Richard E. Byrd

Time Period
1925 to Today
Science & Technology

Richard E. ByrdThe 1920s was marked by adulation of national heroes in various fields—aviator Charles Lindbergh, home run king Babe Ruth, and Grand Slam golfer Robert Tyre Jones, Jr. Another hero of the 1920s was Richard Evelyn Byrd, a scion of one of Virginia's most famous families. Lieutenant (later Admiral) Richard E. Byrd reputedly was the first man (along with crew member Floyd Bennett) to fly over the North Pole on May 9, 1926. Some experts dispute that Byrd actually reached the North Pole, but at the time his claim was universally accepted. No one doubts that he and his crew were the first men to fly over the South Pole on November 28–29, 1929.

Byrd was not a "Lone Eagle" like Charles Lindbergh. Byrd organized complex expeditions that integrated all the latest technologies, and he raised money from wealthy investors, just as the Virginia Company of London had done in 1607.

(VMHC 1993.95.15) Image rights owned by the Virginia Historical Society. Rights and reproductions


Richard E. Byrd and the Legacy of Polar Exploration

By Warren R. Hofstra
Excerpt from the Virginia Magazine of History and Biography (Volume 110, Number 2, pp. 137–52)

The life of Richard E. Byrd spanned an epoch in American history. At the same time that this renowned explorer and aviator stood out as a symbol of his times, his life was so deeply influenced by the defining tendencies of those times that it, too, could be called epochal. Born in 1888 in Winchester, a small Virginia town on the edge of the Appalachian Mountains, he died sixty-nine years later in the great port city of Boston. He entered the world at a time when trains were the fastest means of travel, telephones were a novelty, electricity was still the plaything of inventors, and human flight was regarded as impossible by most Americans. The United States was industrializing rapidly, but it was not yet recognized as a great power among the industrial nations of the world. And much of that world was still unknown, with vast areas around its poles appearing on maps as empty white spaces.

In 1957, the year Byrd died, human history entered the space age with the first orbiting satellite. Meanwhile, scheduled air traffic across the oceans was rapidly becoming commonplace, and voice communications encircled the globe. The international news media, employing radio, television, and a small army of reporters and commentators, had come to shape, if not determine, perspectives on global politics. As the world's leading industrial producer, America had become a superpower engaged in a Cold War in which the survival of the human species seemed at stake. During this same age, many Americans were growing worried that what would be termed the "military-industrial" complex had become so inextricably linked to central power in Washington, D.C., that democracy itself was in peril. The life of Richard E. Byrd was intricately woven into all of these developments--he helped shape them just as his career was shaped by them. To examine his legacy, then, is to address the central issues of our recent past.

The national and international scope of Byrd's legacy does not mean that his story is not at the same time a Virginia story. Richard E. Byrd was a member of a notable Virginia family whose roots extended deep into the seventeenth century and whose members have played prominent roles in the affairs of state to the present day. Few other names are so closely associated in the public mind with the Virginia experience. The state's history has been shaped by numerous individuals like Richard E. Byrd who left the Old Dominion to achieve fame, fortune, and political power elsewhere. Virginians have long been in the front ranks of American explorers, and many moved west with the nation as its frontier pushed across the continent to the Pacific Ocean in the nineteenth century. Byrd, moreover, returned to his native state on numerous occasions, often visiting family after a recent achievement before proceeding to massive celebrations in New York and other major cities. He lectured frequently in Virginia's large and small towns about his expeditions. In addition, the great historical themes embodied in the life of Richard E. Byrd profoundly affected all the people of his home state. Its agrarian past and the catastrophe of the Civil War delayed the industrialization of Virginia until its revolutionizing effects coincided with Byrd's life. The new media so influential in shaping Byrd's career in the 1930s also drew Virginia into the mass culture of American life as Virginians responded to the national crisis of the Great Depression. And finally, just as Byrd's contributions to science and exploration assumed national significance amid international tensions leading toward World War II and throughout the Cold War following it, so did the Virginia economy come to depend increasingly upon national defense at this same time.


