Born into a Virginia family in 1888, Richard Byrd from the start lived a life of exploration and adventure. At the age of 12, Byrd traveled alone to the Philippines to visit his godfather.
In letters he wrote back to the local newspaper, he described public hangings and gunfire aimed at him by rebels. Byrd later joined the navy and trained to become an aviator.
The new technology excited Byrd, and he realized that a plane could carry a pilot to the North Pole and back in under a day. Byrd failed in several attempts to make the journey while he was still with the navy. At age 38, Byrd raised funds for his own trip.
In April 1926, Byrd traveled from New York to Spitsbergen, Norway, in a ship with 52 men and an airplane. He hoped to be the first person to fly to the North Pole. But on his first attempt, the skis under his plane collapsed. On the second try, however, Byrd and his pilot, Floyd Bennett, climbed steadily into the arctic sky.
Despite an oil leak, the pair flew on toward the Pole. After more than eight hours, Byrd and Bennett circled the Pole and returned. The American press described Byrd as a hero, and he received a ticker-tape parade in New York City. The foreign press, however, wondered how Byrd could have reached the Pole and returned in the time that he did. Doubts about whether Byrd truly reached the Pole persist to this day.
Byrd still became a national hero. Congress awarded him and Bennett the Congressional Medal of Honor. Within a year, Byrd announced another adventure, to fly over the South Pole. In autumn 1928, four ships carrying Byrd, three planes, 42 men, and 650 tons of supplies steamed toward Antarctica. The expedition was watched closely in the press. The New York Times even prepared Byrd’s obituary.
The men established camp and waited out the Antarctic winter. On Thanksgiving Day 1929, Byrd and pilot Bernt Balchen took off. “What we faced far surpassed the demands of a simple flight of 800 miles to the Pole,” Byrd later wrote. “We would fly over a barren, rolling surface, then climb a mountain rampart and continue across a 10,000-foot plateau. . . . Before us, beyond the great mountains, lay uncertainty.”
But the plane flew safely on, and Byrd calculated that they had reached the South Pole. The news was relayed to the world and Byrd, once again, was proclaimed a hero.
In 1933, Byrd returned to Antarctica, this time to map portions of the continent and claim land for the United States. In a controversial strategy, Byrd spent five months alone in a tiny hut, enduring temperatures between