Home / General / Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,254

Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,254


This is the grave of Richard Byrd.

Born in 1888 in Winchester, Virginia, Byrd grew up in the post-Civil War Gilded Age elite. In fact, his brother was the infamous racist senator from Virginia, Harry Byrd. Let’s just say that Richard shared his brother’s beliefs on race. The family wasn’t as wealthy as it once was (it had lost its human capital when treason in defense of slavery was crushed) and this had an impact on Byrd’s education. He first went to VMI, that bastion of southern fascism, and then transferred to the University of Virginia, but ran out of money. So he got a commission to the Naval Academy, even though that meant starting his higher education over again. He graduated in 1912 and soon won commendation for saving a soldier who had fallen overboard. However, he had screwed his ankle up pretty good playing football and then again in an accident on a ship and was not considered physically fit enough for the Navy because of it, being discharged in 1916.

Now, Byrd might not have ended up quite on the career he had planned, but he was very good at meeting the right people. In fact, his last assignments in the Navy had been very politically astute. He was assigned to the official yacht of the Secretary of the Navy. Didn’t even know such a thing existed. So he got to meet all these dignitaries and rising politicians, including a young Assistant Secretary of the Navy named Franklin Delano Roosevelt. He was in Rhode Island after his discharge, right before the nation entered World War I. Byrd organized the Rhode Island Naval Militia’s response (quite robust no doubt!) and then was brought back into the service. This time, he was trained for flight and spent the war commanding the naval air forces stationed in Halifax. So he never did see action.

Well, Byrd got really into flying and wanted to be an explorer and setting records. He wanted to be the first pilot to do a solo crossing of the Atlantic, but Charles Lindbergh beat him to the punch on that one. But he did get involved in the Navy’s Arctic expeditions. He commanded the naval operations to support Donald MacMillan‘s exploration of Greenland in 1925. Byrd by now was talking about the ability to explore the polar regions. He got Edsel Ford interested in this, who agreed to fund the expedition when Byrd flew across the North Pole. Whether he really reached the Pole or not remains somewhat debated, though I find such debates sterile and effectively meaningless. Who really cares at this point? In any case, people thought he did and he was seen as a national hero. I’m not sure quite why this was worth such attention, but he sure got it. It was an age of celebrity and Byrd had the personality to welcome it and use it to his purposes, which was to support more polar exploration.

Then in 1928, Byrd decided to take on Antarctica. It was a heck of an expedition, no question. This required years of work and massive support. This continued until 1930 and it made Byrd even more famous. In 1929, he flew over the South Pole, which got Congress to make him an admiral. They continued their explorations for another year. A documentary film team was with them and the 1930 film With Byrd at the South Pole won the Academy Award for Best Cinematography, only increasing the fame of the mission.

Byrd nearly died in 1934 on his second expedition from a faulty stove leaking carbon monoxide into the cabin he was huddling up in during the horrifying Antarctic winter. But he continued his expeditions. The government funded his third trip, in 1939 and 1940, and all sorts of scientific knowledge came of it. But during this trip, Byrd was recalled into the active Navy and during World War II, he spent much of his time inspecting bases in the South Pacific. He was also present in Tokyo for the surrender of the Japanese to the U.S. in 1945.

Byrd went right back to his Antarctic expeditions at the conclusion of the war, with the official approval of the government that assigned him to do it and funded it. In his fourth expedition in 1946 and 1947, Byrd and his team discovered ten new mountain ranges. Byrd also used his fame to push for the militarization of the polar caps, warning Americans that the evil Soviets could invade over the North Pole. His final mission in Antarctica came in 1955, but he was just part of a much larger mission and only stayed on the continent for a week.

Byrd might have had a long retirement of fame ahead of him, but instead he had a massive heart attack in his sleep in 1957. He was 68 years old.

Richard Byrd is buried on the confiscated lands of the traitor Lee, Arlington National Cemetery, Arlington, Virginia.

There’s a weird conspiracy theory out there that Byrd discovered a race of beings living in the hollow Earth below the South Pole and the government is covering it up. OK then.

If you would like this series to visit other American polar explorers, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Paul Siple is in West Falls Church, Virginia and Robert Mallory Berry is also in Arlington, but I haven’t visited his grave. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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