Reprinted from Masonic Americana, 1976, pages 199 201
Many will recall hovering around their first radio loud speaker or listening on ear phones to hear the faint voice of Admiral Richard E. Byrd broadcasting from Little America. To that generation, his voice was as spectacular an accomplishment as the voices and pictures we have 'seen from the moon in more recent years.
Byrd, who became a Mason at the age of 32, has been called "the last explorer," but he was really a pioneer in a new breed using airplanes to cover vast areas of the earth which overland expeditions could never hope to reach.
The common denominator of his polar expeditions and his career in the United States Navy was! aeronautics, which led Admiral Nimitz to say, at the end of World War II, that if Admiral Byrd had never gone near the Antarctic he would still be one of the greatest figures in American naval history for his contributions to the naval aeronautics program.
In all that he did he was identified as an officer of the United States Navy. He was, indeed, a graduate of the United States Naval Academy at Annapolis, but after four years of active service, he was retired for disabilities sustained in accidents as an undergraduate and during his first tours of active duty. All of his later achievements came as a retired officer assigned to active duty, and each of his promotions to the flag rank of Rear Admiral came through a special Act of Congress passed to recognize his achievement.
During World War I Byrd received temporary promotions to the rank of Lieutenant Commander while on active duty assignments. By 1921 the Navy had returned those in temporary ranks to their permanent ranks, and in the case of a retired officer, a permanent promotion in rank could come only by special Act of Congress.
In 1924 in speaking for the House of Representatives' bill to promote Richard E. Byrd, Jr., to the rank of Lieutenant Commander, U.S. Navy, retired, Congressman and Brother Fred Vinson pointed out his superior ratings and his seventeen citations for service to the Navy beyond the usual range of duties.
His advancement often irked many naval officers below the rank of Captain who were seldom seen or heard of outside naval circles.
By 1925 Byrd was capturing headlines with plans for a flight across the North Pole. In seeking Navy support for this expedition, Byrd predicted that in a few years an air route to Europe across the Polar seas would be in use during the daylight months.
On May 9, 1926, Lt. Commander Byrd, with Floyd Bennett as pilot, became the first ever to fly over the North Pole and the second to reach it. This flight also proved that there is no Arctic continent as Peary believed.
On their return, Congress promoted Byrd to Commander and awarded to Byrd and to Bennett the Congressional Medal of Honor.
In 1926 plans for a flight from New York to Paris captured the imagination of the country, spurred by Raymond Orteig's offer of a $25,000 prize for the first to complete the flight.
Commander Byrd, too, was planning a transatlantic flight, although his choice of destination was Rome. Byrd's expressed purpose was not to be the first but rather to prove a flight could be made safely in a plane any competent pilot could fly and that it could be done any day in the week. Hence, of all the projected flights, Byrd's was the one to use a multi engine plane with Byrd as navigator. Byrd was sworn in as a United States Mail Pilot, and the expedition's plane America was designated as the first official transatlantic mail plane. On June 29, 1927, the America took off carrying four men and its pay load. Although the flight proved that the distance could be covered with flawless navigation, the Paris airfield and surrounding area was fog bound and the plane could not land at its destination. Taking the plane off the coast of France, the flight was ditched in the surf. But the safety features which Byrd had insisted be built into the America kept it afloat, and using inflatable rafts the crew reached shore.
Brother Byrd's next great project was his Antarctic expe4ition, which reached the edge of the Antarctic ice in late December 1928. Although Byrd's expedition was not the first to use radio for communication, it was used to keep every phase of the Little America operation in constant touch with each other and proved invaluable in establishing the supply bases.
Between December 1928 and February 19, 1930, when the expedition set sail for home, the expedition had: (1) completed the successful flight over the South Pole, (2) made 1,600 mapping photographs, (3) had for nine months measured and studied Antarctic magnetism, the aurora, the temperature and constitution of the ice barrier, and (4) had made continual weather observations.
