Inside DOD   Armed With Science

Teen Antarctic Explorer Gets DOD Medal 65 Years After Expedition

May 19, 2021 | BY Katie Lange, DOD News

In 1956, traveling the world wasn’t an easy option for the average person. So, when 17-year-old Civil Air Patrol Cadet Robert Barger III was chosen to accompany the Air Force on a South Pole expedition, it became the adventure of a lifetime -- one for which he’s finally received recognition. 

Over the weekend, Civil Air Patrol Brig. Gen. Ed Phelka, CAP’s national vice commander, presented the Antarctic Service Medal to now-82-year-old Barger in South Bend, Indiana. The medal was created in 1960 to recognize explorative and scientific achievements; however, it was only recently brought to the attention of the Air Force that Barger was retroactively eligible for it. 

A man in a suit jacket receives a medal chest pin from a man in military uniform.
Barger Antarctic medal
Dr. Robert Barger III receives the Antarctic Service Medal from Civil Air Patrol Brig. Gen. Ed Phelka 65 years after he was chosen as a CAP cadet to join a joint military expedition to Antarctica called Operation Deep Freeze II.
Photo By: Civil Air Patrol Lt. Col. Robert Bowden
VIRIN: 210515-O-DT176-067
A man in a suit jacket wearing a medal pin looks to his right.
Barger Antarctic medal
Dr. Robert Barger III wears his Antarctic Service Medal upon receiving it 65 years after he was chosen as a Civil Air Patrol cadet to join a joint military expedition to Antarctica called Operation Deep Freeze II.
Photo By: Civil Air Patrol Lt. Col. Robert Bowden
VIRIN: 210515-O-DT176-066
An older woman smiles while holding a coin; an older man beside her holds two thumbs up.
Barger Antarctic medal
Dr. Robert Barger III and his wife, Josephine, smile and give a thumbs-up after Barger received the Antarctic Service Medal for his work during a 1956 DOD exploration mission in Antarctica.
Photo By: Civil Air Patrol Lt. Col. Robert Bowden
VIRIN: 210515-O-DT176-065

"Dr. Barger was a true CAP pioneer," Phelka said, while presenting the 82-year-old with the medal and a CAP challenge coin. "To be entrusted with an array of responsibilities on the other side of the world? Unprecedented."

The Civil Air Patrol is an Air Force auxiliary organization that has helped with search-and-rescue operations and homeland protection since World War II. Barger had always wanted to fly, so he joined CAP at 13. He worked hard, graduating high school early, working a part-time job to finance his flying hobby and even taking part in a CAP exchange to Denmark. Those achievements could be why he was chosen from a large pool of CAP cadets to be part of Operation Deep Freeze II, a joint Navy, Air Force and civilian scientific expedition tasked with airlifting supplies over the polar ice cap to set up a base at the South Pole. 

Barger’s role: to be the assistant photographer for an 80-man aviation unit from the 18th Air Force. He was quickly trained in still photography and short movie-making.

Once he arrived at the bottom of the world, he described his many adventures to newspapers of the day. Some of the more fascinating tidbits are detailed here.

A photo on the left shows a young man touching an airplane; on the right is an older man looking down at a medal in his hand.
Barger Antarctic medal
Left: Civil Air Patrol Cadet Robert Barger III stands beside an airplane. Right: Barger, now 82, looks closely at the Antarctic Service Medal he received for his role in Operation Deep Freeze II in 1956.
Photo By: Col. Louisa S. Morse Center for CAP History/CAP Lt. Col. Robert Bowden
VIRIN: 210515-O-D0439-076

A Once-In-A-Lifetime Expedition

Barger’s journey to the South Pole began Oct. 3, 1956. After leaving his hometown of Peoria, Illinois, he hopped on one of the mission’s eight C-124 Globemaster II cargo planes at Donaldson Air Force Base in Greenville, South Carolina. The small fleet then flew to New Zealand, making several pit stops along the way. Finally, on Oct. 25, they landed at Antarctica’s McMurdo Station, a U.S. advance base that Barger would call home for the next four months. It was a balmy -65 degrees Fahrenheit and 24 hours of sun. Welcome to an Antarctic summer! 

A cargo plane sits on a snowed-over runway with equipment around it. Small mountains rise in the background.
Barger Antarctic medal
An Air Force C-124 Globemaster II undergoes maintenance during Operation Deep Freeze II in Antarctica in 1956.
Photo By: Robert Barger III
VIRIN: 210517-F-D0439-084
A helicopter hauls several long dangly items from its cable over a mountain.
Barger Antarctic medal
A military helicopter hauls equipment used to help build the South Pole base in Antarctica in 1956.
Photo By: Robert Barger III
VIRIN: 210517-F-D0439-085

Soon, the team set to work. Barger took photos on the first Air Force flight over the South Pole, a five-hour trek from McMurdo. He helped the crews drop supplies that Navy Seabees would eventually use to build the base. He also checked the weather and marveled at the navigators’ use of celestial navigation. Because every direction from the South Pole is north, compasses aren’t useful. Instead, an instrument called a sextant uses the sun, moon, stars and planets to finalize their position among the vast white stretches of rough ice. It’s a practice that’s still used by Antarctic navigators today.

