MEPoL's Corinne Dupuy relates her father's story of heroism & survival as a member of Admiral Byrd's Antarctic expedition.

UL serves Louisiana by administering the state's manufacturing extension service, MEPoL. Corinne Dupuy serves as the Director of the service. In her interview with ultoday.com, however, she began by relating the story of her father, Ralph "Frenchy" Leblanc, and his heroic survival story with Admiral Byrd's Antarctic expedition. That story is presented here. Her discussion of MEPoL will be published in the upcoming days.

Tell us about yourself.

I was born in Breaux Bridge, and I'm still living there. I come from a very rural Cajun family.

My Dad was on Admiral Byrd's expedition to the South Pole, in 1946 I think, and he crashed. He was the pilot of an expedition charting Antarctica. He and his crew were stranded for 13 days in -50° weather. They lived in the tail section, because the plane had exploded. Three of the nine men died, six survived. Everyone was pretty much thrown out of the plane, but my dad was strapped in over the gas tank, so he was basically burning alive, he was burning and screaming, trying to get out. To save him, his copilot broke the windshield of the PBY plane with his bare hand. Right after they got him out, the plane exploded. He had 80% burns over his legs, arms, torso, and face. They thought he would be blind at one point but both eyes come back. He lived to the ripe old age of 72.

They lived off rations that they dug from the snow, they had peanut butter and pemmican stew. They took care of my dad. They had to take a knife and cut his lips apart to feed him. But later in life you really couldn't tell he was burned. For some reason, the Navy technology back then made him look better than a lot of burn victims today. They built him an ear, and replaced his eyebrows. He did lose both legs, and he was going to lose his left arm, it was burned to the bone. But he begged to wait another day, wait another day, and they managed to save it. He didn't have complete use of it, but he saved it.

They used to use my Dad to talk to other wounded soldiers who had lost limbs and didn't want to live, because his personality was so bubbly, and he was so positive. They called him "Frenchy," because he could hardly speak English. But he'd say things like, "You can't bring a Cajun down that easily." He would crack jokes all the time.

The whole rescue is mysterious. They were 200 miles from the ship, and the ship only had sea planes, which only landed in water. To find them, they did a square mile search at their last known location.

My dad would come in and out of consciousness. They spotted a plane six miles away during the first pass. They shot all their flares, but flares are designed for water, not snow. They were white on white, and the planes didn't see them.

Finding someone in the Antarctic is like finding a speck, you can't see what it is until you're close. My dad's crew decided they probably only had one more chance to get the plane to see them. So they gathered all the black stuff they could find, anything to produce black smoke, and they piled it and set it on fire. And they waited. And they waited. And the plane still missed them.

So by that time, it's two weeks out, the ship is thinking that they're probably dead. Years later we found out from the pilot of the plane, they had to decide to make one more pass or go back. They debated, and the pilot said, "Let's do one more pass." And they turned around, and by God's grace, they saw the smoke. They waved their wings, and then flew back.

The problem was, the crew was 10 or 12 miles inland. So a third plane came back to scout, and found a lake 10 miles from their location that was long enough and wide enough to land. So they threw down a note, "Do you think you can make the trip? Form a circle for yes, a straight line for no."

The copilot had broken almost every bone in his arm breaking the glass to get my dad out, one guy had a broken neck, another had a huge gouge out of his scalp, and my dad was almost dead, burned and then frozen. But they decided they could do it. So they formed a circle.

They threw down a sled, and I believe a bottle of bourbon and some food and other things. They trekked for 12 hours to make the 10-mile trip, working to get past crevices and other obstacles. And my Dad kept saying, "Leave me, take care of yourselves." Of course, they refused.

Then a snow blizzard occurs, and you can't see 10 feet in front to you. The crew were disoriented, but the rescuers saw the gouges in the snow from the sled, and tracked them down, and they made it back.

They loaded into the plane, but it was heavy with all those people. So they threw out all the nonessentials, and made it back. The next day, they went back to the lake. It had been 86 degrees the day before. But now the lake was completely gone, and no one has ever seen it since.

Before that, my dad was 6' 4", 180 lbs. But when they picked him up, he weighed 80 lbs. So they had him on a stretcher, covered with a sheet. When they carried him in, a couple of guys saw him and said, "That must be one of the dead ones." But my dad turned his head and winked at them, and startled them.

They picked up the survivors on January 13th-- my birthday-- and the ship had waited to celebrate their New Year's until they found the missing men.

They amputated one of my dad's legs on the ship without anesthesia or anything, and the second one was amputated later on the ship. His doctor stayed by his side for 24 hours a day on the ship, and took personal leave to tend to him in the Navy's Philadelphia hospital. My brother Leonard was named for him, Dr. Leonard Barber. I'm named for the doctor's wife, Corinne Barber.

That crew stayed very good friends all their lives. Two of them are still alive and we stay in touch with them.

My dad was the youngest pilot on the expedition, but he was such a good flier they chose him to be the pilot. One time he bet his entire crew's paycheck against another crew's paycheck, that he could barrel roll a PBY. He did it.

