Richard E. Byrd
Rear Admiral Richard Evelyn Byrd Jr., (October 25, 1888 – March 11, 1957) was an American naval officer who specialized in feats of exploration. He was a recipient of the Medal of Honor, the highest honor for valor given by the United States, and was a pioneering American aviator, polar explorer, and organizer of polar logistics. Aircraft flights in which he served as a navigator and expedition leader crossed the Atlantic Ocean, a segment of the Arctic Ocean, and a segment of the Antarctic Plateau. Byrd claimed that his expeditions had been the first to reach both the North Pole and the South Pole by air. However, his claim to have reached the North Pole is disputed.
- 1 Education
- 2 Early naval career
- 3 Marriage
- 4 First World War
- 5 1926 North Pole flight
- 6 Early Antarctic expeditions
- 7 World War II
- 8 Operation Highjump (1946–1947)
- 9 Operation Deep Freeze I (1955–1956)
- 10 Death
- 11 Selected awards
Byrd attended the Virginia Military Institute for two years and spent one year at the University of Virginia before financial circumstances inspired his transfer to the United States Naval Academy, where he was appointed Midshipman on May 28, 1908. While at the Academy, he severely injured his right ankle while performing a gymnastics routine. While he was able to graduate from the Academy, the injured ankle was the reason for his medical retirement from the Navy in 1916.
On June 8, 1912, Byrd graduated from the Naval Academy and was commissioned an ensign in the United States Navy. On July 14, 1912, he was assigned to the battleship USS Wyoming and was later assigned to the gunboat USS Dolphin, which also served as the yacht of the Secretary of the Navy. While serving on board Dolphin he made the acquaintance of future Fleet Admiral William D. Leahy, then the Dolphin's commanding officer, and Assistant Secretary of the Navy Franklin D. Roosevelt, who used Dolphin for transportation. He was assigned to Dolphin when she was involved in the United States' intervention in Veracruz, Mexico in 1914.
On March 15, 1916, Byrd was medically retired for a foot injury he suffered on board the Dolphin. He was immediately promoted to the rank of lieutenant (junior grade) and assigned as the Inspector and Instructor for the Rhode Island Naval Militia in Providence, Rhode Island. On December 14, 1916, he was commissioned as a commander in the Rhode Island Naval Militia.
On January 20, 1915, Richard married Marie Donaldson Ames (d. 1974). He would later name a region of Antarctic land he discovered Marie Byrd Land, after her. They had four children – Richard Evelyn Byrd III, Evelyn Bolling Byrd Clarke, Katharine Agnes Byrd Breyer, and Helen Byrd Stabler. By late 1924, the Byrd family moved into a large brownstone at 9 Brimmer Street in Boston's fashionable Beacon Hill neighborhood. It would be Byrd's primary residence for the rest of his life. Noted naval historian Samuel Eliot Morison also lived on Brimmer Street.
First World War
Byrd served on active duty during World War I. He had the foresight to realize that aviation was going to expand rapidly in the next few years. Byrd volunteered to become a naval aviator, took flying lessons and earned his pilot wings in August 1917. He developed a passion for flight, and pioneered many techniques for navigating airplanes over the open ocean including drift indicators, the sun compass and bubble sextants.
During the First World War, Byrd was assigned to the Office of Naval Operations and served as secretary and organizer of the Navy Department Commission on Training Camps and trained men in aviation at the aviation ground school in Pensacola, Florida. He then commanded naval air forces at Naval Air Station Halifax in Nova Scotia, Canada from July 1918 until the armistice in November.
He was promoted to lieutenant on September 2, 1918, and to temporary lieutenant commander on September 21, 1918.
1926 North Pole flight
On May 9, 1926, Byrd and Chief Aviation Pilot Floyd Bennett attempted a flight over the North Pole in a Fokker F.VIIa/3m Tri-motor monoplane named Josephine Ford, after the daughter of Ford Motor Company president Edsel Ford, who helped finance the expedition. The flight went from Spitsbergen (Svalbard) and back to its take-off airfield, lasting fifteen hours and fifty-seven minutes (including 13 minutes of circling the pole). Byrd and Bennett claimed to have reached the pole, a distance of 1,535 miles (1,335 nautical miles).
