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NARRATOR: June, 1934. Explorer Richard Byrd lay dying at the bottom of
the world. In his diary he wrote: "I see my whole life pass in review. I
realize how I have failed to see that the simple, homely, unpretentious things
of life are the most important."
BOLLING BYRD CLARKE: I think Dad was as well prepared as
he could have been but no one could have been prepared for that kind of
experience, being ah completely alone under the most difficult of
NARRATOR: Huddled in a one room hut burrowed into the Antarctic ice,
Byrd drifted in and out of delirium, but would not call for help.
LISLE ROSE: His whole persona had been of the person out on the cutting
edge of adventure and the frontier, who really didn't need any help. Dick Byrd
did it alone. Dick Byrd was the great hero.
NARRATOR: Byrd was already a famous man. He had received three ticker
tape parades as the first to fly to the North and the South Pole, and as one of
the first to fly non-stop across the Atlantic. But his greatest achievement
would be opening up the vast unknown continent of Antarctica to science and
EUGENE RODGERS: He dared great things and the people who dare great
things have many sides to them. He wanted to contribute to history and
science, he wanted to make money, he wanted to become a hero. And which one won
out depended on the circumstances.
NARRATOR: The heroic image that Byrd created would not survive intact.
Like all great men, he was driven to succeed, and at some point, bound to fail.
In April, 1926, Lt. Commander Richard Byrd set out from New York for
Spitsbergen, Norway. His ship carried 52 men and an airplane. He hoped to be
the first to fly to the North Pole.
LISLE ROSE: Dick Byrd had to be first in anything he did. Ah, I think
he felt always that it wasn't worth doing unless he was the first person to do
it. And this was in Dick Byrd's makeup.
NARRATOR: Byrd was in a race against Norwegian explorer, Roald Amundsen, the first man to reach the South Pole in 1911. Already in
Spitsbergen, Amundsen hoped to conquer the North Pole in a dirigible. When
Byrd arrived, he was upset to find a Norwegian boat blocking the pier. He
ordered his crew to construct a makeshift raft out of lifeboats.
BYRD Quote: I decided to take chance and get plane ashore somehow. We
may be licked but don't want to be licked waiting around and doing nothing.
RAIMOND GOERLER: So in this incredible risky maneuver in which
one cake of ice ah, one particularly dangerous wave could have knocked his
airplane, his tri-motor into the water. Byrd does the riskiest thing he's done
in is entire career because he was bound and determined that this was his time
to make it to the North Pole.
NARRATOR: When Byrd's plane reached the shore, the Norwegians were
impressed. "To your health and success," said Amundsen. "I wish you brilliant
accomplishments," replied Byrd. Byrd had long dreamt of being the first
to the North Pole and, as a child, had been thrilled by the harrowing accounts
of Arctic expeditions. Born in 1888, Richard Byrd came from one of the first
families of Virginia. Once wealthy landowners, the Byrds were wiped out by the
ROSE: Dick Byrd was born only 23 years after Appomattox, and the
whole of the South was demoralized and felt very strongly that it had to prove
NARRATOR: Byrd's mother, Eleanor Bolling, was a Southern belle who
encouraged her three sons, the proverbial Tom, Dick and Harry to rehabilitate
the family name. His father, Richard Byrd, was a brilliant prosecutor but a
solitary man and an alcoholic. He drove his boys hard, fostering in them a
desire to succeed.
Dick was the most adventurous. "Danger was all that thrilled him," his mother
said. In 1900, Byrd was invited to visit his godfather based in the
Philippines, halfway around the world.
BOLLING BYRD CLARKE: My father was extremely excited. His parents ah
were not happy about the idea and I think his mother certainly didn't want him
to go. It was much too dangerous for a small boy, the age of twelve to go
NARRATOR: But Byrd did travel alone - and wrote letters home which were
published in the local newspaper.
ROSE: He came back a celebrity and got the first taste of what
adventuresome travel could do in the in the sense of awaking public awareness,
and inciting public awe.
NARRATOR: At age 20, Byrd entered the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis,
in search of the recognition and adventure that he now craved. There, he pushed
himself, but not in his studies.
EUGENE RODGERS: Byrd was small, and it made him interested in athletics
and in conditioning. And he tried to become a great athlete or a good athlete
at any rate, and in fact all his life was very proud of his physique.
