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Honour recognises Antarctic service

Posted: 6pm 26 Jan 2021

Deception Bay's John Russell is one of three Moreton Bay Region residents recognised in this year’s Australia Day Honours list.

Mr Russell was awarded a Medal (OAM) of the Order of Australia in the General Division for his part in several expeditions to the Antarctic, including his role in the 10-man team which set up Mawson Station, Australia’s first permanent continental station.

Others honoured

Mount Samson’s Sheryl Backhouse also received an OAM, for service to the sub-tropical fruit growing industry and to the community, while National Association of Film Operators Australasia executive director Michael Hawkins, of Camp Mountain was awarded an AM for significant service to the film and television industry.

The last surviving member of the Mawson Research Station set-up team, Mr Russell came to Australia from England as an 18-year-old to join an expedition to Antarctica led by Sir Douglas Mawson.

But his daughter, Sue Morgan, says World War II intervened and her father served in the war for Australia.

It was not until 1947 that he would join the ANARE (Australian National Antarctic Research Expedition) as Expedition Engineer in a team designing buildings and equipment at Mawson Station that are still in use today.

Ms Morgan says her father is honoured to receive the OAM, and it is fitting recognition for a man who has “always been an advocate for making things better.”

Memoir published

Sunshine Coast author - and self-confessed Antarctic tragic - Dale Lorna Jacobsen worked with Mr Russell and ANARE on his memoir, which was published last year.

She says ANARE members spent five years interviewing Mr Russell and she used the material they gathered, as well as her own interviews and research, to deliver Antarctic Engineer: memoir of John Russell.

Ms Jacobsen says Mr Russell’s interest in Antarctica was sparked as a child of eight when he watched a `magic lantern’ show at school, learning about Sir Ernest Shackleton’s pioneering exploration of the continent.

“John’s fascination with Antarctica began in 1932 when, at the age of 12, he took afternoon tea with Lady Shackleton,” Ms Jacobsen says.

Tea with Lady Shackleton

“She told him that Ernest had often said: `The most important thing, now that we are in the mechanical age, is for men who not only know how to operate these machines, but know how to maintain them down in the ice’.

“From that moment there was no doubt John would become an engineer, if that’s what it took to work in Antarctica.”

Ms Jacobsen says Mr Russell spent 14 months, through dark cold winters, at each of Macquarie Island in 1949, and Heard Island in 1952, before sailing on the Kista Dan in 1954 to establish Mawson Station.

Pioneering team

“While Kista Dan was stuck in the ice, unable to enter Horseshoe Harbour, the expedition leader took five men, including John Russell, over the sea ice by Weasel to survey the selected location and determine where to erect the buildings,” Ms Jacobsen says.

They had to wait out a blizzard on a rocky island before making it ashore.

“Ten days later, on Saturday 13th February, with all ten men safely ashore, they gathered around the Australian flag to officially recognise the commissioning of Mawson Station.”

In 1956, Prince Phillip awarded the 10 men the British Polar Medal for services to Antarctic research.

One last visit

Ms Jacobsen says Mr Russell returned to Antarctica in 1959 at the invitation of American Glaciologist and Geophysicist Professor Albert Crary, joining the National Science Foundation 1959 expedition to McMurdo Station as Traverse Specialist.

“His wife, Joan, was happy to let him return to his beloved Antarctica, particularly after he promised to buy her a television set in appreciation,” Ms Jacobsen laughs.

Antarctic Engineer: memoir of John Russell is available at Deception Bay Library, and at Ms Jacobsen’s website here.

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