Byrd, for instance, was driven by a quest for adventure and the thrill of discovery so often associated with the American frontier or more broadly with European imperial expansion throughout the globe. As a mid-twentieth-century figure, however, Byrd faced a world in which the area of terra incognita was rapidly diminishing to include only the least accessible polar regions. Byrd was then, as one biographer put it, the "Last Explorer." As the extent of the geographic unknown contracted, however, vast new fields of inquiry were opening into the operations of nature and life itself through the sciences of physics, geology, chemistry, and biology. And Byrd was just as interested in these fields as he was in questions about the extent of Antarctica's mountains or the size of its glaciers. As a second theme in his life, however, he realized that his role in science was as a facilitator. For a man of adventure, Byrd exhibited extraordinary skills in organizing, equipping, and executing what, for his times, were massive expeditions to regions where climate otherwise made life impossible. In a third theme, then, Byrd was to exploration what the managerial revolution was to business and industry.

Byrd's work would therefore serve as a prototype for late-twentieth-century programs of space exploration and colonization were it not for his dependence on private funding. The shift of focus in American political life and popular culture from the private arena to the public constitutes another theme in Byrd's career. Perhaps no change in the American experience during the twentieth century has been as profound or broad reaching as the assumption of responsibility for the welfare of citizens, communities, and environments by a national government growing increasingly centralized. Even as he was raising huge amounts of money from private sources and insisting on the personal command of his expeditions, Byrd always clothed his work with national purpose. He first flew north in 1925 with Arctic explorer Donald B. MacMillan and sought the North Pole on his own expedition the following year to push the United States to the forefront of aviation and geographical exploration as much as to advance himself. When he first went to Antarctica in 1928, he named his base Little America and situated it for best access to unknown areas that could be claimed by the United States. Because of the strategic significance ofByrd's Antarctic explorations during the 1920s and 1930s, when global competition among nations for territorial conquest reached new peaks, his efforts were gradually subsumed by government agencies in the name of national defense. By this time, Byrd was advocating a program of permanent Antarctic colonization under federal sponsorship as a means of establishing the claims of the United States to the icy continent. That the shift from private to public responsibility in American life provoked a counter movement to privatize government functions in the late twentieth century only underscores the significance of the transition Byrd personified.

Byrd's career [...] demonstrated far more than an ability simply to respond to--if not take advantage of--the main tendencies of his time. In another theme in his life, Byrd was himself always pushing the possibility of the moment. He must have learned something of this tendency as a boy raised in a small Shenandoah Valley community. In the 1880s Winchester was a market town in one of the most prosperous and productive grain-growing regions of America. With the exception of the Civil War years, Winchester had enjoyed this status for more than a century. Laid out in 1744 on the isolated frontiers ofAnglo-America, it soon became the largest English town west of the Blue Ridge Mountains. The young Byrd would have grown up with stories of frontier days when another young man of destiny, George Washington, commanded Virginia forces headquartered in Winchester and assumed responsibility for defending the Virginia colony against Indian warriors and French troops. As a boy, Byrd could have seen or played upon the remnants of the massive fort Washington built on a prominence not far from the family home. And Byrd's own family had been closely connected with the western movement in other ways. Ancient patriarchs, William Byrd I and II, had not only settled on the colonial fringes of European civilization but also involved themselves deeply in schemes for western development and land speculation.

Richard Byrd's own father, for whom he was named, was a country lawyer with a keen interest in Virginia politics. From another prominent political family was his mother, Eleanor Bolling Flood. Breaking Byrd out of a boy's life in a respectable family was an invitation from a family friend to visit the Philippine Islands. The undertaking was no lark. Half a world away in a day when many ships still relied on sail, these Pacific islands had just been acquired from Spain in the Spanish-American War. But they also lay in the grips of an independence movement that would force the United States into one of its bloodiest overseas military actions. Byrd, almost fourteen at the time, made the trip and fell in love with the sea, adventure, and exotic lands. He returned home a year later with sights set on a navy career. Byrd studied at the Shenandoah Valley Military Academy, the Virginia Military Institute (1904-7), and the University of Virginia (1907-8). In 1912 he graduated with an ensign's commission from the U.S. Naval Academy.

