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University of Missouri Press
Explorer: The Life of Richard E. Byrd

Explorer: The Life of Richard E. Byrd

by Lisle A. Rose


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Explorer: The Life of Richard E. Byrd

“Danger was all that thrilled him,” Dick Byrd’s mother once remarked, and from his first pioneering aviation adventures in Greenland in 1925, through his daring flights to the top and bottom of the world and across the Atlantic, Richard E. Byrd dominated the American consciousness during the tumultuous decades between the world wars. He was revered more than Charles Lindbergh, deliberately exploiting the public’s hunger for vicarious adventure. Yet some suspected him of being a poseur, and a handful reviled him as a charlatan who claimed great deeds he never really accomplished.

Then he overreached himself, foolishly choosing to endure a blizzard-lashed six-month polar night alone at an advance weather observation post more than one hundred long miles down a massive Antarctic ice shelf. His ordeal proved soul-shattering, his rescue one of the great epics of polar history. As his star began to wane, enemies grew bolder, and he struggled to maintain his popularity and political influence, while polar exploration became progressively bureaucratized and militarized. Yet he chose to return again and again to the beautiful, hateful, haunted secret land at the bottom of the earth, claiming, not without justification, that he was “Mayor of this place.”

Lisle A. Rose has delved into Byrd’s recently available papers together with those of his supporters and detractors to present the first complete, balanced biography of one of recent history’s most dynamic figures. Explorer covers the breadth of Byrd’s astonishing life, from the early days of naval aviation through his years of political activism to his final efforts to dominate Washington’s growing interest in Antarctica.   Rose recounts with particular care Byrd’s two privately mounted South Polar expeditions, bringing to bear new research that adds considerable depth to what we already know. He offers views of Byrd’s adventures that challenge earlier criticism of him—including the controversy over his claim to being the first to have flown over the North Pole in 1926—and shows that the critics’ arguments do not always mesh with historical evidence.

Throughout this compelling narrative, Rose offers a balanced view of an ambitious individual who was willing to exaggerate but always adhered to his principles—a man with a vision of himself and the world that inspired others, who cultivated the rich and famous, and who used his notoriety to espouse causes such as world peace. Explorer paints a vivid picture of a brilliant but flawed egoist, offering the definitive biography of the man and armchair adventure of the highest order.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780826217820
Publisher: University of Missouri Press
Publication date: 02/08/2008
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 568
Product dimensions: 6.13(w) x 9.25(h) x 2.20(d)
Age Range: 14 Years

About the Author

Lisle A. Rose holds a Ph.D. in American history from the University of California, Berkeley, and is the author of fourteen books, including Explorer: The Life of Richard E. Byrd and the Power at Sea trilogy, all published by the University of Missouri Press. Over the course of his life, he has been a sailor, a professor, a diplomat, and a court-appointed special advocate for at-risk children. He lives in Edmonds, Washington, with his wife, historian Harriet Dashiell Schwar.

Full bio: Lisle A. Rose (b. October 23, 1936) is a retired U.S. State Department official, former university teacher and author of 14 books. Following three plus years in the United States Navy as a polar sailor, Rose received his B.A. degree from the University of Illinois in 1961 and his Ph.D in American history from the University of California Berkeley in 1966. Following several teaching positions, he joined the State Department’s Historical Office in 1972 where he spent the next five years editing various compilations in the ongoing series, Foreign Relations of the United States. In 1978, Dr. Rose transferred to the Department’s Bureau of Oceans, International Scientific and Environmental Affairs where he served first as Polar Affairs Officer and then as Advanced Technology Affairs Specialist. During these years, he was a member of the U.S. Delegation to the Third United Nations Conference On the Law of the Sea, and drafted policy initiatives on the Arctic and earth remote sensing. He also lectured on these topics abroad. Rose retired in 1989, relocating to the Seattle area where he has engaged in an active writing and publishing career.

Read an Excerpt


The Life of Richard E. Byrd

By Lisle A. Rose

University of Missouri Press

Copyright © 2008 The Curators of the University of Missouri
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8262-6643-9


"Danger Was All That Thrilled Him"

