Life Magazine - 30 October, 1939

  Admiral Byrd

Greatest Polar Adventurer Goes To Claim Antarctica


On floor of his boston study admiral byrd examines map of rival nations' claims to Antarctica

Since the death of the great Roald Amundsen in 1928, Rear Admiral Richard E. Byrd, U. S. N. (Retired), has been the world's No. 1 explorer. As early as 1925, while still an unknown naval officer, Byrd dabbled with aircraft as an exploring weapon on the Greenland ice cap. In 1926 he nosed out the veteran Amundsen in an aerial race to the North Pole. The following year, though a test-flight crash robbed him of a chance to beat Lindbergh to Paris, Byrd made a transatlantic flight which was one of the most hair-raising epics in aerial annals. Two years later he added the South Pole to his bag,

In the course of two Antarctic expeditions the Admiral has explored some 450,000 square miles of previously unknown lands. No explorer of Byrd's generation has looked upon so much virgin ice and snow. None has named so many nameless bights, peaks and headlands for grateful friends and hackers. Furthermore, while most explorers are unadjudicated bankrupts, the Admiral has emerged from terra incognita a wealthy man.

One of the remarkable facts about Admiral Byrd's success is that it has been accomplished in a dying profession. The professional explorer is an anachronistic fragment, caught, like the kangaroo, behind the evolutionary eight-ball. A romanticist, he is suspect in a materialistic world. Doomed by a shrinking geography to comb comparatively worthless vacancies, he may even be ashamed to justify exploring for exploring's sake. A non-professional like Lincoln Ellsworth, who inherited a fortune (from a capitalist father), or a museum explorer who has monographs to write and specimen cases to fill, can obviously justify his escapist motives. Others, being dependent upon public handouts to buy ships and planes and supplies, and upon lectures and books for a wage, are likely to find that all the endurance and resourcefulness developed by their Spartan travels are inadequate to solve the problem of earning a living between times at home. Byrd, however, has passed with flying colors the tests of the explorer's life both at the Poles and in the U. S. A. He is now not only the greatest living explorer but the only one still plying his trade on the grand scale. Byrd is now plying it on a grander scale than ever.

In Charlestown Navy Yard lies the Bear of Oakland, fitted with new Diesel engines. Outbidding a junk dealer in 1934, Byrd bought the 63-year-old ship for $1,050. He took her south on his last expedition, has leased her for $1 to the U. S. for this one.

Next month Admiral Byrd is scheduled to depart from Boston on his third Antarctic expedition. All Byrd expeditions are fabulously expensive and this one will cost over $1,000,000 but, while the previous trips were Byrd's own private shows, financed by his admirers, the new expedition is being largely underwritten by the U.S.Treasury. In addition to providing $340,000 in cash, the Government is also providing a Department of Interior ship (the North Star), Department of Agriculture meteorologists, Navy photographers, and other experts.

There is a certain irony in the fact that, at the moment when what explorers wistfully call "civilization" is in the throes of a new war, the Admiral and 100-odd companions should be headed excitedly for the one continent that has never known one. Byrd himself is a serious student of international relations, and for the last three years has been working prodigiously on an international peace movement of his own.

Byrd's peace plan, which included a scheme for round-table chats between Hitler, Chamberlain and their peers, was the consequence of a promise he made at a testimonial dinner given to him at the Waldorf-Astoria on his return from the second Antarctic expedition. Before a distinguished group of educators, scientists and industrialists, the Admiral announced that henceforth he would devote himself to "international amity." Nonetheless, when reports reached the State Department that the Germans, on the basis of a preliminary reconnaissance last spring, were planning an extensive expedition to the Antarctic in the near future, the Admiral adjusted himself to the situation at once and volunteered to clinch for the U. S. the claims to the lands which he had previously discovered as an individual. President Roosevelt, his warm friend for years, approved the idea, and the necessary appropriation was put through a somewhat flabbergasted Congress.

Sledge dogs work out in New Hampshire by pulling broken-down Austin. Although equipped with aircraft, three Army tanks, an enormous Snow Cruiser, Byrd's outfit must still carry dog teams (140 dogs, 20 puppies), most dependable polar transport.

