Features

To The Bottom Of The World And Back

story by cindy burbage

photos by natalie mcalister

Georgia has a plethora of people who have made their marks in history.
Some, like Jimmy Carter, the 39th President of the United States, and
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., renowned civil rights leader and
clergyman, can easily be found in history books.

Someone whose name was never included among the pages of history
books is Jasper Franklin Edwards, Jr.. from Effingham County.

He made history, and even if his name doesn’t ring a bell, the
significance of his life and work are more than worthy to grace the
annals of history.

Jasper Franklin Edwards, Jr., known as “J.R.” by family and
friends throughout the county, was born in Effingham and remained here
until he was 5 years old, when his family moved to Chatham County. In
1946, at the age of 17, J.R. quit school and joined the Navy.

Following World War II, America was in a different mood than before
the war and the naval branch of the military was fairly inert. Within
just a few short months of enlistment, Edwards was preparing for an
adventure of a lifetime. Admiral Richard E Byrd was heading up an
expedition called Operation Highjump, the exploration of the South
Pole in Antarctica.

Edwards recalled, “When I got out of boot camp, everyone was on
different ships, I was on board a destroyer for a few months, it was
of five in a squadron. Most of us were just out of boot camp, and a
couple of ships had stayed there two or three months and then we were
put on the USS Henderson. This destroyer was being prepped for the
excursion to the South Pole, Admiral Byrd’s Antarctic Expedition.”

The USS Henderson was a Gearing Class destroyer with a length of
390 feet, 6 inches and speed of 35 knots. There were 13 vessels in the
fleet. They were headed to a land sometimes referred to as the bottom
of the world. It had not been charted yet, and this operation would
name and map this territory.

So in December of 1946, the USS Henderson destroyer ship departed
from San Diego, Ca., crossing the equator a week later. Edwards can
still recall life on board ship as they headed south.

“ I was in charge of everything above the water, in other words,
things on deck. We had swells of water that were over 40 feet tall,
making the ship rock back and forth.”

He also joked about an initiation that he and the other sailors
had to go through.

“If you had never crossed the International Date Line before, you
were called a Pollywog. We had to go through crawl spaces in the ship
as part of it. Once we passed our initiation, we were called
Shellbacks.”

This tradition, also called The Line Crossing Ceremony, actually
dates back 400 years and is considered one the Navy’s most interesting
rituals. It was a method for the new mariners to test their
seaworthiness.

Rough ride

Going into the Arctic oceans was no easy task. There were a
number of obstacles, but weather and cold temperatures were the major
beasts. Still, with 13 ships and 23 aircraft, the men were prepared
for their mission, despite temperatures that plummeted so low the
ships were snowed in and icebreaker vessels had to spend anywhere from
6-8 hours breaking them free.

Edwards was the only one from Georgia on this tour, and when
asked how this Georgia boy handled the bitter chill, he responded with
a grin, “I did pretty good.”

Everyone on the trek was able to assist in naming the unexplored
territory. The fierce lad from Effingham chose the deepest part of the
Ross Ice Shelf, which is the largest body of floating ice in the
Antarctic, to be named Edward’s Cove.

In early March of 1947, the men of Operation Highjump terminated
maneuvers and set sail. After approximately 10 days on the open water,
the fleet arrived in Sydney, Australia.

“We were greeted with a water parade of double decker boats, tug
boats spouting water and show girls,” Edwards said with real pride.
“After being on a ship for that many months, it took me a while to get
rid of my sea legs.”

The Australians welcomed the U.S. sailors to their country with
open arms. During the days they were docked in the harbor, they
collected supplies for their journey home. Three of the sailors,
including Edwards, were “adopted” by local families and treated like
celebrities for the duration. Australians came from neighboring
villages, just to get a glimpse of the Americans.

After a short stay in the country from down under, the explorers
headed back towards the U.S. mainland. By April 6, 1947, the destroyer
USS Henderson entered the San Diego channel and ended the voyage.

Back home again

Though he was time zones away from home, Edwards’ family and
friends were able to read about his actions in the local paper. The
Savannah Morning News and the Atlanta Journal published informative
articles of the historical jaunt. One particular headline read:”Local
Boy With Admiral Byrd.”

Admiral Richard E Byrd and his nearly 4,700 men sailed through
rough icy seas to unknown territory. The assembly of sailors,
scientists, 13 ships, 19 airplanes and 4 helicopters collected vast
amounts of meteorological data. On top of that, approximately nine new
mountain ranges were discovered as well as glaciers, canals and other
waterways.

The expedition has been featured on the Discovery Channel and its
records have been covered in a documentary called “Operation Highjump
– Secret Land: Antarctica in 1946.”

In the 1980’s, author Lisle A. Rose, who is known for his books
on the U.S. Navy, wrote “Assault on Eternity, Richard E Byrd and the
Exploration of Antarctica, 1946-1947.”

Teeming with photographs of the destroyers, aircrafts and men,
this book tells the tales of this miraculous journey.

Because Edwards enlisted for two years instead of the usual four,
after the South Pole journey he had only a few months left to serve
after returning from the Antarctic. He occupied his time by joining
the Navy basketball and baseball teams.

After returning home, Edwards began working at the JC Lewis Motor
Company in Savannah. It wasn’t until his employment at the
Lincoln-Mercury dealer that he decided to marry. Sixty-six years ago,
Edwards married his sweetheart, Juanita. They have had two children, a
son Del, and a daughter Karen, along with three grandchildren: Justin,
Paul and Katie, plus a great granddaughter, Morgan.

Edwards retired from Savannah Sugar Refinery after 38 years of
employment. He has called Effingham County his home for more than 71
years. When asked about any hobbies, he beamingly said, “I play golf
on Tuesdays, and occasionally I will slip a Friday in there.”

According to his daughter, Karen, he also keeps up with his yard
work. And though it happened almost 70 years ago, Jasper Franklin
Edwards has a legacy he can pass down to generations to come, and
there is still no slowing this sailor down.

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