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HUBERT WILKINS, OFFICER, AVIATOR, EXPLORER, & WAR PHOTOGRAPHER

Yet another philatelically-contrived Antarctic cover but with more than the usual historical interest. The purple 4d ‘Child Praying’ 1957 Christmas issue is postmarked HALLETT/ 13 FE 58/ SOUTH-AUST and is autographed by the sender Hubert Wilkins, and addressed in his hand ‘H. Wilkins, Gen Delivery, Hallett’. It has multiple hand-stamps, a small black circle denoting the Antarctic ‘Deep Freeze’ expedition; one large purple and one large octagonal International Geophysical Year insignia, the black design with HALLETT, ANTARCTICA, STATION and the purple with WILKES STATION; a black circle with a US Navy Mobile Construction-Operation ‘Deep Freeze II’ expedition insignia, and a ‘USS ARNEB’ handstamp (Figure 1).

 

Why the Australian Antarctic Territory stamp was not used (but the least expensive was 5d) and why Hallett, S.A. was chosen as the postmarking office? A possible explanation was that Wilkins was born at Mount Bryan East S.A. which is only a short distance from Hallett, S.A. and there is a Cape Hallett in Antarctica. The U.S.S. Arneb had several trips to Antarctica in the 1950s and a picture of the ship is seen in the foreground with Mount Erebus, the only active Antarctic volcano in the background (Figure 2).

Sir George Hubert Wilkins was born on 31 October 1888, the thirteenth child of Henry Wilkins, farmer and his wife Louisa, née Smith. He studied engineering at the S.A. School of Mines and Industries, and later photography in Adelaide and Sydney, prior to sailing for England to work for Gaumont Film Co. He worked as a reporter and cameraman, learnt to fly and in 1912 he covered fighting between the Turks and Bulgarians. From 1913-16 he was second in command in a Canadian Arctic expedition.

He returned to Australia in 1917, was commissioned in the Australian Flying Corps, was at the Western front and was appointed as an official photographer in 1918. He was awarded a Military Cross, promoted to captain and was mentioned in dispatches. In 1920-21 he made his first visit to Antarctica and took part in Sir Ernest Shackleton’s expedition of 1921-22. He was knighted in June 1928 and was awarded medals of the Royal and American Geographical Societies. His first aerial Antarctic explorations were in November 1928 and January 1929, and most of his discoveries were found later to be incorrect.

He offered his services to the British and Australian governments at the outbreak of WW II which were rejected on account of his age, but his services and advice were sought by the American government. In August 1958 he learnt that 2 American submarines had performed under-ice transits of the Arctic sea, something that he had attempted in 1930 by submarine under the North Pole ice-pack, unsuccessfully.

He died suddenly in Framingham, Massachusetts on 30 November 1958, was cremated and his ashes were scattered at the North Pole by the submarine USS Skate. He was survived by Lady Wilkins (Suzanne Evans, actress Suzanne Bennett) whom he had married in 1929, and they had no issue. A picture of Hubert, (described as tall and athletic, had physical drive and courage to match his mental endurance) is seen in Figure 3.

This paper was summarised from the on-line Australian Dictionary of Biography.


 
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