People & Events
Richard E. Byrd
When Richard E. Byrd contemplated the vast unexplored regions of the South Pole and the Antarctic, a land thought only to be bleak, barren, and forbidding to most, he saw a place of promise. Byrd envisioned a spot that "God had set aside as man's future -- an inexhaustible reservoir of natural resources." Byrd himself could rightly be described as an inexhaustible reservoir of ambition and complexity. Alternately viewed by those who worked with him as part scientist and part showman, part hero and part egomaniac, Richard Byrd was driven by a desire to forge new paths and to constantly set himself apart as a man of bold accomplishment.
Byrd's lofty goals were thought by many to have been inbred. He hailed from a family noted for producing citizens of distinction. Born in 1888 to a family of Virginian aristocracy, Richard Byrd could trace his lineage back to Renaissance Europe. In the New World, the Byrds of Virginia founded newspapers and went on to become wealthy landowners. The family's prestige suffered a setback when they lost nearly all they had during the Civil War. Byrd's mother, Eleanor Bolling, a gracious Southern belle, encouraged her three sons, Tom, Dick, and Harry, to restore the luster to the family name. Byrd's father, also named Richard, was known as a brilliant prosecutor, but an aloof and demanding father figure who fought a losing battle with alcoholism.
A sense of adventure marked Richard Byrd from an early age. When he was only 11, he traveled alone halfway around the world to visit a relative in the Philippines. His dispatches along the way were published in local newspapers. As his brother Harry set out to build a political dynasty in Virginia, Richard chose the military as his path to accomplishment. He graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy in 1912, and by 1916 had become a naval aviator, despite an unease about flying. During World War I, Byrd commanded U.S. air forces in Canada. During flight training in Pensacola, Florida, Byrd struck up a friendship with a man who would be pivotal to his future success, pilot Floyd Bennett.
Byrd's fascination with polar exploration had been fueled during a Navy reconnaissance cruise to the coast of Greenland. After establishing himself as a naval aviator, Byrd concluded that he could use his knowledge of flight to help him realize his Arctic dreams. He took part in several unsuccessful Navy attempts to fly to the North Pole, and in the summer of 1925 decided to embark on an air expedition of his own. His initial attempt failed as his plane's landing skis collapsed just before take off. Adding to his frustration was his knowledge that he was locked in a competition to be the first to fly over the North Pole. Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen, the first man ever to reach the South Pole, had set his sights on crossing over the North Pole in a dirigible. On May 9, 1926, Byrd made another attempt. Flying with Floyd Bennett in the "Josephine Ford", named after the daughter of a major contributor to his expedition, the 38-year-old Byrd this time met with success. According to Byrd, he and Bennett flew over the North Pole, despite having developed a dangerous oil leak. When he arrived back at the Spitsbergen airfield much earlier than expected and announced his feat, skeptics voiced their doubts. Those doubts would linger for decades. In spite of the naysayers, Richard Byrd had attained the status of American Hero. To maintain his momentum he turned his attention to the opposite end of the globe and announced his intention of flying over and claiming for America the vast uncharted spaces of Antarctica.
In the fall of 1928, Byrd's Antarctic expedition was poised to get underway. Four ships were loaded down with three planes, 95 dogs, 650 tons of supplies, and 42 men headed for a place as unknown and treacherous as the far reaches of outer space. The expedition took two months to reach its destination. Upon arrival there was little time for celebration, as Byrd and his men had to work quickly to establish a base camp before the total blackness of winter descended. Expedition members, outfitted in kangaroo hide boots, caribou gloves, and fur parkas set up their base at a spot nine miles inland. Byrd christened it Little America. It was from this point that Byrd and Bernt Balchen, the man whom Byrd chose as his pilot after the death of Floyd Bennett, made their successful, first-ever flight over the South Pole on November 29, 1928. After 14 months on the ice, Byrd and his men headed for home. Upon arrival, Byrd was once again given a hero's welcome. The Navy promoted him to the rank of Admiral. To millions of Americans, Byrd was now known as the Admiral of the Antarctic. But Byrd was not ready to rest.
By 1933, Byrd had secured the funding for a second Antarctic expedition. This time he enlisted the help of corporate America, as well as the expanding mass media. The CBS radio network sent a correspondent as part of the expedition, while sponsors like General Foods proudly hitched their wagon to Byrd's star. Byrd felt he would have to out-do himself on this expedition to make it worthwhile. While his public plans included aerial mapping and scientific investigation, privately Byrd had decided on making a bolder statement. He would attempt to spend the winter in Antarctica's remote interior, and he would do it alone. This exploit nearly cost him his life. Suffering from carbon monoxide poisoning, and barely coherent, Bird had to be rescued by a Little American crew that was nearly unable to make the 123 mile trek to his 9' by 13' hut. Byrd returned to Little America a weakened, discouraged man.
When he returned to the U.S. six months after being rescued, the 47-year-old Byrd was said to have aged considerably. Despite having made huge contributions to the exploration and understanding of Antarctica, Byrd was haunted by his failure to complete his mission of solitary confinement. Before his death in 1957 at age 68, he would lead four more Antarctic expeditions. But these journeys, under the auspices of the U.S. government, lacked the wonder of his private expeditions. He would recall for audiences how during this time spent alone on the ice he had come close to attaining transcendent insights: "And here I was, near the axis of the world, in the darkness where the stars make a circle in the sky. At that moment the conviction came to me that the harmony and rhythm were too perfect to be a symbol of blind chance or an accidental offshoot of the cosmic process; and I knew that a Beneficent Intelligence pervaded the whole. It was a feeling that transcended reason; that went to the heart of a man's despair and found it groundless."