A Byrd's eye view of the Antarctic continent
But why so much secrecy about explorer's mission?
If you browsed through a copy of America’s Social Register you’d find it hard to discover a figure more entwined with the establishment than Richard Evelyn Byrd, a naval officer born in Winchester, Virginia, on 25 October 1888.
The son of Esther Bolling and Richard Evelyn Byrd Sr, Byrd was a descendant of one of the first families of Virginia… his ancestors including William Byrd II, who established the city of Richmond; colonial governor Robert “King” Carter; and English settler John Rolfe and his wife Pocahontas.
His father served as speaker of the Virginia House of Delegates for a time and one of his two brothers was Virginia governor and US senator Harry Flood Byrd, a prominent Democrat from 1920-60.
But Byrd, who attended the Virginia Military Institute for two years and spent one year at the University of Virginia before transferring to the United States Naval Academy in 1912, is better known as a polar explorer and pioneering aviator, who was a recipient of the Medal of Honour, the highest accolade for valour given by the United States. However, details of his polar adventures remain a mystery, despite his claims to have been the first to reach both the North and South Pole by air.
He graduated from the US Naval Academy in June 1912, aged 24, and was assigned to the battleship USS Wyoming, earning the first of many awards, a Silver Lifesaving Medal, after rescuing a sailor who fell overboard.
Two years later he was reassigned to the gunboat USS Dolphin, but was medically discharged on 16 March 1916 after aggravating a sports injury sustained before his service began. Leaving the Navy, he was taken on as an inspector and instructor at the Rhode Island Naval Militia, where he assumed a post as a junior grade lieutenant.
But during the course of hostilities in World War I he was recalled to active duty and assigned to the Pensacola Naval Air Station, Florida, where he earned his wings in April 1917. He spent the rest of the war as commanding officer at Naval Air Station Halifax in Canada.
After the war in 1919 he was commissioned by the US Navy to formulate a plan for a transatlantic flight, Byrd hoping to become the first man to fly the Atlantic. His plan was to hop from the United States to Halifax, then on to Newfoundland, the Azores, Lisbon and finally to London. But although his proposal was accepted by the Navy, Byrd was grounded for the attempt, losing out to more senior pilots.
Of the three flying boats, NC-1, NC-3 and NC-4, that started from Long Island, only Lieutenant Commander Albert Read’s NC-4 completed the trip on 18 May 1919, achieving the first transatlantic flight. Taking off from Rockaway Beach, Long Island, Read’s Curtiss flying boat took 23 days to complete the journey to Plymouth.
Six years later Byrd was put in charge of the Navy contingent assigned to Donald Baxter MacMillan’s scientific expedition to northern Greenland, which was backed by the National Geographical Society and financed primarily by Chicago entrepreneur Eugene McDonald.
The 1925 mission was to carry out aerial surveys of Baffin and Ellesmere Islands, an investigation of the Greenland icecap, and reconnaissance of previously unexplored areas of the Arctic Sea. And although the aerial results proved disappointing due to severe weather conditions and unreliable equipment, the expedition gave Byrd the opportunity to prepare for an attempt to fly to the North Pole the following year.
On 9 May 1926, Byrd and Navy pilot Floyd Bennett took off from Spitsbergen in Norway aiming to fly over the North Pole in a Fokker tri-motor monoplane named Josephine Ford, in honour of the daughter of Ford Motor Company president Edsel Ford who helped finance the expedition.
Byrd and Bennett claimed to have reached the North Pole, flying a distance of 1,535 miles, during a flight that lasted 15 hours and 57 minutes, including 13 minutes spent circling around the pole.
On his return to the United States Byrd became a national hero, with Congress passing a special act on 21 December to promote him to the rank of commander and awarding both men the Medal of Honour. But in the years that have followed much conjecture has surfaced about the actual events that took place on that day in May, with questions being asked about whether the pair actually reached the North Pole.
An early Norwegian associate of Byrd named Bernt Balchen claimed after Byrd’s death in 1957 that the flight to the North Pole had fallen short, which the 1996 discovery of the diary Byrd kept during the flight may corroborate, some entries suggesting the plane was still about 150 miles short of the North Pole at the point when the pair decided to turn back because of concerns over an oil leak. However, the diary also seems to confirm Byrd’s genuine belief that he did reach the North Pole.
