Richard E. Byrd

Richard E. Byrd books and biography


Richard Evelyn Byrd

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Place of birth Winchester, Virginia
Allegiance USN
Years of service 1912
Rank Rear Admiral
Awards Medal of Honor
Navy Cross
Distinguished Service Medal
Distinguished Flying Cross

Rear Admiral Richard Evelyn Byrd, USN (October 25, 1888 – March 11, 1957) was a pioneering American polar explorer and famous aviator.

Richard Evelyn Byrd was born into one of Virginia's First Families in Winchester, Virginia. His parents were Richard Evelyn Byrd and Eleanor Bolling Flood. A descendant of William Byrd II of Westover Plantation (founder of Richmond, Virginia), his brother was Harry Flood Byrd who became a Governor of Virginia and U.S. Senator. He has no relationship to West Virginia Senator Robert Byrd.

Richard E. Byrd attended the University of Virginia and the Virginia Military Institute before financial circumstances inspired his enrollment and graduation from the United States Naval Academy in 1912. He learned to fly in World War I during his tour with the United States Navy. He developed a passion for flight, and pioneered many techniques for navigating airplanes over the open ocean including drift indicators and bubble sextants. His expertise in this area resulted in his appointment to plan the flight path for the U.S. Navy's 1919 transatlantic crossing. Of the three flying boats that attempted it, only Albert Read's aircraft the NC-4 completed the trip; becoming the first ever transatlantic flight.


Attempt to fly over the North Pole, 1926

On May 9, 1926, Byrd and pilot Floyd Bennett attempted a flight over the North Pole. They claimed to have achieved the pole, but were never able to present credible navigational data to support their story. Norwegian-American aviator and explorer Bernt Balchen cast significant doubt on Byrd's claim based on his personal knowledge of the airplane's speed; Balchen speculated that Byrd had simply circled aimlessly while out of sight of land. The 1997 discovery of Byrd's diary of the flight, containing erased (but still legible) sextant readings, has disproved the North Pole claim, but also shows that Byrd did travel most of the way to the Pole before turning back. Nonetheless, this trip earned Byrd widespread acclaim, winning him the Medal of Honor and enabling him to secure funding for subsequent attempts on the South Pole.

Trans-Atlantic flight, 1927

Byrd was one of several aviators who attempted to win the Orteig Prize in 1927 for making the first nonstop flight between the United States and France. Once again Byrd named Floyd Bennett as his chief pilot, with support from Bernt Balchen, Bert Acosta, and George Noville. During a practice takeoff with Bennett alone at the controls, the Fokker Trimotor airplane, America, crashed, severely injuring Bennett. As the plane was being repaired, Charles Lindbergh won the prize. But Byrd continued with his quest, naming Balchen to replace Bennett as chief pilot. Byrd, Balchen, Acosta, and Noville flew from Roosevelt Field East Garden City, New York on June 29, 1927. Arriving over France, cloud cover prevented a landing in Paris; they returned to the coast of Normandy, crash-landing without injury on July 1, 1927.

First Antarctic expedition, 1928-1930

In 1928, Byrd began his first expedition to the Antarctic involving two ships and three airplanes. A base camp named "Little America" was constructed on the Ross Ice Shelf and scientific expeditions by dog-sled, snowmobile, and airplane began. Photographic expeditions and geological surveys were undertaken for the duration of that summer, and constant radio communications were maintained with the outside world. After their first winter, their expeditions were resumed, and on November 29, 1929, the famous flight to the South Pole and back was launched. Byrd, along with pilot Bernt Balchen, co-pilot/radioman Harold June, and photographer Ashley McKinley, flew the Floyd Bennett to the South Pole and back in 18 hours, 41 minutes. They had difficulty gaining enough altitude, and they had to dump empty gas tanks, as well as their emergency supplies, in order to achieve the altitude of the Polar Plateau. However, the flight was successful, and it entered Byrd into the history books. After a further summer of exploration, the expedition returned to North America on June 18, 1930.

Byrd, by then an internationally recognized, pioneering American polar explorer and aviator, served for a time as Honorary National President (1931-1935) of Pi Gamma Mu, the international honor society in the social sciences. In 1928, he carried the Society's flag during a historic expedition to the Antarctic to dramatize the spirit of adventure into the unknown, characterizing both the natural and social sciences.

Byrd's later Antarctic expeditions

Byrd undertook four more expeditions to Antarctica from 1933–35, 1939–40, 1946–47 and 1955–56.

As a senior officer in the U.S. Navy, Byrd, performed national defense service during World War II (1941-45), mostly as a consultant to the U.S.N. high commanders.

On his second expedition, in 1934, Byrd spent five winter months alone operating a meteorological station, Advance Base, from which he narrowly escaped with his life after suffering carbon monoxide poisoning from a poorly-ventilated stove. Unusual radio transmissions from Byrd finally began to alarm the men at the base camp, who then attempted to go to Advance Base. The first two trips were failures due to darkness, snow, and mechanical troubles. Finally, Dr. Thomas Poulter, E.J. Demas, and Amory Waite arrived at advanced base, where they found Byrd in poor physical health. The men remained at advanced base until October 12 when an airplane from the base camp picked up Dr. Poulter and Byrd. The rest of the men returned to base camp with the tractor. In late 1938, Byrd visited Hamburg and was invited to participate in the 1938/1939 German "Neuschwabenland" Antarctic Expedition, but declined.

