Eighty years ago, readers enthusiastically followed the adventures of polar explorers whose expeditions to mysterious frozen regions made headlines in newspapers all over the world, including the Everett Daily Herald.
Lincoln Ellsworth and Sir Hubert Wilkins were two of the most famous explorers of the 1930s. Mostly forgotten today, they were humble “superheroes” of their time. Ellsworth explored both the Arctic and Antarctica by air. In 1926 he made the first crossing of the North Pole by airship with Roald Amundsen. Wilkins with Ben Eielson made the first airplane flight over the Arctic from Barrow, Alaska to Spitzbergen, Norway in April 1928 and the first flights over Antarctica in December 1928. Wilkins, with financial support from Ellsworth, led the 1931 Trans-Arctic Submarine Expedition taking the first submarine below Arctic ice. In 1938, a young Everett physician, Dr. Harmon T. Rhoads Jr., was chosen to join these legends on a trip to Antarctica.
Harmon Rhoads Jr. was born in Hazen, Arkansas, on Nov. 10, 1911. The next year his family moved to Montana where his father, Dr. Harmon Rhoads Sr., was an eye, ear, nose and throat doctor. In 1924, the Rhoads family with Harmon Jr. and his brothers Charles, James and John moved to 1620 Rucker Ave. in Everett. Later, they lived at 2404 Hoyt Ave., across from Everett High School. By 1939 they moved to a brick home on Cavaleros Hill about three miles east of downtown Everett.
Dr Rhoads Sr.’s first Everett office was in the First National Bank Building at Hewitt and Colby; he later moved to the Medical-Dental Building. He was active in the Everett Elks Lodge and other organizations. Rhoads Sr. died in 1941 and is buried at Evergreen Cemetery in Everett.
Rhoads Jr. graduated from Everett High School in 1929, a year ahead of schoolmate Henry M. “Scoop” Jackson. He graduated from the University of Washington and the University of Oregon Medical School. In July 1938, he completed his residency at New York’s Flower Fifth Avenue Hospital and went home for vacation.
From 1933 through 1936, Ellsworth had led three airplane expeditions to explore and map the continent of Antarctica. Wilkins was technical adviser and organizer of these expeditions and was responsible for finding skilled crew for the 1938-1939 Ellsworth Antarctic Expedition. When seeking a medical officer, Wilkins sought advice from doctors at Flower Fifth Avenue Hospital (now known as the Terence Cardinal Cooke Health Care Center). They recommended Dr. Harmon Rhoads Jr., so Wilkins flew to the West Coast to meet him.
On July 28, 1938, Wilkins arrived at Boeing Field in Seattle to for an interview, but Rhoads missed the meeting. He had been fishing. Disappointed, Wilkins flew on to Vancouver, British Columbia, to interview another candidate. On his return through Boeing Field the next day, Rhoads was there to complete the interview.
Rhoads accepted the position although, when asked by reporters, he told them such a trip was not his childhood goal. On Aug. 7, he flew to New York to join the expedition with a total of 19 members including Ellsworth, Wilkins, chief pilot J.H. Lymburner, radio operator Frederick Seid and the Norwegian operating crew.
Two airplanes, a Northrop Delta monoplane and an Aeronca seaplane, were loaded on the expedition’s motor vessel, the Wyatt Earp, at Floyd Bennett Field in New York. The ship with expedition members departed on Aug. 16 for Pernambuco, Brazil, arriving there on Sept. 13 to load supplies, then sailed to Cape Town, South Africa, arriving on Oct. 9.
On Oct. 29, they left Cape Town for the Indian Ocean coast of Antarctica. They endured violent storms, encountered the ice pack much farther north than expected, and spent 45 days struggling through 800 miles of thick ice including 13 days when the ship was imprisoned in ice unable to move. Rhoads kept busy. One crewman’s injury required 15 stitches. They arrived at the edge of the Antarctic continent on Jan. 1, 1939.
Bad weather slowed their search along the coast for a suitable runway location for the Northrop airplane. They eventually found one and on Jan. 11 were able to make their exploratory flight of 210 miles into the continent. During the flight, Ellsworth dropped a brass canister containing a note claiming 80,000 square miles of territory for the USA. Continuing storms prevented more flights.
At the ship, crew members had gone onto the ice floe collecting ice to melt for fresh water when rough seas swept three crew members into the water. All were rescued but the first mate’s leg was caught between chunks of ice, crushing his knee and breaking his knee cap. Dr. Rhoads determined that hospital surgery was required. Ellsworth decided to end the expedition and return to the nearest port. On Feb. 4, 1939 they arrived at Hobart, Tasmania, where the surgery was performed.
Ellsworth disbanded the expedition there and sold the Wyatt Earp to the Australian government for surveying the Australian coast and exploring Antarctica. The ship had served him well on four voyages totaling over 86,000 miles, the equivalent of three times around the world.
This was the last privately funded Antarctic expedition and the last for Ellsworth and Wilkins, who, until his death in November 1958, designed cold weather equipment and training for the U.S. military. On March 17, 1959, Wilkins’ ashes were scattered at the North Pole by the submarine USS Skate.
After the expedition, Rhoads, Lymburne and Seid returned to Everett, where they celebrated at the Rhoads family home sharing stories and pictures of their seven month adventure and new penguin friends. The March 11, 1939, Everett Daily Herald reported their return with a front-page story and photo. The March 12 Seattle Times carried additional photos and stories. They told reporters that they would like to return to Antarctica, but World War II ended such expeditions.
Dr. Rhoads Jr. practiced medicine with his father in Everett for about two months before returning to New York City to study plastic surgery. He served in WWII as a plastic surgeon in the US Army Air Force.
After the war, Rhoads practiced in New York City and eventually became chief of plastic surgery at Metropolitan Hospital and at New York Medical College. He married and had a daughter, Victoria, and a son, George. Victoria was his medical assistant for many years in his office on East 83rd Street, across Fifth Avenue from the Metropolitan Museum of Art. They often enjoyed visiting the museum together during off-hours. She also remembers as a child viewing his talks and slide shows of Antarctica. George, also a doctor, learned the art of bonsai from his father, who was a bonsai master, and remembers him as an avid outdoorsman.
After retiring, Dr. Harmon T. Rhoads Jr. moved to St Petersburg, Florida, where he died on May 7, 2001.
Sources: Website www.south-pole.com, phone conversations and emails with Victoria Cox and Dr George Rhoads, Everett Daily Herald archives at Everett Public Library, New York Times online archives, Seattle Times online archives, Polks City Directories for Everett WA, National Geographic Magazine July 1936 and July 1939, Smithsonian Magazine October 1990, The Last Explorer by Simon Nasht, Find-a-Grave website for Harmon T Rhoads Jr. and Sr.