Saturday, June 17, 2000
F A C T   F I L E

 

EARLIER COLUMNS
William Faulkner
June 10, 2000
Sir John Hunt
June 3, 2000
Franz Mesmer
May 27, 2000


Richard Evelyn Byrd

By Illa Vij

RICHARD Evelyn Byrd proved to be one of the bravest explorers of his time. He had the courage to stay alone for months in the Antarctic, where the temperature often goes 70 degrees below zero. If a manís bare skin touches metal, it freezes and has to be torn, leaving the skin behind. A manís eyelids can freeze and even paraffin has to be melted before it can be lit.

He and his companions flew to the South Pole and also to the North Pole. He invented the bubble sextant that guided him throughout the flights. He saved a man from the recoil of a gun and a drowning man in a shark-infested bay off the Florida Keys. He was a man with immense foresight, great courage and grit. Richard Byrd was born on October 25, 1888, in Winchester Virginia. When he was 10 years old he told his parents with great confidence that he was going to become an explorer. He made his first exploration around the age of 11. He went in search of the source of a lost river, which was said to run under a cave near Stanton. He crawled into the cave and searched in the blackness and the rocks until he came to the source. When he was 12, he went for a long adventurous holiday to some family friends in the Philippine Islands. He travelled all alone and had a grand time wandering through the jungles and mountains of the untamed Philippines.

In 1903, he made an entry in his diary that he hoped to be the first one to reach the North Pole. Six years later Admiral Peary accomplished the feat he hoped to achieve. He entered the United States Naval Academy at Annapolis. After graduation he went to sea and by 1916, he had advanced to the rank of lieutenant-commander. He became an expert navigator and an excellent gunnery officer. Unfortunately a fall through an open hatchway injured his right leg and the medical board barred him from active sea duty. He made all efforts to return to active service and finally the board passed him for service at the naval air training station at Pensacola. He wanted to go overseas but his superiors considered him indispensable for training other naval airmen.

In 1925, he went to Chicago, where he established a training centre for navy pilots. The National Geographic society wanted to make a scientific study of the Arctic. The US Navy was to supply aircrafts, pilots and mechanics. In July 1925, the party sailed on the S.S. Peary and in August a base was established at Etah. Byrd realised that it was extremely important to study the weather and make all necessary arrangements before taking on the expedition. By 1926, he was ready for the attempt to reach the North Pole. On May 9, 1926, Byrd and Floyd Bennett reached the North Pole. Their flight had not been an easy one. There were no landmarks, no rivers or beacons to guide them. They only had an untried sun compass and a bubble sextant, which Byrd had invented.

Next he wanted to fly the Atlantic which he finally did. Still wanting to explore more, his next target was the South Pole. Commander Byrd set up his camp on the edge of the Pass Barrier and called it "Little America". Through the long Antarctic winter he made preparations for the flight. The aircraft was christened Floyd Bennett, after Byrdís friend who had been killed in an air-crash. He had a team of photographers and two pilots with him. Loaded with petrol for the two thousand-mile journey, food and a massive mapping camera, the aircraft approached the jagged peaks. Strong gusts of wind knocked the plane about and Byrd had to take very quick action. He had to drop either the food or the fuel ó both of which were required to keep alive. He decided to pin his hopes on the aircraft and sent 200 pounds of food plunging down. Soon the aircraft began to rise. On November 29, 1929, Byrd and his companions achieved their goal. An American flag, weighed down with a stone from the grave of Floyd Bennett grave, plummeted to the snowy ground, 1500 miles further south than a plane had ever gone before.

Important discoveries were made. They discovered the Edsel Ford Mountain and Marie Byrd Land, named after Byrdís wife. Earlier it was believed that Antarctica was made up of two different continents, but now it was found to be one. Fossils which proved that this world of ice had once been a land with semi-tropical climate were found. They found rich mineral deposits and fossil remains of pre-historic ages. Byrd was promoted to the rank of Rear-Admiral, an extra-ordinary distinction for a man who had retired 14 years back. In 1933, Byrd set out on his second expedition to Antarctic. He lived alone in a room sunk into the ice from which radiated tunnels to store food. He made a small hole for the electric generator. He made valuable observations of the weather in the remote Antarctic wasteland. As time passed by, Byrd became sick and weary. The ventilation got clogged with ice, and the odour of the paraffin stove and petrol storm lantern suffocated him. But he did not let his friends who were in touch with him, know. They were based in Little America and were doing their bit of work there. They mapped about 400,000 miles of new territory. As soon as the team at Little America sensed that Byrd was in trouble, a rescue party was sent. They picked up distress signals from his fumbling fist on the wireless key and the long pauses, which he took to summon strength. Twice the rescue party was beaten back but the third time they finally managed to rescue Byrd.

On return President Roosevelt presented him the Gold Star to be attached to his other medals. Admiral Byrd had to virtually strip off many of his decorations to make room for the new Antarctic Survey Honour. He was proud to say that in all of his explorations, he had never lost any life. He died in early 1957.