“I was killed in the Amazon jungle years ago and have the newspaper at home framed to prove it,” said Wayne White, manager for Wolf Creek Federal Services on U.S. Army Garrison-Kwajalein Atoll.
Thus begins the story of White, who arrived here in December 2021, and who oversees the boat yard and boats – minus the USAV Worthy, the ferries, the divers, as well as the Surfways here and on Roi. He departs next month, heading back home to Rockport, Texas.
Spoiler alert: he’s not really dead. Keep reading.
Growing up in Des Moines, Iowa, White got started on his life of adventure early.
“There was a little creek by my house that (to me) was the Amazon jungle,” he said. “I’d go into an abandoned house and find that there was a hidden basement. Walking down those stairs as a little kid was the same (as) later, when I was in Egypt going into Tutankhamen’s tomb.”
White enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps in 1974 and spent three years at Camp Pendleton, California as a radio operator. It was there that he met his wife, Melissa, a teacher.
Having traveled and lived all around the world, this is White’s second tour on Kwajalein.
“Before coming to Kwaj, I was at home working on my book after my last stint at the South Pole,” said White. He is the author of “Cold: Three Winters at the South Pole.”
When asked what inspired him to travel to the ends of the earth, he said, “I like hardship. I love physical hardship. I’m also a really big fan and student of the explorers, particularly Victorian and turn-of-the century explorers in regard to the Poles.”
White got his chance to follow the explorers in 2016 when he was selected to be the winter site manager at the South Pole.
“I did my first year and that was great,” said White. Selected for the next year, it was during this time that his boss notified him that his replacement had changed his mind about going and was asked if he would do back-to-back winters. He accepted the challenge.
A winter at the South Pole lasts from mid-February until the beginning of November. After mid-February, no aircraft depart or arrive at the South Pole until the end of October or beginning of November.
“You are essentially locked in,” said White who was in charge of 42- and 46-person crews that kept the station running over the last two winters.
Speaking of the crews, White says the best part about the job on the ice was getting to know the people.
“One of my favorite things to do was to get to know them and help them. I did my best to help these folks get through what they were going through,” he said. “My days were pretty structured and I would get out around the station to see how everything was going and talking to people.”
White’s management style kept a distance between himself and his crew but they knew he would do anything for them. “My moustache became a focal point for them. It started appearing on flyers that said: House of Wayne, King of Ice South, Lord of Night Long,” he said. “Then people started trying to grow moustaches, which was kind of funny. There was a big banner with a moustache on it and a carving of a moustache in the galley carpet. I wanted them to have fun. I loved them and I hope they knew that.”
White also shared his love of the explorers who came before him with his crews.
“I would give presentations and had a Saturday movie night where I’d show these old movies and talk about them with my crew. I liked educating them to those who have gone before us.”
As the leader of the South Pole for three winters, White defined his leadership style as a combination of his life in the Marine Corps combined with his knowledge of the polar explorers who came before him and the contractor bosses he has served under around the world.
“They were so good to me,” said White, commenting on his former bosses. “They tolerated me and taught me how to run projects. I never forgot all their lessons on dealing with people.”
The art of dealing with people has helped him in far off locations such as the jungles of the Amazon, Papua New Guinea and South Africa.
Keeping true to his quest for hardship, White travelled to Colombia and the jungles of the Amazon in 1985.
He flew to Leticia, Colombia because he had always wanted a blow gun and poison darts.
White had arrived in Leticia on an Avianca flight that had gone on strike once he landed, so he headed out in search of his treasure.
What he found was a town that was a very dangerous place to be due to the drugs. He got his gun and darts and met some interesting people along the way.
“Upriver, the people I met wanted to know a lot about me,” said White. “In the end I was able to convince them I was just a dumb guy out walking, looking for a blow gun and poison darts enough so they believed me. Because I was. Here I was, this young guy from the U.S., looking for stuff in the jungle. It could have gone bad. They gave me a ride back down river in their speed boat.”
Arriving back in Leticia, he went to the Avianca office and told the lady he wanted to leave in the morning. “My Spanish is horrible and the lady was saying ‘No manana’ and some other stuff. I couldn’t understand her and she couldn’t understand me. I guessed that they were not off strike yet so I hiked over the border into the frontier of Brazil and was there for a few days.”
He hiked back into Leticia to check on his flight and was met by a guy who had seen him in the hotel in town earlier. “He came running up to me yelling ‘Señor Blanco, the American Embassy is looking for you.’” White said that he had noticed the music in the town had changed from raucous upon his arrival to a more somber mood now. White learned what the woman had been trying to tell him days before, that there wasn’t an Avianca flight, but that there is a flight on a DC6 the next day. That flight, with 70+ passengers, took off and crashed 10 miles away in the jungle, killing everyone onboard.
“I was on the manifest,” said White. “My wife was notified every time they’d identify bodies that it wasn’t me.” White called the embassy. He said the staff were really excited he was not dead.
“Had I understood Spanish, or had understood what the lady was trying to tell me, that’s all it would have taken. I’d have gotten on the plane and I’d be dead.
“I’ve never learned Spanish since.”
Papua New Guinea
White’s first of six trips to the wilds of Papua New Guinea had him hiking solo along the Kokoda Trail in the eastern portion of the country in 1981.
“After a couple of trips, I worked my way over to the Indonesian side which was much wilder,” said White. He said that he might as well have been in 1850 going through the jungles that people hadn’t penetrated, and was dealing with crocodiles, snakes and leeches, as well as people who not long ago ate people. His last trip was in 1992 where he walked from the interior to the coast between dugout canoes and boats.
His interest in PNG was sparked by Michael Rockefeller’s disappearance in 1963 in what was then called Netherlands New Guinea.
“They weren’t sure if he was eaten by crocodiles or the people in the Asmat area,” White said. “I loved the tribal art from those areas and through my research, I knew I could get there and see things that probably no one else had ever seen. That was the big draw.”
Following his final trip to PNG, White headed out to South Africa in 1993 to walk in the footsteps of the Zulu warriors. “I was always interested in the Zulu culture and the Zulu war in the Natal Province of South Africa,” White said.
He walked the battlefield route, a 120-mile journey, and was allowed to camp on the battlefield where more than 1,000 British were killed and twice that many Zulus perished.
“I’m not into superstition, but that place has a feel to it unlike any place I’d been, especially in the middle of the night in that tent.”
Traveling with Melissa
While White has enjoyed his solo excursions, he and his wife have lived around the world in exotic locales such as Diego Garcia; Midway Atoll; Shemya, Alaska; Wake Island; Kuwait and Saudi Arabia.
“When he has been home, he has visited my classroom and the kids love him,” said his wife, Melissa, a fourth-grade teacher in Texas. “He brings crazy things like huge snake skins and animal skulls, and the kids think he is great. He is a natural speaker and has no problem putting together presentations for people of any age.”
She explained that she did not go with him to the South Pole due to her teaching. “I would have loved to have gone,” she said. “Going to Antarctica was a dream of his and when he had the opportunity, I wanted him to go. When you love someone, you want the best for them and their dreams kind of become your dreams, too.”
With his Kwajalein tour coming to an end, White is showing no signs of slowing down.
“I’m heading back home to Texas to prepare for my upcoming book,” White said. After that, who knows?
“I’d like to go back to New Guinea after all these years to see what it looks like now,” White said. “It’s a commitment to going somewhere; you pay a price if you really love something.”