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The Life of Richard E. Byrd


Publication Year: 2008

“Danger was all that thrilled him,” Dick Byrd’s mother once remarked, and from his first pioneering aviation adventures in Greenland in 1925, through his daring flights to the top and bottom of the world and across the Atlantic, Richard E. Byrd dominated the American consciousness during the tumultuous decades between the world wars. He was revered more than Charles Lindbergh, deliberately exploiting the public’s hunger for vicarious adventure. Yet some suspected him of being a poseur, and a handful reviled him as a charlatan who claimed great deeds he never really accomplished.

Then he overreached himself, foolishly choosing to endure a blizzard-lashed six-month polar night alone at an advance weather observation post more than one hundred long miles down a massive Antarctic ice shelf. His ordeal proved soul-shattering, his rescue one of the great epics of polar history. As his star began to wane, enemies grew bolder, and he struggled to maintain his popularity and political influence, while polar exploration became progressively bureaucratized and militarized. Yet he chose to return again and again to the beautiful, hateful, haunted secret land at the bottom of the earth, claiming, not without justification, that he was “Mayor of this place.”

Lisle A. Rose has delved into Byrd’s recently available papers together with those of his supporters and detractors to present the first complete, balanced biography of one of recent history’s most dynamic figures. Explorer covers the breadth of Byrd’s astonishing life, from the early days of naval aviation through his years of political activism to his final efforts to dominate Washington’s growing interest in Antarctica.   Rose recounts with particular care Byrd’s two privately mounted South Polar expeditions, bringing to bear new research that adds considerable depth to what we already know. He offers views of Byrd’s adventures that challenge earlier criticism of him—including the controversy over his claim to being the first to have flown over the North Pole in 1926—and shows that the critics’ arguments do not always mesh with historical evidence.

Throughout this compelling narrative, Rose offers a balanced view of an ambitious individual who was willing to exaggerate but always adhered to his principles—a man with a vision of himself and the world that inspired others, who cultivated the rich and famous, and who used his notoriety to espouse causes such as world peace. Explorer paints a vivid picture of a brilliant but flawed egoist, offering the definitive biography of the man and armchair adventure of the highest order.

Published by: University of Missouri Press


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p. 1-1

Title Page, Copyright Page

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pp. 2-7


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pp. vii-viii

List of Maps

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pp. ix-x

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pp. xi-xx

Any book is a collaboration among many people, and Explorer is no exception. The manuscript has been read and greatly strengthened by Raimond Goerler, John Behrendt, and my wife, Harriet Dashiell Schwar. Professor Behrendt in particular saved me from a number of embarrassing errors of fact and interpretation regarding Antarctic science. ...

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pp. 1-6

There are no heroes now. Our cynical, mistrustful age has no use for them, nor for adventuring, which all too often seems contrived and, in the case of amateurs on Everest, foolhardy as well. The world’s last legitimate explorers, NASA’s lunar astronauts, might have been the high priests of the Right Stuff, but they were also Spam in a can. ...

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Chapter 1 - “Danger Was All That Thrilled Him”

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pp. 7-29

They left him alone in fifty-degrees-below-zero temperature, 123 miles beyond the last outpost of civilization. It was March 28, 1934, and all around his solitary little hut dug painstakingly into the South Polar snow, the Ross Ice Barrier stretched “flat as the Kansas Plains,” rolling on “forever to meet the sky in a round of unbroken horizon.” ...

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Chapter 2 - Reaching for the Skies

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pp. 30-59

World War I “did a lot of things for a lot of men,” Richard would later write. “In a sense it saved me.” A “willing cripple suddenly became to a mad world as valuable as a whole man who might be unwilling.” Within weeks of his retirement, Richard was back in uniform as a reserve officer ...

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Chapter 3 - Breakthrough

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pp. 60-100

Late in 1923, rumors began to circulate in Washington that Billy Mitchell and the Army Air Service were planning a dramatic new initiative for the following year: a round-the-world flight that would consume many weeks and fix the world’s attention on long-range airpower. The navy needed a counter. ...

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Chapter 4 - Triumph

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pp. 101-143

On the last day of January 1926, Richard Byrd announced he was returning to the Arctic as soon as spring arrived in an “independent attempt to explore the North Polar regions from the air.”1 In his statement, Byrd said that his experience in the Arctic the previous summer had “convinced me of the entire practicability of exploration by aircraft ...

