Richard E. Byrd

Byrd Antarctic Expedition III

The United States Antarctic Service Expedition

By the late 1930's, officials of the United States government were becoming aware of the fact that interest in the Antarctic regions was gaining popular momentum among its citizenry due to the successful expeditions of Byrd. President Franklin D. Roosevelt took an active role in creating the United States Antarctic Service as he pushed for two separate Antarctic expeditions, one by Richard B. Black and Finn Ronne, and the other by Admiral Richard E. Byrd, to be coordinated to form the US ANTARCTIC SERVICE EXPEDITION. In November 1937, Dr. Ernest Gruening, Director of the Division of Territories and Island Possessions of the Department of the Interior, asked Richard Black, the Field Representative of the Division, to look into the vague requirements of the US Government for an official American expedition to the Antarctic. The UNITED STATES EXPLORING EXPEDITION 1838-42, led by Lt. Charles Wilkes, had been the last great adventure to the Antarctic with any direct involvement of the US Government. A statement was released by Black on May 5, 1938, dealing with the governments interest in Antarctica, along with plans for a small expedition to the Antarctic. The expedition plans, jointly proposed by Black and Ronne (both members of the BYRD SECOND ANTARCTIC EXPEDITION ) grabbed the attention of Dr. Gruening who in turn informed the Department of State and President Roosevelt.

As all this was going on, Byrd was in Boston with his associates making plans for a third expedition to the Antarctic. Like the first two expeditions, this one was to be privately funded. Late in 1938 Byrd became aware of the governments position and possible action when an official of the State Department approached him for a consultation on the subject. This meeting and subsequent planning was brought to the attention of President Roosevelt. On January 7, 1939, a memorandum was sent by the President to the Acting Secretary of State, Sumner Welles, approving the plans developed by the Departments of State, War and Navy. The President suggested the Department of Interior should be involved in the planning along with continued consultation with Admiral Byrd and Lincoln Ellsworth regarding the estimated costs of such an expedition. Additionally, the President wanted the group to consider the feasibility of maintaining a party each season "at Little America and at the region South of the Cape of Good Hope".

Two important developments resulted from the President's January 7 memorandum. First, Admiral Byrd decided to cancel plans for his private expedition and join ranks with the government. With his extensive knowledge of the area, from this point forward he was accepted as the leader and was to be actively involved with the planning and organization of the expedition. Secondly, an interdepartmental committee was formed, which eventually became the Executive Committee of the United States Antarctic Service. On January 13, 1939, the Secretary of State asked the Secretaries of War, Navy, Treasury and Interior to appoint representatives to serve on an Antarctic Committee. On June 30, Congress passed an act authorizing Antarctic investigations and on July 7 the President himself wrote letters to the Secretaries urging them to designate the representatives. As a result, the original planning committee became what the President designated as the Executive Committee of the United States Antarctic Service. The four departments were represented throughout the life of the organization. Captain (later Rear Admiral) C. C. Hartigan and Mr. Hugh S. Cumming, Jr., represented the Navy and State Departments, respectively. Rear Admiral R. R. Waesche was later succeeded by Commander E. G. Rose as representative of the Coast Guard (Treasury). The Department of the Interior was represented in turn by Ernest Gruening, Mrs. Ruth Hampton, R. A. Kleindienst, Paul W. Gordon, Rupert Emerson and Guy J. Swope. Lieutenant Commander (later Commander) Robert A. English, USN, commander of the BEAR OF OAKLAND on the SECOND BYRD ANTARCTIC EXPEDITION, was appointed Executive Secretary. He was succeeded in 1942 by J. E. MacDonald, who had been an administrative assistant to Byrd. As Commanding Officer of the US ANTARCTIC SERVICE EXPEDITION 1939-41, Admiral Byrd was an ex-officio member of the Committee, having received his formal appointment from President Roosevelt on July 7.

Although a US Government sponsored expedition, additional support came from donations and gifts by private citizens, corporations and institutions. Although the Department of Interior was granted funding, it was woefully inadequate for an expedition of this size. Coordinated efforts by the other Departments filled the gap for funding of the equipment, services and supplies. Admiral Byrd donated many of the supplies which he had gathered for his own expedition, the largest item being the barkentine BEAR OF OAKLAND, which was leased by the Department of Navy for one dollar a year. Some of the private donors misunderstood the magnitude of the governments involvement and subsequently became disturbed by the lack of advertising concerning their contributions. Well in excess of 100 firms and individuals contributed money, supplies and equipment to the expedition, including tractors, food, clothing, instruments, tobacco and books. Charles R. Walgreen of Chicago and William Horlick of Racine, Wisconsin, contributed equipment and supplies for the USS BEAR, and the Kohler family of Kohler, Wisconsin, and George F. Getz and Justin W. Dart of Chicago supplied the Barkley-Grow seaplane carried aboard the USS BEAR.