And he was called on the carpet for it. The Admiral called him in, told him never to do it again. Then he said to him, "But that was spectacular."

My dad was also involved in the bombing of Pearl Harbor. On December 7, he was standing there, and he picked up the propeller from a bomb that landed near him. When he picked it up, it burned his fingerprint into the propeller.

He was a pretty cool guy.

Throughout our lives, he worked. He retired form the Navy on a medical retirement. He had wooden legs, and walked without a cane and without assistance. If you didn't know it, you couldn't tell.

 The calf section of his legs was hollow, with holes in the side. He told the kids he kept his pet mouse in there, and when they'd put their fingers in, he put his finger in the other side, and they thought it was the mouse. They thought it was the coolest thing.

My mom would also find our pacifiers in his leg, because we would put them in there.

There's a book about the rescue, Where Hell Freezes Over, by David A. Kearns. 

My dad absolutely loved this country. It's an era that is almost gone.

So how did your mom end up marrying a guy with all these medical problems?

That's another story. My mom was a nun.

What?

My mom and her sister, they went into the sisterhood. Way back then that was the thing to do, it was what made the family proud. So at the age of 11, my mom went into one of the orders. She didn't talk about it much, so I really don't know which one.

She never took her final vows, it just wasn't her calling. She was a school teacher, and she got out when she was 30. When she got out of the convent, she moved in with her sister, who lived across from my dad's brother.

That's how they met, and 6 weeks later they were married, in January 1953. They were the same age. They had six kids, four boys and two girls. Three of the boys were Navy, of course. My parents were very happily married until he died in 1994.

Anything else?

This is ironic, but my Dad actually discouraged me from studying engineering. But now I have my Master's, in Mechanical Engineering. All six of us have college degrees.

To read Part II of ultoday.com's interview with Corinne, click here.


Survivor James H. "Robbie" Robbins has given a detailed account of the South Pole rescue. He dedicates his story "to my very close friend, Lt. Cdr. Ralph P. LeBlanc (Frenchie), USN, Retired, Breaux Bridge, Louisiana, unquestionably the most courageous man I have ever known." To read the account go here

The picture at the opening of this article is an actual recreation of the PBY crew's rescue, based on available records and photographs. It is available at Stan Stokes Aviation Art Prints in limited editions, for £74 (~$117 as of this article's publication) for signed prints, £37 (~$58) for unsigned, not including shipping. International shipping is available.

This is the story from the artist's webpages.

Antarctic Mayday by Stan Stokes.

In 1946 Admiral Richard Byrd lead a 4,000-man mission to Antarctica to map the continent. This was the fourth of Byrds polar explorations, and his most ambitious. The expedition was named "Operation High Jump." One of the ships involved was the USS Pine Island, a PBM seaplane tender under the command of H.H. Caldwell.

The three PBMs of the Pine Island were given the task of photo mapping the eastern side of the Antarctic continent, and the ship had moved as far south as possible to establish a base of operations. The ship anchored on the leeward side of a huge iceberg to provide a suitable area for the launch and recovery of the PBMs.

The first flight was made by George-1 on December 30, 1946 without incident. The second flight of this aircraft with a different crew would prove to be a life and death struggle. Under the command of Ralph Frenchy LeBlanc, co-piloted by Bill Kearns, and with Captain Caldwell aboard as an observer, the second flight of George-1 began under hazardous sea conditions and at times near zero visibility conditions due to snowstorms. The aircraft was approximately 200 miles from the coast.

Because of the bad visibility, Kearns was preparing to execute a 180 degree turn and return to the Pine Island, when George-1 crashed into a giant snowdrift. The aircraft was ripped apart by the crash, and a fire began almost immediately. Three of the nine on board perished in the crash. LeBlanc was pulled from the burning cockpit by Jim Robbins and some of the other survivors, none of which were without some injury.

The six survivors of George-1 now faced an indeterminate amount of time before any rescue might be possible. Fortunately, the six survivors showed solid American ingenuity, and went about the business of surviving and caring for the injured in the best way possible. With no working radio, the group had no way of knowing if help would ever reach them.

It would be 13-days before the survivors would be spotted by the pilot of George-2 Jimmy Ball. Ball's crew spotted a signal fire which the survivors had ignited when the second Mariner passed within several miles of the crash site. George-2 dropped supplies for the survivors and a message that a pick-up might be possible if the group could move about six miles to the coast.

The trek was not easy, but the survivors finally made it and were picked up by George-3.

This limited edition by Stan Stokes is dedicated to the memory of the three men who did not survive the crash; Max Lopez, W.K. Hendersin, and F.W. Williams, and to the commander of George-1, the late Frenchy LeBlanc. Frenchy lost both his legs as a result of the tragedy, but maintained a determination and a sense of humor which has both inspired and motivated the survivors of this Antarctic Mayday for the fifty years which have passed since that fateful day in 1946.