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News and Commentary

31 January 2011

Richard E. Byrd's Alone

Alex Kurtagic

Richard E. Byrd
G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1938

I first encountered Richard Evelyn Byrd while researching the Nazi UFO legend, which Ernst Zündel popularised during the late 1970s in his book UFO: Nazi Secret Weapon?, and which was elaborated—from an esoteric perspective—by Miguel Serrano in El Cordón Dorado (The Golden Thread). In these accounts, Byrd appears in connection with the ambitious  US-sponsored Antarctic expedition of 1946-1947, Operation Highjump, which he led, and which, according to various speculative historians and conspiracy theorists, was abruptly cut short due to Byrd having been met with attacks by German flying saucers, operating out of a secret base in New Swabia, on Queen Maud Land. Proponents of the Nazi UFO legend maintain that, following National Socialist Germany’s defeat in 1945, two submarines, U977 and U530, smuggled a surviving Adolf Hitler to the aforementioned base, Point 211, in New Berlin, the capital of Germany’s Antarctic claim, and continued to operate there for many years after the war. The esoteric narrative claims that from there Hitler went underground, entering the Earth’s hollow interior via a polar entrance; and that he has since waited in the hidden hyperborean civilization that still survives there for the day when he would return, commanding a fleet of UFOs that would defeat the forces of darkness and found the Fourth Reich.

The present book has nothing to do with these fascinating narratives, however, being an account of Byrd’s experiences during his second Antarctic expedition. By the time the latter was launched in 1933, Byrd, an American naval officer and explorer, had already become known for his pioneering flight to the North Pole in 1926 (which later emerged was unsuccessful), and his nearly-successful trans-Atlantic flight in 1927 (which Charles Lindbergh was credited for not long after, as he was able to land in Paris). Byrd’s first expedition had taken place in 1928-1930, and involved his famous—also pioneering—flight to the South Pole—an account of it can be found in his book, Discovery.

The 1933-1935 expedition was Byrd’s second in Antarctica, and involved extensive meteorological studies in the continent. Among Byrd’s plans was to establish Advance Base, deep into the Ross Ice Shelf, where he would spend the Winter collecting data. Until then, all the meteorological data previously gathered by explorers had been collected either from coastal stations or during fast-moving journeys; a static weather station situated in the continent and gathering data over a six-month period would provide scientists with a much more accurate climatological picture of Antarctica.

Conditions in the Antarctic interior during the Winter months are the most hostile on Earth. The cold is more extreme than in the Arctic. Nothing lives. Months pass in complete darkness. And in Byrd’s time, hundreds of miles of sea ice made the continent inaccessible for half the year. Moreover, the landscape, although beautiful, is barren, on the Ross Ice Shelf consisting of a vast plain of iron-hard ice. Because of this, Byrd had initially conceived Advance Base as a three-man weather station: he knew from previous experience that two men living in close quarters for six months under such conditions and unable ever to escape each other would end up hating each other for the rest of their lives, which would add to their already heavy psychological strain; three men meant there would always an arbitrer and the option for one of taking a break from another’s grating habits. Due to being delayed by adverse weather and difficulties with the terrain on the Bay of Whales, however, the main base, Little America II was not ready until later than anticipated, and this meant having to revise earlier plans for Advance Base. The base would not be at the foot of the Queen Maud mountains, but much nearer, at 80.08ºS; and, because of the impossibility of bringing enough supplies before the onset of Winter, it would not be staffed by a team of three, but by a solitary man. Byrd chose himself for this mission.

At the beginning of the book, Byrd sets out his reasons: firstly, he could not ask of other men something he was not willing to do himself; and secondly, he thought the experience would be personally beneficial, as it would enable him effectively to stop time and use his six months of isolation to do all the thinking, reading, and listening to music the frenetic pace of modern life made otherwise impossible. The decision nearly cost Byrd his life, and the experience irrevocably changed him, causing the book not to be written until four years after the events.

