Naval Reserve Rear Admiral Donald B. MacMillan, known by many as “Captain Mac,” lived an adventurous life that few can imagine. An expert on the people, climate, and geography of the Arctic, he made 30 trips there in his 46-year career. In the process, he achieved milestones in naval aviation and shipboard radio communications, both long range and shorter-range ship-to-ship transmissions. The admiral also produced extensive dictionaries of the native languages of the Far North and generated numerous maps and charts of previously unknown northern waters and islands. This year marks the 50th anniversary of his passing.
“Donny” MacMillan, the son of a sailing ship’s captain, was born in 1874 in Provincetown, Massachusetts, an active fishing port and once a bustling whaling town. As a young man, his imagination was fueled by accounts of polar expeditions and chatter on the docks of Provincetown about icebergs and polar bears. He began to seek out books on 19th-century polar expeditions—both the success stories and the tragic failures.
Donny’s first long sea voyage occurred when he was not yet ten. He sailed to Prince Edward Island with his father, who was heading to fishing grounds off the Canadian coast. Shortly after Donny’s return, tragedy struck. His father was lost at sea, disappearing without a trace on his next voyage. Three years later, his mother died after a protracted period of mourning. Donny was taken in by a neighboring family and became a strong student and gifted athlete.
To the Arctic
Eventually, Donny relocated to Maine and attended Bowdoin College in Brunswick. He graduated in 1898 with a degree in geology and had a promising career as an educator ahead of him when fate intervened. While running a summer camp at Casco Bay, Maine, he met explorer Admiral William Peary, and he later would be invited to accompany Peary on his 1906 expedition to discover the North Pole. Unfortunately, his teaching commitment prevented him from making the trip.
Peary did not reach the North Pole in 1906, but in 1908, he was eager to attempt another try. And so was MacMillan. This time, however, MacMillan’s feet became so badly frozen that he was forced to return to camp, and so he was not there when Peary made it to the North Pole in April 1909.
While MacMillan was deeply disappointed by this turn of events, his greatest exploits in the Arctic awaited him, including a four-year expedition starting in 1914. During this trip, he gathered a vast trove of data from intricate and systematic tidal, meteorological, and topographic measurements compiled in great detail.
In late 1918, as World War I ended, MacMillan began his service with the Navy, flying experimental planes in Virginia. But it wasn’t long before he again was headed north. In 1921, he sailed for Baffin Island on board his purpose-built schooner Bowdoin, and he set off again toward the North Pole in 1923, looking for evidence of a new ice age.
In 1925, Lieutenant Commander MacMillan was recalled to active duty and put in command of two ships, the Peary and the Bowdoin, which were outfitted with radio gear and carried three amphibious Navy aircraft. The aim of this expedition—sponsored by the National Geographic Society with Navy participation—was to test radio transmissions along the coast of Greenland and look for land in the Polar Sea. Lieutenant Commander Richard Byrd was in charge of flight operations, and he hoped to be the first person to fly over the North Pole. The huge pieces of radio equipment mounted on the two ships performed better than expected, especially when it came to voice clarity and transmission integrity in adverse weather situations, but Byrd’s plans were thwarted by time and weather.
During World War II, MacMillan became the U.S. Navy’s chief researcher and site planner in support of establishing a network of northern radar installations in the Far North. This was immensely helpful later, when the Distant Early Warning (DEW) Line and its complement took shape during the Cold War.
After the war, MacMillan continued carrying researchers to the Arctic. He was promoted to rear admiral in the Naval Reserve in 1954, at age 79, by an act of Congress.
MacMillan was a noteworthy Arctic scientist, speaker and explorer, but also a staunch supporter of the native peoples of the North. He built the first school for the native children of Labrador in 1929 and provided public health and even the earliest dental services as well. He also went to great lengths to ensure equal recognition for Matthew Henson, a skilled Polar traveler fluent in the Inuit language and much respected by the Inuit, and who accompanied Peary on seven voyages to the Arctic. Henson, an African American, was with Peary on his quest to reach the North Pole—and made sure it happened as planned. However, upon his return to the United States, his role largely went unrecognized and unrewarded. MacMillan unleashed a letter-writing campaign to the U.S. Congress and others to rectify the situation.
MacMillan was 95 and living again in Provincetown when he last saw his beloved Bowdoin.
In the late 1960s, Captain Jim Sharp had arranged to have the schooner towed to Camden, Maine, from Mystic Seaport, where she had been left unattended. The Bowdoin was sorely in need of major repairs. Sharp collected all the schooner’s hardware and gear he could find in the Seaport, and once he had the vessel safely docked in Camden harbor, he and a small team of workers set about to make the vessel seaworthy. When that task was completed, Sharp immediately set sail for Provincetown.
On entering the fog-bound Provincetown harbor, Sharp blew the ship’s horn. Hearing the sound, MacMillan came out on the deck of his waterfront home and responded by ringing a bell. The fog suddenly lifted, and Sharp could see the Bowdoin’s old skipper waving. Hundreds of people turned out on the town pier to see the refurbished schooner. Sharp welcomed a joyful Captain Mac aboard.
Just a few months later, in September 1970, Captain Mac passed away. Both he and his wife, Miriam—a skilled sailor who made several trips to the Arctic with her husband on the Bowdoin—are buried in Provincetown. The town pier bears his name. In addition to his massive collection of papers and artifacts housed at the Peary-MacMillan Arctic Museum at Bowdoin College, small collections of historical interest are maintained by the Provincetown Museum and Captain Sharp’s Sail Power and Steam Museum in Rockland, Maine.
1. P. J. Brown, “Effort Underway to Restore Explorer Donald MacMillan's Snowmobile,” Provincetown Banner, February 2015.
2. John H. Bryant and Harold N. Cones, Dangerous Crossings: The First Modern Polar Expedition, 1925 (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2000).
3. Mary Morton Cowan, Captain Mac: The Life of Donald Baxter MacMillan, Arctic Explorer (Honesdale, PA: Calkins Creek, 2010).
4. David Fisher, Across the Top of the World: To the North Pole by Sled, Balloon, Airplane, and Nuclear Icebreaker (New York: Dell Publishing, 1992).
5. Wally Herbert, The Noose of Laurels: Robert E. Peary and the race to the North Pole (New York: Atheneum, 1989).
6. W. N. Koelz, “A Naturalist with MacMillan in the Arctic,” National Geographic, March 1926.
7. Donald B. MacMillan, How Peary Reached the Pole (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1934).
8. Captain Jim Sharp, With Reckless Abandon: Memoirs of a Boat-Obsessed Life (Devereux Books: 2007).
9. Bowdoin History.