An incident at the academy demonstrated how Byrd's career would be shaped by his desire to push the limits of the possible--and by an ankle injury that never healed properly. Although bright, he was not in the top of his class, preferring sports on occasion to academics. Captain of the gymnastics team, Byrd was perfecting a new routine that called for letting go of high rings during a turn when he missed, falling thirteen feet and fracturing his right ankle. Through sheer perseverance and will power, however, he overcame the disability, graduated with his class, and served with distinction on several vessels including the yacht of the secretary of the navy. He married Marie Donaldson Ames in 1915 and began a family of four children. Although the bad ankle forced him into retirement briefly in 1916 and out of sea commands for the rest of his life, he returned to active duty as a retired officer and learned to fly at the Naval Air Station Pensacola during World War I at a time when the dangers of flight shortened the lives of many aviators. He labored exhaustively to be the best possible pilot, studying the ways of aircraft and practicing landings in all conditions. But more than flying itself, it was the potential for flight that captured Byrd's imagination. He had found his life's work, or at least the means that would lead to life as an explorer.

Byrd sought the limits of aerial navigation. He installed compasses on planes at Pensacola and experimented with solo flights out of the sight of land. He developed an indicator for calculating wind drift at sea and a bubble sextant for use in aircraft when no horizon was visible. When the navy made its first transatlantic flight in 1919, it was Byrd who solved many of the mission's navigation problems. Byrd's interest in aviation, however, went far beyond technical matters. As a congressional liaison officer for the navy from 1919 to 1921, he masterminded passage of legislation creating the navy's Bureau of Aeronautics and successfully defended naval aviation from those in Congress, the army, and the navy who viewed this new means of warfare with suspicion or saw little use for it by those whose job it was to rule the seas. For all this, Congress in June 1924 passed special legislation-- the only means of advancing a retired officer--promoting Byrd to lieutenant commander. The appearance of privilege and preferment, however, earned Byrd the mistrust and jealousy of fellow officers whose own careers were stagnating in a time of peace and naval disarmament. The resentment that would plague Byrd formed another theme in his entire career. The more he pushed the possibilities for personal achievement in a rigidly hierarchical organization such as the navy and the more he moved up the ranks by congressional action and public acclaim, the more he garnered the bitter gall of less successful colleagues.

At age thirty-six in 1924, Byrd was thinking of leaving the navy. But an aborted navy dirigible expedition to the North Pole directed his interests in aviation to the Arctic. It was at this point in 1925 that he assumed command of the aviation unit assigned to the civilian expedition to Greenland led by MacMillan. Here was his opportunity to strike out on his own not only to prove the worth of aircraft in surveying unknown lands but also to fulfill the lust for adventure fired in him as a young boy on his trip to the Philippines. The expedition collected information on polar meteorology and magnetism, mapped uncharted territory, and supported a possible aerial dash to the pole. And significantly, Byrd had gone to wealthy industrialists such as John D. Rockefeller, Jr., and Edsel Ford to fund this work. Byrd and his men spent the month of August 1925 flying around Etah Bay in north Greenland, exploring by air an area the size of Maine and discovering mountains and other previously unmapped geographical features. MacMillan, a sailor at heart, discounted the airplane for Arctic work, and the polar flight never materialized. But Byrd was filled with enthusiasm and soon planned another attempt to be first at the North Pole by air. More significantly, however, all the themes of his later work were already evident in this first northern foray.

Byrd continued to fund his expeditions from private sources, turning first to rich men like Rockefeller and Ford and then to wealthy corporations for product endorsements. Private funding gave Byrd the freedom he required to best serve both the interests of exploration and his own ego. He retained his status as a retired officer, appearing publicly in uniform and accepting congressional promotions up to the rank of rear admiral, but he led his expeditions personally and abandoned military discipline among his men. He remained committed to science and the application of new transportation and communication technologies pioneered in the Greenland expedition and, by his second trip to the Antarctic, devoted most of his resources to the collection of scientific data.