NARRATOR: A fierce competitor, Byrd broke his foot playing football,
then broke it again in gymnastics. After Annapolis, he fell down a hatch
breaking his foot a third time. Because of his injuries, his career stalled,
and he reluctantly retired from the Navy.
BYRD Quote: Career ended," he wrote, "trained for a seafaring
profession; tempermentally disinclined for business. A fizzle."
NARRATOR: By this time, Byrd had married his childhood
sweetheart, Marie Ames. From a prominent Boston family, she was attractive,
totally supportive, and the love of his life.
Byrd's career was saved by World War I. Called back to active duty, he was
eventually sent to Pensacola to train in a new field.
ROSE: He was one of the very early naval aviators. It was almost a
foolhardy profession. Men were still learning how to build planes. And it was
a very, very dangerous profession. You certainly were going to get hurt if you
weren't going to get killed.
NARRATOR: Though he was afraid of flying, Byrd trained as a navigator
and became naval aviator 608. He believed this new technology would change the
world and help him realize his childhood dreams.
RODGERS: Byrd reasoned that if he could fly to the North Pole and back
in one day in relative comfort and accomplish what the old explorers had taken
weeks or months to do that this would gain great publicity for aviation and
incidentally for himself.
NARRATOR: After several frustrating attempts to fly to the Pole as part
of a Navy effort, Byrd, now 38, set out to raise funds for his own Arctic
expedition. Impressed by his vision, Ford, Rockefeller and others contributed.
Newspaper rights netted him more money. Byrd's future was riding on the success
of his flight from Spitsbergen to the Pole.
His first attempt was a failure. Just before take off, the landing skis
collapsed. Byrd was in desperate need of help. It came from an unexpected
source, Bernt Balchen, a member of Amundsen's team.
BESS BALCHEN URBAHN: He was a flyer and a very good pilot and he also
was a very handy person. He could do practically anything with his two
GOERLER: Balchen helped to fashion special skis using the oars of the
life boats. Balchan also advises Byrd that the best time to take off is late at
night when the temperatures are cold, and the runway is iced over and is
NARRATOR: On May 9th, navigator Byrd, and pilot, Floyd Bennett, took
off in the light of the Arctic night. What happened next is still a matter of
debate. According to Byrd, they discovered an oil leak 100 miles short of the
pole, but kept going. After eight and a half hours, Byrd scribbled a note to
BYRD Quote: Radio that we have reached the pole, and are now returning
with one motor with bad oil leak, but expect to be able to make Spitsbergen.
NARRATOR: Byrd returned much earlier than expected so the landing had
to be restaged for the cameras. The flight was an American triumph. Byrd's
logs were sent to the National Geographic Society, the sponsor of the
expedition. The Society verified Byrd's claim - after minting a gold medal
honoring him. Promoted to Commander by an act of Congress, Byrd said he had
now entered the hero business.
RODGERS: Byrd was extremely popular after his North Polar flight. He
was an aviator and aviators were great heroes of the day. Byrd was an
explorer, explorers were famous at the time. And besides that he was a
handsome man, reputed to be a model person -- didn't drink, curse, go out with
women. Ah, he was the kind of a man that women hoped their daughters would
NARRATOR: After the celebrations, Byrd went home to Boston. By this
time, he was the father of four young children.
CLARKE: All of the children had a very difficult time with his
absences. He was missed mightily and very much we looked forward to his
return. The most fun we had was during the summertimes because he loved
being with us. I just wanted to be with him all the time, to, ah, listen to
his wonderful stories and, of course, it was such an adventure to be with him.
He thought of all kinds of fun things to do.I adored him, and when he
left, I really missed him.
NARRATOR: Soon after the North Pole flight, questions began to surface
in the foreign press. Some reporters doubted whether he could have made the
fifteen hundred mile journey to the pole and back in so short a time.
URBAHN: They said that they had seen a plane on the horizon and couldn't
believe it because they didn't, hadn't expected the "Josephine Ford" to
come back that quickly and ah so one of the ah reporters at the time, an
aviation reporter for the Norwegian paper, "Aften Posten", questioned it
NARRATOR: Others doubted Byrd in private. That summer, Bernt Balchen
and the North Pole pilot, Floyd Bennett, took the Josephine Ford on a cross
country promotional tour.
URBAHN: Bernt as always kept a very careful log and he realized that the
plane wasn't as fast as it was supposed to be and he knew that something was
wrong, that it couldn't have reached the North Pole and finally asked Bennett
and Bennett definitely told Bernt Balchen that they had not reached it.
