by Tom Clavin
It was on May 3, 1952, that a plane landed on the North Pole.
Specifically, the aircraft was a ski-modified U.S. Air Force C-47. The pilot was 33-year-old William Pershing Benedict, born in Nevada and raised in California. During World War II, he had been a highly decorated fighter pilot, ascending to the rank of major and squadron commander. Benedict had initially joined the Royal Canadian Air Force in July 1940, more than a year before the United States entered the war. He flew Spitfires but it was while flying a Hurricane over North Africa in June 1942 that he was shot down. He was, however, able to parachute to safety.
Six months later, Benedict was transferred to the U.S. Army Air Corps and he flew two different planes, a Curtiss P-40 and later a P-47 Thunderbolt. When he was finally given leave, in January 1945, he went to the U.S. to be married. After a short honeymoon, it was back to the skies of Europe until the end of the war.
Benedict remained in what became the U.S. Air Force after the war. He had risen to lieutenant colonel by the time he was approached by top brass to pilot the plane that would land on the North Pole. Joseph O. Fletcher, another lieutenant colonel, was assigned as his co-pilot. Soon to turn 32, Fletcher had been born in Montana but was raised in Oklahoma during the Dust Bowl years. After studying meteorology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, he joined what was then the U.S. Army Air Corps and eventually became the deputy commanding officer of the 4th Weather Group, stationed in Alaska.
He had good experience in cold, remote places. On March 19, 1952, his team had landed with a C-47 aircraft, modified to have both wheels and skis, on a tabular iceberg in the Arctic Ocean. They established a weather station there, which remained manned for most of 22 years until the iceberg broke up. The station was initially known just as “T-3″ but was soon renamed “Fletcher’s Ice Island.” It was used as a staffed scientific drift station that included huts, a power plant, and a runway for wheeled aircrafts. The hosting iceberg drifted throughout the central Arctic Ocean in a clockwise direction.
It was abandoned in 1954 but reinhabited on two subsequent occasions. The station was inhabited mainly by scientists along with a few military crewmen and was resupplied during its existence primarily by military planes operating from Utqiagvik, Alaska. The iceberg was later occupied by the Naval Arctic Research Laboratory and served as a base of operations for the Navy’s arctic projects such as sea bottom and ocean swell studies, seismographic activities, meteorological studies, and other classified projects under the direction of the Department of Defense. Before the era of satellites, Fletcher’s Ice Island was a valuable site for measurements of the atmosphere in the Arctic.
When Benedict and Fletcher took off on May 3, 1952, they and their crew were accompanied by a third man, a civilian: Albert Paddock Crary. He was born in 1911 into a farming family in northern New York State. He was a physics major and geology student at St. Lawrence University in Canton, New York. He graduated in 1931 from there and then enrolled at Lehigh University to obtain a master’s degree in physics.
Back to May 3, 1952: When the historic landing was accomplished, Benedict remained in his pilot’s seat and Fletcher and Crary set forth. Soon, readings verified that they were the first American men to set foot on the exact geographical North Pole. Specifically, Fletcher and Crary stood directly on the North Pole. By the way, the explorer Robert Peary claimed to have reached the North Pole decades earlier, but further studies revealed he had come up 30 miles short.
There would be more adventures for both men in cold climates. In Fletcher’s case, he would remain in the Air Force for another 11 years and then hold several government positions in the field of meteorology, which included more expeditions.
Crary, in February 1961, led a team of eight men who trekked to the South Pole, making him the first person to achieve the milestone of having stood on both the North and South Poles. The South Pole expedition set out from McMurdo Station on December 10, 1960, using three Snowcats with trailers. Crary was the seventh expedition leader to arrive at the South Pole by surface transportation—but none of them had been to the North Pole, too. By then, Crary had acquired a reputation for intellect, wit, and skill, as well as for being a great administrator for polar research expeditions.
After spending years completing and facilitating research at both poles, Crary eventually settled in Bethesda, Maryland, with his family and was kept busy accepting awards. Crary died on October 29, 1987.
Originally published on Tom Clavin’s The Overlook.
Tom Clavin is a #1 New York Times bestselling author and has worked as a newspaper editor, magazine writer, TV and radio commentator, and a reporter for The New York Times. He has received awards from the Society of Professional Journalists, Marine Corps Heritage Foundation, and National Newspaper Association. His books include the bestselling Frontier Lawmen trilogy—Wild Bill, Dodge City, and Tombstone—and Blood and Treasure with Bob Drury. He lives in Sag Harbor, NY.