Saturday, March 11, 2017

Flying over the Poles

Richard E. Byrd, one of the most decorated US naval officers, died 60 years ago today. He was an aviation pioneer, credited with the first solo flights over the North and South Poles, and organised several major expeditions to the Antarctic leading to the US having a permanent base on the continent. Like most explorers, he kept diaries and notebooks, and some extracts have appeared in his own books. However, there’s been only one published work based on the diaries themselves, and that diary material, in fact, has fuelled a debate over whether Byrd’s flight ever reached the North Pole.

Byrd was born at Winchester, Virginia, in 1888, second son of a wealthy Virginian politician who was also an apple grower and proprietor of the Winchester Star newspaper. The older son, Harry, would become Governor of Virginia and serve in the US Senate. Richard attended the Shenandoah Valley Academy, the Virginia Military Institute, and the University of Virginia. He was enrolled as a cadet at the US Navel Academy in 1908, and, on graduating in 1912, was assigned to USS Kentucky; he served on two other vessels before being reassigned to USS Missouri during the Mexican War.

In 1914, Byrd rescued two seamen from drowning, for which he was later honoured, and he took his first flight in an airplane. Also that same year, he was assigned to the gunboat USS Dolphin which was involved in the US’s intervention in Veracruz. On board, Byrd met the future Fleet Admiral, William D. Leahy, as well as Assistant Secretary of the Navy, Franklin D. Roosevelt, who used ship occasionally to transport himself and his family. Byrd served on Dolphin until he was medically retired in 1916 for a foot injury. A year or so earlier, in 1915, Byrd married Marie Ames of Boston. They would have four children, and, from 1924, live in large brownstone in Boston purchased by Marie’s father.

After retirement from active duty, Byrd became involved with aviation, receiving his pilot wings in 1918. He was assigned to a transatlantic aviation project, helped set up the Navy Bureau of Aeronautics, and worked as a flying instructor. But, his polar career began in 1924 when he was given command of a small naval aviation detachment, part of Commander D. B. MacMillan’s Arctic expedition to western Greenland. This experience is said to have given him the ambition to be the first to fly over the North Pole.

On 9 May 1926, Byrd and Floyd Bennett, the navy’s chief aviation pilot, attempted a flight over the North Pole in a Fokker trimotor named Josephine Ford (after the daughter of Ford Motor Company president who helped finance the expedition). The flight from Spitsbergen and back lasted nearly 16 hours without mishap (apart from an oil leak). Byrd and Bennett claimed to have reached the Pole, a distance of 1,535 miles, and, subsequently, they were both awarded the US Congressional Medal of Honor. Byrd was promoted to the rank of commander, and his status as a national hero helped him raise funds for further ventures. However, whether Byrd and Bennett did, in fact, reach the North Pole has been much debated. The key point of early doubts being that Byrd’s plane might not have had the speed to achieve the distance claimed.

In 1927, Byrd not only helped Charles Lindbergh (see Our civilization’s survival) in his preparations for a non-stop flight across the Atlantic, thus winning the Orteig Prize, but made his own successful transatlantic crossing a few weeks later. This achievement which won him further honours in France and the US, and promotion to the rank of rear admiral. Byrd next turned his attention to the South Pole, leading three expeditions to explore and map the region (1928-1930, 1933-1935, and 1939-1941), the first two financed privately and the third undertaken at the behest of President Franklin D. Roosevelt and financed by the government. During the first, Byrd as navigator and three companions made the first flight over the South Pole. During the second, Byrd spent five months alone in a hut enduring extremely cold conditions, and was seriously ill when rescued. Among other achievements of the third expedition, he discovered Thurston Island. 

However, Byrd was recalled in 1940 to active duty in the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations, serving mostly through the Second World War as an advisor to the navy fleet Commander in Chief, Ernest King. Among other duties, he evaluated Pacific islands as operational sites. After the war, Byrd was placed in charge of Operation High Jump, the most ambitious Antarctic expedition ever attempted involving 4,700 men, 13 ships (including an aircraft carrier), and 25 airplanes. In 1955, he was made officer in charge of the US’s Antarctic programmes and became the senior authority for government Antarctic matters. He helped supervise a major scientific and exploratory expedition in 1955-1956 (Operation Deep Freeze) which marked the start of a permanent US military presence in Antarctica. Byrd died on 11 March 1957. Further information is available from Wikipedia, Encyclopaedia Britannica, Encyclopedia Virginia, or

The Byrd Polar and Climate Research Center Archival Program at Ohio State University holds the papers of Admiral Richard E. Byrd. The finding aid lists 10 diaries sporadically included within correspondence lots, but it also includes a section on ‘notebooks’, detailing close to 100 of them, dated between 1925-1957 (though some are undated). In Byrd’s own published books, he refers to his ‘detailed and voluminous’ ‘diary’ - so the notebooks at Ohio State might well also be diaries rather than merely notebooks.