 Byrd on the Barkley-Grow

Two ships were used by the expedition. One was Admiral Byrd's old ship, the BEAR OF OAKLAND, which had been used on the SECOND BYRD ANTARCTIC EXPEDITION. The ship was reconditioned by the Navy and commissioned the USS BEAR for the expedition. The second ship, the USMS NORTH STAR, was a 1434-ton wooden ice ship built for the Bureau of Indian Affairs of the U.S. Department of the Interior in 1932. She was used each summer to haul supplies to Alaska. Since summer in Antarctica was winter in Alaska, the Department of Interior was able to lend the ship to the Antarctic Service without interrupting the Alaskan service. The expedition was supplied with four aircraft. The USS BEAR carried a twin-engine Barkley-Grow seaplane on the 1939-40 cruise in the Antarctic. Both East and West Base were supplied with twin-engine Curtiss-Wright Condor biplanes, which had been used extensively by the U.S. Marine Corps for five years. The fourth plane was a new, single-engine Beechcraft which was to be used in conjunction with the Snow Cruiser. The Snow Cruiser, designed by Dr. Thomas C. Poulter of the Second Byrd Antarctic Expedition, was built at the Pullman Company at a cost of $150,000, entirely funded by 70 cooperating manufacturers and by the "Friends of the Research Foundation" of the Armour Institute of Chicago, where Dr. Poulter was scientific director. 
This motorized monster was 55 feet long and 20 feet wide, with sled runners attached to its bottom. With the wheels extended, it was 16 feet high. Inside the machine were sleeping quarters with four bunks, a scientific laboratory, a photographic laboratory, a radio room, a chart room and a galley. Twin 150-horsepower diesel engines were connected to generators which in turn supplied power for the 75-horsepower electric motor that drove each wheel. The tires were made of rubber and were 10 feet in diameter. When a downgrade was reached, the wheels could be retracted allowing the Snow Cruiser to toboggan down the incline. Incredibly, the machine was designed to cross crevasses up to 15 feet in width by raising the front wheels while the rear wheels powered the cruiser half way across the gap, followed by a retraction of the rear wheels and a lowering of the front which then pulled the machine the rest of the way. The single-engine Beechcraft monoplane was mounted on skis and designed to be carried on top of the Snow Cruiser for aerial reconnaissance and exploration within a radius of 300 miles. Enough food for a year could be stored inside, along with 2500 gallons of diesel fuel, enough for 5000 miles of travel, and 1000 gallons of aviation fuel. The Snow Cruiser was designed for a maximum speed of 30 miles per hour on a flat, hard surface. She could climb grades of 37%, turn in its own length and move sideways at a 25° angle.

