Covers from the 
1931 Wilkins-Ellsworth Trans-Arctic Submarine Expedition

This was a well-publicized, yet ill-fated expedition of which the philatelic proceeds played a major role in getting the submarine out to sea.  Wilkins had purchased a U.S. Navy surplus submarine, the O-12, and fitted it out for arctic conditions.  The airplane had replaced old forms of travel, but Wilkins was determined to make a transpolar crossing in another form.  Wilkins had hoped to cross the Arctic Ocean in his submarine, the Nautilus.  The "Ellsworth" portion of the expedition referred to American millionaire and explorer Lincoln Ellsworth, who was to achieve separate fame a few years later, by making the first flight across the Antarctic continent.  Wilkins, who had already executed some previous philatelic documentations of his events, used the additional proceeds from philatelic covers being serviced for a fee, to help finance the venture itself; philatelists sent specially formatted envelopes to Wilkins for servicing on this historic mission.

Apparently, to save space onboard an already cramped submarine, he had the collectors place their own address in the section that normally would have been used to put his address when sending the un-serviced cover to him.  Wilkins then used small "to" and "from" rubber stamps, along with some "killer" plugs, to cover over the original intent; then added a stamp or stamps for whichever route the collector had asked for (routes available for documentation included New York to London, New York to North Pole, New York to Spitsbergen, New York to Bergen, etc.-often you will see these routes written in pencil or ink by the original sender) and applied the appropriate foreign stamp(s) when mailing the original envelope back to the collector, thus resulting in the dual-franking that is so commonly seen here.  All covers which have been registered (sent by registered mail, and appropriate label and markings for that service applied) in the country of its sending are more valuable to polar collectors, inasmuch as less registered mail was tendered for delivery by Wilkins.

Typical New York to North Pole Routing

The above cover, from my collection, is almost singular in the fact that the standard violet cachet has not been applied over the top of anything.  The manner in which the sender wrote his name resulted in a perfect application of the expedition cachet, and this is seldom if ever seen on covers that went to collectors who used the mail-in approach.  My thought is that this gentleman might have given this cover to Wilkins in person, as there is no indication he mailed the cover to Wilkins.  Covers which Wilkins sent back to himself for souvenirs also usually have a clean application of the cachet as opposed to having been applied over the top of the Wilkins address.

Cover from the Trans-Arctic Submarine Expedition of Sir Hubert Wilkins, 1931.

This cover is interesting in that it appears on a Linprint airmail envelope, as produced by George W. Linn, the founder of Linn's Stamp News, likely for use in aero-philately events, and this would be an early issue for him.  Also, the use of a plate block single by the sender was a nice touch.

A great rarity are covers that not only received the dual franking here, but also had seen service in one of Wilkins' previous missions to Deception Island and had received postmarking at Port Stanley, Falkland Islands.  Note the light green circular cachet in upper left corner with the Deception Island wording and perhaps in slightly different ink at upper right.  In addition, this is an A.C. Roessler cover, often characterized by the barbershop airmail border and in this instance, what appears to be a rubber-stamped return address for Roessler in East Orange, New Jersey.

As far as the expedition itself, it did not pan out; as stated, Wilkins had bought an old "O" class submarine from the United States, and it was a very old one and developed major mechanical problems, having problems with the diving gear, as well as encountering violent storms.  They ended up being rescued at sea, and the Nautilus was towed in for possible repairs.  Repairs were found to be unfeasible, and the submarine was eventually scuttled.  It was almost another thirty years before the U.S. Submarine Nautilus, propelled by atomic power, actually made the first under-ice polar crossing.  Submerging under the ice, the Nautilus traveled the
1,830 miles from the ice off Point Barrow to a point near Spitsbergen in only 96 hours.

For more about another one of Sir Wilkins' great adventures, which unfortunately turned out to be his last adventure prior to his death in 1958, go to my Wilkins' 1957 Bi-Polar flight page.

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QSLnet/KG0YH page last updated 10-08-2003

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