To an ordinary, stay-at-home taxpayer, accustomed to seeing his money spent on battleships and on WPA leaf-raking, the Government's sudden enthusiasm for the Antarctic may seem bewildering. It may even seem surprising to unimaginative students of the subject, who know that the Antarctic continent, though larger than the U. S. and Mexico combined, is little more than a monstrous icebox, inhabited mostly by the seals, penguins, gulls and petrels which invade the coastal fringes during the brief, squawking, young-rearing months. Admiral Byrd, however, takes an almost geologically long view. Traces of minerals and immense deposits of coal have, as the Admiral pointed out to a Congressional committee this year, been found. Although the coal is of poor quality to start with and lies 500 miles from the sea, past dangerous crevasses, in a region of gigantic glaciers, where the winter night is unbroken for five months, the cold is estimated at 90° below zero, and the blizzard blows with the persistence of a trade wind, it may come in handy some day. Mindful of the Pacific Islands that were allowed to slip out of our grasp through failure to perceive their future strategic value, Byrd is resolved that we shall not miss any bets in the Antarctic. What he envisages is nothing less than the extension of the Monroe Doctrine from Tierra del Fuego to the South pole.

Navy sailmaker examines the tent carried on Expedition II, prepares it for the coming journey. The Admiral uses tents as little as possible in Antarctic cold, prefers prefabricated houses set up at permanent camps, quick surveys from these by air.

Strangers, when Byrd is pointed out to them, sometimes express surprise that this could be the famous explorer. What they expect, evidently, is the craggy, weather-beaten face of an Amundsen, and the bracing, physical power of a Captain Bartlett. Byrd is on the short side, and only by exercising over weight-lifting apparatus at home has he kept his waistline within reach of an Admiral's ideal. His wavy hair has turned quite gray, but his features, feminine in their delicacy, give him a young look. Born in Winchester, Va., in 1888, Byrd has spent most of his adult domestic life in the North; his only Southern mannerism is a certain softness of speech. But a latent imperiousness, a pride of family, what Byrd himself calls ''my Virginian manhood,'' identifies the James River aristocrat.

Tom, Dick & Harry

The first Byrd in the U. S. was Colonel William Byrd, according to one historian, ''the first Gentleman in America.'' His son was President of the Virginia Council. Long before the arrival of Richard Evelyn Byrd, fourth in the line to bear the name, financial reversals had removed Westover and other great estates from the family. Byrd's father, now dead, was the U. S. District Attorney, a leisurely old-school gentleman, schooled in the classics. His mother is descended from the Lords Delaware. Now in her 70's, she is one of the great ladies of Virginia, with a debutante's energy and a mind sharp as a steel trap, the terror of the horsey Northern women who invade the Shenandoah Valley during the hunting season.

From this union issued the classic three sons-Tom, Dick and Harry. The eldest, Harry, after serving as Governor of Virginia, is now a U. S. Senator and, as a member of the economy bloc, a thorn in Roosevelt's side. Thomas, the youngest, studied law. During Harry's absences in Washington and Dick's elsewhere, he looks after the family's apple orchards, which are among the biggest east of the Mississippi. Of the trio, Dick is easily the most celebrated. He became a celebrity at 12- when, as the consequence of visiting a friend in the Philippines, he traveled around the world alone, supplying the Winchester Star with thrilling accounts of his experiences with Insurrectos, a typhoon and a cholera epidemic. With his brothers set upon the law and politics, it was inevitable that Dick, following Virginian tradition, should choose a career in the Service. He studied at the Shenandoah Valley Military Academy and V.M.I., spent a year at the University of Virginia and entered the Naval Academy, graduating in 1912., 63rd in a class of 165.

Just out of reach, two huskies snarl at each other but, once trained, should work well together in harness. On a Bothell, Wash., farm, 44 of Byrd's Alaskan Malamutes were chained well apart to prevent death fights, before shipping to Boston.

At Annapolis Byrd went in strenuously for football, but a slight physique kept him from ever being more than a third-string quarterback. Within two years after reporting to the Fleet, he won a medal for saving drowning seamen from the shark-infested waters of the Caribbean. In 1916 a foot injury, which left a slight limp, forced his retirement. Rather than quit the Navy entirely, Byrd took a job mobilizing the Rhode Island State Militia. Recalled to active duty on the declaration of War in 1917, he was detailed to assist Raymond B. Fosdick in organizing community singing, libraries and other recreational pursuits for the Navy's recruits. This seemed mild stuff to Byrd, who was itching for the front lines, but he endured it until he was finally assigned to Pensacola, where he was trained as a pilot. Given the impressive title of Commanding Officer of the U. S. Naval Aviation Force in Canada, Lieut. Byrd was sent to Halifax with a squadron, charged with patrolling the "Corner" against German raiders. No raiders appeared but this excursion was the climax of his war record. Yet it was apparent by this time that the third-string quarterback and the disappointed sea-dog was, if sheer persistence meant anything, destined for great things. Instead of simply "covering his number" and waiting for the slow lift of seniority, Byrd thereafter constituted himself a one-man suicide squad for any project within the Navy's scope. Even before the Armistice he was badgering his superiors for permission to make a solo flight across the Atlantic. That the plane he had picked out would probably have fallen 200 miles short of the Irish coast without a boosting tail wind did not alarm him, his argument was that the flight would stimulate the Allies' morale. In 1919, when the NC flying boats were dispatched across the ocean, Byrd managed to hop a ride as far as Trepassey, Newfoundland. Two years later in 1921 he managed to get an assignment to cross the Atlantic in the ZR-2, which the Navy had just purchased from the British, only to have the dirigible blow up a few days after he landed in England. Finally in 1925, though he had done little flying since the War, Byrd was given command of the Navy flight unit detailed to collaborate with Commander Donald B. MacMillan in explorations around Etah, Greenland.