When he returned to the United States from the Arctic, Byrd became a national hero. Congress passed a special act on December 21, 1926, promoting him to the rank of commander and awarding both him and Floyd Bennett the Medal of Honor. Bennett was promoted to the warrant officer rank of Machinist. Byrd and Bennett were presented with Tiffany Cross Medal of Honor|Tiffany Cross versions of the Medal of Honor on March 5, 1927, at the White House by President Calvin Coolidge. The widespread acclaim from the flight enabled Byrd to secure funding for the subsequent attempt to fly over the South Pole.
Since 1926, there have been doubts raised, defenses made, and heated controversy over whether or not Byrd actually reached the North Pole. In 1958, Norwegian-American aviator and explorer Bernt Balchen cast doubt on Byrd's claim on the basis of his knowledge of the airplane's speed. Balchen claimed that Bennett had confessed to him months after the flight that he and Byrd had not reached the pole. Bennett died on April 25, 1928, during a flight to rescue downed aviators in Greenland. However, Bennett had started a memoir, given numerous interviews, and wrote an article for an aviation magazine about the flight before his death that all confirmed Byrd's version of the flight.
If Byrd and Bennett did not reach the North Pole, then the first flight over the Pole occurred a few days later, on May 12, 1926, with the flight of the airship Norge that flew from Spitsbergen (Svalbard) to Alaska nonstop with its crew of Roald Amundsen, Umberto Nobile, Oscar Wisting, and others. Amundsen and Wisting had both been members of the first expedition to reach the South Pole in December 1911.
Early Antarctic expeditions
First Antarctic expedition (1928–1930)
In 1928, Byrd began his first expedition to the Antarctic involving two ships and three airplanes: Byrd's Flagship was the City of New York (a Norwegian sealing ship previously named Samson that had come into fame as a ship some claimed was in the vicinity of the RMS Titanic when the latter was sinking); a Ford Trimotor called the Floyd Bennett (named after the recently deceased pilot of Byrd's previous expeditions) flown by Dean Smith; a FairchildFC-2W2, NX8006, built 1928, named "Stars And Stripes" (now displayed at the Virginia Aviation Museum, on loan from the National Air and Space Museum); and a Fokker Universal monoplane called the Virginia (Byrd's birth state). A base camp named "Little America" was constructed on the Ross Ice Shelf and scientific expeditions by snowshoe, dog-sled, snowmobile, and airplane began. During the wintering over at Little America, Bryd's team invented a potent alcoholic drink called the "blowtorch."
Photographic expeditions and geological surveys were undertaken for the duration of that summer, and constant radio communications were maintained with the outside world. After their first winter, their expeditions were resumed, and on November 28, 1929, the first flight to the South Pole and back was launched. Byrd, along with pilot Bernt Balchen, co-pilot/radioman Harold June, and photographer Ashley McKinley, flew the Ford Trimotor to the South Pole and back in 18 hours, 41 minutes. They had difficulty gaining enough altitude, and they had to dump empty gas tanks, as well as their emergency supplies, in order to achieve the altitude of the Polar Plateau, but they were ultimately successful.
As a result of his fame, Byrd was promoted to the rank of rear admiral by a special act of Congress on December 21, 1929. As he was only 41 years old at the time, this promotion made Byrd the youngest admiral in the history of the United States Navy. He is one of only three persons, one being Admiral David Dixon Porter and the other being arctic explorer Donald Baxter MacMillan, known to have been promoted to the rank of rear admiral in the United States Navy without having first held the rank of captain.
After a further summer of exploration, the expedition returned to North America on June 18, 1930. A 19-year-old American Boy Scout, Paul A. Siple, was chosen to accompany the expedition. Unlike the 1926 flight, this expedition was honored with the gold medal of the American Geographical Society. This was also seen in the film With Byrd at the South Pole (1930) which covered his trip there.