A total of 125 men departed from the United States in the two ships of the United States Antarctic Service Expedition, or Byrd III. Captain Isak Lystad commanded the USMS NORTH STAR while Lieutenant Commander Richard H. Cruzen, USN, commanded the USS BEAR, with Bendik Johansen as ice pilot. Most of the men who made up the expedition were solicited from the military ranks, civilian agencies of government and from scientific institutions. A few volunteers were employed by the Department of the Interior for $10 per month, food and clothing included. A total of 59 men, divided initially into three groups, wintered over in Antarctica. Dr. F. Alton Wade, Senior Scientist and geologist, was in charge of the Snow Cruiser and the three other men assigned to it. When it broke down, as expected, it was parked at West Base and the four men joined ranks with the West Base Party of 29 men, led by Dr. Paul A. Siple. The East Base party of 26 men was led by Richard B. Black. Many of the men had extensive prior experience in the Antarctic with Byrd. Among them were Bendik Johansen and Paul Siple of both the First and Second Byrd Antarctic Expedition, while chief radio operator Clay W. Bailey, master mechanic Vernon D. Boyd, assistant mechanic Louis P. Colombo, and executive assistant Lieutenant Commander Isaac Schlossbach, USN (retired) had all been on the Second Byrd Antarctic Expedition. Black, the leader of East Base, dog driver Joseph D. Healy and transportation engineer Finn Ronne were also veterans of the Second Byrd Antarctic Expedition, as was Frederick G. Dustin, an aide to Admiral Byrd on board the USS BEAR. It is of significant importance to mention that many of the men involved with this expedition went on to participate in future exploration in the Antarctic. Finn Ronne led his own expedition in 1947-48 with Schlossback as captain of the expedition ship. Harry Darlington III, of East Base, and cook Sigmund Gutenko from West Base, were also members of the Ronne Expedition. In 1946-47, then-Rear Admiral Richard H. Cruzen was in command of Task Force 68 of the U.S. Navy Antarctic Development Project, more commonly known as OPERATION HIGHJUMP . Lieutenant George J. Dufek was navigator on the USS BEAR in 1939-40, but went on to command the Eastern Task Group of Operation High Jump. From 1956-59, Admiral Dufek was commander of "Operation Deep Freeze", Task Force 43, U.S. Naval Support Force, Antarctica, leading the United States participation in the International Geophysical Year. Finn Ronne and Carl Eklund, ornithologist at East Base, were eventual leaders of the U.S. bases during the first winter of the IGY (1957). Captain Richard B. Black was called back to active duty for "Operation Deep Freeze I" in 1955-56. West Base veterans James C. McCoy, Charles C. Shirley, Vernon D. Boyd, Murray A. Wiener, Jack E. Perkins, and Paul A. Siple were all active in OPERATION HIGHJUMP.

The objectives of the UNITED STATES ANTARCTIC SERVICE EXPEDITION 1939-41 were outlined in an order from President Roosevelt dated November 25, 1939. This order was received by Admiral Byrd at Balboa, Canal Zone, as he boarded the USMS NORTH STAR on November 30. The President wanted two bases to be established: East Base, in the vicinity of Charcot Island or Alexander I Land, or on Marguerite Bay if no accessible site could be found on either of the specified islands, and West Base, in the vicinity of King Edward VII Land, but if this proved impossible, a site on the Bay of Whales at or near Little America was to be investigated.

Early on November 15, 1939, the USMS NORTH STAR sailed from Boston en route to Philadelphia, where two airplanes were taken aboard. On November 21 she sailed down Delaware Bay en route to the Panama Canal. The USS BEAR left Boston on November 22, calling at Norfolk on November 25 to take aboard one of the twin-engine airplanes. On November 26 she cleared the Virginia Capes en route to the Panama Canal. Admiral Byrd had stayed behind to clean up last minute operations and flew from Washington to the Canal Zone where he boarded the USMS NORTH STAR at Balboa on November 30. The USMS NORTH STAR then departed for New Zealand, stopping at Pitcairn Island on December 13 and 14, and at Easter Island on December 17. She arrived at Wellington, New Zealand, on December 27. The USMS NORTH STAR departed New Zealand for the Ross Sea on January 3, 1940, subsequently sailing into the Bay of Whales to establish West Base on January 12, 1940. After refueling at the Canal Zone, the USS BEAR sailed for the Bay of Whales on December 6, entering the bay on January 14, 1940. Working in two 12-hour shifts, the USS BEAR was unloaded in less than a week and by January 24 the USMS NORTH STAR was underway for Valparaiso, Chile, to pick up additional supplies, including a Navy twin-engine Curtiss-Wright Condor plane and prefabricated buildings. Meanwhile, the Bear, under the command of Byrd, worked its way eastward from the Ross Sea along the edge of the pack ice. A suitable site for East Base was not discovered until a reconnaissance flight by Byrd, Richard Black, pilot Ashley C. Snow and co-pilot / radioman Earl B. Perce on the afternoon of March 8. An island on the north side of Neny Bay, just north of Alexander Island and Marguerite Bay, became the home of East Base. The island was subsequently named Stonington Island. By this time the USS BEAR had been joined by the USMS NORTH STAR and by the evening of March 20, both ships had been unloaded. The following morning the two ships sailed for the United States. Both ships stopped at Punta Arenas, Chile, but from this point the ships separated as the USS BEAR sailed for Boston while the USMS NORTH STAR headed for Seattle to resume her regular cruise schedule to Alaska. Establishment of the base camps went fast and furious.