Prefabricated house for the expedition is test-assembled at Cross City, Fla. Containing a bunkhouse, mess hall and galley, it Is 24 x 60 ft., insulated all around with mineral wool. The windows in the root none in sides" will withstand 15 ft. of snow.

Had Byrd, who has 22 citations for, among other things, initiative, loyalty and devotion to duty, remained in the Navy, the chances are that, like most of his classmates, he would today rate only a Commander's three stripes. After the MacMillan expedition, however, he again abandoned active duty at his own request and within five years, on the strength of his expeditions, he became a Rear Admiral at 39 by act of Congress. His private reasons for quitting the service so opportunely were not only plausible but praiseworthy. He had married Marie Ames, a charming Boston girl, a junior League member and a talented violinist, shortly after graduating from Annapolis. By 1925 they had three children. To Byrd the problem of raising a family on a Lieut. Commander's salary appeared insurmountable and his obligation clear.

"I put exploration into Big Business"

The talents which Byrd brought to the backward profession of exploration have never been properly evaluated. An explorer's worst hazards are not crevasses and frostbite, but poverty. Peary scraped and pinched pennies for years to finance his dash to the North Pole and most of his confreres were economic ne'er-do-wells. Possibly Byrd's greatest contribution to science was the proof, encouraging to explorers yet unborn, that their line of work, if carefully managed, will bring in a profit. Shrewdly taking advantage of lush conditions in the 1920's, Byrd had established himself by 1928 as the financial genius of the ice caps. He once truly remarked, "I've put exploration into Big Business."

It is doubtful whether the world will ever see another expedition like the Byrd Antarctic Expedition I (1928-30) which put out at the height of good times and returned the summer following the Crash. Charles V. Bob, the mining impresario, gave $108,000. John D. Rockefeller Jr. and Edsel Ford were big contributors and even schoolchildren joyfully sent in their pennies. The total cash contributions have been estimated at between $800,000 and $900,000, while the food, clothing, fuel and other material supplied gratis by manufacturers have been valued at $600,000. The Biltmore Hotel in New York was so delighted to have such a glamorous celebrity as guest of the house that it also put up his entire retinue free of charge. With characteristic if somewhat dramatic foresight, Byrd even had the expedition equipped with half a dozen straitjackets which, with the sleeves cut out, were later used as windproofs.

Dehydrated onions drop out of drums at Patten Concentrate Co., Burbank, Calif. All Byrd vegetables are dried to save space and weight. Many foods must be specially prepared. On Previous expeditions the crackers all crumbled, chocolate lost its flavor in the cold.

Perceiving the human desire for even a small measure of immortality, Byrd tapped an entirely new stratum of polar patrons by offering to name ships, airplanes, and still-to-be-discovered mountains and harbors for them. On the last Antarctic expedition, the late Col. Jacob Ruppert put up $25,000 and had the flagship (leased from the U. S. Shipping Board at $1 a year) named after him. The main exploring plane went to William Horlick, the malted-milk man, for a net Of $30,000. For $5,000 the name Blue Blade was plastered on a worn-out Fokker. These are the basic economics of modern exploration. Columbus-who incidentally, returned from his third voyage in chains-was financed by the Spanish sovereigns whose reimbursement was a major share of the expected treasure. In a modern democracy, Byrd is properly financed by the public which is paid off in vicarious thrills and by manufacturers who receive the equivalent of the "Crown's Share" in advertising themselves as exclusive purveyors to an exacting expedition.