Even in April, with the Autumn just beginning, conditions on the Ross Ice Shelf are severe. The ice shelf is the size of France and is hundreds of metres thick; it is also located in the windiest continent on Earth. Robert Scott and his four men died there, stuck on a ten-day blizzard with temperatures in the minus forties, having starved for months while attempting to cross it on their return journey from the South Pole in 1912. While building Advance Station, Byrd’s men had to keep an eye out for each other, looking for signs of frostbite. And once built, the shack that constituted Byrd’s living quarters was still freezing, with any water not directly on the stove turning into ice within minutes.

All the the same, Byrd’s first two months went well. The data gathering and survival kept him well busier than he anticipated, and he had to wrestle with the psychological effects of relentless deathly silence and isolation, but he still managed to read, meditate, and listen to music, as he had desired; indeed, by May he had achieved a sense of inner piece, and felt his beliefs crystallise in manner he had never previously thought possible. Until this point, Alone grows progressively philosophical in tone.

But then, disaster struck.

Byrd maintained twice weekly radio schedules with Little America, using a primitive radio receiver that enabled him to hear but not send sound—his messages to the main base were transmitted in morse code, at which he was not skilled. Electricity for the receiver came from a gasoline generator located in one of the two tunnels running out from the front of the shack, which was buried in the ice. Ventilation both in the shack and in the tunnels was far from perfect, and the pipes leading out of them tended to become clogged with ice—the cold was indeed so intense that even the fumes from the burning stove or the running generator engine did not thaw it out. During an early June schedule, Byrd noticed the generator engine was skipping, and interrupted his exchange to investigate. Byrd found the tunnel choking with smoke. Next he found himself coming to on the tunnel floor, having been unconscious for several minutes. He had been knocked out by the carbon monoxide in the fumes. He was saved by the steep temperature gradient that existed throughout the underground weather station, where heat rose to form a layer of warmer air against the ceiling while the floor remained some thirty degrees colder (and better oxygenated).

Byrd managed to switch off the generator and crawl back into shack, where, in a daze, he managed to finish the schedule some twenty minutes after his interruption. He did not inform Little America of the incident, or of his condition, instead explaining away his absence as simple trouble with the generator, out of a desire not to alarm his men. Yet from that point onward Byrd was poor shape: the carbon monoxide in the tunnel had only provided a knockdown blow, but the fact was that he had been gradually poisoning himself for some time, as the stove in the inadequately ventilated shack had a leaky pipe and the air had consequently been slowly filling up with carbon monoxide. Even before his collapse, Byrd had recorded aching eyes and headaches in his diary. Now he was in danger: the Winter was still deepening and the sun, which had dipped below the horizon in April, would not return for months. A rescue would be in all probability impossible, and if attempted certainly extremely dangerous: besides the darkness, the cold, and the blizzards, the Ross Ice Shelf is riddled with heavily crevassed regions, made treacherous by the fact that many of the abyssal caverns just below the surface are covered by thin bridges that make them invisible; a man on foot or in a tractor could find himself plunging into a black bottomless chasm. (Douglas Mawson lost a man this way.) Byrd was thus compelled to conceal his condition and stick it out until October (well into the Antarctic Spring), which was earliest he had authorised his men to come and get him.

What follows is yet another a harrowing tale of unimaginable suffering and endurance. Plagued with blinding headaches, back aches, leg aches, weakness, dizziness, and loss of appetite, Byrd was barely able to function. Even the simplest tasks, like rising from his bunk or putting on his clothes, came to require supreme effort and willpower, as well as considerable time; this was made worse by the fact that, having identified the problem, Byrd was now forced to choose between yet more carbon monoxide poisoning and freezing cold. You can well imagine, if you have ever resisted rising out of bed on a cold day, or found it hard to rise while with tonsilitis or a kidney infection, how much more difficult this is when the air temperature is like on the Martian surface.

At 50º[F] below zero a flashlight dies out in your hand. At -55º kerosene will freeze, and the flame will dry up on the wick. At -60º rubber turns brittle. . . . Below -60º cold will find the last microscopic touch of oil in an instrument and stop it dead. If there is the slightest breeze, you can hear your breath freeze as it floats away, making a sound like that of Chinese firecrackers. As does the morning dew, rime coats every exposed object. And if you work too hard and breathe too deeply, your lungs will sometimes feel as if they were on fire.