Barger later told one newspaper that they actually had to fly "up" to reach their target. The South Pole is on a plateau 10,000 feet above sea level, so he said they had to fly several thousand feet higher to avoid high, snow-packed mountains. 

Barger flew over the pole five times during his Antarctic adventure, even watching from above while the mission’s commander, Navy Adm. George Dufek, stepped from a transport plane into -50 degree weather to plant the U.S. flag. He was also on the mission that marked the first pole-to-pole communication by successfully contacting Alaska.

Two people walk a small snow-covered road surrounded by small buildings and a mountain.
Barger Antarctic medal
Explorers wander a section of McMurdo Station in Antarctica in 1956.
Photo By: Robert Barger III
VIRIN: 210517-F-D0439-086
An aerial view of land shows vast snow-covered plains and mountains.
Barger Antarctic medal
A view from a C-124 Globemaster II shows the white landscape of Antarctica during Operation Deep Freeze II in 1956.
Photo By: Robert Barger III
VIRIN: 210517-F-D0439-087

Life Below

Living at the bottom of the world was an adventure in itself. Barger, who turned 18 on the trip, told the Greenville News that the biggest lesson he learned was patience. He said the long, bright winter days and nights gave him polar insomnia, but staying busy kept him happy. 

Barger said his accommodations at the recently built McMurdo were comfortable and well-sheltered. He wrote in an essay that they lived in huts heated by oil stoves, and they slept in bunk beds that were hot on top and cold on bottom. Otherwise, the food was good, they watched a nightly movie, and there was even a church to attend!

However, it was crowded. A lot of scientists and observers passed through McMurdo on their way to other stations, so there were about 200 people in a space made for 80. Barger said there was even a Russian scientist there, which was big news because of the Cold War. 

A penguin stands several yards in front of a large ice-breaker ship.
Barger Antarctic medal
An Antarctic penguin poses for a photo with an ice-breaker ship behind it during Operation Deep Freeze II in 1956.
Photo By: Robert Barger III
VIRIN: 210517-F-D0439-088
Two penguins stand several yards from an ice-breaker ship.
Barger Antarctic medal
Two penguins waddle around near an ice-breaker ship in Antarctica in 1956.
Photo By: Robert Barger III
VIRIN: 210518-F-D0439-038

Favorite Adventures

Barger's time wasn’t all spent on official duties. He met a few famed explorers, including Sir Edmund Hillary, and he befriended a few seals and penguins along the way. 

One of his favorite adventures, however, was volunteering to test a new watertight wetsuit. He and three others hopped into 29-degree water near McMurdo so scientists could take their temperatures with radio thermometers. Barger only lasted 10 minutes in the frigid waters, but he blamed his short stint on a leak in the suit that made his foot go numb.

He also enjoyed a trip to "Little America," a tiny town created a few hundred miles inland that required taking an ice-breaking ship and a helicopter to get there. Barger said the town was covered in snow except for the building’s chimneys, so tunnels connected them. 

"Walking through them from one building to another was like walking inside a large ice cave," Barger explained in a journal entry. 

Two men smile while they hold a plaque.
Barger Antarctic medal
President Dwight D. Eisenhower receives a horseshoe from the South Pole on a plaque from Civil Air Patrol Cadet Robert Barger III, who accompanied the Air Force for Operation Deep Freeze II in 1956 to further Antarctic exploration. The horseshoe was a relic from a 1910 expedition by British explorer Robert Scott.
Photo By: Courtesy photo from the Col. Louisa S. Morse Center for CAP History
VIRIN: 570624-O-D0439-021

On Jan. 23, 1957, Barger stood by as the South Pole station was commissioned at McMurdo because the pole itself was too treacherous for a large group of dignitaries. When he returned home, he visited the White House to present President Dwight D. Eisenhower with a pony-sized horseshoe that he found near the South Pole. The relic was from a 1910 expedition by British Explorer Robert Scott. 

A Pious Life 

After four months in Antarctica, Barger came home to take his exams for the Air Force Academy. Instead of serving in the military, though, he entered the seminary and became a Catholic priest. According to his wife, Josephine, Barger served for 10 years in the Diocese of Peoria before requesting and receiving his laicization papers from Pope Paul VI. The documents gave him permission to return to life as a layperson so he could marry Josephine, which he did in 1976. 

Barger eventually got his doctorate and worked in several professorial roles teaching and researching history, philosophy and theology. He finished his academic career as an adjunct assistant professor at Notre Dame University, near where the couple still lives. 

Barger recently donated his Antarctic journal, as well as photographs and artifacts from the excursion to the Col. Louisa S. Morse Center for CAP History in Washington.

Barger, who has suffered some medical issues in his later years, thanked Phelka through his wife for the medal during Saturday’s brief presentation. He then gave the brigadier general a formal salute, completely unprompted. 

Once in service, always in service!