Meanwhile, great hopes had been held out for the Snow Cruiser but her failure was soon realized. If the Snow Cruiser had worked at all, it was within reason to assume the possibility of reaching the South Pole, particularly if a route could have been found toward the southeast from the Queen Maud Mountains. From the very beginning the Snow Cruiser was plagued by misfortune. As the 30-ton machine was being offloaded at the Bay of Whales, the ramp partly collapsed under its weight, and Dr. Poulter, who was at the controls, avoided disaster by instantly applying full power, causing the machine to make a crunching lunge onto the bay ice. In spite of the huge wheels, adequate traction could not be provided in the snow. The tires kept 12 square feet of rubber on the surface at all times but her weight was simply too great. She sank into the snow and her inadequately geared electric motors could not propel her forward at more than a snails pace. A week later she was still only half way up the slope from the bay ice to the top of the ice shelf. Finally, after prolonged effort, the machine made it to West Base, where she was put to rest in a makeshift shelter of snow blocks and canvas. The crew now joined forces with Dr. Paul A. Siple and the men of West Base.

As outlined by the President, the objectives of the expedition called for a broad scale of operations. The principal objective was "the delineation of the continental coast line between the meridians 72 degrees W., and 148 degrees W., and the consolidation of the geographical features of Hearst Land, James W. Ellsworth Land, and Marie Byrd Land". A second objective involved the delineation of the then-unknown west coast of the Weddell Sea between Cape Eielson and Luitpold Coast. In view of the broad scope of the objectives and the unpredictable circumstances that always arise in Antarctica, it is remarkable that most of the objectives set for them were met. Of significance was the establishment and occupation for a year of two separate bases 1600 miles apart by air and 2200 miles by sea. Flights by seaplane from the USS BEAR and by land based airplanes from Little America III resulted in approximately 700 miles of coastline being added to the map of Antarctica. These discoveries included the Hobbs Coast, the Walgreen Coast, the Thurston Peninsula (determined to be an island in 1960) and the Eights Coast. Reconnaissance flights revealed previously unknown parts of the Ross Ice Shelf. Gaps in the unexplored regions between the Beardmore and Liv Glaciers in the Queen Maud Mountains were also filled in. A sledge journey down the George VI Sound resulted in the discovery of its western outlet in addition to settling the issue once and for all that Alexander Island was indeed an island. Further aerial reconnaissance from East Base extended the coastline of Antarctica westward to about the 85th meridian, west, resulting in the discovery of the Bryan Coast and Carroll Inlet at its eastern border. The east coast of the Antarctic Peninsula was photographed from Trail Inlet and Three Slice Nunatak (approximately 68°S) to beyond Nantucket Inlet (74°35'S). A route was discovered across the Antarctic Peninsula from Stonington Island to the head of Trail Inlet. A sledge party from East Base used this route to complete a ground survey of the east coast of the Antarctic Peninsula from Trail Inlet south to Hilton Inlet (71°57'S). A sledging party explored the Dyer Plateau, in the process establishing 11 control points and triangulating the position of 58 mountains. A sledging journey from West Base to the Fosdick Mountains was made to study the biology of the region and, as a result, significant biological and geological specimens and photographs were brought back. Detailed surveys were made at both East and West Base. The first high-altitude meteorological station in Antarctica was operated during November and December, 1940, on the summit of the Antarctic Peninsula east of Stonington Island. Observations were concluded in every conceivable area: seismic, cosmic ray, auroral, biological, tidal, magnetic and physiological to name a few. All in all, it was an extremely successful expedition.

