Cold storage no match for T-20

Men must sometimes do things simply because they can. And there was a fair bit of that primal urging in Richard E. Byrd, who subjected himself to a dark, frozen gauntlet near Antarctica’s South Pole in the 1930s and 1940s. Certainly there were more tangible United States military and scientific objectives involved too, but Byrd himself admitted in his book that “aside from meteorological and auroral work” he had no “important purposes,” just “one man’s desire to know that kind of experience to the full.”

When he wasn’t separating himself from the team to suffer alone in the name of science, Byrd was often accompanied by Captain Vernon Boyd of the U.S. Marines who was, by all accounts, among the handiest wrench-turners ever dispatched into such freezing conditions. Boyd served as master mechanic on Byrd’s expeditions, the man in charge of maintaining motorized surface equipment in brutal conditions that sometimes reached minus-70 degrees Fahrenheit.

Neither man nor machine is meant to survive in such climates, but against those odds Boyd fought pragmatically and successfully. He turned the frozen ice pack into a laboratory, studying engine lubrication, fuel performance, vehicle weight distribution and traction. He numb-fingered his way through countless fuel line repairs. He even published a scholarly paper on the topic, bringing his acquired knowledge to the masses that now enjoy easier engine starts and even-tempered winter driving in frigid northern climates as a result.

Frozen Beginnings

In 1939, the International Harvester Company supplied Byrd and Boyd with a Model T-20 crawler tractor. They shipped it from Boston and it climbed upon the Antarctic ice shelf at Little America 72 years ago this month. In its first year of service to the expeditionary team, the T-20 traversed 3,500 miles of ice pack, supporting field parties traveling by dog sled as well as aircraft operation units. However, in February 1941, with the flames of war threatening even frigid Antarctica, the team was ordered to evacuate its base camp.

Boyd was the last man to leave after the final load was hauled ship-side for evacuation. But there was a problem. The T-20 wasn’t on the shipping manifest.

Boyd, having spied Japanese whalers operating in the area, suspected his trusty mount would be pirated by the Axis if left in place. And having displayed the uniquely masculine valor that only roaring tractors can, the T-20 was far too valuable to be left in the enemy’s hands. So he decided to hide it. But where could such a monster be concealed? And for how long? Boyd pondered the limited possibilities and decided to drive it to the top of a snow-drifted coal cache at the eastern end of the main bunkhouse. It could still be seen, for now, but Boyd had one more trick in mind.

“I drained the cooling system and removed the carburetor float bowl,” he told Harvester World magazine in 1948. “Then I hid the float bowl in one of the building ventilators. I wanted that tractor for future reference.”

Boyd and his crew wouldn’t return until five years later, during the U.S. Navy’s Operation Highjump in 1946, but they had no need for the crawler so it remained shrouded in a snowdrift atop the coal cache. He was relieved, at least, to see it still in place. Then finally, in February 1948, Boyd was once again reunited with his T-20, seven years after he parked it. And this time, he intended to remove it from the frozen tomb.

“Enlisting the aid of some members of the underwater demolition team, we dug the vehicle out,” he told Harvester World. “It was completely buried, and the engine space and the controls in the cab were frozen solid in hard, blue ice.”

Boyd and his team chipped away the ice and filled the cooling system with a water-antifreeze mix. With no heating units available, even Boyd suspected that ignition would be a long-shot. But they slowly coaxed the shivering T-20 into a shudder, then a roar, and then a snorting throaty purr. It was American ingenuity at its finest.

“You can be justly proud of the performance of this tractor,” he told Harvester World.

Only one problem remained. The icy hole was ramped too steep to climb. But Boyd and his crew weren’t about to have their mechanical miracle derailed by physics. Lassoed securely, they towed the T-20 topside. Once removed, the T-20 resumed faithful service to the U.S. Antarctic Service throughout the group’s remaining Bay of Wales adventures.

– Jayson Hron


4 thoughts on “Cold storage no match for T-20

  1. Wow, this is amazing! I had no idea that International Harvester played a part in the Byrd Expedition of the South Pole! Stirring to think of the “cutting edge” technology America was developing and testing around the world! Love the line “But they slowly coaxed the shivering T-20 into a shudder, then a roar, and then a snorting throaty purr.” . . . I can almost hear that cold baby fire up!!!!
    Thanks for this “adventure” into history, Jay! Great job!

  2. Jayson – Great article about a great tractor I trained on at Operating Engineers School in White Swan, WA. They were TD15’s and 20’s with dozer blade attachments and of course newer models. Makes one wonder what ever happened to the tractor.
    Ross Beal

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