Alone, a book about Byrd’s second Antarctic expedition, was first published by G. P. Putnam’s Sons in 1938, and reissued in 1966 by Shearwater Books - a modern reprint by Island Books can be previewed at Googlebooks. In his preface, Byrd writes: ‘The original intention was to use my diary, which was very detailed and voluminous, as the prime ingredient in the book; but I soon discovered that it was almost impossible to maintain an intelligible sequence and proportion by relying on the diary alone, since it was inescapably full of repetitious matter, cryptic references to things meaningful to myself, and random jottings; beside, there were many very personal things directed to my family which I did not wish to include.’

In fact, Byrd refers to his diary repeatedly through the text, and discuss the entries (often noting ‘as my diary testifies’). Here he is at the start of chapter three: ‘During the four and a half months I occupied Advance Base alone, I kept a fairly complete diary. Nearly every night, before turning in, I sat down and wrote a thoroughgoing account of the day’s doings. Yet, I have been surprised and puzzled, on reading the entries four years later, to find that not more of the emotions and circumstances which I have always associated with the first few days alone were actually committed to paper. For, afterwards, it seemed that I was never busier. Although I was up mornings before 8 o’clock and rarely went to bed before midnight, the days weren’t half long enough for me to accomplish the things I set out to do. A fagged mind in the midst of a task has little patience with autobiographical trifles. As witness:’ And then he quotes from the diary.

29 March 1934
‘. . . Last night, when I finished writing, I noticed a dark patch spreading over the floor from under the stove. A bad leak had opened up in the fuel line. Worried about the fire risk, I shut off the stove and searched all through my gear for a spare line. I couldn’t find one, which annoyed me; but I finally succeeded in stopping the leak with adhesive tape borrowed from the medical chest. Result: I was up until 4 o’clock this morning, most of the time damned cold, what with the fire out and the temperature at 58° below zero. The cold metal stripped the flesh from three fingers of one hand.
(Later) This being the twenty-second anniversary of the death of Captain Robert Falcon Scott, I have been reading again his immortal diary. He died on this same Barrier, at approximately the same latitude as that of Advance Base. I admire him as I admire few other men; better than most, perhaps, I can appreciate what he went through . . .’

The only publication of Byrd’s diaries to date (that I have been able to find) is To the Pole: the diary and notebook of Richard E. Byrd, 1925-1927 as edited by Raimund E. Goerler and published by Ohio State University Press in 1998. This can be previewed at Googlebooks. It contains diary extracts from Byrd’s Greenland Expedition in 1925, the North Pole flight in 1926, and his Transatlantic flight in 1927. Among the diary extracts about the North Pole flight are various navigational calculations, some of which were erased at the time, but which have been uncovered by researchers. These have tended to fuel more debate over whether Byrd and Bennett did, in fact, fly over the Pole. A review of the controversy, by Goerler (of the Byrd Polar Research Centre), found that, even with the new evidence in the book, it is not possible to be certain one way or the other.

Here are several extracts from To the Pole.

3 January 1925
‘Is the human race an accidental by-product of the cosmical processes? If God directs us, remaining silent and inscrutable to us, then he means either that he does not want us to know him or he is indifferent or he has made the knowing of him a difficult task.’

20 June 1925
‘The 20th has come at last and we left Wiscassett [Maine] at 2:45 PM today on schedule date. As anxious as I have been to get started on the expedition, I have felt so sad at leaving my precious family that I haven’t been able to mention the subject to Marie. I am doing her (apparently) a miserable mean trick in causing her to go through all the apprehensions she has felt for weeks and will for weeks to come. I feel mightily low and wicked today on account of it and the wonderful send off we got from thousands of people has meant absolutely nothing to me for nothing could matter with this terrible ache I have tried so hard to hide.

Dear little Dickie [Richard Byrd Jr.] didn’t realize what it was all about and that made me feel still more useless. Poor little fellow. He is too young to realize what an irresponsible “dad” he has. Marie as always was a wonderful sport.

With all this on my mind, I had to make a speech on the City Common to hundreds of people and also accept for the naval unit wonderful hunting knives presented to the personnel by the National Aeronautic Association of Maine.’

28 July 1925
‘7:45 a.m. Ran into flat pack ice today about 60 miles north of Upernivik. At first the flat pack ice was in cakes and far apart but gradually the cakes got larger and larger until about 5 this morning the Peary and Bowdoin were completely surrounded by an apparently unbroken field of ice. A number of the boys went over the ship’s side on the ice and walked several miles from the ships seal hunting. [Bromfield?] from the Bowdoin shot a seal in the head (a seal floats only when shot in the head). The seal was in a lead opened up by the Peaty as she came through the ice. We went after her in one of the Bowdoin boats. The Peary has been under a great strain bucking ice for the past seventeen hours. She is however very staunch and powerful and has stood the strain well.

