The Dreaded Winter of 1958
The Japanese`s first attempt to document and explore the Antarctic over the winter period was ill-fated, and actually fatal to the majority of sled dogs involved.
The Japan National Institute of Polar Research wanted to continue documenting from Syowa Station in East Ongul Island throughout the entire year. This meant that researchers, as well as their sled dog teams, had to endure the extreme cold, as well as trying to consume as little food as possible, yet still remain fit and able to cope with the weather.
For this first expedition, the Sakhalin Husky breed was chosen, and only the best dogs were selected from breeders in Japan, dogs that came from sledding lines and that were conditioned and used to hard work. After numerous tests were conducted, a total of 23 dogs were selected and these started an intense, harsh training period that was meant to prepare them for the dangerous journey ahead...but nothing could!
Among these 23 dog, there were three brothers: Taro, Jiro and Saburo. However, after the rigurous months of training and preparing, only Taro and Jiro made it on the final 15 dog-team that was supposed the head out to Antarctica, as Saburo died while in training. Besides the two brothers, the other 13 dogs selected were: Riki (7 year-old, team leader), Anko, Aka, Kuma (Monbetsu), Kuma (Furen), Pesu, Goro, Deri, Pochi, Moku, Jakku, Kuro, Shiro, Taro, Jiro. Taro and Jiro were, actually, among the youngest of the team, being only 3 years old when the expedition began.
The selected team reached the destination without any problems and explored and documented the Antarctic region for several months. However, weather conditions being very harsh, the entire team was supposed to be replaced by another one after a given number of months.
In Feb. 1958, a replace-team embarked on the Japanese icebreaker "Soya" and headed to Syowa Station, but a massive storm started and the ship could not reach its destination. Continuing the journey meant putting in danger the lives of all those on board, but not going through with it meant abandoning the team that was already at Syowa and which was running low on supplies. "Soya" received assistance from the U.S. Coast Guard icebreaker "Burton Island" and managed to evacuate, by helicopter, the human members of the team, but the dogs were left behind. They were left chained and with food supply only for a few days, as the team was convinced that in a couple of days time they would return to rescue them. But things didn`t work out that way... The weather just got from bad to worse and the officials couldn`t do anything about it, despite the fact that in Japan, the people were outraged and criticized them for abandoning their dogs.
Only one year later, on the 14th of Jan. 1959, another team arrived at Syowa Station and started looking for the dogs. They soon found them, and the sight was not pleasant at all: 7 dogs – Aka, Goro, Pochi, Moku, Kuro, Pesu and Kuma (Monbetsu) – died of starvation and cold while still chained, as the first team members had left them. However, eight other dogs seemed to have freed themselves, had left the base and were nowhere to be found.
Taking into consideration that all odds had been against these dogs, no member of the team had any hopes of finding any survivors, so you can imagine their amazement and excitement when they saw two big, dark dogs approaching! After greeting and petting them and comparing the information they had on the 15 dogs that were stationed on Syowa, they discovered that the two dogs were Taro and Jiro.
Although underweight, the dogs were happy to see humans once more.
Scientists concluded that the brothers must have learned to hunt penguins and seals, otherwise they would have not survived the winter, as no other food sources were available and no signs of canibalism were present on the other dogs` bodies. The other 6 dogs that managed to free themselves were never found, including Kuma (Furen) – Taro and Jiro`s sire.
Finally the brothers returned home and were celebrated like national heroes, but their ways parted, as Jiro returned to Antarctica to serve at Syowa and live just two more years, till his death in 1960, whereas Taro lived at Hokkaido University and sired many ancestors, till his death in 1970. Both dogs were embalmed and preserved so that future generations would come to know their amazing tale of power, will to live and team work.
As a reminder of their story, many monuments depicting national heroes Taro and Jiro and even the whole pack were built throughout Japan, and even a movie was made. (”Nankyoku Monogatari” – engl. ”Antarctica”).
In 2006, Walt Disney Pictures shot another movie based on Taro and Jiro`s horrific ordeal – ”Eight Below”
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