In 1927 Byrd is credited with logistical support for Charles Lindbergh’s transatlantic solo flight on 21 May, but was also supposed to have been competing against him for the Orteig Prize for the first non-stop flight between the US and France.
With Bennett as his chief pilot and a crew made up of Balchen, Bert Acosta and Lieutenant George Noville, Byrd’s preparations for the flight were thwarted by a crash during a practice take-off which left Bennett severely injured and Byrd requiring treatment. As their plane was being repaired Lindbergh’s solo flight took the prize.
But Byrd’s quest to cross the Atlantic non-stop continued and, with Balchen replacing Bennett as chief pilot, the team flew from Roosevelt Field, New York, in their repaired Fokker tri-motor plane, America, on 29 June carrying mail from the US Postal Service to demonstrate the practicality of a transatlantic service.
They arrived over France the following day but were prevented from landing in Paris because of cloud cover, so returned to the coast of Normandy where they crash-landed near the beach at Ver-sur-Mer, without fatalities. In France Byrd and his crew were received as heroes and he was invested as an Officer of the French Legion of Honour by Prime Minister Raymond Poincare. After their return to the United States, Byrd and Noville were awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross.
From 1928 onwards Byrd turned his attentions to the South Pole and with financial backing from wealthy benefactors, such as Ford and John D Rockefeller Jr, was able to raise the funding for several Antarctic expeditions.
The first, the largest and best-equipped expedition to ever set out for the continent, took place from 1928-30. Setting off in October 1928, the expedition established a base called Little America on the face of the Ross Ice Shelf from where flights were made across the continent. A range of high peaks, named the Rockefeller Mountains, were discovered, with a large tract of territory beyond them named Marie Byrd Land, after Byrd’s wife.
And on 29 November 1929 Byrd, as navigator, and three companions made the first flight over the South Pole, completing the journey from Little America to the pole and back in 19 hours. Byrd was promoted to rear admiral for this achievement.
From 1933-35 a second Byrd expedition visited Little America with the aim of mapping and claiming land around the pole. Byrd spent five months alone in a hut at a weather station named Bolling Advance Base, 123 miles south of Little America, from March to August 1934 buried beneath the face of the ice shelf. When finally rescued he was in a desperately sick condition, suffering from frostbite and carbon monoxide poisoning.
At the request of President Franklin D Roosevelt, Byrd took command of the US Antarctic service and led a third expedition to Antarctica from 1939-41 financed and sponsored by the US government. Bases were located at Little America and Stonington Island, off the Antarctic peninsula.
During World War II Byrd served on the staff of the chief of naval operations and, among other duties, evaluated Pacific islands as operational sites. But after the war the Byrd mystery entered a new dimension, when he was placed in charge of the naval component, Task Force 68, of “Operation Highjump” deployed to the Antarctic “to consolidate and extend American sovereignty” over the largest practical area of the continent.
This Antarctic expedition, his fourth, was the largest and most ambitious exploration of the continent ever attempted and included 13 warships. The fleet was comprised of two icebreakers; two destroyers; two tenders, carrying three seaplanes each; two tankers; two supply ships; one submarine; two helicopters; the aircraft carrier Philippine Sea, carrying six DC3 twin-engine planes; the flagship Mt Olympus; and 4,700 marines.
The convoy departed from Norfolk, Virginia, on 2 December 1946 and was supported on its mission by a British-Norwegian force, a Russian contingent, and some Australian and Canadian personnel.
Originally scheduled for a six-month tour, the mission came to an abrupt end after about two months of mapping and photographing about 537,000 square miles of the Antarctic coastline and interior.
Why it ended so early continues to be a mystery today but one theory puts it down to the “battle of the Weddell Sea” when Byrd’s expedition is said to have “encountered several flying discs that emerged from the water and attacked the ships in a 20-minute engagement”.
