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Raimond Goerler on: The Competition Between Amundsen and Byrd
Raimond Goerler Q: Who was Amundsen and how did Byrd feel about him and about competing against him?

RG: Amundsen of course, is the premiere explorer of his time. He's the first man to reach the South Pole in 1911. He's the first to sail through the Northwest Passage. He's the senior of all Polar explorers and of course Amundsen fails, along with Lincoln Ellsworth, in 1925 to fly to the North Pole, using an airplane. He decides on the basis of his 1925 experience that he's going to use the dirigible because he had such difficulty from the trend to land and than take off again, in the Arctic, after an emergency landing. Amundsen is determined to use a blimp and Byrd decides that the place that he wants to do his expedition from Spitsbergen, where Amundsen is. In Spitsbergen he has the advantage and it's closer to the Pole. It has a port that opens earlier in the spring and so there Amundsen and Byrd are competing to be the first to the North Pole and Byrd initially sends a wire. This is recorded in Byrd's diary to Amundsen offering to help and he's pretty miffed at Amundsen, for the difficulties that he experiences unloading his airplanes from his ship to the one dock because there's a Norwegian ship there blocking the harbor and will not move and so Byrd does the riskiest thing he's done in his entire career and that is to unload the plane, using pontoons. and risking the entire expedition because he is not, he has no idea of when this ship is going to move and he also knows that Amundsen is waiting for a ship to arrive from Italy and as soon as it arrives Amundsen is off first to the North Pole. So, there's in the diary, not publicly but in the diary there are entries that basically state that he doesn't think that Amundsen's playing all that fair, especially having done this dangerous maneuver of bringing his airplane across pontoon boats to the shore that the Norwegians object to his news people filming the event and he has a derogatory remark to make about that in the diary, that once again, lack of fair play amongst the Norwegians.


Q: So, he did this incredibly risky unloading because?

RG: Byrd undertook this very dangerous unloading on pontoons of his airplane to the Josephine Ford to shore because he was very frustrated by his competition with Amundsen and no doubt he was probably thinking a year ago, 1925 when he was very frustrated at not being able to do all the flying that he wanted to do because of Donald MacMillan's being in charge of the expedition and now he's being frustrated by Amundsen. So, in this incredible risky maneuver in which one cake of ice , one particularly dangerous wave could have knocked his airplane, his tri-motor into the water, he decided to do it anyway, despite his crew because he was bound and determined that this was his time, that this was his opportunity to make it to the North Pole.


Q: What were the pressures? Was it kind of a make or break moment for him?

RG: The North Pole flight from Spitsbergen was pivotal in Byrd's career. He'd gotten some success in Greenland with the MacMillan Expedition, but now he had all the backing, the Ford, the Rockefeller, the very lucrative contracts with the news media. This was his moment. And you know the Norge was expected any day and as luck would have it, the blimp reached the North Pole three days after Byrd did. So, it was very tight timing indeed.


Q: What's motivating Byrd here. Does he want to be first, does he want to be a hero, does he have patriotic feelings? What's going on?

RG: Well, in this competition, there are lots of different factors. One factor, of course, is that Byrd sees this as a competition, as a competitive game and he is very much an athlete and he wants to be number one. It's a perfectly natural circumstance. Of course wrapped up in being number one is also the nationalism. Peary's claim for example, when Peary reached the North Pole his statement was, I nailed the flag to the Pole. Again appealing to nationalism. So, that's part of the quest for the North Pole to demonstrate American initiative.

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