On his return, by Act of Congress, Commander Byrd was promoted to Rear Admiral.
Admiral Byrd almost immediately started planning and raising funds for his second Antarctic expedition with the objective of exploring the Pacific quadrant of Antarctica.
Part of the planning for this expedition called for the establishment of an advance base at which three men would make weather and temperature observations throughout the Antarctic winter months. When equipment breakdowns prevented supplying the advance base for three men, Byrd elected to man the base alone for seven months, including four months in winter darkness. The saga of this solitary exploit in which Admiral Byrd almost lost his life from carbon monoxide poisoning is recounted in his book, Alone.
In 1939 the third Byrd Antarctic expedition was undertaken under official United States Navy sponsorship with Admiral Byrd as an ex officio member of the board through his appointment as chairman of the United States Antarctic Service. The purpose of this expedition was to map 1,000 miles of Antarctic coastline between Marie Byrd Land and Alexander Land. Although this was called the Byrd Expedition in the press, Admiral Byrd did not spend the winter in the Antarctic. After taking part in establishing the bases, he returned to the United States.
In 1940 with war clouds gathering on the horizon, Admiral Byrd was named consultant to the Secretary of War on cold weather clothing and military equipment.
With the United States entry into World War II, Admiral Byrd was called back to active duty with the Naval Bureau of Aeronautics and with a board of eight members inspected bases and proposed bases for naval air operations in the Pacific theatre.
In 1943 President and Brother Franklin Roosevelt, looking beyond the end of World War II, began a quest for postwar air routes across the Pacific. Admiral Byrd was named head of the mission to determine suitable locations for commercial airports of the future.
In 1946 the Navy launched a fullscale Antarctic expedition called Operation Highjump, with Admiral Byrd as officerin-charge but not commander of the 13 ships and 4,000 men. Following his return from Antarctica in April 1947, he was relieved of active duty. Two years later he was called back to active duty for Operation Highjump II, which later was canceled by President and Sir Knight Truman.
In 1955 President Eisenhower announced the United States would launch a new Antarctic expedition, and Admiral Byrd wasnamed officer-in-charge,United StatesAntarctic Programs, but actual command of the task force for Operation Deep Freeze was given to Rear Admiral George J. Dufek, who had been navigator of the USS Bear on the 1939 expedition.
In February 1957 Admiral Arleigh Burke went to Boston to present Admiral Byrd with a special Medal of Freedom. Less than a month later, Byrd died at his home at the age of 68.
Richard Evelyn Byrd, Jr., was born October 25, 1888, in Winchester, Virginia, son of Richard E. and Eleanor Flood Byrd, both of whom traced their lineage to the first settlers of Virginia.
When he was only twelve, Byrd gave indications his career would not be law or politics, which led his brother Harry to Governor of Virginia and the United States Senate; nor would it be in the business world, in which his brother Tom was highly successful. In 1900 he received an invitation from Adam C. Carson, United States Circuit Judge for that newly acquired territory, to visit the Philippines. He spent nearly a year in the islands until an outbreak of cholera sent him home. The trip home was made on westward-bound steamers, so at 13 young Byrd had been around the world. Ambition for adventure so filled him at this early age that he confided to his diary his determination to become the first man to reach the North Pole.
Throughout his life, Richard E. Byrd (displayed a talent for preparing thoroughly for anything he undertook. Since he wanted a career as an officer in the United States Navy, he applied himself to acquiring the background he would need for Annapolis in his studies at Shenandoah Military Academy, Virginia Military Institute, and the University of Virginia. In 1908 he reached the required age for admission and received the "appointment to the Naval Academy's Class of 1912. Thus he became a member of the first class which would be commissioned as Ensigns upon graduation without first putting in two years of active service as Midshipmen.