They left him alone in fifty-degrees-below-zero temperature, 123 miles beyond the last outpost of civilization. It was March 28, 1934, and all around his solitary little hut dug painstakingly into the South Polar snow, the Ross Ice Barrier stretched "flat as the Kansas Plains," rolling on "forever to meet the sky in a round of unbroken horizon." The collection of tractors, dogs, and men who had finished setting the scene of his coming ordeal were "just a pinprick in infinity," anxious to be off home to the comparative warmth, safety, and limited society of Little America base camp. Paul Siple and Bud Waite, two of his most trusted lieutenants, lingered for a moment behind their jaunty little red-hooded Citroen snow tractor, wanting to say a last word, but someone snapped out an impatient, "For Christ's sake, get going," and first Siple and then Waite, after mumbling something unintelligible, hurried off. The tractor party had intended to drive back the previous day, but four miles out a radiator in one of the two vehicles froze, and Pete Demas, in unscrewing the cap, had badly burned both hands. The men had returned to spend the night crammed in the warmth of the tiny dwelling. Now, as they hurriedly drove away against a huge noon sun burning up the northern sky so close to the horizon that it might have been a sunset, Richard Evelyn Byrd, self-styled Virginia gentleman, naval officer, and explorer who had crowded a lifetime of adventure into the previous decade, suddenly felt "utterly at loose ends" for the first time in his life. Ahead, he hoped, lay six months of creative solitude. As the sun slipped away and the long polar night clamped down on the vast shelf of ice, he would man the world's most remote weather station, making careful daily observations of wind, temperature, and moisture. Some snickered that he had been put out to pasture by his fellow explorers who could not stand his ways, or that he had gone to do "some serious drinking." Whatever the case, Dick Byrd, a slim but robust forty-five year old with a gift for self-promotion and the visionary's driving desire to do good in the world, had set himself a daunting task.

It began badly. Unable to tear his eyes away from his departing comrades clattering away across the purple and orange ice scape, Byrd waited "until the receding specks had dropped for good behind a roll" on the barrier. "Only the vanishing exhalations" of their vapor trail remained. Turning reluctantly to the little hut carefully set in a deep depression in the ice, Byrd slid down the ladder, only to discover that the shoulder he had wrenched helping the tractor men stow the sledges suddenly "hurt like the devil."

Few men or women can sustain the kind of pace Dick Byrd had set by the time of his self-imposed isolation at "Advance Base." Fatally susceptible to hubris and to overreach, America's last explorer began a devastating ordeal that frigid polar day seventy-odd years ago that would leave him more broken in body and wounded in spirit than he would ever admit.

He was born into a late-nineteenth-century Virginia family avid to regain lost status. Mother Eleanor was "the beautiful and accomplished daughter" of Joel W. Flood of Appomattox Court House, Virginia, and granddaughter of the late Charles J. Faulkner of West Virginia. Both men had enjoyed long political careers in the Virginia and West Virginia legislatures; Charles had been appointed minister to France by President Buchanan. Eleanor's maternal uncle Charles James Faulkner Jr. had been a member of the U.S. Senate from West Virginia, and her brother Henry Delaware Flood was starting a brilliant political career that would take him from the Virginia Senate to a twenty-year career in Congress, crowned by chairmanship of the House Foreign Affairs Committee during World War I.

Father Richard carried the name of one of the most distinguished "First Families of Virginia." The first Byrd to enter Virginia had been William Byrd, later known as William the First, who came to the "wild and thriving" James River country in the late seventeenth century to claim his maternal uncle's modest estate, including slaves. Young Byrd "came of an old stock of quiet, well-to-do English gentry, who, so far as is known, never had been especially distinguished or enterprising." The energetic young colonist quickly broke the mold. By 1680, only six years away from England, the twenty-eight year old obtained a grant of ownership over the Falls of the James River. He had already laid out a crude path or trail four hundred miles long, extending into the wilderness from a point on the river just below present-day Richmond. "On this his traders traveled and trafficked with the Indians and settlers far into what is now North Carolina." His couriers sold slaves, rum, molasses, and anything else that could be marketed. In 1683, young Byrd proposed to Governor Culpeper a bold plan to explore and occupy the country west of the Alleghenies, thereby solidifying relations with the Native American tribes while checking the French coming down from Canada. The governor rejected the proposal. The colony was still relatively new and fragile, and London would not commit the necessary men and resources for westward expansion. His Majesty's Government would soon have good cause to rue its refusal, as Virginia eventually became embroiled in wars with the French and Indians that lasted for seventy-five years.