Hero of the lecture platforms

The cry of "terrific deficit" which often follows a Byrd expedition is at once a tribute to Byrd's business acumen in laying groundwork for a new campaign, and a reminder that an explorer's work is never done. Although he makes nothing out of his trips, directly, they supply the raw material for lecture tours to whose profits he is obviously entitled. The Admiral, among other things, is the most successful lecturer of his time. His 1935-36 tours netted him close to $190,000; the tour after the first expedition was even more successful. Byrd's usual fee is 60% of the box-office gross, with a $1,500 guarantee. For a one-day stand at Los Angeles, in 1935, he was paid $6,100. Last year the Admiral could have had any number of dates at $500, but his roly-poly manager, Leo McDonald, who once managed Krishnamurti, the Theosophist, turned them down as unworthy of Byrd's attention. McDonald permitted Krishnamurri, who was billed as a divinity, to sleep in upper berths but he sees to it that Byrd's explorations of the U. S. hinterland are conducted in a drawing room.

As an author of travel books, Byrd ranks with Lindbergh, the late Richard Halliburton or even the Abbe children, There are already five books under his name-Skyward, Little America, Discovery, Alone and Exploring with Byrd. With the exception of the last, which was for younger readers, all have been best-sellers. Little America sold 100,000 copies; Alone, his most recent book, is not far behind. The total sales of his books have been around $1,000,000. Even allowing for a collaborator's fee, his earnings as an author must be close to $130,000. In addition, the New York Times paid him $150,000 for the news rights to his first expedition, and Grape Nuts Put up $145,000 for the broadcasting rights of the second.

This huge Snow Cruiser, built especially for the Byrd expedition, is now being tested by the Armour Institute in Chicago. It is the last word in polar transportation. Manned by a crew of four men, it will be able to zigzag across Antarctica for twelve months without returning to its base, stop for two months at the Pole itself while the scientists make observations. The Cruiser measures 55 ft., weighs 37 tons and cost $150,000. Its twin Diesel engines can keep it going at a 10-mi. cruising speed (top speed: 25) for 5,000 miles. Its pickaback plane (on or off in 10 min.) can make day-to-day side trips, scout ahead, save the crew in emergency. Individual electric motors operate the four wheels independently, enabling the craft to move laterally, turn around in 30 ft. One derrick loads and unloads the airplane, changes the biggest tires ever made (10 ft., 700 lb.). Another, attachable to the front, can swing members of the crew over crevasses too wide for the Snow Cruiser to cross (more than 15 ft.). The Cruiser, carefully exploring the polar region, will give the U.S. a stronger claim than quick airplane dashes. One ironic hitch: the Snow Cruiser may be too big for the Byrd ships, may not be able to make the trip.

Lectures and literature by no means exhaust the Admiral's potentialities as a money-maker. He is also a shrewd stockmarket investor, trading through Kidder, Peabody & Co. In advancing the profit motive to high latitudes, Byrd has even had a go at importing penguins. The scrawny creatures exhibited in zoos come either from Africa or the Galapagos, and Byrd decided there was a fortune to be made if he could bring back alive the majestic Emperors and the comical Adelics peculiar to the Antarctic. With characteristic thoroughness, he caused 40 of these flightless birds to be rounded up by his biologists. Few inhabitants of Little America will forget the morning they escaped their pen. "Damn it," the Admiral shouted, "there's $25,000 worth of assets vanished overnight. What kind of efficiency is that?" Another batch was captured and a half-dozen survived the voyage north. The mutual devotion between Byrd and these creatures was such that they all died soon after being separated from him, when sold to the Chicago Zoological Society.

Daring In the air and on the ice

Admiral Byrd has lived as dangerously as any modern man. On the North Pole flight he and Floyd Bennett sat and watched a slow oil leak. It finally plugged itself up, but not before they had reconciled themselves to a forced landing from which there was little hope of escape. And while his wisdom for taking the risk may be questioned, there can be no doubting the punishment Byrd endured during his famous self-imposed isolation on the Ross Shelf Ice, and the courageous manner in which he endured it.

His transatlantic flight makes even the Hollywood air epics seem pallid by contrast. After hours in fog, in which Byrd and his three companions caught only glimpses of the ocean, they finally reached the French coast. The second night was coming on, gas was low and nerves were raw. At this juncture, the ill-starred Bert Acosta, who had been at the controls for nearly 38 hours, momentarily lost control of his nerves. Muttering about a mysterious fifth man aboard, he wheeled the plane around hard and started back across the Atlantic. Whether it was Byrd himself or Bernt Balchen who knocked Acosta from the controls, and whether the weapon used was a flashlight or a wrench, no one but the four men in the America can say; and they have seldom discussed the episode. In his official log of the flight, Byrd, who has a deep respect and liking for Acosta, never mentioned it. As a Virginian, Byrd esteems loyalty above all other qualities and many of the men who have served him know that they can count on his help in any emergency "on the beach."

