Schenectady County

Veteran, chronicler break the ice

Leilani Henry’s father worked in the ship’s kitchen. Anthony Wayne worked outside it as a seaman.

Leilani Henry’s father worked in the ship’s kitchen. Anthony Wayne worked outside it as a seaman.

“Your father was always warm and I was always frozen,” Wayne summed up. “It was 80 degrees below zero.”

The two men, Wayne and George Washington Gibbs Jr., served together on the voyage of the USS Bear to Antarctica in 1939-40 with Admiral Richard E. Byrd. Wayne is the last surviving member of that U.S. Antarctic Service expedition and the only man living who visited the continent before World War II.

Gibbs died 10 years ago on his 84th birthday.

His daughter visited Wayne, 95, Thursday at Kingsway Manor Assisted Living. Wayne recognized Henry immediately.

“As soon as I saw your face, I knew who you were,” he said, commenting on how much Henry looks like her father.

“Everybody loved your father because he had the sandwiches,” Wayne joked.

On Thursday, Wayne and Henry looked at old film footage he had taken of the trip as she played it on her cellphone, and she showed him pictures of her father in the Navy and afterward.

One of three African-Americans on board the Bear, Gibbs was the first to debark, and Byrd recognized him as the first man of African descent to set foot on the continent. Henry said African sealing and whaling ships had gone near Antarctica, but no one from those boats got off onto the ice, preferring to avoid it so they wouldn’t get stuck.

Henry is writing a book based on her father’s journals of the trips; Gibbs made two round trips to the frigid land mass. She’ll also be doing a radio show on the subject, she said Thursday.

“I’m trying to piece together the story,” she said. She is a management consultant and coach in Conifer, Colo.

Gibbs was fond of talking about Antarctica when he lived in Minnesota after he left the Navy in 1959.

“That was always his topic,” his daughter said, adding that people joked about his Antarctic storytelling when they saw him coming.

Gibbs was a Florida native but didn’t mind the weather in Minnesota after his exposure to extreme cold. He walked two miles to work at IBM every day except when it rained, Henry said. After he retired, he started his own employment service.

An elementary school in Rochester, Minn., is named after him; he also co-founded the local branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, according to a press release written when Gibbs Point was named after him in Antarctica last year.

But on Thursday, Veterans Day, Henry was interested in Wayne’s experience.

She asked to see his Navy dress uniform, which he said he’s keeping in a garment bag for his burial.

“I came all this way; I want to see it,” she prodded before he took it out.

The expedition with Wayne and Gibbs was Byrd’s last of three major trips before World War II, when trips to the icy, dangerous continent were discontinued and the American bases on the continent were evacuated.

The expedition started in Boston and went south through the Panama Canal and west toward New Zealand and Australia.

They carried 59 civilians who would overwinter at the American bases to research the continent, as well as 160 sled dogs, seaplanes, a snow cruiser and supplies.

Both men respected Byrd, whom Wayne called “the best admiral I’ve ever seen in my life.”

During World War II, both men served in the Navy in the South Pacific, though never on the same ship again.

Wayne lived in Fontana, Calif., after retiring from the Navy as a chief warrant officer. When his wife, Agnes, died five years ago, his niece, Lorraine Zorichak of Rotterdam, helped him move back to Schenectady, where she can keep an eye on him. A Schenectady native, Wayne — then Anthony Kelczweski — attended Van Antwerp Junior High School but didn’t go to high school.

He and his wife changed their names after the war.

“He did a lot in his life. I wish I did as much as you did,” Zorichak said, joking, “I’m lucky if I go to Albany.”

Categories: News

Leave a Reply