NARRATOR: Balchen kept this story to himself. Clearly, staying on
Byrd's good side was a smart move for an ambitious young pilot. But doubts
about the flight persist. Did Byrd fall short of the Pole, and if so, by how
much and did he know it? The flight diary doesn't resolve the question Was
Byrd's career as an explorer launched on a lie?
ROSE: Dick Byrd believed very strongly that life was a struggle. It
wasn't something that you eased into and eased through. One became a hero
through repeated search for transcendent challenges. And the supreme arena for
surmounting them was Antarctica.
NARRATOR: One year after the North Pole flight, Byrd announced his next
exploit. He planned to be the first man ever to fly over the South Pole.
Operating out of a suite in the Hotel Biltmore, Byrd began organizing the most
ambitious polar expedition ever undertaken.
NORMAN VAUGHAN: I was studying at Harvard College one night and the door
opened and in came the "Boston Transcript", the evening paper of the
city, and there with banner headlines it said, "Byrd to the South Pole." I
read it and at that moment I decided I wanted to go.
NARRATOR: Norman Vaughan was among the 10,000 who volunteered. Byrd
wanted men with spirit - of mind and courage, and Vaughan fit the bill. Byrd
was also counting on the donation of goods and services, and on raising over
500,000 dollars in cash.
RODGERS: At that time Antarctic expeditions weren't financed by the
government. They were solely financed by the people running the expeditions.
So Byrd had to raise all the money for his expedition himself. And ah Byrd
made himself a show business property.
Byrd signed up with a lecture bureau, arranged a book deal, sold syndication
rights to "The New York Times," and the film rights to Paramount Pictures
which assigned two cameraman to the expedition. Contributions came in from
philanthropists, business leaders, and even school children. Edsel Ford
donated an airplane.
In the midst of the preparations, Byrd was devastated when he learned of the
sudden death of pilot, Floyd Bennett. Bennett had been Byrd's right hand man
and closest friend. He would be hard to replace. Byrd soon named Bernt Balchen
to head the aviation unit but postponed selecting a new pilot for the South
The Byrd Antarctic Expedition was ready to go in the fall of 1928. Four ships
would carry 3 planes, 95 dogs, 650 tons of supplies, and 42 men headed for the
most dangerous adventure of their lives. "The New York Times" already had
written an obituary for each man.
RODGERS: Antarctica is a very inhospitable place. I think it's
something like Mars, it's as close to another planet as we can get on earth.
It's the driest place on earth, the coldest, the windiest. There are no plants
there. It's desolate, desolate with a capital D, and dangerous. Antarctica
has, has killed men. They've fallen off mountains, fallen into the sea and
drowned, froze to death, gone mad. It's a terrible place to live.
NARRATOR: Traveling through the Panama Canal, across the Pacific, and
down past New Zealand, the expedition took 2 months to reach Antarctica. When
the men began unloading supplies, a great chunk of ice crashed into one of the
ships. A crewman, Benny Roth, fell into the water.
VAUGHAN: Benny Roth was yelling for help, "I can't swim" and as Byrd
started to climb over the taftrail and to jump into the water, I among others
grabbed him and pulled him back, and the second we released our grip on his
clothing, like a cat he was over the rail.
NARRATOR: A lifeboat rescued Benny Roth before Byrd could get to him.
But this was not the only time he had jumped into dangerous waters to save one
of his men.
ROSE: Dick Byrd had, I think, a natural visceral instinctive sense of
responsibility toward others. And I think this, this showed itself in the way
he would fling himself off decks to save sailors that were drowning. An
officer took care of his men.
NARRATOR: Byrd had to work quickly to prepare for the brutal Antarctic
winter - 4 months of total darkness from May through August. Byrd chose a site
for the base camp nine miles inland. It took 3 months just to unload.
Expedition members, dressed in kangaroo hide boots, caribou gloves and fur
parkas, set up the camp. Byrd called it Little America.
RODGERS: Having to build a base for 42 men that would last them for a
year and a half. He was really building a, a tiny little city. Bringing his
stuff to the base, erecting it under awful conditions of sub-zero temperatures
and fierce winds and snow-storms and ice that was as hard as concrete to dig
into, it was a great undertaking.
NARRATOR: Even before Little America was finished, the ships had to
leave Antarctica before the ice pack froze them in.
VAUGHAN: That was a tremendous moment. We realized then that that was
our last connection or possible connection with the outside world, our home,
our family, our life until next year.