Little America, on the Bay of Whales, shows only a few roofs and radio towers atop the Ross Ice Barrier (300 ft. thick). The new Byrd Expedition expects to use Little America as one base and build another somewhere else on the Antarctic continent.

The Admiral has few of the iron attitudes and mannerisms of the quarterdeck. In the field, he seldom gives orders, only suggestions. This is in keeping with his philosophy that "the polar regions are best won by patience." Byrd is quick to praise, slow to criticize. At Little America he dealt with the troublemakers, the soreheads and the disappointed by taking them on long, exercising walks, while he discoursed on philosophy, politics, people, or whatever else might be in his mind. After he had chilled and generalized the recalcitrants into submission, he would then approach their faults in the manner of an understanding schoolmaster.

The most serious internal situation to vex any of his expeditions came out of the destruction of the whisky on the last. Winter darkness had fallen, the stores were still scattered over the Barrier, and much work remained to be done. But it was hard to keep men slaving in the cold and drift as long as the songs and laughter of good fellowship welled up through the crust from the celebrants in the shacks underneath. And because there was no safe place to hide liquor in that congested village, the second in command, himself a teetotaler, one night quietly gathered up the available supply, some 20 cases of rye and bourbon, and poured it, bottle by bottle, down a hole bored in the floor of his shack. Then he smashed the bottles inside a burlap sack, to deaden the sound, and scattered the fragments over the Barrier, so as to leave no trace. All winter long, supposing that the liquor had been moved to a new hiding place, Byrd's men spent their spare time prodding the Barrier with long brass rods, chanting:

"Little Rod, won't you call
When you've found the alcohol?"

Of this tragic decision, Byrd knew nothing. He was at Advance Base when it happened. Nevertheless he caught the brunt of the after-effects on his return to Little America in the spring, for his hardier explorers, after draining the compasses of alcohol, were then running mouth wash and a patent medicine called Dr. Baxter's Lung Preserver through a home-made still. The by-products, while producing a desirable numbness, left tempers vile.

Despite such distractions, a polar camp is hardly a gay, inspiring place. For every hour of excitement and mental stimulation, there are two haunted with emptiness or hungry memories. And because the Admiral is a gregarious soul, it puzzles his friends that he should want to return to the Antarctic again. The paradox is accentuated by his family life, which is no different from that of any successful man of good family. In Boston, the Byrds occupy an old-fashioned, five-story brick house, on the "water side" of Beacon Hill. They summer in Maine, either at South West Harbor, where the Admiral owns a small cove, or on the mainland at East Sullivan, where he recently purchased a 1,000-acre tract, surrounding a baronial clubhouse, from a group of sportsmen. His son, Dickie, is a sophomore at Harvard; his three daughters, still in their teens, attend the fashionable Winsor School in Boston. The Admiral himself is a member of such a Boston club as the late George Apley would have approved, the Somerset, and there are few Americans of importance, from the Roosevelts (both branches), the Fords, the Rockefellers and on down, whom this lonely and intrepid wanderer does not know.

With the hero, as with the politician, the point is academic as to whether the office sought the man, or the man the office. The press is given to casting men into stereotyped roles, and Byrd has long been labelled HERO in the public mind. That he is, with Col. Lindbergh, an international symbol of the undaunted man of action is not to be denied; neither is the fact that many people, for reasons they find hard to define, do not altogether like him. As to that, one explanation may be that no man could possibly be the hero the public Would like him to be. The Admiral is not unaware of the frailties of his role, and has constantly sought to widen his life.

At Advance Base, on the ice 123 miles south of Little America, Byrd spent four months alone in 1934. In his tiny quarters he read, played the phonograph, cooked his meals and sought a "replenishing philosophy." He almost died of carbon-monoxide poisoning.

Byrd looks upon himself as something of a mystic. He has peered at Christian Science and for a while he flirted with the Oxford Group. The desire to believe, to find "some replenishing philosophy," that persuaded him to go off by himself on the Shelf Ice, made it possible for him to ignore the opposition of his expedition. And the ambition to shape a universal peace movement had its inspiration in a similar desire to take root in some universal substance. When that came to nothing, there remained the Antarctic. And as Byrd once said at Little America: "You can forget the world here. There are no temptations. The only littleness is the littleness of a man's mind."

This page last updated: 02 October 2003