There are suggestions that Byrd called for Antarctica to be nuked, but US President Harry Truman decided to beat a hasty retreat instead and after the fleet returned to the US the military had the admiral silenced.
But as the fleet passed through Chilean ports following the skirmish initial news stories based on interviews with crew members reported “many fatalities”. And, rather than deny the heavy losses, Byrd told the Chilean reporters that Task Force 68 had encountered a new enemy that “could fly from pole to pole at incredible speeds”.
His statements were never publicly confirmed by the US authorities and Byrd never spoke again to the press about Operation Highjump, leaving it for researchers to speculate for decades over what really happened and why he kept quiet.
One mysterious entry in the diary discovered by archivists at Ohio State University in 1996 has perhaps been wrongly interpreted as referring to a flight over the North Pole on 9 February 1947, when Byrd was at the southernmost extremity of the planet as part of Task Force 68.
The entry, Flight Log – Base Camp Arctic, tells how while on a northerly heading Byrd spots a range of mountains that he’s never encountered before just over three hours into the mission, whilst also experiencing problems with the magnetic and gyro compasses which are beginning to gyrate and wobble.
“We are unable to hold our heading by instrumentation,” Byrd writes. “Take bearing with sun compass, yet all seems well. The controls are seemingly slow to respond and have sluggish quality, but there is no indication of icing!”
An hour later a further entry states: “We are crossing over the small mountain range and still proceeding northward as best as can be ascertained. Beyond the mountain range is what appears to be a valley with a small river or stream running through the centre portion.
“There should be no green valley below! Something is definitely wrong and abnormal here! We should be over ice and snow! To the port side are great forests growing on the mountain slopes. Our navigation instruments are still spinning, the gyroscope is oscillating back and forth!”
Yet another entry an hour and a half later continues: “Countryside below is more level and normal, if I may use that word. Ahead we spot what seems to be a city! This is impossible! Aircraft seems light and oddly buoyant. The controls refuse to respond!
“My God! Off our port and starboard wings are a strange type of aircraft. They are closing rapidly alongside! They are disc-shaped and have a radiant quality to them. They are close enough now to see the markings on them. It is a type of swastika! This is fantastic. Where are we? What has happened? I tug at the controls again. They will not respond! We are caught in an invisible vice grip of some type!”
Byrd’s diary entries then tell of his aircraft having been pulled through a vortex into the inner Earth, where he encounters the humanoid inhabitants of the city of Agartha and the “Master” who reprimands him for humanity’s recent invention of the atomic bomb and warns that a dark age is to come if humans don’t change their ways.
After the encounter Byrd’s craft is sent on its way and returns to base camp three hours later. Many researchers attribute this reference to a flight over the North Pole, but more likely it forms part of the mysterious story surrounding the termination of Operation Highjump, with the alleged access to the Earth’s inner sanctum being in Antarctica and the heading of Byrd’s aircraft simply a magnetic anomaly or misinterpretation.
Following his return to the US Byrd attended a meeting at the Pentagon on 11 March when, he states in his diary that he revealed details of the mission, stating fully his discoveries and the message from the Master.
His final entry on the matter states: “All is duly recorded. The president has been advised. I am now detained for several hours… six hours, 39 minutes, to be exact. I am interviewed intently by top security forces and a medical team. It was an ordeal!”
Nothing more was heard from Byrd about the expedition after his meeting with the Pentagon and he made his final trip to Antarctica as officer in charge of the US Navy Operation Deep Freeze from 1955-56, which established permanent Antarctic bases at McMurdo Sound, the Bay of Whales, and the South Pole. Byrd spent only a short time in the Antarctic, starting his return to the US on 3 February 1956. He died in his sleep at home in Boston of a heart ailment on 11 March 1957, aged 68, and was buried at Arlington National Cemetery.
Details of his encounter with mysterious disc-shaped craft in 1947 and whether or not a “hollow” Earth exists remain part of a great unsolved mystery, with secrecy about the Antarctic continent greater now than it has ever been. If Byrd… a Freemason, officer and gentleman beyond reproach… was telling the truth, and his diary genuine, then the US government could clear up the mystery… is there some reason why the facts have been guarded so closely for the past 74 years?