NARRATOR: Alone on the ice, Byrd and his men pushed to get work done
before winter set in. The South Pole flight was still nine months away and
though it was his primary goal, Byrd had also pledged to conduct scientific
RODGERS: Antarctica was virgin territory for scientists.
Glaciologists had to study how much ice was there and how it moved. The
weathermen had to study the air patterns, the geologists had to study the rocks
down there. So gathering scientific knowledge about Antarctica was very
important at the time.
NARRATOR: But Byrd's personal passion lay in discovering uncharted
territory and in being the one to claim it for the United States. From the
air, he was able to map huge areas and make headlines back home. A "New York
Times" reporter was on the expedition.
RODGERS: Russell Owen had to send his reports to the "Times" through
the radio operators, who would send it by Morse Code back to New York. Byrd
had left standing orders with the operators to give him these reports so he
could look them over before they were sent, and he often penciled in things
that he wanted and penciled out things he didn't want.
NARRATOR: One story that was rewritten was the discovery of a vast
territory by three other men from Byrd's expedition. The news was reported in
"The Times" but with Byrd as the hero.
GOERLER: There is, I think very good evidence of a need to control
everything on the expedition including any big news stories. He was the ah
leader of the expedition, the ah he was ah personally responsible for all its
ah finances and he simply did not want to share credit for the discoveries of
the expedition with anybody.
NARRATOR: The winter night brought an end to exploration. The
planes were stored in igloo hangers, and the dogs boarded in icy kennels. The
perpetual darkness and temperatures as low as 72 degrees below zero drove the
men into an underground existence.
VAUGHAN: Well you felt quite trapped. You're in one building with
tunnels connecting to another building. The living space was as cramped as it
could be. In the house where I was it was a very small quarters and two
tiered bunks on four walls and just a stove and that' s all there was in that
NARRATOR: As a precaution against fumes and asphyxiation, they turned
off their stoves at night. The men lived mostly on frozen provisions,
supplemented by whale and seal meat. They spent the winter preparing for the
spring expeditions and dealt with the monotony by playing games, watching
movies and performing skits for each other. Whatever face Byrd put on for the
men, he felt very alone and depended on his wife for moral support. "Darling,"
MARIE BYRD Quote: I'm wondering if the time will ever come when we can
be like human beings and have a real home. Glory and fame may be all right
but we have certainly paid well for them.
CLARKE: My mother was a very exceptional woman. It must have
been extremely difficult for her to carry on alone with the responsibilities of
the family and home.
NARRATOR: The separation from home was hard on all the men. Enveloped
in darkness, Little America became a pressure cooker.
I love you very much. I wish you would be home more. I think I would get
along much better in school if you were here.
RODGERS: So people get on each other's nerves. They ah, blew up at
each other. They tended to get what they call, the big eye, in Antarctica,
even today, where they just stare because they were depressed and had little
stimulation. Byrd had been warned about this by other polar explorers who told
him, watch out for the winter. It's a very dangerous time in Antarctica.
NARRATOR: Though the Paramount cameramen made the winter look like good
clean fun, there were fist fights, and an episode when one man stalked another
with a gun. Alcohol was another problem. Byrd, among others, was a heavy
drinker, and parties frequently became all night binges.
ROSE: He wasn't leading officers and enlisted men in a naval
expedition. He was leading very individualistic scientists, adventurers,
students, people who really had been pretty well used to living their own life
and after all volunteered for the Byrd expedition because they wanted
NARRATOR: Finally, in August, the sun returned to Antarctica. The men
began to prepare for the flight to the South Pole. But Byrd had not yet
revealed who would be the pilot. The secrecy caused tension and upset Bernt
URBAHN: It bothered Bernt that Byrd had a closed personality. He would
take people to the side and talk to one on one. Instead of talking to
everybody if he had a problem or if he wanted something specific done he should
have addressed the whole group of them.
NARRATOR: Though there was tension between the two men, they
needed each other. Byrd depended on Balchen's superior skill as a pilot, and
Balchen wanted to share in the glory of another polar first. Finally, Byrd
told Balchen, "You will fly to the South Pole with me."
It was Thanksgiving day, 1929 when Byrd's plane, the "Floyd Bennett", left for
the Pole. The take off was smooth but there was soon trouble. The plane was
too heavy to get over the high mountain range on the edge of the polar plateau.