Also evident in the Greenland expedition were signs of the paradoxes and contradictions that marked Byrd's later career. The more his work relied upon collaboration with scientists, government officials, politicians, professional pilots, public corporations, and the mass media, the less independent and the more private he became. As he exercised meticulous control over his public image and distanced himself from those around him, he became the object of resentment and criticism from time to time. He emphasized teamwork but alienated his associates and sometimes pushed the limits of individualism in the navy too far. He insisted on sharing the glory of exploration, and on the occasion of returning from the first Antarctic expedition, he insisted that if Congress were to award him a specially commissioned Byrd Antarctic Expedition Medal, it would have to give one to each of his men as well. But he could also jealously guard his prerogatives as expedition leader to reap the personal laurels of fresh discovery, and on at least one occasion he denied these honors to his subordinates. Men who accomplish much-- especially by working in that liminal zone between the necessary repressions of military discipline and the boundless ambitions of personal achievement-- often become the target of criticism. And Byrd's career, remarkable for a man already past his mid-thirties, was filled with accomplishment and all that came with it. It is to the events of Byrd's years of exploring that the essays in this issue turn while touching on all the themes of his life and character that had emerged by the first Greenland expedition.

Byrd's first venture north revealed an additional quality of his work—the habit of always planning the next enterprise on the coattails of a concluding one. Sailing home from Greenland, Byrd and his chief pilot, Floyd Bennett, began discussing the next attempt at the North Pole. Denied endorsement by the navy, Byrd was strictly on his own. The Byrd Arctic Expedition steamed out of New York harbor on 5 April 1926, accompanied by innumerable small craft, tugs, and fireboats sounding every horn or siren at their disposal. As was characteristic of all Byrd's future efforts, this one was conducted in the full glare of public attention whipped to a frenzy by months of carefully cultivated newspaper coverage. Byrd had entered what historians have called the Ballyhoo Years as one of its prime stars. This was a time in which America was swept by fads from baseball to mah-jongg. Culture heroes assumed proportions larger than life. Their every move was followed by millions of Americans; their achievements marked by huge national celebrations, of which the epitome was the ticker-tape parade down Broadway in New York City. Driving this development was an emerging mass culture, the cultural counterpart ofburgeoning consumerism in a mass-production, massconsumption economy created by industrialization, capitalism, and national markets. As more and more Americans were drawn into a common set of values, ideals, habits, and aspirations by new media such as radio and movies, those who excelled in any public endeavor and stood above the crowd became objects of intense fascination—flagpole sitters, homerun hitters, and marathon dancers together with movie stars, aviators, and explorers were worshipped and idolized.

So it was with Byrd. Some in his position, such as Charles Lindbergh, attempted to withdraw from public view. Others, like Babe Ruth and Clara Bow, reveled in it, sometimes spinning out of control into lives of waste and dissipation. Byrd, however, sought to put this new culture and the millions of people it touched to his own uses, relying on his media image as America's lone adventurer and last explorer to generate not only public interest in his exploits but also a market for the sale of that image. In this way he raised the immense funds his work required. All this was in the future, however, as Byrd set out for the North Pole in 1926.

Whether Byrd and Bennett made it to the pole is still a matter of controversy. Although Eugene Rodgers, Lisle Rose, and Robert Matuozzi address this issue—and disagree about it—it is not the intention of the papers herein to debate it. The two aviators took off in the Josephine Ford early on the morning of 9 May 1926, from Spitsbergen, Norway, and returned fifteen and a half hours later suffering a serious oil leak but bearing the stunning news that they had reached the pole, circled it, and took confirming sun sights. Detractors, ranging from contemporaries in nationalistic competition with Byrd and the United States for polar honors to modern scholars and popular writers, have claimed that Byrd's Fokker trimotor plane was simply too slow to cover the distance from Spitsbergen to the pole and back in the time the plane was out of sight. But Byrd's triumph in the public mind was undoubted, and America's new hero was met with acclaim wherever he traveled. Byrd was already planning his next ventures: a transatlantic flight and a try for the South Pole.

The stories of both ventures are well known and covered in detail with verve and fresh insight in essays that follow. Lindbergh, of course, beat Byrd across the Atlantic, but Byrd always claimed he was not racing. Not even registered for the $25,000 Orteig Prize, Byrd avowed instead the goals of advancing aviation and proving the airplane's worth for long-distance travel. Byrd reached Paris on the night of 29 June 1927, but clouds prevented his landing and forced him to ditch his plane, the America, on the French coast. From Paris to New York he was nonetheless lionized as a conquering hero. Byrd reached the South Pole by air two and a half years later. As the essays by Eugene Rodgers and Lisle Rose demonstrate, this accomplishment—attended by none of the controversy that marked the North Pole venture—was made possible by the largest expedition yet organized in the history of polar exploration and the effective use of new technologies including the airplane and radio.

