Jun 18

Aviator and Antarctic Adventurer: Rear Admiral Richard Evelyn Byrd, Jr.

Tuesday, June 18, 2019 12:01 AM

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While doing research for my last blog topic, the Trans-Atlantic Flight of the NC-4, I stumbled across a name that I’ve seen many times during the Naval Institute’s photo digitization project: Richard E. Byrd. Byrd was one of the men who was consulted for the flight plan of the NC-4, and his name titles a series of Antarctic expeditions I personally scanned and researched for our new digital photo archive. It wasn’t until seeing his name appear connected to the NC-4, however, that the realization I knew so little about this renowned adventurer himself hit me. Just who was Richard E. Byrd?

Portrait of Richard E. Byrd, Jr. (Library of Congress)

If family lineage alone is an indicator of greatness, then Richard Evelyn Byrd, Jr. was born to succeed. The Byrd family was descended from the First Families of Virginia, and Byrd could call amongst his relatives John Rolfe and his wife Pocahontas, and the founder of Richmond, Virgina, Willam Byrd II. He married the daughter of a wealthy industrialist, Marie Donaldson Ames, and had four children – one son and three daughters. Seeing all these connections to wealth and prestige in the early 20th century, it didn’t surprise me to learn that Byrd counted Edsel Ford and Henry Ford (yes, that Henry Ford) amongst his close friends as well.

While Byrd was given every advantage due to his family’s connections, that does not mean he did not work diligently to prove his worth as an individual. In 1912, Byrd graduated from the Naval Academy, and was assigned to the battleship USS Wyoming. He quickly received his first commendation – and later a Silver Lifesaving Medal – for twice diving fully clothed off the side of his ship to rescue a sailor who had fallen overboard. After serving on the Wyoming for two years, in 1914 he was assigned to the USS Dolphin, and was brought once again into the circles of power, as the gunboat served as the yacht of the Secretary of the Navy. Byrd was in contact high-ranking officials and dignitaries, including then Assistant Secretary of the Navy Franklin D. Roosevelt.

USS Dolphin (PG-24)

USS Dolphin (PG-24)

After a foot injury suffered on the Dolphin in 1916, he medically retired and promoted to Lieutenant (junior grade) and assigned as an Instructor for the Rhode Island Naval Militia. This post was short-lived, however, as after the United States’ entry into the First World War in 1917, he was recalled to active duty and trained men in aviation at the aviation ground school in Pensacola, Florida. He qualified as a Naval Aviator (number 608) in June 1918. It was this expertise gained during the War that resulted in his appointment to plan the flight path for the NC-4’s transatlantic crossing.

The Naval Aviation Board preparing the flight plan for the Transatlantic Flight of the NC-4. (Byrd is second from right.) (U.S. Navy)

Byrd’s adventures in aviation did not stop at the NC-4’s flight. In 1926, he and Floyd Bennett attempted a flight over the North Pole, and when they returned from the claimed successful flight (there is still controversy regarding the truth of this claim), both were declared national heroes, and awarded the Medal of Honor from Congress. Byrd (at this point a Lieutenant Commander) continued his adventures of an aviator a year, when he completed a non-stop transatlantic flight on 1 July 1927, less than two months after Charles Lindbergh snagged the title of the first transatlantic flight.

LtCdr Byrd and Floyd Bennett pose together in front of the Fokker F.VII they used to allegedly fly over the North Pole. (U.S. Navy)

There are some people who could attain multiple accomplishments and numerous awards and allow themselves to exchange a life of adventure for one of leisure. Richard Evelyn Byrd, Jr. was not one of those people. Having already allegedly made it to the North Pole, Byrd set the South Pole in his sights. In order to finance and gain support for his first Antarctic Expedition, Byrd called on all the connections he had made in his personal and professional life, including President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Henry Ford, Edsel Ford, John D. Rockefeller, Jr., and Vincent Astor. Because of their support, in 1928 Byrd set out with two ships and three airplanes for the Antarctic. The expedition lasted two years, and during that time Little America – a base on the Ross Ice Shelf that lasted from 1929 to 1958 – was established, and Byrd gained the uncontested achievement of the first flight to the South Pole. It was this accomplishment that granted him the rank of Rear Admiral by an act of Congress in 1929, making him the youngest admiral in the history of the United States Navy.

Byrd’s Second Antarctic Expedition in 1934 was marked more by perilous situations than by accomplishments. For five months of the expedition, Byrd operated a meteorological station in solitude. During his solo mission, the men at base camp started to become increasingly alarmed by Byrd’s radio transmissions, until they at last decided to go rescue him. Byrd was found in poor physical health, and it was later discovered he would have died from carbon monoxide poisoning if the men had not come to his rescue.

During Operation Highjump, Rear Admiral Byrd sits in front of the same stove that almost killed him 13 years before, with the same corn cob pipe he smoked in the 1934 Second Antarctic Expedition. (U.S. Navy)

Byrd’s Third Antarctic Expedition was the first to be financed and conducted by the United States Government and was conducted in 1939 through 1940. Unfortunately, Byrd never made it to the Antarctic, as he was recalled to active service in early 1940 for World War II.

After the war, Byrd’s relationship with the Antarctic continued, and he served in two more operations for the U.S. Navy, Operation Highjump in 1947, and Operation Deep Freeze I (1955-1956). Operation Deep Freeze I marked Byrd’s last trip to Antarctica, and the beginning of a permanent U.S. military presence on the continent. Byrd died one year after his last Antarctic mission in 1957, at the age of 68.

Rear Admiral Byrd looks over the globe, shortly before leaving for his last mission in the Antarctic, Operation Deep Freeze I. (U.S. Navy.)

Today, it seems that when you hear about someone born into a position of privilege and power, the next statement you expect to hear is how those privileges are squandered or taken advantage of by someone who by their own merits isn’t deserving of what chance has given them. While I’m sure in Richard E. Byrd’s time many could fit that same description, I wouldn’t count him among them. Byrd is still counted as one of the most highly decorated officers in the history of the United States Navy and is most likely the only individual to receive the Medal of Honor, Navy Cross, Distinguished Flying Cross, and Silver Lifesaving Medal. I cannot speak to whatever pushed Byrd to continue seeking achievements and adventure, only that I came away from my research into his life struck by his seemingly tireless drive to succeed. Yes, chance gave him greater opportunities, but one thing you can say about Richard Evelyn Bird, Jr.: he did not squander a single one.

Lib Lieutenant Commander Richard E. Byrd, Jr. stands with his plane before his 1927 transatlantic flight. (Library of Congress.)