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Chapter 5 - Hero

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pp. 144-168

The Byrd party entered New York Harbor on the morning of June 22, 1926, to a tumultuous welcome that would become routine for returning heroes within the next few years. Yachts, sailboats, and steamers filled the huge anchorage, proudly bedecked in national bunting, pennants, and signal flags. ...

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Chapter 6 - Celebrity

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pp. 169-180

The publicity mills began grinding even before Byrd left Europe. “Congratulations to you and your crew on your splendid achievement,” O. K. Bovard cabled. “If agreeable please reserve St. Louis newspaper rights to your South Pole expedition for Post Dispatch.” “Triumph here outshines everything,” one of Wanamaker’s flacks telegraphed to Paris exuberantly. ...

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Chapter 7 - The Secret Land

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pp. 181-214

Antarctica was a dream long before it became a reality. The coldest, windiest, and one of the highest places on earth is a dome of ice (from the coast one travels “up” not “down” to the South Pole) millions of square miles in dimension, pierced by a high mountain range shaped roughly like a question mark and cut through with enormous glaciers. ...

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Chapter 8 - Southward

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pp. 215-248

In December 1927 Richard wrote an article for the journal World’s Work, amplifying his earlier comments to the New York Times about the South Polar region. “Man cannot claim mastery of the globe until he conquers the Antarctic continent. It is the last great challenge. . . . [D]own there lies the greatest adventure left in exploring and aviation.” ...

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Chapter 9 - Zenith

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pp. 249-283

As the 1929 Antarctic winter clamped down on Little America, men tried to keep as busy as possible. The meteorologists slipped briefly out into the dark several times each day to read the instruments measuring temperature, barometric pressure, wind direction, and velocity. ...

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Chapter 10 - Politico

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pp. 284-312

Word of the expedition’s deliverance from the Antarctic pack ice reached the States by radio within hours, and while Byrd stopped briefly in Tahiti and then in Panama to write a formal report to the National Geographic Society, his friends and backers in the States prepared a series of lavish receptions. ...

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Chapter 11 - Jeopardy

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pp. 313-342

By the late summer of 1933, as the country strove to grasp the audacious dimensions of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, the Second Byrd Antarctic Expedition rapidly took shape. Amid the usual uproar and uncertainty of trying to get another large polar expedition under way with the “shouting confusion of telephones and telegrams, hammers banging, ...

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Chapter 12 - Breakdown

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pp. 343-383

Little more than an hour after soaring aloft from Little America, the admiral landed at Advance Base, bundled warmly in a fur parka. The following day dog-team drivers Stuart Paine and Finn Ronne joined Richard Black from Little America in digging supply tunnels for Byrd’s dwelling, and stretching tarpaulin over the roof. ...

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Chapter 13 - Stumbling

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pp. 384-404

There were no ticker-tape parades when he returned this time; 1935 America was too impoverished for lavish spectacle. Although his old friend the president greeted him personally at dockside, Richard, always slender, now looked dangerously thin as he tottered down Ruppert’s gangplank at the Washington Navy Yard. ...

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Chapter 14 - Recovery

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pp. 405-430

As Byrd’s disillusion with the peace crusade deepened during the latter half of 1938, his thoughts again turned southward. Replying near the end of August to an offer of dogs for his next adventure, he admitted that “I have plans for another expedition but they are somewhat immature so that I am not in a position to tell you anything definite.”1 ...

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Chapter 15 - “Ever a Fighter So”

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pp. 431-462

The year 1948 was too soon for another massive naval expedition to the South, and by 1949 the Byrd brothers were anathema to the White House. Harry, along with Strom Thurmond of South Carolina, had become a leading critic of Fair Deal policies within the Democratic Party, whereas Richard had become identified with the navy’s unpopular and bitter opposition to an armed forces “merger.” ...


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pp. 463-514

Selected Bibliography

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pp. 515-520


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pp. 521-542

E-ISBN-13: 9780826266439
E-ISBN-10: 0826266436
Print-ISBN-13: 9780826217820
Print-ISBN-10: 0826217826

Page Count: 566
Illustrations: 32, maps
Publication Year: 2008

Edition: 1