Richard Evelyn Byrd, Jr. became the U.S. Navy’s youngest Rear Admiral at 41 via a special act of the U.S. Congress on June 30, 1930.
Born in Winchester, Va. on Oct. 25, 1888, he was appointed by Virginia to the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md., where he graduated in 1912.
By the time of his death on March 11, 1957, Byrd had become the most decorated U.S. Naval officer, having been awarded the U.S. Navy Medal of Honor, Distinguished Flying Cross, Navy Cross, Congressional Gold Medal, Hubbard Metal and Patron’s Gold Medal among others.
Having achieved fame as an aviator and explorer who was credited with flying over both the North Pole with his co-pilot Floyd Bennett on May 9, 1926 (a feat being contested by some historians today who believe that the Byrd’s flight came 150 miles short of flying over the North Pole due to an oil leak in the airplane that forced Byrd to turn back), and the South Pole on Nov. 28, 1929, with three colleagues.
Flying from “Little America,” a U.S. base established on the Ross Ice Shelf in Antarctica near the Bay of Whales, Byrd and his crew discovered a vast area of Antarctica, Earth’s fifth largest continent. Only Asia, Africa, North America and South America are larger.
The first American expedition to Antarctica was conducted by Charles Wilkes in 1840, before the inventions that Byrd and his crew were able to utilize, namely an aerial camera, snowmobiles and airplane massive communication resources.
Wilkes expedition came 20 years following the discovery of Antarctica by Norwegian whalers in 1820.
The largest expedition ever mounted to explore Antarctica was led by Byrd between Dec. of 1946 and March 1947. The operation was a military one with the code name, Operation High Jump, Byrd’s fourth expedition to Antarctica.
The military expedition included an aircraft carrier with 25 traditional airplanes and two seaplanes in addition to 12 other ships.
The stated purpose of the expedition was to train personnel and test equipment in fridge conditions while establishing U.S. sovereignty over the continent.
Today, no one country owns Antarctica because on Dec. 1, 1959, a group of nations agreed to designate Antarctica as a continent for peace and science by signing the Antarctic Treaty.
The nations that signed the treaty in Washington D.C. in addition to the U.S. are Argentina, Australia, Belgium, Chile, France, Japan, New Zealand, Norway, South Africa, United Kingdom and USSR. After the breakup of the USSR, Russia did not pull out of the treaty as rumored on some social media sites.
During summer months, an estimated 5,000 scientists occupy the frozen land mass, and those are at base camps where scientific research is being conducted while an estimated 45,000 tourists visit the area on cruise ships each year.
As for Byrd’s last flight over the South Pole, it came on Jan. 8, 1956, during the U.S. Navy’s Operation Deep Freeze.