With his profit margin constantly expanding, Byrd bought huge tracts of land, establishing his son, William Byrd II, of Westover Plantation as a gentleman farmer of the first rank. Visiting Englishmen might sneer at Virginia's frontier slave planters as at best bourgeois aristocrats, comparable to the simple yeoman farmers one encountered back home, but William II proved to be more than that. Among other achievements he built a great house, amassed a large library, read the classics, wrote the perceptive Essay upon the Government of the English Plantations that complained of the mother country's neglect and ignorance of the colonies, patronized the local church, and generally enjoyed "good health, good thoughts and good humor, thank God Almighty." He also enjoyed a flaming sex life that embarrassed his successors no end when it was revealed in the late 1930s in the pages of William's diary unearthed by diligent scholars. At one point, Richard, now a famous explorer, exploded in anger, venting his spleen to various members of the far-flung clan. "I am very much incensed over the fact (or what appears to be a fact) that the people that found William Byrd's diary are publishing it without asking our permission. Personally, I think it is outrageous that certain parts of it are not deleted." The diary segment found by the Virginia Historical Society "is far spicier than any parts of the diary already published. William Byrd never meant for anyone to read his diary. Are we going to sit back and let these things be done without any objection?" For Byrds to become public laughingstocks was simply insupportable. "I think it is outrageous," Richard told his older brother, U.S. senator Harry Byrd, "that fellow Southerners would not consult us about matters such as this." Harry agreed and hoped to suppress publication. But the diary segments duly appeared, and after several futile months of fulmination, Richard dropped the matter, but his bitterness remained.

William II's son proved just as licentious but utterly lacking in responsibility, as third children of founding families occasionally prove to be, and thereafter the family fortunes entered a prolonged state of decline. While the Byrds of Westover clung to enough of their land, wealth, and standing (despite steadily falling agricultural prospects) to be considered prominent throughout the eighteenth century, Thomas Byrd decided early in the following century to move out of the Tidewater country and into the comparatively raw frontier of the Shenandoah Valley, settling in the little town of Winchester. Thomas's son, the first Richard Evelyn Byrd, represented Winchester in the antebellum Virginia Assembly, as did Richard's son, William, who moved to the Texas frontier shortly before the Civil War to establish a law practice in Austin. William became adjutant general of the state before heading back north to join his father in the Rebel cause. Both men served in the Confederate army, and William was captured and imprisoned for a time. After the war, he brought his Texas wife, Jennie River Byrd, and their young Austin-born son, Richard Evelyn II, back to Winchester. He moved his family into his father's three-story house on Washington Street and prepared to practice law.

The following years were good to William and to Richard Evelyn. "Conservative old Winchester," then a town of five or six thousand people, lay some seventy-five miles west and a bit south of Washington, D.C. It was, according to one northern writer of the 1920s, "complacent but proud of its wealth of Colonial and Civil War romance." At one time or another George Washington, Daniel Morgan, Stonewall Jackson, and Jubal Early had headquartered there. So had the Yankee cavalryman Phil Sheridan, but Winchester folk did not and do not talk much about that. Yanks and Rebs fought over the town on dozens of occasions. No Winchesterian ever forgot the War, or the Cause that defined and sustained it. Eleanor Byrd was a proud and patriotic American lady who just before and during World War II would cry in movie theaters whenever the flag was shown before a film. But at the end of her long and active life when she was a reclusive invalid, Eleanor insisted that only books on Lee and his lieutenants be read to her. After a fourth book on Lee, her devoted caretaker, Maude Ludwig, wrote Richard that his mother had grown somewhat tired of the general, "so I have changed to Stonewall Jackson." At the end of the twentieth century Winchester's proud Confederate heritage could still be felt at the local historical library with its numerous portraits of Jackson leading his troops and bidding farewell to a lovely young woman amid the Christmas snows of 1861.

The townspeople refused to let the defeat of the Cause defeat them. In the 1870s and early '80s they embraced the ideal of the New South, pursuing modest industrial and railroad development. They brought electricity and the telephone to main street and expanded their local orchards to the point where Winchester apples were to be found in urban food markets throughout much of the East and Upper South. Eventually, Winchester apples found their way into the English and European markets. Prosperity swelled William's law practice sufficiently to permit son Richard to matriculate at the University of Virginia and later to earn his degree at the University of Maryland School of Law in Baltimore. By the time of his marriage to Eleanor, young Richard was clearly making his own mark in the world.

With their background and connections Richard and his bride could have lived anywhere in Virginia, but they clearly preferred to be associated with the doughty folk of the Shenandoah Valley rather than the snobs of the Tidewater. Years later, an unidentifiable but sympathetic editor explained their choice. Both the valley and the Tidewater region were "authentic Virginia." But valley people were mainly "Scotch-Irish pioneers, while the other was peopled by slave-owning landlords living on large plantations." Valley folk were "hard-bitten worshipers of facts, practical people who have received from their forebears the lessons of hard experience in subduing a new country. The Tidewater people are more elegant, more interested in theories and in cultural matters and more addicted to eloquence and persuasion."