Second Antarctic expedition
On his second expedition in 1934, Byrd spent five winter months alone operating a meteorology|meteorological station, Advance Base, from which he narrowly escaped with his life after suffering carbon monoxide poisoning from a poorly ventilated stove. Unusual radio transmissions from Byrd finally began to alarm the men at the base camp, who then attempted to go to Advance Base.
The first two trips were failures due to darkness, snow, and mechanical troubles. Finally, Thomas Poulter, E.J. Demas, and Amory Waite arrived at Advance Base, where they found Byrd in poor physical health. The men remained at Advance Base until October 12 when an airplane from the base camp picked up Dr. Poulter and Byrd. The rest of the men returned to base camp with the tractor. This expedition is described by Byrd in his autobiography Alone. It is also commemorated in a U.S. postage stamp issued at the time, and a considerable amount of mail using it was sent from Byrd's base at Little America, which was powered by a Jacobs Wind. A postal employee worked under extremely difficult conditions to cancel 153,217 envelopes for collectors. In 1934 a miniature sheet showing six of the stamps was also issued.
A CBS radio station, KFZ, was set up on the base camp ship, the Bear of Oakland and The Adventures of Admiral Byrd were short waved to Buenos Aires then relayed to New York.
In late 1938 Byrd visited Hamburg and was invited to participate in the 1938/1939 German Neuschwabenland Antarctic Expedition, but declined.
Antarctic Service Expedition (1939–1940)
Byrd's third expedition was his first one on which he had the official backing of the U.S. government. The project included extensive studies of geology, biology, meteorology and exploration. Within a few months, in March 1940, Byrd was recalled to active duty in the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations. The expedition continued in Antarctica without him.
World War II
As a senior officer in the United States Navy, Byrd served on active duty during World War II (1941–45), mostly as the confidential advisor to the Commander in Chief, United States Fleet and Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Ernest J. King. From 1942 to 1945 he headed South Pacific Island Base Inspection Board, which had important missions to the Pacific, including surveys of remote islands for airfields. On one assignment he visited the fighting front in Europe.
On February 10, 1945 Byrd received the Order of Christopher Columbus from the government of Santo Domingo. Byrd was present at the Japanese surrender in Tokyo Bay on September 2, 1945.
In recognition of his service during World War II, Byrd was twice awarded the Legion of Merit.
Operation Highjump (1946–1947)
In 1946, Secretary of the Navy James Forrestal appointed Byrd as officer in charge of Antarctic Developments Project. Byrd's fourth Antarctic expedition was codenamed Operation Highjump. It was the largest Antarctic expedition to date and was expected to last six to eight months.
The expedition was supported by a large naval force (designated Task Force 68), commanded by Rear Admiral Richard H. Cruzen. There were thirteen U.S. Navy support ships (besides the flagship USS Mount Olympus and the aircraft carrier USS Philippine Sea), six helicopters, six flying boats, two seaplane tenders, and fifteen other aircraft. The total number of personnel involved was over 4,000.
The armada arrived in the Ross Sea on 31 December 1946, and made aerial explorations of an area half the size of the United States, recording ten new mountain ranges. The major area covered was the eastern coastline of Antarctica from 150 degrees east to the Greenwich meridian.
Admiral Byrd was interviewed by Lee van Atta of International News Service aboard the expedition's command ship USS Mount Olympus, in which he discussed the lessons learned from the operation. In 1948 the U.S. Navy produced a documentary about Operation Highjump named The Secret Land. The film shows live action footage of the operation along with a few re-enacted scenes. It won the Academy Award for Best Documentary.
Operation Deep Freeze I (1955–1956)
As part of the multinational collaboration for the International Geophysical Year (IGY) 1957–58, Byrd commanded the U.S. Navy Operation Deep Freeze I in 1955–56 which established permanent Antarctic bases at McMurdo Sound, the Bay of Whales, and the South Pole. This was Byrd's last trip to Antarctica and marked the beginning of a permanent U.S. military presence in Antarctica. During this operation, Byrd spent only one week in the Antarctic and started his return to the United States on 3 February 1956.
Admiral Byrd died in his sleep of a heart ailment at the age of 68 on 11 March 1957, at his Brimmer Street home in the Beacon Hill neighborhood in Boston. He was buried in Arlington National Cemetery.