Dictionary of Virginia Biography

Richard Evelyn Byrd (25 October 1888–11 March 1957), aviator and recipient of the Medal of Honor, was born in Winchester, the son of Richard Evelyn Byrd (1860–1925) and Eleanor Bolling Flood Byrd. His elder brother, Harry Flood Byrd (1887–1966), served as governor of Virginia and as United States senator, and his younger brother, Thomas Bolling Byrd, was an attorney and orchardist. Dick Byrd, as he was usually known, received his early education at Shenandoah Valley Academy. He manifested his love of travel and adventure at the age of twelve or thirteen when he traveled alone to visit a family friend in the Philippines. Byrd continued his education at the Virginia Military Institute (1904–1906), the University of Virginia (1907–1908), and the United States Naval Academy (1908–1912). He was a fine athlete but not an outstanding student.

Naval Officer
On 20 January 1915 the handsome, slender young naval officer married Marie Donaldson Ames, a wealthy Boston heiress he had met during her frequent childhood visits to Virginia. They lived in Boston and had one son and three daughters. Byrd retired from the navy in 1916 with the rank of ensign after he was declared physically unsuitable for promotion because of a fragile foot that he had broken several times. Although on the navy's permanently retired list, he returned to active duty for World War I and was promoted to lieutenant junior grade retroactive to his previous service. All of his subsequent promotions required acts of Congress. Byrd received flight training and won his wings on 17 April 1918. He never saw action, but he commanded air stations in Nova Scotia, helped the navy plan the first transatlantic flight, and developed a bubble sextant to aid in aerial navigation at sea. After the war Byrd played a key role in expanding the navy's aeronautical program, for which Congress promoted him to lieutenant commander.

With further naval advancement unlikely, Byrd again left the service to become an independent aviation pioneer. He hoped to find wealthy patrons, make spectacular flights, and then earn fame and fortune by writing, lecturing, and selling the rights to his adventure stories. John D. Rockefeller Jr. and Edsel Ford were the major backers of his Arctic and early Antarctic ventures. In his first exploit, with navy as well as private support, Byrd joined Arctic veteran Donald B. MacMillan in an attempt to explore Greenland by airplane in 1925. Because of bad weather and bickering with MacMillan, Byrd accomplished little. A poor pilot who seldom operated his own airplanes, Byrd flew north from the rim of the Arctic Ocean with pilot Floyd Bennett on 9 May 1926. When they returned Byrd announced that they had been the first to reach the North Pole by air. Congress rewarded him with the Medal of Honor and a promotion to commander. Byrd then planned to make the first nonstop flight from the United States to Europe. Charles Lindbergh beat him to it, but Byrd and three companions flew the first transatlantic airmail from New York to France on 29 June 1927.

Antarctic Expeditions
In 1928 Byrd mounted the first Antarctic aviation expedition, with the objective of flying over the South Pole. With two ships, three airplanes, forty-two men, and eighty-four sled dogs, he established a coastal base he called Little America. Byrd flew to the South Pole on 28–29 November 1929 as part of a four-man crew. The expedition discovered Marie Byrd Land, comparable in size to Alaska and named for the commander's wife, and two mountain ranges. It also conducted important scientific research and proved the efficacy of long-distance radio communications. Congress promoted Byrd to rear admiral, and on 21 June 1930 the commonwealth of Virginia awarded him a partially gilded sterling silver presentation sword.

In January 1934 Byrd returned to Little America with a larger expedition. The one-year project featured a larger scientific program and included eight motorized vehicles. While Byrd manned a solitary meteorological outpost 123 miles from Little America, he became so ill from carbon monoxide poisoning that a tractor party had to make an epic winter journey to rescue him. He never fully recovered from this ordeal.