The South Pole flight was, arguably, the apex of Byrd's career. His second expedition to the Antarctic, 1933-35, was devoted strictly to exploration and science. Lacking any single dramatic venture to fix public attention and financial support on his endeavors, Byrd elected to man an isolated weather station by himself during the long and grueling Antarctic winter. Robert Matuozzi and other authors in this issue explore the course and consequences of this ill-fated enterprise in detail, but it ended in disaster for Byrd who, poisoned by a poorly vented stove and faulty gasoline-powered generator, had to be rescued by his own men. The blow to his self-esteem and the damage to his health haunted the remainder of his days, but the frank assessment he gave his situation and its spiritual lessons in his book,Alone, earned him new honors in the history of polar literature. Byrd then devoted himself to an integrated philosophy of personal and world peace he had formulated in the icy loneliness of his weather hut. His ideas would have a profound impact on the internationalization of Antarctica in decades to come, but in the late 1930s he poured himself into a new role as honorary chairman of the No-Foreign-War Crusade and appealed to European nations for peace as late as 1938. The paradoxical relationship in which he then found himself with President Franklin D. Roosevelt, the architect of America as arsenal of world democracy as well as a proponent of Byrd's proposals for Antarctic colonization, is examined in this issue's final essay by Noel Broadbent and Lisle Rose. The outcome of Byrd's encounter with Roosevelt was the United States Antarctic Service (USAS), an arm of the federal government with Byrd nominally in command, and the USAS expedition of 1939-40 led by men Byrd trained and inspired at Little America.

For the two decades or so left to Byrd, his name remained synonymous with the Antarctic, but his later role in massive navy-led expeditions was as a figurehead. He spent the war years in active duty, most notably selecting sites for naval air stations in the Pacific. By the war's end Byrd was in his late fifties, retirement age for many military officers. But his interest in the Antarctic remained strong, and so was the navy's. In the postwar world of competition between the U.S. armed services and growing tensions with the Soviet Union, the navy began planning a major expedition to explore and map the Antarctic coastline between the old West and East Bases of the United States Antarctic Service expedition. Byrd's name was too closely associated with Antarctic exploration to rule him out of Operation Highjump, as the project was called, but younger men—many were Byrd's protégés in previous expeditions--were eager to make their own mark. Although he was named officer in charge, active command flowed through established naval channels. From late 1946 to early 1947, four thousand men and a small fleet of ships and planes mapped more than fifteen hundred miles of coastline. Byrd joined a flight to the South Pole and navigated with his old sun compass, but it was just a gesture. The admiral returned to the icy continent again with Operation Deepfreeze during the Antarctic summer of 1955-56, but the experience must have been sad for the old leader approaching his seventies because initiative in Antarctic science and exploration had clearly passed out of his hands, and he was often embarrassed by the indifference and occasional insults of younger men. Nonetheless, it was partly through his vision and hard work that the International Geophysical Year of 1957 developed as a peaceful effort of scientific cooperation in the midst of a worldwide Cold War.

During his last years Byrd spent much of his time writing and lecturing on his Antarctic experiences. He also directed his still considerable energies toward promoting world peace as he had envisioned it during his long and troubled stay at Advance Base in 1934. His efforts led to the founding of the Iron Curtain Refugee Campaign of the International Rescue Committee, on whose board of directors he served as honorary chairman from 1950 until his death. Within weeks of receiving a medal of freedom from the Department of Defense, Richard Byrd died on 11 March 1957. It would be a mistake to describe—as many biographers have—the last two decades of Byrd's life as a period of decline and incapacity, a period in which the force of his immense ambition and ability had been spent. It is true that Byrd never again matched his most notable triumphs—he failed to equal the flights over the poles or the Atlantic, his leadership in the huge Antarctic expeditions of the 1940s and 1950s was only nominal, and there were no more ticker-tape parades down Broadway. He may have never fully recovered from damage he did to his health at Advance Base.