Like his father, young Richard Evelyn II threw himself into the modest renaissance of his town as lawyer, judge, and state representative. By all accounts he could be a prickly, feisty man. But he was approachable—insisting that everyone call him "Dick"—and many saw greatness in him. Douglas Southall Freeman, a prominent Richmond editor of the early twentieth century and chronicler of the Army of Northern Virginia, once remarked that Richard Evelyn "had the most acute intellect possessed by any Virginian of my lifetime, and with it he had absolute unhesitating courage and ... the most complete candor in dealing with press and public that ever I had the privilege of observing. I never knew him to balk at any question put to him concerning any public issue." A newsman on the Richmond Times-Dispatch remembered talking alone for hours with Richard Evelyn, who was "always willing to spend time with young men."

He could be at once hotheaded and cool, "the most fearless man I ever saw," according to Shenandoah National Bank president R. Gray Williams. Once in court he threw an inkwell at an opposing lawyer and hit him badly enough to draw blood and calls for his arrest. On another occasion he ignored the pleas of his wife and friends, and rode alone into the mountains west of town to deal with some murderous rascals who had been terrorizing the area. He went in for a day, heard evidence, dealt sentences, got the miscreants incarcerated, and left before the dim-witted families of the killers could react.

It was said that Richard Evelyn was not fond of politics or politicians, but he entered the public arena out of a sense of duty. Some thought him "the greatest speaker the Virginia House of Delegates has had in two generations." A rabid defender of states' rights and an uncompromising white supremacist whose fear of "miscegenation" was implicit but unmistakable, he wrote a brief against Virginia's ratification of the federal income tax amendment that conservatives hailed as classic. He resisted several calls to run for governor and stayed aloof from the Virginia political machine that his brother-in-law Henry Delaware Flood constructed over in Richmond. But Richard Evelyn was smitten with Woodrow Wilson, whose second wife, Edith Bolling Galt, was a distant relation to Eleanor Bolling Byrd, and in 1912 he successfully fought the Flood people to carry the state for the Virginia son turned Princeton president and New Jersey governor. When Wilson reached the White House he insisted that Richard Evelyn accept the posts of assistant attorney general and then attorney general for southwestern Virginia. Thus, despite himself, a reluctant Byrd wielded substantial political power.

This quirky, imposing, attractive, combative man, stocky and of average height, with high forehead and determined chin, had a love of the bottle. "Occasionally he would retreat to a little cabin in the Blue Ridge Mountains named Byrd's Nest for periodic binges." Eleanor was not amused, and the marriage was often tense, reflecting a clash of strong wills. But both parents were united in a determination to see that their children got the love, discipline, and freedom needed to succeed. Harry came first, on June 10, 1887; Richard arrived fifteen months later, on October 25, 1888, and Tom a year after that.

The boys revered Richard Evelyn—"I never expect to meet a man with the scintillating brilliance my father possessed," Dick would confide years later. But he was a hard man, impatient of weakness and frailty. He never quite understood his middle son, and according to Eleanor this man of politics and the law remained skeptical of Richard's life of professional adventure. She was the opposite. The boys adored her. "Just yesterday," Richard wrote her in the summer of 1950, "Harry and I were talking about the fact that because you were so wonderful yourself and so wonderful to us when we were youngsters, you made things so much easier for us throughout our whole lives." In another letter he applauded Eleanor for being "a person to want your sons and grandsons to do what they ought to do." Franklin D. Roosevelt complimented both Richard and Harry on their mother, comparing Eleanor to Sara Delano Roosevelt. But whereas both women possessed formidable personalities, Sara Delano forever sought to ensnare "my boy Franklin" in her clutches, to keep him close to Hyde Park and to her, especially after his polio attack. Eleanor Byrd was the opposite. She wanted her boys to fly, in some cases literally. She "never kicked" when Richard went into aviation during World War I. And when Tom, already a well-established businessman in Winchester, volunteered for action in 1917, she "cheered him on and told him that he was doing what was right." She gave similar encouragement to her nephews and grandchildren in 1942. "That is the kind of American citizen you are," her middle son gushed, "and we are very, very proud of you." Once he confided to his mother that he kept her picture on his bedroom dresser, surrounded by fresh white roses. In his many letters he addressed her as "Sweetheart."


Excerpted from Explorer by Lisle A. Rose. Copyright © 2008 The Curators of the University of Missouri. Excerpted by permission of University of Missouri Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

List of Maps     ix
Acknowledgments     xi
Introduction     1
"Danger Was All That Thrilled Him"     7
Reaching for the Skies     30
Breakthrough     60
Triumph     101
Hero     144
Celebrity     169
The Secret Land     181
Southward     215
Zenith     249
Politico     284
Jeopardy     313
Breakdown     343
Stumbling     384
Recovery     405
"Ever a Fighter So"     431
Notes     463
Selected Bibliography     515
Index     521

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