Although slight in build, Midshipman Byrd was a competitor. He earned his Navy N in gymnastics and in football. In a 13-foot fall in gymnastics, he sustained two fractures of his right foot and a dislocated ankle. These injuries, coupled with later injuries sustained while on active duty on the USS Wyoming following graduation, led ultimately to his retirement on disability in 1916 at the age of 28.
During service in the Carribean area after graduation, he received his first official letter of commendation and later
a Congressional Life Saving Medal for twice plunging fully clothed to the rescue of overboard seamen. Although throughout his career Byrd made copy for news media, magazines and radio; he was never mentioned for his lifesaving efforts or for his later efforts in 1921 to extricate trapped survivors from the collapsed Knickerbocker theatre in Washington, D.C. A passerby, he spent four hours in the rescue efforts.
Ensign Byrd's retirement from active duty marked the beginning of a career unique in the annals of the United States avy. His first assignment as a retired officer was administrator of the Naval Militia of the State of Rhode Island. In this assignment he demonstrated the outstanding administrative ability that was to become a hallmark of his entire career,and the success of the assignment led to his assignment as executive assistant in the Bureau of Naval Personnel.
While in Washington, he applied for appointment as a naval aviation cadet at Pensacola and received his pilot's wings in April 1917. He remained at Pensacola as assistant superintendent, one of four regular Navy officers in the flight training school. His duties included the study of weather, night flying and aerial bombing, and he also sat as a member of the board investigating plane crashes.
With the entry of the United States into World War I, the Navy developed the NC class naval flying boat, the largest ever built. Lt. Byrd suggested delivering the NC-1 to Europe by air. This resulted in his appointment as commanding officer of the United States Naval Air Station at Halifax, Nova Scotia, to establish a refueling base for the big flying. It was during this period that Lt. Byrd and Lt. WaIter Hinton developed a sextant for aerial use applying the carpenter's level principle of a bubble glass to replace the sea horizon used by surface navigators.
When the first transatlantic crossing by air was finally made by the NC4 under Lt. Commander Read, the official Navy Department announcement acknowledged the contributions of Lt. Commander R. E. Byrd, Jr., to celestial navigation: the Byrd sextant, drift and speed indicator, course and distance indicator, and zenithal projection of the Atlantic eliminating lengthy mathematical calculations of the past. Although his ambition to be a member of the first group to fly across the Atlantic was thwarted, his contributions to the success of the expedition and to the later development of commercial aviation 'were many and great.
In the period immediately following World War I, while General Billy Mitchell crusaded for a separate air force and ramatized air power by sinking ships, Byrd played a decisive role in the Navy's efforts to develop the Naval Bureau of Aeronautics.
Byrd's position was unique. While older officers were sea dogs opposed to aviation, Byrd was regular Navy from Annapolis and a trained pilot. As a retired officer, he had no career to thwart and could not be cashiered for speaking out. The most severe penalty which could be invoked would be to return him to inactive duty. Byrd wrote a sample bill for the creation of a Bureau of Aeronautics in the Navy Department, testified before Congressional Committees in its behalf, and successfully lobbied in Congress for its passage.
It was at Byrd's suggestion at the end of World War I that a Naval Reserve program was established to afford Navy pilots an opportunity to keep up their flying skills after their return to civilian-life. In the establishment of the first reserve center in Massachusetts, Byrd not only recruited the former pilots to volunteer for the reserve training but even succeeded in getting them to give their time to building and renovating the facilities.
In addition to being an able administrator, scientist and explorer; Byrd was the author of four books: Skyward, Little > America, Discovery and Alone.
Raised in Federal Lodge No.1, Washington, D.C., in 1921; he later affiliated with Kane Lodge No. 454, New York City. He was also a member of National Sojourners Chapter No.3 at Washington. Byrd dropped Masonic flags over both poles during his flights. Sixty of the 82 members of his Antarctic expedition of 1933-1935 were Freemasons. They established First Antarctic Lodge No. 777 of New Zealand in 1935.
Published 080514 Updated: August 5, 2014