Balchen and Byrd were forced to dump their emergency food supplies, but still
the plane could not get high enough. They were heading directly for a mountain
RODGERS: Experienced pilot that he was, Bernt Balchen knew there
was a cold mass of air pouring over the polar plateau, and there was probably
an updraft somewhere if he could find it. So he flew over to a mountain wall.
And lo and behold, there was an updraft there. He got just enough of an
updraft to boost the plane high, enough to get over the peak. They flew over
the mountain and they were home safe.
NARRATOR: The plane circled the pole. Byrd sent a radio message, "My
calculations indicate that we have reached the vicinity of the South Pole."
The news was immediately relayed to New York and broadcast over loudspeakers in
Times Square. The expedition had been a remarkable achievement. After fourteen
months on the ice, Byrd and his men headed home.
In June, 1930, the expedition arrived in New York. Now promoted to Admiral,
Byrd was honored with his biggest ticker tape parade.
But there was no time for a break. Byrd was secretly planning another
expedition and had to cash in on the last one. He published a book, "Little
America," a self-promoting account of his two years in Antarctica and
supervised the editing of the Paramount film in his home.
CLARKE: I remember them splicing film together and I would sneak down
the backstairs and peek ah between the cracks of the door.
RODGERS: This documentary won the Academy Award for best photography.
It was a terrible documentary though, I must say that. It didn't really fit
the history correct. It was made to show Byrd as a great hero, and to bring
tears and sweat from the audience. It wasn't really historically
NARRATOR: Not everyone fell for it. A few 'New York sophisticates,' as
Byrd called them, thought that the all-American image was wearing thin.
But to most Americans, Byrd was still a hero - though the relentless schedule
of public appearances was a trial for such a private man.
BYRD Quote: What a pity it is that I have to keep a stiff upper lip and
go thru all kinds of stuff when I ought to be out in the woods, away from
NARRATOR: In 1931, Byrd announced a second expedition to Antarctica, to
map more territory and to conduct scientific research. He would also have to
come up with another spectacular and dangerous exploit to top his South Pole
ROSE: So he keeps this momentum of movement and of action and of
achievement going. He's really almost a guy on a treadmill.
NARRATOR: The times had changed. The country was mired in the Great
Depression, and money was scarce. Byrd had to market himself aggressively to
attract contributions and supplies for the expedition. It was easier to get
STEVENSON COREY: I was kind of at the crossroads and no roots down,
particularly in business and it was a challenge to find out, as I was tough as
these fellows that were doing these things.
NARRATOR: Byrd's second expedition got underway in 1933. From the
beginning, it was a media event. Byrd made a deal with CBS to produce weekly
broadcasts from Antarctica. General Foods was the sponsor and Grape Nuts, the
official cereal of the expedition. The first of over sixty scripted broadcasts
was made from the ship on the way down.
ANNOUNCER: Stand by all America for now we are attempting the most
spectacular feat in the annals of radio - a two-way broadcast from and to the
Byrd expedition. Now in the Pacific on the way to Antarctica...
BYRD: Good evening, my friends of the Columbia and General Foods. We
confidently believe that in that lost world, aviation will find something of
real value to humanity. What we seek lies deep in Antarctica the last refuge
of mystery and the unknown.
NARRATOR: Treacherous conditions plagued the men from the start. Every
day huge chunks of the ice shelf broke off. The route to Little America was so
hazardous, it became known as Misery Trail. The dangers facing the expedition
were featured in press reports sent home.
MURPHY Press Report: Yesterday a tractor narrowly missed plunging into a
crevasse. The trail suddenly crumpled underneath the rear treads, exposing a
crevasse sixty feet deep.
NARRATOR: The man in charge of all the press and radio on the
expedition was Charles Murphy, a CBS correspondent who had written Byrd's
biography and was his most trusted advisor.
GOERLER: Charles Murphy, is very media astute. This is a man who ah
even before Byrd's ah expedition ah was involved in cultivating Byrd's ah image
as a hero. And he was very much concerned that that image be maintained.
NARRATOR: For two years, Byrd had been planning a dramatic event. No
one had ever spent a winter in the interior of Antarctica. Byrd would build a
remote weather station far south of Little America where two or three men could
live and conduct meteorological research during the long winter night. But
secretly Byrd had been thinking about going alone. Now, difficult conditions
caused delays and sealed his fate. Byrd would go out to the weather station,
Advance Base, by himself - with cold, darkness and solitude his only
companions. Byrd confided to Murphy that he had no other choice.
