Admiral Richard E. Byrd, Polar Polymath

A little boy born in Winchester, Virginia, in 1888, grew up to become an air navigator, explorer, Medal of Honor winner, rear admiral, polar researcher, and author.

Richard E. Byrd began to study for a naval career at the Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, graduating in 1912. He then became a cadet in Navy Flying School at Pensacola, Florida, and graduated in 1917.

During World War I, Lieutenant Byrd commanded an air station in Nova Scotia. In 1916, Byrd retired from active duty, owing to a foot injury that precluded sustained sea duty. Following the war, he was promoted to Lt. Commander.

Early exploration

In 1925, Byrd and Donald MacMillan led a naval air unit on an expedition to Greenland, using Navy airplanes and volunteers. The venture was financed by Edsel Ford and John D. Rockefeller.

Byrd's first trek to the Arctic occurred on May 9, 1926. Using a Fokker tri-motor aircraft, the Josephine Ford, pilot Floyd Bennett and navigator Byrd left the King's Bay base at Spitzbergen, Norway, and (allegedly) flew over the North Pole. The flight lasted fewer than 16 hours. Byrd claimed a vast tract of territory for the U.S. and named it Mary Byrd Land after his wife. Byrd was awarded the Medal of Honor, but his claim to have reached the pole was controversial. This venture also was privately financed and used volunteers.

One month after the 1927 Lindbergh triumph in the Spirit of St. Louis, the Transatlantic Flight of America, comprising Byrd and a three-man crew (Noville, Acosta, and Balchen), flew across the Pond in another Fokker tri-motor. The 42-hour flight ended in a crash landing near the village of Ver-Sur-Ner on the French coast. The commander and crew were unhurt.

Antarctic exploration

Admiral Byrd set his sights on Antarctica. He conducted four expeditions to the frigid continent between 1928 and 1947. During his first (privately financed) expedition ('28-30), he and his men established the Little America research base. In 1929, pilot Bernt Balchen and Byrd flew the Floyd Bennett Ford tri-motor over the South Pole. After completing this expedition, Byrd was promoted to rear admiral.

Admiral Byrd returned to Antarctica ('33-35). In 1934, he spent five months alone in an advance base (hut) 123 miles south of Little America, studying inland temperatures. Those temps sometimes reached a phenomenal -75 degrees F. Byrd became ill with carbon monoxide poisoning, owing to a malfunctioning stove, but didn't call for help. After three attempts, a tractor party led by Dr. Thomas C. Poulter (the expedition's second in command) rescued him. An autobiographical account, Alone, became a bestseller.

On his third Antarctic trip ('39-41): the U.S. Antarctic Service expedition, Admiral Byrd conducted more flights and discovered the southern limit of the Pacific Ocean. This mission was government financed.

From 1946 to 1947, Byrd commanded Operation Highjump, to map large areas of Antarctic territory. Thirteen ships and 4000 mostly Navy personnel were involved. The admiral also made a second flight over the pole.

In 1955, Byrd directed Operation Deep Freeze, to provide logistical preparations for the first phase of U.S. operations in the Antarctic during the International Geophysical Year ('57-58). Byrd was "Officer in Charge," but not in command. In 1956, Admiral Byrd made his final flight over the pole.

The end of the trail

Admiral Byrd died at home of a heart ailment in 1957 at age 69. He was immediately acclaimed an international hero. Richard E. Byrd had completed two Arctic and five Antarctic expeditions, and charted an estimated two million square miles.