Byrd started to form a third private Antarctic expedition but merged his enterprise with the new United States Antarctic Service. He led the expedition through its year in the Antarctic, from January 1940 to January 1941. During World War II Byrd served in several staff roles, his principal mission being to survey potential air bases in the Pacific, for which he was awarded the Legion of Merit and a Gold Star. After the war he headed two more navy expeditions, Operation Highjump in 1946 and Operation Deep Freeze in 1955, which established a permanent Antarctic base. Byrd was in the Antarctic only briefly during the postwar expeditions. Disdained by the regular navy because of his political promotions, Byrd had little independent authority in the government's expeditions and was little more than a figurehead in their later operations.

World Renown
Byrd became one of the most famous explorers of his generation. He publicized his adventures with many articles and four books: Skyward (1928), Little America: Aerial Exploration in the Antarctic, The Flight to the South Pole (1930), Discovery: The Story of the Second Byrd Antarctic Expedition (1935), and Alone (1938). His lecture tours were, however, never as profitable as he had anticipated. An Episcopalian, Byrd in the 1930s began a longtime commitment to Moral Re-Armament, a movement that promoted religious values and a conservative political agenda. He supported isolationism until just before World War II and founded the Iron Curtain Refugee Campaign of the International Rescue Committee after the war ended.

Byrd was a complex man. His assertion that he flew to the North Pole is in grave doubt on the basis of the limitations of his airplane, reported confessions to friends by both Byrd and Bennett, and the ambiguities in his own diary. Archival research into his first Antarctic expedition has shown that Byrd lied about his personal roles in discoveries and about his aerial navigational achievements, that he battled an alcohol problem, that he fought almost overwhelming fear during his dangerous flights, and that he was suspicious to the point of paranoia. On the other hand, he always put the well-being of his men before his own, risked death several times to save others, and remained unswervingly loyal to those similarly devoted to him. Byrd established the United States presence in Antarctica, contributed significantly to science and geography, advanced the infant technologies of aviation and radio, and pioneered modern techniques for polar operations.

In declining health after his postwar expeditions, Byrd received the Medal of Freedom a few weeks before his death. Richard Evelyn Byrd died of heart failure at his home in Boston on 11 March 1957 and was buried in Arlington National Cemetery.

Sources Consulted:
Alden Hatch, The Byrds of Virginia (1969), 241–397 (portraits opp. 248); Richard Evelyn Byrd Papers, Byrd Polar Research Center, Ohio State University, Columbus; other correspondence in Center for Polar and Scientific Archives at National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, D.C., and in Harry Flood Byrd (1887–1966) Papers, Small Special Collections Library, University of Virginia, Charlottesville; Richmond Times-Dispatch, 21 Jan. 1915; Raimund E. Goerler, ed., To The Pole: The Diary and Notebook of Richard E. Byrd, 1925–1927 (1998); leading studies include Charles John Vincent Murphy, Struggle: The Life and Exploits of Commander Richard E. Byrd (1928), Edwin P. Hoyt, The Last Explorer: The Adventures of Admiral Byrd (1968), Richard Montague, Oceans, Poles and Airmen: The First Flights over Wide Waters and Desolate Ice (1971), Paul A. Carter, Little America: Town at the End of the World (1979), Finn Ronne, Antarctica, My Destiny: A Personal History by the Last of the Great Polar Explorers (1979), Lisle A. Rose, Assault on Eternity: Richard E. Byrd and the Exploration of Antarctica, 1946–47 (1980), Eugene Rodgers, Beyond the Barrier: The Story of Byrd's First Expedition to Antarctica (1990), and John H. Bryant and Harold N. Cones, Dangerous Crossings: The First Modern Polar Expedition, 1925 (2000); obituaries with portraits in Boston Daily Globe, New York Times, and Winchester Evening Star, all 12 Mar. 1957.

Written for the Dictionary of Virginia Biography by Eugene Rodgers.

How to cite this page:
Eugene Rodgers,"Richard Evelyn Byrd (1888–1957)," Dictionary of Virginia Biography, Library of Virginia (1998– ), published 2001 (http://www.lva.virginia.gov/public/dvb/bio.asp?b=Byrd_Richard_Evelyn_1888-1957, accessed [today's date]).

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