With international tensions on the uprise, it was considered wise to evacuate the two bases rather than relieve the present personnel with new men who would continue to occupy the bases. To assist with the evacuation, the USS BEAR left Philadelphia on October 13, 1940, and the USMS NORTH STAR departed Seattle on December 11. The USS BEAR was the first to arrive at the Bay of Whales on January 11, 1941 with the USMS NORTH STAR close behind, arriving on January 24. It was hoped that one day this base would be reoccupied so much of the equipment and supplies was left behind as the two ships sailed from West Base on February 1. From the vicinity of Scott Island, the two ships sailed eastward for Marguerite Bay. By February 24 both ships were off Adelaide Island, northwest of East Base, but a thick ice pack prevented them from entering Marguerite Bay. To save fuel, the ships returned north, where they anchored in Andersen Harbor, in the Melchior Islands, in the center of Dallmann Bay. Further attempts were made to penetrate the ice but by the middle of March, they still had not succeeded. The season was getting late so it was decided to evacuate the base by air. Fortunately the Condor had been repaired and test-flown after the accident on January 19 in which a ski had been cut off. On March 15 the USMS NORTH STAR was ordered north to Punta Arenas, Chile, where the men from West Base would disembark and food and fuel for a second year would be put aboard for East Base in the event the men could not be evacuated. Meanwhile, on March 16 the USS BEAR put a party ashore on Mikkelsen Island, one of the Biscoe Islands just north of the Antarctic Circle, in order to build a landing strip suitable for evacuation purposes. The first flight left East Base at 5:30 a.m. on March 22 with 12 men aboard, along with records, specimens and emergency equipment. A second flight brought the remaining 12 men. The plane was abandoned on Watson Island and the USS BEAR sailed immediately, arriving at Punta Arenas on March 29. The USMS NORTH STAR arrived in Boston on May 5 and the USS BEAR on May 18.

Richard E. Byrd's story doesn't end here. Elsewhere in this website you will find the stories of Operation High Jump and Deep Freeze, both of which Byrd was actively involved with. Admiral Byrd literally worked all his adult life for personal, national and international interests in Antarctica. In his final years, his role was unfortunately downplayed by the Navy which, in my opinion, only contributed to his failing health and eventual death. The following excerpt from 90° South, by Dr. Paul A. Siple, says it best:


As January (1956) ebbed, Byrd grew anxious to leave. We had achieved our main goals in Deep Freeze 1, he pointed out, and there was little need to linger. His attitude was in sharp contrast with that which he had exhibited on Operation Highjump. I recalled that when departure time came in 1947, a striking sunset had turned the sky into a Kodachrome world. Even as the last call had been shouted, Byrd had kept his eyes fixed on the iridescent sky. "But I don't want to go yet, Paul," he had said, shaking his head. But times had changed. The small discourtesies exhibited toward Byrd by Task Force (43) officers who felt Byrd represented the past had continued without abatement, and the strain of ignoring them had grown wearing to a man whose temper could be Wagnerian when he was provoked. Time after time I could see the anger creep along the entire length of his body and then subside as his words came out steady, even casual. . . And so on February 3, Byrd and I pulled out of McMurdo Sound and headed for home. For Byrd it was his last departure from the Antarctic. His wisdom had been responsible for bringing about the great new era of Antarctic activity. Others would carry on his work of exploration, making even greater use of the scientific and mechanical tools of the modern world. None could live long enough to hope to make a greater contribution than he had.

Moose Remington came to me about three P.M. on March 12 (1957). His face was clouded and his eyes avoided mine. "What is it?" I asked him.

"I just heard the news over the Armed Forces Radio," he said softly, "that Admiral Byrd died today in Boston".

When he left I wrote a message for Mrs. Byrd, Marie, Dick's loving helpmate: "My grief is as one of the family. I am here at the Pole largely because Dick wished it so. I will do my best to continue my job as he would want it to be done. Please accept my deepest sympathy for the loss of a loving husband, father, loyal comrade and one of our greatest American citizens. Affectionately, Paul."

A modest man, Byrd did not talk of his twenty-two citations and special commendations, nine of which were for bravery and two for extraordinary heroism in saving the lives of others. Nor did he boast of the medals he had amassed, which included the Congressional Medal of Honor, the Congressional Life Saving Medal, the Distinguished Service Medal, the Flying Cross and the Navy Cross. Instead, his talk was of minor matters, of adventures that went awry or did not turn out as expected. There was the accident to his plane that had enabled Lindbergh to become the first man to fly the Atlantic nonstop to Europe in a land plane. Later, Byrd had made the trip with Bert Acosta, George Noville and Bernt Balchen, though they had almost failed to reach France. They had crashed into the sea off the coast and had had to swim for their lives. "How did those early years go for you, Paul?" he asked. "Not so adventurous or romantic as yours," I said.



Discovery, the Story of the Second Byrd Antarctic Expedition, by Richard E. Byrd.

Americans in Antarctica 1775-1948, by Kenneth J. Bertrand.

90° South, by Dr. Paul Siple.

Antarctica; the Extraordinary History of Man's Conquest of the Frozen Continent, published by Reader's Digest, second edition.

Chronological List of Antarctic Expeditions and Related Historical Events, by Robert K. Headland.