The narrator was a former unrestricted line officer who became a public information specialist. While in the rank of commander, he served as the public affairs officer for Secretary of the Navy John H. Chafee from 1970 to 1972. The following is an edited excerpt from Hetu’s Naval Institute oral history interview with Paul Stillwell on 20 June 1986.
In 1969, my in-country tour in Vietnam was interrupted by a trip to Washington for a job interview with Secretary Chafee. We got along fine, and when I went back to Vietnam, I can remember all the way back in the airplane, I kept saying to myself, “One F, two E’s.” I had to keep in mind the spelling of Chafee’s last name. After I was back in Vietnam a month or so, I got a message saying that I had the job, so they ordered me back to the States before Christmas that year.
John had come from being governor of Rhode Island, and he was a consummate politician. We had two worlds. One was in Rhode Island, and then there was the rest of the world. Chafee was paying a lot of attention to the state, because he obviously had his sights on running for the Senate, to which he was later elected. Chafee was a joy to work for. He is a genuinely nice man, and he’s very personnel conscious. [Chafee died in 1999, subsequent to this interview.] He was the kind of guy who always took you with him, wherever he went, and I learned a lot about politics while working for him.
One of the greatest trips we took was to Antarctica in January 1972. The purpose was to visit Operation Deep Freeze, the U.S. mission to the continent. I’m trying to remember how many guests we had, about eight or ten, and a very interesting group it was. We had Barry Goldwater and his son. We had the Buckley brothers; James was then a senator from New York, and William was a widely published writer.
We spent a couple of weeks down there after going through Christchurch, New Zealand. It was an absolutely incredible trip, one of the great trips of my entire life, because of the people we met there. We saw the beauty of the place, and we went everywhere. During this trip we were just immersed in Antarctica, flew in helicopters all over the place. The scenery is unbelievably gorgeous; the continent still has an active volcano.
Among other places, we went to the Russian station at Vostok. January is summer in the Southern Hemisphere, so it was light 24 hours a day—incredible. Sleep was difficult. A U.S. Navy civilian had wintered over with the Russians, but he was like a vegetable when we got there. He wanted to get out of there in the worst way.
He later rode with us on the way back and told us some wild stories. The Russians were left with a winter’s supply of vodka but had not sense to ration it. At first everybody was drunk all the time, and they drank it all up in three weeks or something like that. Then they didn’t have any more for the rest of the winter, and by then these people were at each other’s throats. I think Vostok was 9,000 or 10,000 feet in elevation. I remember I smoked then, and you couldn’t get your cigarette lit, because there wasn’t enough oxygen. We visited the New Zealand camp, where they still were using dog sleds.
We went into dry valleys, which were a topographical mistake—totally dry and warm. One had a stream going through it. We would find mummified seals that they were telling us were 100 years old. We went to the camp of Ernest Shackleton, the British explorer who had been there years earlier. All the old camps were the way they had been in the early 1900s. It was so dry that everything in the camps had stayed pretty much the way it had been.
The Buckley brothers were characters. We went to the South Pole, and the Senator decided to have his brother take a picture of him holding up the world. So he did a head stand with his hands up. Of course, then you hold the picture and turn it upside down. They had done an ice core, so the Buckleys asked the scientists if they had a couple of feet of this ice core they weren’t going to use; it was from the time of Christ. They took it with them when we went back to the National Science Foundation’s McMurdo station. The Buckleys had brought along with them from New Zealand cases of wine. Every night at the mess, which was pretty spartan at McMurdo, the Buckleys would bring a bottle of wine to dinner.
As for the ice sample, we brought it to McMurdo and melted it in a clean bucket. They had brought little bottles about the size of the ones that hold eye drops. I have one someplace. The night they poured the water, I was in the quarters where we stayed. That evening we were drinking Scotch. I think it was Chivas, as a matter of fact, that they had brought along. So we were drinking Scotch with water from the time of Christ.