October 25, 1888—Richard E. Byrd, born on this date in Winchester, Va., grew up with his mother’s constant urging to redeem the honor of a landed aristocracy that traced a glorious history back to the colonial era, but more recently had fallen on hard times due to their hometown's devastation in the Civil War and the alcoholism of their father, an otherwise brilliant attorney. The young man lived up to his heritage in the military, where he rose to the rank of rear admiral and was awarded the Medal of Honor for his daring expeditions to the North and South Poles.
Nobody doubted Admiral Byrd’s ambition. What some questioned even in his own lifetime, however, and even more in our iconoclastic present, is if other elements in his patrimony—notably, instincts toward storytelling (a colonial plantation ancestor, William Byrd II, became renowned for his scandalous diary) and risk-taking that bordered on foolishness—might have played a role in his career and legend.
Alone was the title of his 1938 bestseller about surviving the rigors of remote Antarctica by himself, but it also represented his first significant life adventure: a solo trip halfway around the world at age 11 to visit a relative in the Philippines. His accounts of what he met along the way were sold to newspapers back home. That earned him some renown, and he resolved to gain the rest through a nascent branch of the U.S. Navy, where a badly injured ankle would not prevent him from action: aviation. (He didn’t even let his initial unease with flying get the better of him.)
After participating in several unsuccessful Navy attempts to fly to the North Pole, Byrd partnered with pilot Floyd Bennett on a privately funded mission. Their May 9, 1926 flight on the Josephine Ford was instantly accepted as successful by the U.S. Navy and a committee of the National Geographic Society, one of his sponsors, but whispers began about it from the start. Completing the flight in less time than accepted, and with a dangerous gas leak, just seemed too suspicious, some felt.
An article in the January 2013 issue of the journal Polar Record, by Gerald Newsom, professor emeritus of astronomy at Ohio State, used recently discovered handwritten notes from Byrd's North Pole trip to conclude that Byrd missed his North Pole goal by as much as 80 miles (130 kilometers). Byrd had not engaged in deliberate fraud, Newsom believed; rather, it was more likely that he made continuous calculations in a noisy, freezing cockpit, with instruments--a barograph and calibration graph--likely magnifying the effects of any errors.
Next, Byrd turned his attention to the South Pole, participating in five expeditions to Antarctica through the end of his life. On the first, in November 1928, he became the first to fly over the South Pole, establishing the U.S. presence there by establishing an outpost he named Little America.
A second, more astonishing expedition occurred from March to August 1934, which he spent, alone in a hut, some 120 miles from base, to record weather and observe aurora. The question arose among fellow polar explorers about why the American leader of Antarctic exploration didn’t assign staying at a weather station in the remote interior to a junior expedition member, and why a naval officer waited on by servants and navy stewards throughout his career, with no knowledge of cooking, would try to survive in one of the most harrowing places on earth by himself. The only explanation some could see was that Byrd wanted to top his prior exploits.
The attempt nearly cost him his life. For starters, he ended up caught outside his hut during a blizzard, an experience he captured with extraordinary vividness in Alone:
“There is something extravagantly insensate about an Antarctic blizzard at night. Its vindictiveness cannot be measured on an anemometer sheet. It is more than just wind: it is a solid wall of snow moving at gale force, pounding like surf. [Because of this blinding, suffocating drift, in the Antarctic winds of only moderate velocity have the punishing force of full-fledged hurricanes elsewhere.] The whole malevolent rush is concentrated upon you as upon a personal enemy. In the senseless explosion of sound you are reduced to a crawling thing on the margin of a disintegrating world; you can't see, you can't hear, you can hardly move. The lungs gasp after the air sucked out of them, and the brain is shaken. Nothing in the world will so quickly isolate a man.”
His situation became truly dire when a leak from a faulty stove led to carbon-monoxide poisoning, compounded by malnourishment. Luckily, his incoherent radio messages sparked a rescue team from Little America that reached him just in time.
Though 47 years old at the time of this trip, Byrd was aged considerably by his privations. He assumed an increasingly reduced role on each of his succeeding three trips to the South Pole. He remained, however, an exceptional advocate for polar exploration, both because of his four accounts of his experiences (reportedly completed with the assistance of ghostwriters) and his brother Harry, an influential U.S. senator.
And yet, after the 1934 near-disaster, Byrd lived with a sense of anti-climax. Curt Gentry’s J. Edgar Hoover: The Man and the Secrets tells the story of how, in his later years, the explorer would wander the halls of the Old Post Office Building in Washington, where he had been assigned space years before. By this time, the building had become the heart of the vast electronic surveillance operations of J. Edgar Hoover’s Federal Bureau of Investigation. Now Byrd was a “live ghost,” wandering its hallways: “Locked doors, receptionists, guards, color-coded passes—nothing seemed to hinder him: monitors, poised over their consoles, would look up and see the admiral standing there.”
Eventually, it dawned on the monitors that Byrd wasn’t interested in eavesdropping on them: He was “just lonely and wanted someone to tell his stories to.” The storytelling instinct remained unabated, even after years of recapitulating his experiences in diaries, a bestselling account of his near-fatal mission, and before audiences enraptured by the thought that they were in the presence of one of the last great solitary explorers. The imperious Hoover wanted him ejected lest the admiral stumble on something, but an American hero is not just any ordinary building tenant, so Byrd was allowed to stay until he died.
After he was gone, the FBI monitors missed the tales of the aging Antarctic explorer.
Over half a century after his death, in 1957, Byrd’s exploits may yet reveal additional stories—as well as revisions of those he told. After decades in which legal wrangling among his heirs left his papers gathering dust or moldering in assorted attics, warehouses, bank vaults, and basements, approximately 500 boxes of them, rescued from the effects of time and unintentional neglect, are being catalogued, sifted through, and analyzed by researchers at Ohio State University's Institute of Polar Studies.
Byrd believed that Antarctica was a land that “God had set aside as man's future -- an inexhaustible reservoir of natural resources." One wonders what he would have made of the possibility of global warming melting a land mass he had done, as much as any man, to explore.