But emphasizing the decline of Richard E. Byrd distorts his legacy. During the late 1920s and 1930s this explorer and adventurer was one of America's most visible men. His fame was forged in the crucible of the new media of his age and its ability to create a mass culture. The image of Byrd, the man, and what he accomplished, had a life of its own in the mind of the public. Such men, however, are vulnerable—vulnerable to accusations of disability and growing irrelevance when public attention shifts to new concerns, new heroes, and new arenas. And by the 1930s the world was changing around Byrd. The Great Depression and the New Deal transformed many aspects of American life by bringing into the public sector important matters that Byrd's generation would have kept strictly private. Men and women tumbled into the economic disaster of the depression blaming themselves for what happened. But new government agencies soon assumed responsibility for their lives, putting them to work, controlling farm production, managing labor relations, and regulating banks. Antarctic exploration became institutionalized in new government programs as well. The great white South became less and less an unknown continent ripe for adventure and conquest by free spirits such as Robert Falcon Scott, Ernest Shackleton, Roald Amundsen, or Richard E. Byrd. The times recast Antarctica as the subject of national interest, and exploration became a tool in a global struggle for strategic advantage with the forces first of fascism and then of communism. No man could stand astride the continent in the way Byrd had during the late 1920s and early 1930s.

Science was changing too. The kinds of studies that scientists accompanying Byrd conducted in Antarctica became increasingly costly and complex, often involving teams of specialists, huge budgets, and years of sustained work. They simply could not be pursued in the episodic pattern of Byrd's expeditions, supported only by the vagaries of private funding. During World War II and the Cold War, science, too, became increasingly a matter of national interest subsumed under federal programs and budgets.

Changes in the worlds of exploration and science, however, signaled much deeper movements in the nature of American life during the course of Byrd's career. The Ballyhoo Years of his greatest success were about individual achievement in tension with mass culture—about who could hit the most home runs, dance the longest, or had more of "it" on the silver screen. Lindbergh was a phenomenon because he flew the Atlantic alone. Byrd, of course, sought to master the Antarctic winter night alone. Americans, however, could not confront the Great Depression alone. They joined huge collective efforts such as the Civilian Conservation Corps, in which they lived in barracks, wore uniforms, and worked under military discipline to improve the nation's natural resources. Other New Deal programs planned the economies of massive regions such as the Tennessee Valley or resettled people from unproductive, high plains homesteads and Georgia dirt farms. Nor could Americans confront World War II alone. The conflict had its heroes, but everyone knew that the outcome depended not on individual acts of bravery but on integrated effort and national purpose. Social conformity then became the watchword of the nation during the Cold War and the affluent age of 1950s consumerism. Americans were no longer searching for the kind of hero Byrd had been in an earlier era.

In one sense this sea change in American life underscored the paradoxes in the life and career of Richard E. Byrd. He was very much a man of his times, but these times seemed to pass him by. He grew out of sync with his age, a target of criticism or indifference. He had organized and led the largest expeditions in Antarctic history to date, conducted unprecedented flights of discovery, pushed back the frontiers of polar science further than anyone before him, and never lost a man under his personal supervision in the harshest climates on earth. Yet his leadership was spumed in the interests of new men with new objectives. Byrd also paradoxically pursued Antarctica with an unflagging sense of national purpose but at the same time sought to internationalize peace, exploration, and scientific discovery on the last unclaimed continent on earth.

In another sense, Byrd remained a man of his times. Times changed, but he adapted with grace and an accommodating spirit. He himself had advocated a federal role in the Antarctic and did all he could to promote the interests of the nation there only to realize that these could be best served within the comity of nations. Even though he played no active role in post-World War II naval operations in the Antarctic, as a military officer he understood that the obligations of command distance a leader from the active accomplishments of subordinates. The admiral never complained or criticized those around him. His interest in Antarctic science never flagged, even as he understood less and less about the work of younger scientists. Meanwhile, his visibility in the public mind had not yet diminished, and he remained vividly associated with the Antarctic throughout his later years.

Thus Byrd requires no defense for what in every life are called the declining years. His legacy was already fixed with his first Antarctic expedition and flight over the South Pole. This was a legacy based on the unprecedented use of new technologies in exquisitely organized independent expeditions with private funding that remain unequalled in advancing scientific understanding and expanding geographical knowledge into unexplored territory of great significance. This is also a legacy that is still much alive—if not growing in importance-- in an age in which not only shrinking national budgets for science but also a conservative political emphasis on decentralized, smaller government and private initiative place new value upon the kind of partnerships between public and private arenas in which Byrd so very well excelled.