Richard E. Byrd's First Antarctic Expedition

By Rodgers, Eugene | The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, April 1, 2002 | Go to article overview
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Richard E. Byrd's First Antarctic Expedition


Rodgers, Eugene, The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography


THE name of Admiral Richard E. Byrd came up during a panel discussion on a recent local radio program in Richmond, Virginia. Although Byrd had been born in Virginia and lived his youth there, one panel member had never heard of him, and the others confused him with Admiral Peary. Byrd deserves to be better remembered. He and his influence are responsible for firmly establishing the United States in the Antarctic region of the world and for America's continuing leadership in Antarctic exploration and research. Admiral Byrd's accomplishments merit prominence in polar history, the history of aviation, American cultural history, and the history of the state of his birth.

Through the great discoveries and innovations of his expeditions, the subsequent contributions of the talented people he identified and appointed to the expeditions, and the educational significance of his activities, Byrd created a legacy that has enriched society even as his memory has lamentably faded. This essay focuses on a major vehicle of that endowment, the First Byrd Antarctic Expedition. This venture was of key importance. It marked the first time Americans landed in Antarctica; was the first major Antarctic expedition based on aviation; featured the first flight over the South Pole, a landmark in aviation history; was the expedition that yielded Byrd's most important geographical discovery; was the first Antarctic expedition to use radio communications; and was the expedition through which Commander Byrd became Admiral Byrd.

Richard Evelyn Byrd was born 25 October 1888 into the renowned Byrd family of Winchester, Virginia. Byrds had been prominent since the colonial period and traced their ancestry to William the Conqueror. Byrd's father, after whom he was named, was speaker of the Virginia House of Delegates. His brother, Harry, served as the state's governor from 1926 to 1930 and as a U.S. Senator from 1933 to 1965, controlling Virginia politics as nobody has before or since. As a boy, Dick Byrd developed an interest in travel and faraway places during a journey to visit a family friend in the Philippines. It was this inclination that led to his desire for a career in the navy and an appointment to the U.S. Naval Academy.

Byrd graduated from Annapolis in 1912 but could not be promoted because his weak right ankle was prone to injury-he could not meet the physical requirements for higher rank-and he had to retire from the navy. When officers were needed during World War I, Byrd, although still officially retired, went back on active duty. Excited by the possibilities in the new field of naval aviation, he sought and was granted the opportunity to learn to fly at the Naval Air Station, Pensacola. After the war, Byrd decided to capitalize on his training and become an entrepreneur of exploration, using emerging airplane technology to explore the little-known polar regions. In those days an ambitious man could make a business out of exploration with the help of financial angels. Byrd's benefactors included philanthropists such as Edsel Ford and John D. Rockefeller. He also benefited from political connections made through his brother, Harry, and on his own, such as the one he forged working with Assistant Secretary of the Navy Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Byrd strongly believed in the potential of aviation to advance international good will and lasting peace-people remarked that he could talk for hours on the subject. One of his career goals, and an important part of his expeditions, was to promote aviation with an eye toward converting the country to a faith in airplanes. Because memories of World War I remained strong in the 1920s, people had a lingering image of airplanes as terrifying military weapons. Aviation promoters, like Byrd, wanted to show that airplanes had useful peacetime applications, including travel and commercial air freight. They tried to encourage financiers to invest in aviation ventures and to make it easy for politicians and voters to approve measures to foster aviation.

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