have been a very traumatic and trying experience for all involved.

      Colbeck hut is located in a very remote location, a long way from Mawson Station. I drove down there in a Hagglunds tracked vehicle, I cant imagine the hardships those poor blokes dealt with on the long push home with the dog team.

      The hut is tiny and when I was there the floor was a six inch thick sheet of slippery smooth clear ice, making life difficult inside out of the wild elements.