Byrd's third expedition was his first one on which he had the official backing of the U.S. government. The project included extensive studies of geology, biology, meteorology and exploration. Within a few months, in March 1940, Byrd was recalled to active duty in the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations. The expedition continued in Antarctica without him. From 1942 to 1945 he headed important missions to the Pacific, including surveys of remote islands for airfields. On one assignment he visited the fighting front in Europe. He was repeatedly cited for meritorious service and was present at the Japanese surrender.

The fourth culminating expedition, Operation Highjump, was the largest Antarctic expedition to date. Conspiracy theorists specializing in alleged Aryan or Nazi activities in Antarctica have extensively speculated about this mission. In 1946, US Navy Secretary James Forrestal assembled a huge amphibious naval force for an Antarctic Expedition expected to last six to eight months. Besides the flagship Mount Olympus and the aircraft carrier Philippine Sea, there were thirteen US Navy support ships, six helicopters, six flying boats, two seaplane tenders and fifteen other aircraft. The total number of personnel involved was over 4,000. The armada arrived in the Ross Sea on 31 December 1946, and made aerial explorations of an area half the size of the United States, recording ten new mountain ranges. The major area covered was the eastern coastline of Antarctica from 150 degrees east to the Greenwich meridian. The expedition was terminated abruptly at the end of February 1947, six months early, the entire remaining armada returning immediately to the United States. A number of mysterious incidents occurred involving aircraft, but the early termination of the mission was never explained.

A report in the Chilean newspaper El Mercurio of Santiago on 5 March 1947 sheds some possible light onto the strategic importance of polar reconnaissance. The article by Lee van Atta entitled "Admiral Richard E Byrd refers to the Strategic Importance of the Poles" had been sent from "On Board Mount Olympus on the High Seas". It is often misquoted in translation by occult enthusiasts, the usual interpolations in the text being of "flying objects" having the ability "to fly from pole to pole at incredible speeds", but a better translation is:

"Admiral Byrd declared today that it was imperative for the United States to initiate defence measures against the possible invasion of the country by hostile aircraft operating from the polar regions. The Admiral stated, "I don't want to frighten anyone unduly but it is a bitter reality that in the case of a new war the continental United States will be attacked by aircraft flying in from one or both poles." As regards the recently terminated expedition, Byrd said that the most important result of the observations and discoveries made is the current potential effect which they will have on the security of the United States."

For six months of the year, the Antarctic is in permanent darkness. It is then the coldest place on Earth, with temperatures 60 degrees below zero. It was reported in 1956 that to build permanent ice runways it would require nuclear reactors at the South Pole to enable sufficient quantities of snow to be melted. "The reason that US armed forces installed the South Pole station is simply that they alone have the ships, the planes, the manpower and the know-how to overcome the problems posed by the grim climate," explained Paul Siple, Scientific Leader, IGY South Pole Station, in a National Geographic magazine article (CXII - No.1, July 1957).

Admiral Byrd remained out of the public eye for several years until commanding Operation Deep Freeze, which established permanent Antarctic bases at McMurdo Sound, the Bay of Whales and the South Pole in 1955, accompanied by Andrew Van Mincey, for whom Mincey Glacier is named. However, once again he only stayed in Antarctica for a few months, leaving the rest of the operation behind. In January 1956 he made a survey flight with Dr Paul Siple, scouting conditions at 90 degrees South a year before the scheduled installation of the International Geophysical Year Station there.

Awards and decoration

Bust of Rear Admiral Richard Evelyn Byrd at McMurdo Station.
Bust of Rear Admiral Richard Evelyn Byrd at McMurdo Station.

By the time Richard Byrd died on March 12, 1957, he had amassed twenty-two citations and special commendations, nine of which were for bravery and two for extraordinary heroism in saving the lives of others. As well he earned the Medal of Honor, the Congressional Life Saving Medal, the Navy Distinguished Service Medal, the Distinguished Flying Cross, the Navy Cross and three ticker-tape parades. He preferred to dwell on the substance of his global adventures, and the stories of those that had gone awry as lessons learned.

In 1927, the City of Richmond dedicated the Richard Evelyn Byrd Flying Field, now Richmond International Airport, in Henrico County, Virginia. Byrd's Fairchild FC-2W2, NX8006, "Stars And Stripes" is on display at the Virginia Aviation Museum located on the north side of the airport, on loan from the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C.

Mount Byrd on Ross Island, Antarctica and Lunar crater Byrd are named after him, as was the was the United States Navy dry cargo ship USNS Richard E. Byrd (T-AKE-4) and the now decommissioned Charles F. Adams-class guided missile destroyer USS Richard E. Byrd (DDG-23)

In Glen Rock New Jersey there is Richard E. Byrd school which was dedicated in 1931


  • Time (magazine); Monday, November 8, 1926. Born. To Mrs. Marie Ames Byrd, of Winchester, Virginia, and Boston, a daughter. Mrs. Byrd is the wife of Lieut. Commander Richard Evelyn Byrd, U.S.N., who flew to the North Pole and back from Spitzbergen last spring. Lieutenant Byrd's brother, Harry F. Byrd, is Governor of Virginia.

See also

Laurence McKinley Gould

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