When I met Anthony Wayne, he was eager to talk about his adventures.
It was 2010. Wayne, then 95, was living in a small apartment at Kingsway Manor Assisted Living in Schenectady. I’d learned about him by chance, when John Stewart, author of the two-volume work “Antarctica: An Encyclopedia,” phoned the Gazette from his home in North Carolina to inform us of Wayne’s existence.
Wayne, Stewart told us, was the sole surviving member of the crew that accompanied Adm. Richard E. Byrd to Antarctica in 1939.
Going to Antarctica in the early part of the 20th century took guts, and Wayne had them. His reason for joining the expedition was simple: It sounded like an exciting adventure.
“I thought, ‘Who the hell goes there?’ ” he told me. “It was something new. I was never sorry I went, but I was glad I came back. I thought I’d never survive. It was all frozen ice. There was snow 20 feet high and icebergs all over.”
A Schenectady native, Wayne died Sunday night, at the age of 98, and I was sad to hear of his passing. During my visits with him, he was generous, good-humored and sharp-witted, justifiably proud of his youthful exploits.
Wayne’s stories, photographs and grainy, black-and-white video footage of Antarctica tapped into my interest in remote and dangerous places, and I regarded him as a fascinating link to a bygone world. In one especially haunting image, Wayne’s ship — a three-masted wooden barquentine called the USS Bear — is pinned between two icebergs, unable to move; the men had to wait several days for the ice to separate and a channel to open.
At the time of Wayne’s expedition, the cold, largely unmapped continent was “a barren white space” with “very little written on it,” according to Stewart.
Tom Henderson, a Guilderland resident who made a 37-minute documentary about Wayne called “The Last Man,” echoed this. Going to Antarctica prior to World War II “was like going to the moon,” he said.
Byrd led three major expeditions to Antarctica before World War II and is credited with spearheading the modern age of polar exploration.
Wayne was not an expedition leader. He didn’t invent anything new and noteworthy, or discover anything important. But his brawn and bravery helped make Byrd’s explorations possible. A seaman, he was responsible for inspecting and repairing lines and steering the ship. Stewart described Wayne as a “cog in the machine,” noting that “without cogs, there is no machine.”
“Anthony Wayne is the little man,” Stewart said. “And I think it’s important to recognize the little man.”
I agree with Stewart.
Wayne was a regular guy who found himself in extraordinary circumstances, and I think it’s worth pausing for a moment to remember him. In the age of Google maps and GPS, it’s easy to forget just how big and mysterious the world once seemed, how much explorers and adventurers risked to make it smaller and more accessible for the rest of us. To look at Wayne’s photos and videos is to be transported back to a more primitive time.
Stewart said Wayne’s lack of formal education — he did not attend high school or college — should not be mistaken for a lack of smarts or talent. “He was sharp as a tack,” he recalled. But his limited education and his heritage — Wayne was the son of Polish immigrants — held him back. After World War II, Wayne, born Anthony Kelczweski, changed his name.
“He liked John Wayne,” Stewart said.
“The Last Man” is available at www.gwillow.com. The title refers to Wayne’s status as the last of the 1939 expedition’s survivors.
Although it turns out that Wayne wasn’t the last man.
After interviewing Wayne, Henderson learned that a crewmate of Wayne’s, Robert Johnson, is still alive and living in Jacksonville, Fla. He and Wayne reconnected after a 70-year gap, striking up a correspondence.
A week before Wayne died, Henderson showed him the final cut of “The Last Man.”
“If I could associate one word with him, it would be proud,” he said.
Wayne enlisted in the Navy in 1933, seeking, he told me “adventure and a man’s world.”
He became a boxer and a wrestler, winning the middleweight wrestling championship of Cruiser Division Four, which comprised several warships, in 1934. After his Antarctica trip, he was sent to the battleship Texas, which patrolled the North Sea; when Pearl Harbor was bombed, he was transferred to the USS San Diego, one of the most decorated ships of World War II, and spent two and a half years in the South Pacific.
Wayne served in the Navy for 26 years, retiring as a chief warrant officer. After he retired, he settled in Fontana, Calif., and became a car salesman, selling Fords and Buicks. When his wife died in 2005, he returned to Schenectady.
In 2011, Wayne had an Antarctic land mass named after him when a headland — a rocky cape that juts into the sea — was dubbed Wayne Head by the federal government. For a man whose contributions to U.S. exploration were almost forgotten, it was quite an honor.
“He’s on the map now,” Stewart said.