Even April’s relatively moderate cold had already given Byrd much to think about. The novocaine in his medical kit had “froze[n] and shattered the tube glasses”. So had the chemicals in the fire bombs. “Two cases of tomato juice [had] shattered their bottles”. Whenever he brought canned food inside the shack he had to let it stand all day near the stove to thaw it out. And the touch of cold metal burnt his fingers even through the protection of gloves. Temperatures only rose during blizzards, but even during these “heatwaves” it never rose above several degrees below freezing point in the very best of cases. Consider that among Byrd’s tasks involved him going outside, even during blizzards, to collect data, de-rime the instruments, or unblock frozen ventilation pipes. He rarely came back without a frostbitten nose, toe, cheek, or finger.

While healthy, Byrd put out the stove and opened the door at night, in order to prevent fires and aid ventilation while he slept. After his June collapse, he was forced to keep stove usage to a minimum—enough to defrost whatever meager food he managed to eat and hold down. The result was a sheet of ice gradually creeping up the walls, until it eventually encased the whole of the shack’s interior. When waking in the morning, in cold pitch blackness, Byrd found his face and hair a mess of ice inside his sleeping bag; his shoes were stiff with frozen sweat, and could not be put on without first being worked on with the fingers—at -40ºF (-40ºC) .

Despite such adversity, Byrd managed a partial recovery, but he soon relapsed due to the continuing issue of poor ventilation. To make things even worse, the generator in the fuel tunnel broke down beyond repair, and Byrd was then forced to use an emergency receiver that generated its own electricity by means of a manual crank. Chronically weak and malnourished as he was, his radio schedules became punishing feats of aerobic exercise, which felt like being beaten within an inch of his life. Around this time Byrd also experienced a wave of extremely low temperatures, which froze or nearly froze even his specially prepared his instruments. When required to go out onto the surface, the outside air—at that moment down to -84ºF (-64.4ºC)—nearly suffocated him, on account of the instant constriction of his air passages. While climbing a short ladder the rungs frostbit the balls of his feet through the four soles of his polar boots. And afterward frozen skin came off his cheeks when removing his face mask.

Were it not because the men at Little America began suspecting Byrd’s unwellness on account of his unintelligible messages, long delays, and seeming lack of energy, it is possible he would not have survived. The rescue operation involved subterfuge on both sides, as Byrd feared for his men and the prestige of the operation, while the men at Little America did not wish to contravene his explicit orders not to come for him until six months had passed and there was ample light for safe travelling. Even though a rescue operation was eventually launched, the tractors did not reach Byrd until mid August, two previous attempts having failed due to the darkness and mechanical failure. Moreover, departure from Advance Base was further delayed by several weeks in order to allow Byrd sufficiently to recover, which he managed after being—effectively but not formally, due to a tacit agreement to maintain appearances—temporarily relieved of his duties.

Byrd states at the beginning of his account that he only wrote the book at the insistent behest of friends and colleagues, and that he initially resisted doing so because the experience had been a personal one. Further, as a Virginian and man of his time he deemed it unseemly to share his emotions with world. A man’s emotions, he argued, are most seemly when hidden. Likewise with a man’s suffering, which in his case he concealed as best he could from his subordinates, even after he had nearly despaired and on the verge of death. Indeed, Byrd admits to losing his cool only once, and deeply regretting it—losing his cool in Byrd’s opinion was urging his men to hurry during a radio schedule. True, Byrd was a navy officer, and he confesses that some of what he wrote in his diaries was left out, but it is difficult to imagine a modern man displaying that kind of mastery over his emotions in the face of  such extreme adversity. It is an edifying example.

Next to Lennard Bickel’s Shackleton’s Forgotten Men Byrd’s is one of the most gripping accounts of Antarctic horror and adventure I have yet encountered. His narration is compelling and it is difficult to put the book down, which is probably why there have been multiple editions and why the book remains in print, over 70 years after it was first published. This is recommended reading for anyone seeking inspiration from the hard men of a more glorious age.

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