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Sir Hubert Wilkins

Sir Hubert Wilkins, by Lowell Thomas. New York: McGraw Hill, 1961. 296 pages, 28 photographs. Price $5.95.

This is the story of an extraordinary man, truly sans peur et sans reproche. Our former honorary member was one of the great explorers of modern times. His life was marked by intense energy, absolute fearlessness and the restless desire to extend man’s knowledge. The son of a "sundowner” in inland Australia, as a youth he learned survival techniques from the primitive "abos” and began a lifelong interest in long range weather forecasting.

His adventurous life was nothing short of amazing. For instance, he was abducted by Arabs when he was working for the Italian secret service in North Africa and barely escaped being sold into slavery. He made some of the first motion pictures taken from the air, sitting astride the fuselage of a single seater plane. After he had distinguished himself as war correspondent in the Bulgarian-Turkish war, he was sent as photographer to the Arctic with Stefansson in 1913. Learning both from Stef- ansson and the Eskimos, he survived desperate blizzards. Finally hearing of the World War in 1916, he left the expedition immediately to enlist. In World War I as photographer for the Australian War Historian, his heroism was legendary. After the war he flew in the England-Australia air race before leading an expedition to wild north Australia for the British Museum. He was almost speared by the dangerous "abos" but eventually learned a great deal about them. (He once told me that he ate everything they ate except some huge spiders.)

Sir Hubert’s greatest triumphs came in his flights over the Arctic ice, especially with Ben Eielsen. On one occasion they crashed on sea ice 100 miles north of Alaska. Eielsen’s hands were badly frozen but the indomitable Sir Hubert brought him back to land. Later, in 1928 these two electrified the whole world by flying a Lockheed-Vega from Point Barrow to Spitsbergen. For this flight and for his scientific and exploratory work during the previous fifteen years, Wilkins was knighted. Subsequent exploits were his Antarctic expeditions (where he was the first to use airplanes), his famous search for the lost Russian flier Levanevsky, and his achievement in taking a submarine under the Arctic ice. Though he was prevented from reaching the Pole by submarine, he pointed the way, as he did continually throughout his restless life.

Lowell Thomas gives a clear, compressed, straight-forward account of Wilkins’ many adventures, and his book is very much worth reading. To those of us who worked side by side with Sir Hubert during World War II, this account, though factually accurate, is in some ways incomplete and fails to give the personality of this alert, kindly man filled with great energy and curiosity.

Robert H. Bates