10 PM A lead opened up for us about 8 AM and we got out of the solid ice but there was continual bucking of large flat cake[s] of ice until 6 PM. Now the water is a dead calm and only a few ice bergs are in sight.’

13 August 1925
‘Good weather has at last come. The NA-2 & 3 are out of commission. Bennett and I are going tonight for the blessed old navy. We must make a showing for her. Everything went wrong today. NA-1 lost cowling overboard. NA-2 went down by nose. Almost lost her. NA-3 nearly sunk by icebergs and injured lower wing on raft.

Later. MacMillan wouldn’t let me go. He seems to have given up. MacMillan seems to be in [a] great hurry to pack up and go back. Wonder what is in his mind.’

24 August 1925
‘Laying in Booth Sound on account of bad weather.’

25 August 1925

‘Captain doesn’t know where we are. So won’t send a radio tonight. Reached Conical Rock finally. Laying behind here on account bad weather.’

30 August 1925
‘Iceberg rolled over somewhere in bay making a tidal wave that nearly drowned bay, a very dramatic incident.’

8 September 1925
‘Terrible storm tonight. Wind 80 miles per hour. Two small boats from Danish gunboat Island Falk could not make their ship. Came alongside our ship. Both boats sank and came within an ace of losing several of the nine or ten Danes - a very dramatic moment. I have only once before experienced such wind - a typhoon in the China Sea. Much excitement on board last night.’

29 April 1926
‘Greatly disappointed today to hear from Amundsen by radio that we could not go alongside dock as there are two Norwegian ships alongside.

Amundsen sent a lieutenant from the Norwegian gunboat that is alongside the dock out to meet us. He informed us that he didn’t know when we could go alongside dock.

We arrived about 4 PM. Asked the captain of the gunboat if we could go alongside him. He reluctantly consented. I called on Amundsen immediately but he was at supper. Met him later and went to his quarters with him

I then called on captain of the gunboat and asked him when we could get alongside dock and get our plane ashore. He replied Monday. I then requested that he let us go alongside when he is not coaling at night and put the plane ashore. He would not do that.

We cannot wait for days and I ordered the floats lowered so as to take the plane on four of our boats rigged together by planking.

I then called on Smithmeyer, the director of the coal mine. He told us that we would have to move from alongside the gunboat to allow a Norwegian whaler to get alongside and coal. We anchored out about 300 yards at midnight. Got our pontoon made and at this writing have the small plane’s [the Oriole’s] wing put aboard.

Got radio that Wilkins is OK at Point Barrow. Hurrah! Smithmeyer told us to go alongside dock. Small space other side [of] gunboat. We would surely have gone aground. I cannot understand.’

2 May 1926
‘Worked all night on beach to get plane ready but had bright sunlight. Built little hanger of [illegible]. Took lunch with Amundsen who professes great friendship but gave Lt. Balchen (who is a peach and wanted to help us and has helped us) orders not to come near us again.’

29 June 1927
‘Left 4.25 standard [Eastern Standard Time]
4:29 altitude 300 feet turning. After turn completed 400. Raining slight.
5:50 Altitude 2200 feet. Not so much vibration now. Well beyond Cape Cod. Still visible few ships. Few ships. Cold. Having quite [a] time keeping Bert [Acosta] on course. Balchen still aft with us. Cans [of] gas affect standard compass. Must get them out of way soon.
As I looked through our trap door passing north of Halifax a cl[o]ud was under us and the shadow of the America on the cloud had a beautiful rainbow around it. Oil leak near [illegible]. Leak fixed with glue.
Sometimes have difficult time attracting attention ahead [from other crew members] to send radio or change course. Lights don’t work so well. Found a long stick and hit Noville on shoe with that.
Went forward at 3:15 to pilot. I got caught in passage way.
For ten hours we have seen no land or water. It’s now ten A.M. I sit here wondering if the winds have been with us. If they haven’t we don’t reach land.
8:30 Impossible to navigate.’

30 June 1927
‘12:30 Dawn is here very beautiful over horizon.
2:00 Clouds are right up to us. Nothing seen below for 10 hours.
3:30 Ice began to form.
5:00 Dense fog that can’t climb out of. Terribly dangerous. No water yet.
5 (?) [sic] Haven’t seen water or land for 13 hours.
9:00 Can see water now
10:30 Things at last are pleasant.
12:30 Taking longer than I thought to get to land.’

See also The first aerial explorer for more about the diary of another aviation pioneer, Sir George Hubert Wilkins.

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