Although Byrd came in third in the 1927 trans-Atlantic competition he did so with splash, literally. His plane landed in the ocean off the coast of France because landing there was safer than to crash into a house or tree tops. The crew made their way to a small French village. In spite of losing the competition, Byrd made the crossing in heroic fashion and received a ticker tape parade in New York City.
- In 1925 he led the Naval Aviation Unit accompanying the MacMillan expeditions to Greenland.
- Byrd participated in an epic flight over the North Pole in May 1926, for which he received the Medal of Honor.
- In 1928, Byrd led an expedition to Antarctica and established the “Little America” base.
- In November 1929, he participated in a flight over the South Pole making him the first man to fly over both poles.
Interested in polar explorations from an early age, Byrd was a 1912 graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy. During World War I, he became a naval aviator and commanded U.S. naval aviation forces in Canada. In 1919 he developed navigation equipment used by the NC-4 flying boat on the first trans-Atlantic flight. In 1925 he led the Naval Aviation unit accompanying the Macmillan expedition to Greenland and explored lands fronting the polar sea.
After organizing his own expedition, Byrd participated in an epic flight over the North Pole on May 9th, 1926, for which he received the Medal of Honor. In 1927 he participated in a non-stop trans-Atlantic flight from New York to the coast of France. In 1928 Byrd led an expedition to Antarctica and established a base, called “Little America,” from which he engaged in extensive aerial explorations of the continent, including a flight over the South Pole on November 29th, 1929. He returned to Antarctica with his second expedition in 1934 and spent many months alone making detailed weather observations. His 1940 expedition colonized a portion of Antarctica and further expanded exploration. After distinguished service during World War II, Byrd headed a massive Navy expedition in 1946-47 that extended a U.S. claim to part of the continent. He returned once again in 1955 to head the U.S. Antarctic programs. For adding enormously to the knowledge of the vast Polar regions, Byrd received the Medal of Freedom.
This story of the most famous of all modern Polar explorers began in August 1925. The Macmillan expedition put ashore at Etah in North Greenland, accompanied by the Navy’s Arctic Aviation unit. In the days that followed, Macmillan and Chief Machinist Mate Floyd Bennett used their Navy amphibian planes to explore nearly 30,000 square miles of polar territory from the air, most of it never before seen by human eyes. They made daring flights over Canada’s Ellesmere Island, far above the Arctic Circle. It was a land of majestic grandeur, with rugged mountains sheathed in snow and ice and its shores notched by frequent fjords. After an unsuccessful attempt to reach Axel Heiberg Island, near the Arctic Ocean, Byrd and Benett retreated and explored fascinating Grinnell Island from the air. Perhaps the greatest aerial adventure of all was their flight over the almost unbelievable 1,500 mile long Greenland ice cap.
When the Macmillan expedition returned after flying nearly 6,000 miles in all kinds of Arctic weather, Byrd began to plan his own expedition to the Arctic with Floyd Bennett. They planned to fly over the North Pole, which no man had seen since Peary sledged his way over the ice and snow in 1909. But time was of the essence, as others were also planning expeditions to the pole. Byrd wished to be first to reach it and raised $100,000 through private contributions and borrowed another $20,000 on his own credit. He knew that if he failed to reach the pole, and lived to return, he would be bankrupt!
Fifty Navy and Marine Corps reservist volunteers manned the expedition that reached the island of Spitsbergen, fronting the Arctic Ocean in late April 1926. There they are surprised to find the Amundsen-Ellsworth-Nobile expedition already encamped, waiting for the dirigible Norge to arrive from Italy. Now it is to be an international race to reach the Pole.
After days of back-breaking work, they assembled their Fokker trimotor, the Josephine Ford and carved out a rough runway from the ice and snow. But the heavily loaded plane could not become airborne and the expedition members had to remove some of the equipment and precious fuel. If they wished to be first over the pole, they had to get off quickly, for the dirigible Norge had arrived at the Amundsen camp. This time they succeeded, as the huge plane lifted off from the runway. At last they were off on their great aerial venture to reach the North Pole!
During the flight northward, Byrd made many navigational sightings with his “sun compass”, for their regular magnetic compass was useless and there was nothing below to guide them over the endless ice. They were now over areas that humans had never before viewed the experience greatly moved them. Byrd later said: “If I could explain the feeling I had at this time, the much-asked question: ‘What is this Arctic craze so many men get? would be answered.” At this point he was taking sightings every minute as the expedition approached the invisible axis of the world. When the final seconds ticked away, Byrd wrote a note to Bennett: “We are now at the North Pole!” It was 9:02 a.m. on May 9th in 1926 and an unforgettable moment,as he gives a salute to the memory of Admiral Peary, who had planted the American flag on the ice below them seventeen years before.
