When Admiral Richard E. Byrd set out on his first Antarctic expedition in 1928, he was accompanied by an unlikely companion: a 19-year-old Boy Scout named Paul Siple. Paul’s historic adventure can be traced back to the Boy Scout oath, something he most likely recited often as a boy and a young adult:
On my honor, I will do my best
To do my duty to God and my country
and to obey the Scout Law;
To help other people at all times;
To keep myself physically strong,
mentally awake, and morally straight.
Paul wrote, “How far a Scout will get, or how true and sincere a Scout he will become, depends largely upon his attitude toward this oath. He is called by his conscience to explore himself.”
Researcher: Paul Siple
University/Organization: The Boy Scouts of America
Research Location: Antarctica
Paul Siple loved the Boy Scouts. On his way to Eagle Scout, Paul racked up merit badges – 60 of them! Whenever he earned a new merit badge, Paul painted its design as a decoration on a wall in his room – Stalking, Astronomy, Aviation, Pathfinding, Surveying, Hiking, Weather, Photography, Taxidermy, and Radio were part of his merit badge collection. He tried to keep Saturday afternoons free so he could hike, explore, and work on merit badges, but school work, mowing lawns in the summer (he took care of up to 18 lawns a week), and shoveling snow in the winter took up most of his time.
Paul also joined the Sea Scouts. How exciting it was to be signed on to the Niagara, the same ship that Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry used as a flagship in the War of 1812. “Don’t Give Up the Ship!” was written on the ship’s banner. Paul learned nautical terms, learned to splice lines, and learned to tie fancy knots. Paul’s favorite part of Sea Scouts was listening to the skipper read stories of adventure. When he heard the skipper’s story about Captain Robert Scott’s ill-fated adventure to the South Pole, Paul began to dream of visiting frozen, distant lands.
Boy Scouts and Sea Scouting gave Paul knowledge about many things, knowledge that he used. Paul wrote that he did not realize that he was preparing himself for anything, until his opportunity of a lifetime came.
“I expect to take a Boy Scout to the Antarctic with me. This boy will be chosen by the huge Scout organization this summer. Why do I want a Boy Scout? Because health, loyalty, youth and ambition mean more to the exploration than science and training. I look for great things from my Boy Scout,” wrote Admiral Byrd. The choice would be someone “who, because of his Scout training, character, and ability, would make a vital contribution to the happiness and success of the Byrd Expedition.”
Paul sent in his application. The telegram came. Of 826,000 Boy Scouts in the country, Paul was one of six boys chosen to go to New York for a final evaluation. These boys were the best. Winter camping – one boy had climbed Mt. Rainier, another had taken a 180-mile canoe trip – all six were experienced winter campers. Leadership – all six boys were devoted to helping boys younger than themselves — three boys (including Paul) were assistant scoutmasters, and one boy had the Gold Medal of Honor for saving a human life.
The six boys visited the National Office of the Boy Scouts of America in New York City. They were examined, photographed, and interviewed by the press. Admiral Byrd wished he could take all six boys with him to Antarctica. All six boys represented the Boy Scout ideals, but Paul Siple won the trip. He was 19 years old.
Paul started the voyage as a messman, working in the ship’s galley, or dining room, until a stowaway was given that job. Paul’s experiences as a Sea Scout helped him be promoted to seaman, keeping watch and taking his turn at the wheel. His ability to use a compass got Paul promoted to helmsman, or steersman. Studying, plotting charts, and learning the stars kept Paul too busy to become homesick.
One day the captain let out a loud cry of alarm when he saw Paul hanging on to a rope on the side of the ship, trying to collect barnacles. The captain explained that if Paul fell off the rope while all the sails were set, he would be swimming with the sharks for at least half an hour before the sailors could pull in the sails and turn the ship around. No more rope hanging for Paul!
Commander Byrd and his expedition built a base camp, named Little America, on the Ross Ice Shelf. For a year and a half, the men lived there. Paul, who took care of the dogs, dug a tunnel under the snow so he could visit his noisy dog friends.
Paul and his dog team once were part of a rescue mission to recover Commander Byrd, when his plane was not able to return from an exploration. Paul loved his dog team, but winter camping with the Scouts was never this cold! On the rescue trip the temperature at night dipped to minus 20 degrees F. Paul’s dogs had to pull a thousand pounds of supplies. Paul had to run alongside, between 15 and 20 miles a day, to help the team over the soft spots. On another trip, Paul was almost lost in a blizzard. He and his dogs found their way by following the orange flags planted for such emergencies.
Peeling skins off penguins and preserving the feathers and skins for the Smithsonian Institute were part of Paul’s job. Paul also studied how fast seal pups grew and was in charge of bringing back live emperor penguins. (The penguins did not like being in a pen and were always working together to escape!) Paul was not able to bring any penguins back to the United States until a later trip. Admiral Byrd wrote that Paul “demonstrated the value of Scout training.” Byrd also wrote that Paul carried out thoroughly and conscientiously every task assigned to him.
Paul loved the Antarctic. He went on all the rest of Byrd’s expeditions, and then Paul went on his own expeditions. While Paul was finishing school, he wrote a lengthy paper titled “Adaptation of the Explorer to the Climate of Antarctica.” He helped the U.S. War Department develop cold weather clothes and equipment, serving the Army as a cold weather expert.
Next time the weatherman announces the wind chill, think of Paul. Paul and Charles Passel studied how the wind made temperatures feel colder. Weathermen use their formula, the Siple and Passel formula, every winter to determine the wind chill.
Paul made his mark in other ways too. Look at a map of Antarctica – Mt. Siple and Siple Station are named after Paul Siple.
Paul Siple credited his Boy Scout training for preparing him for his great adventure. He was the Boy Scout at the Bottom of the World. Paul never expected to make any great voyages. He wrote, “All of a sudden the opportunity came. A chance like that might come to you. Will you be prepared?”
Birley, B. R. 1969. Paul Allman Siple. Polar Record, 14(93), 851-859.
Byrd, R. E. 1930. Little America. New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons.
Gould, L. M. 1970. Paul Allman Siple. Geographical Review, 60(1), 134-135.
Rodgers, E. 1990. Beyond the Barrier. Annapolis: Naval Institute Press.
Siple, P. 1931. A Boy Scout With Byrd. New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons.
Siple, P. 1932. Exploring At Home. New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons.
Copyright February 2010 – The Ohio State University. This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. 0733024. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation. This work is licensed under an Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported Creative Commons license.