MURPHY Journal: Feb. 18, 1934 Impossible to move out enough equipment
for three men. To take another, he said , would incur the almost inescapable
suspicion of homosexuality.
NARRATOR: To do it alone he felt wise and proper When Byrd announced
his decision to the camp, many were opposed.
COREY: I said to him "bluntly Admiral, there are 56 men here on the
ice, 55 of us are better equipped to go out to that base than you are, you're
needed here." And, he laughed and he said, "Oh, I wouldn't ask anyone to do
something that I wouldn't do myself."
MURPHY Journal: Feb. 18, 1934 It has interested me how well a
man could stand solitude. Also, I have had a lot of expeditions and have had
to put up with things and with men especially that have robbed them of
satisfaction. This will be without those disadvantages.
ROSE: In going to Advance Base, I think Dick Byrd had run out of
ideas in what to do in terms of aviation. So he really needed something I
think spectacular as a means of effectively putting him before the public as
this intrepid polar explorer and unique individual.
NARRATOR: Before he left, Byrd instructed his men not to attempt a
rescue before the return of full daylight in six months. In a last minute note
to Murphy, he admitted, "I am no radio operator, so the radio will possibly
fail. This should not be any cause for worry." Once the crew completed
building the 9 x 13 foot hut, Byrd was flown to the base, 123 miles south of
Little America, and left alone.
BYRD Quote: March 28 They have gone at last. For over two
hundred days, I'll see no human being or any living thing. The winter night is
near. The temperature is bitter, from 40 to 60 below.
NARRATOR: For the first two months, Byrd kept busy with his
routine of weather observations and spent time listening to music, reading, and
trying to cook.
BYRD Quote: I have located very little of the food and don't
know how to cook anyhow. I found some canned greens and a Virginia ham mother
sent me and lived high off of those yesterday. The greens were frozen so hard
I had to use a chisel to cut it into chunks for warming.
NARRATOR: Back at Little America, the men tried to keep busy
throughout the winter night. Their weekly radio programs provided comic
relief. It was Murphy's job to write the scripts and to cajole the men into
MURPHY: "Little America, Byrd expedition calling from Little America.
Temperature tonight - 59 below. Tonight we introduce for the first and probably
last time, a composition. It is called "Penguins' Parade."
HILL: And our illustrious singing group was the Knights of the Gray
Underwear. Dr. Gill Morgan, our seismologist was our organist. And I sang
tenor. It was more as an amusement, but I do believe based on reports from home
that I think people really did look forward to that program every week.
CLARKE: The Saturday nights when they had the broadcasts from Little
America, Mother would wake us up, take us down to ah Dad's big bed. It's a
great big Italian bed and ah I can remember the static and listening to the
broadcast down there, they were very exciting.
NARRATOR: On June 21st, Byrd radioed Murphy a surprising message. He
said he wanted to come home three months ahead of schedule. Byrd then cut the
contact short saying that fumes from his stove made him feel a little 'rocky.'
He signed off, as usual, with 'Cheerio.' What Byrd didn't reveal was that he
had been desperately ill. Three weeks earlier, he had collapsed from carbon
ROSE: He basically was poisoned for a prolonged period of time by
fumes, which he thought were coming from his stove, but in fact were coming
from his generator. He went through a pretty terrible ordeal.
NARRATOR: Byrd became dizzy and confused. He couldn't keep food down
and wracking pain made it almost impossible to sleep. He lay in the freezing
cold, struggling between hope and despair.
BYRD Quote: Hardest battle I have is to keep from taking an overdose of
sleeping pills. Horrible to think of leaving Marie alone with the four
children. Decision not to call for help based upon how they would want me to
act. Fully expect to die.
NARRATOR: Byrd's radio contacts with Little America became erratic and
his Morse code almost indecipherable.
HILL: We began the suspicion that something was wrong with him when he
would miss a, a contact, or have trouble staying on the air very long. And as
time went on this became so frequent that we decided that something was really
wrong, and something had to be done.
COREY: We held several meetings in the mess hall, and there were
factions. Some were saying "well he asked for it, now let him stew in his own
juice for a while." Others fought and said, "no the old man's out there,
he needs help, let's go out and rescue him."
NARRATOR: On July 20th, a tractor party left Little America for Advance
Base. Murphy's press release reports a perilous trip for scientific research.
No mention was made of Byrd's illness or of a rescue.