When the expedition returned to the United States, it received a great welcome and Byrd was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor and the Distinguished Service Medal for his epic adventure in the air and promoted to the rank of commander. Now a new challenge arose, as Raymond Ortieg offered $25,000 to the first person to make a successful flight between New York and Paris. Byrd planned to be the first to make the attempt and began to prepare the America, a Fokker trimotor. But a young unknown took off first, alone, and thrilled the world with a stunning solo flight. He was Charles Lindbergh.
Six weeks later the America was ready and along with George Noville, Bert Acosta and Bernt Balchen, Byrd took off on June 29th from Roosevelt field, headed toward promised good weather over the North Atlantic. But fog and rain plagued the flight right from the start. Nineteen hours later, they spotted the French coast briefly. Almost immediately, the weather worsened and the crew discovered that their compass had malfunctioned. Their troubles increased as Lebourget Field in Paris, as well as every other French landing field was socked in. Bitterly disappointed, Byrd ordered his crew to head the America back toward the seacoast. The crew was forced to ditch at sea just off of Ver-sur-Mer, later known as Omaha Beach during World War II.
In late 1927, Byrd encountered yet another challenge as he planned an elaborate expedition to the Antarctic Continent. Sailing aboard the City of New York, the expedition crossed the Ross Sea and established its main base on the Rose Ice Shelf, called “Little America!” After spending nearly a year at “Little America,” the time seemed right for an attempt to fly over the South Pole. Taking off on Thanksgiving day, he and his crew headed for the Queen Maude Mountains, beyond which lies the pole. Tragedy loomed ominously, as the plane struggled to clear the 12,000 foot crests. Byrd ordered most of the precious cargo of food and fuel dumped overboard and at the last moment the plane cleared the treacherous mountains. 800 miles South of their camp at “Little America,” he jubilantly calculates their position as directly over the South Pole. Swinging in a circle around the pole, he drops a small American flag weighted with a stone from the grave of Floyd Bennett, who had flown over the North Pole with him. Then they raced back to “Little America,” just ahead of a raging Antarctic blizzard. Shortly thereafter, Byrd found a vast new range of mountains, which he christened “Marie Byrd Land” after his wife.
When he returned from his South Pole expedition, scientists of the world collectively congratulated Byrd and he received the Langley medal and the Navy Cross. Simultaneously, he received a promotion to the rank of rear admiral. Five years later, he organized a second expedition to Antarctica that reached “Little America” in January 1934. This time he planned to spend six months alone in a small hut in the heart of the great ice barrier, studying the Antarctica weather and its effect upon the world. They erected the hut 180 miles south of “Little America.” It had two tunnels leading from it. One of them contained food supplies. In the other was a generator to furnish light and electrical power.
In late March, Byrd settled in to face a long winter in the small hut, which was three steps wide in one direction and four in the other. He conducted daily meteorological observations, read, played solitaire, and listened to his phonograph. Twice a week he communicated with “Little America” by radio. Everything was going well until Byrd began to lose his appetite and suffer from headaches. He suspected the cause to be fumes from the heating stove and proceeded to plug every visible hole. While examining the engine-driven generator, Byrd’s senses reeled. Fortunately, he managed to shut off the engine before he lapsed into a state of stupor. When he recovered, his heart was beating wildly. For two months he clung to life, but did not admit his condition to his friends at “Little America” until August. A rescue party reached him, but an additional two months elapsed before he could be moved back to the base camp.
When the expedition returned to the United States in the summer of 1935, Byrd had not yet recovered fully from his condition, which was caused by carbon monoxide poisoning. Byrd did not allow these experiences to deter him, and returned to Antarctica several more times as the United States became concerned about its claims to portions of Antarctica. Other nations coveted the valuable minerals of Antarctica and abundance of whales. Congress finally appropriated money for an expedition to colonize Antarctica under the requirements of international law. It reached “Little America” in January 1940, where Byrd established “West Base.” Subsequently, Byrd moved part of the expedition 1,500 miles east to Kainan Bay and set up “East Base.” With the colonizing groups firmly established in Antarctica, Byrd returned to Washington to request more money to enable him to carry out additional explorations. But Congress turned a deaf ear and Byrd had to close the bases and return home just before the nation plunged into World War II.
Behind him were the pioneering years at the Poles of the Earth that began as a youthful dream of a great adventure and ended with the opening and colonization of a vast new continent. Byrd’s research and achievments will continue to challenge the imagination and ingenuity of man for centuries yet to come, a challenge worthy of man’s greatest dreams and magnificence in achievement.
Richard Evelyn Byrd died on March 11th, 1957.
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