HILL: We were very concerned about the men that were running the
tractors to go out after him. Recognizing the difficulties, we knew that they
were risking their lives literally to do it.
NARRATOR: 50 miles out, the tractors ran into huge field of crevasses.
The tractor party wired Murphy.
MURPHY Report: Unable to locate trail around crevassed area. Many flags
completely covered under snow. Inadvisable to proceed.
NARRATOR: Murphy instructed them to come back. He wanted to wait
a month when daylight would return before risking another attempt. But for the
next three days, Little America was unable to contact Advance Base. Finally,
they received from Byrd an explicit call for rescue. Murphy wrote in his
MURPHY Quote: Making ready for a second dash to advance base the Admiral
has called for it...God help us all if anything goes wrong.
NARRATOR: But the second attempt failed because of engine
problems. Murphy then received another desperate message from Byrd.
BYRD Quote: "Charlie and Bill, what in God's name is matter - do
something - use all resources - do not risk life - can't keep this up.
August 5, 1934
NARRATOR: On August 8th, a tractor carrying 3 men set out once again.
By now, Murphy and the others were certain Byrd was close to death.
HILL: We waited for the reports back from the tractor party on how they
were proceeding, what difficulties they were encountering. And just holding
our breath literally from report to report.
NARRATOR: For three days, the rescue party pushed through bitter cold
and darkness and finally reached Byrd. The men found him thin and weak, his
cabin littered with debris. But he was still alive
ROSE: He wanted to do this as a spectacular act of courage and so
on. But I don't think he ever expected to run into the disaster that he did.
There's very strong indication in the documents that he was embarrassed and one
could even say that he was humiliated by the fact that he didn't finish his
time at advance base.
NARRATOR: The tractor party sent a confidential message to Murphy:
Message from Tractor Party: REB feels unhappy about his status with the
public. He feels that he is pretty well sunk and that this may make it
impossible for him to make up expedition debt. 8/14
NARRATOR: Six months after Byrd's rescue, the expedition headed
home. Byrd had claimed more land and conducted important scientific research,
but privately, he felt he had failed. He was 47 years old.
CLARKE: Here was a man whom I had last seen straight-backed, black
haired man and here he was, coming down the gang plank, holding on to both
sides of it stooped, with some of his hair having turned gray and all I wanted
to do was to just run out to him and tell him how much I loved him and how
happy I was to see him.
FDR: " and I extend to all of you in behalf of the American people a
hearty welcome home. And let me add just one thing from the heart. Dick, I
CLARKE: After all the speeches were over, the crowds broke through the
ropes and I can remember that I just rushed right through and up to Dad and he
turned to me and he said, "not here dear, later when we're alone" and I was
crushed. It had been about three years since I had seen him last. Now Dad was
raised at a time when you didn't express outwardly love or pain. He may have
been crying inside as much as I was but you didn't do that in public.
NARRATOR: Three years later, Byrd published Alone, an heroic version of
his isolation at Advance base. It became a bestseller. The book was meant to
pave the way for Byrd's next expedition. But within a short time, polar
exploration would be in the hands of the U.S.government. Eventually, Byrd was
needed only as a figurehead.
ROSE: He was trapped in his own self image of the intrepid polar
explorer who overcame great odds and who had to go back time and time and time
again to find new trials and new tests of strength. When he said to people,
they don't want me anymore, what he meant was, they didn't want him as he
perceived himself, as the leader of polar expeditions.
NARRATOR: No longer running the show, Byrd spent more time with Marie
and his family. Perhaps, he found some solace in what he had learned from his
time at Advance Base.
CLARKE: Out of this experience, his sense of values changed and
his faith grew. And he said, in the final analysis, only two things really
mattered and that was the affection and the understanding of his
NARRATOR: Byrd made his last trip to the ice in 1955. Two years later,
the man who introduced America and generations of scientists to Antarctica died
of heart failure at the age of 68. Byrd's statue at Arlington National
Cemetery immortalizes the heroic persona that he spent his life creating. But
that image would be tarnished. In 1971, Bernt Balchen went public with his
claim that years earlier pilot Floyd Bennett had told him that Byrd had not
reached the North Pole. Whatever the truth, the claim cast a shadow over the
legacy of the last great polar explorer.
In an editorial after Byrd's death, The "New York Times" wrote "such men are not
easy characters. They burn with a bright flame. They go on their way alone,
partly because they stand on a narrow summit."