BEYOND THE BARRIER

The Story of Byrd's First Expedition to Antarctica

By Eugene Rodgers

Naval Institute Press. 354 pp. $24.95

IN THE EARLY part of this century Antarctic exploration captured the public imagination as much as the moon program did in the 1960s. Remote and beautiful, Antarctica was also hostile. It could destroy its human visitors, so those who braved and "conquered" it were popularly believed to embody individual and national virtues.

The most famous Antarctic hero is Capt. Robert Falcon Scott. His brave adventure, as told in a famous diary which ends as he dies with his party on their march back from the pole in 1912, made him into a legendary and inspiring figure.

Scott's closest American counterpart was Richard Evelyn Byrd. Virginia-bred, wealthy, photogenic, Byrd was a major public figure from the mid-1920s until he died in 1957. He first won national fame in May 1926, when he announced he had reached the North Pole by air. In June 1927 he became the third pilot to fly the Atlantic successfully.

Byrd then tackled Antarctica. In October 1928 he mounted the largest expedition yet attempted, 42 men and three airplanes. During that Antarctic summer and the sunless winter that followed, Americans read dispatches and heard broadcasts about the brave commander at the world's bottom. Byrd achieved his goals. For his South Pole flight, his major geographical discoveries and the scientific work, he was rewarded with ticker-tape parades, Congressional medals, naval promotions, an admiring juvenile literature, even an honorary membership in the Wellesley class of 1929. His success was attributed to good character.

In 1990, we have no heroes. Television and books tell us that Ronald Reagan is made of plastic, that Jack Kennedy was a womanizer, that Lyndon Johnson was cruel and corrupt. As for those few who risk life in feats of bravery -- such as test pilots or platoon leaders -- popular culture tends to relegate them to the status of minor sports figures, or the psychologically disturbed. Our astronauts seem corporate, mere cogs in NASA's machine.

So it is no surprise for us to learn, in Eugene Rodgers's pathbreaking book, that Byrd was as different from his wholesome image as celluloid is from flesh, as mirages are from mountains or, more appropriately, as water is from whiskey.

Rodgers is the first to quote extensively from the long-withheld Byrd papers and other unpublished writing. Sticking carefully to sources, Rodgers shows that Byrd was "egocentric and insecure." He drank "when he should not have." He pursued personal goals "relentlessly." He used lying and blackmail. He claimed discoveries made by his men as his own. Above all, he sought to preserve his lucrative, exclusive publishing and film contracts, as well as his arrangement with the New York Times, which backed him.

Byrd's most startling defect, shown relentlessly here, was that "he was not even a good aviator." He was "phobic about flying." He drank before and during major flights. He was a poor navigator who flew on dead reckoning. Never, in these gripping reconstructions of some of the most important flights in aviation history, does Byrd take the controls or give a serious navigational order himself.

The flying scenes alone are worth the price of this concise, well-paced book. One narrator is pilot Dean C. Smith, who more than once had to save the expedition from danger inside as well as outside the plane. After Byrd decided to fly to rescue a stranded party in the Rockfeller Mountains, he kept Smith and the crew waiting all day while he sat in his room drinking cognac supplied by his doctor and the New York Times correspondent.

They finally took off near dusk and found the group. As Smith started to land, Byrd screamed that they would hit the mountain:

"Completely out of control and crying with hysteria, he leaned over me and began clawing and fighting to reach the controls, his weight forcing my head down and ramming my face into the stick. We struggled for a few seconds until . . . I could hit him on the chest . . . Hanson threw his arms round him and held him there . . . I grabbed the controls barely in time to . . . finish the landing. We landed with a loud slap of the skis . . . and I heard Byrd yell, 'You've cracked us up! You've cracked us up!' "

Rodgers does not make the mistake of writing off Byrd's achivements just because he was egomaniacal, dishonest and manipulative. He credits Byrd with organizing his expedition well in human, engineering and financial terms, and thus putting America at the forefront of modern Antarctic exploration. He judges that Byrd did reach the South Pole within four miles, although he treats "that North Pole thing" as a likely hoax. The discoveries he claimed were indeed made, though sometimes by men under him. Most important, he cared for the life and health of his men, even while sharing their weakness for the bottle.

Equally vivid are the scenes of his men's drinking. Sometimes they poured the cognac into the snow to get under control, but then yielded to the temptation to tap other sources of alcohol. The chronic drinking and fights disgusted Paul Siple, the Boy Scout who was taken along to promote the expedition's wholesome image at home.

ONE OF THE most interesting twists to modern readers is the failure of the press to expose Byrd's many problems. The New York Times supported the expedition to promote long distance radio and beat the Hearst empire with an exclusive scoop. The Times's correspondent on the trip was Russell Owen, whose age and poor health put him on the defensive from the start. When Owen wrote too candidly or gave space to others' achievements, Byrd blackmailed him. He threatened to get Owen fired or put off the story. Owen, needing the scoop to help his career, yielded.

Byrd wrote that he never censored Owen's reports, but in Rodgers's careful reconstruction, he seems to have run through the copy with a pencil, turning Owen's moderate boosterism into lies and distortions favoring himself. He went to enormous lengths to prevent Hearst from secretly buying out his men. One of the most shameful episodes involves the disappearance of Smith's own manuscript -- which could have beaten Byrd's book into print -- from his room.

Rodgers makes his story balanced and concise, yet exciting. He sketches the other dimensions of his story skillfully, and writes equally well about the beautiful Antarctic landscape and the slime in the camp kitchen.

His only flaw is timidity. The book opens weakly, claiming only to be an account of the expedition, nothing more. Rodgers is too defensive in stressing that Byrd's colleagues discouraged him from telling the true story. Finally, his profile of Byrd needs more development: the man's repeated early injuries, his first wish to be an acrobat, his paranoia and mysticism -- all suggest a more complex and confused personality than the one painted here. Possibly the real Byrd will be explained when the story is written of his second expedition, in 1933-35.

Does the unmasking of Byrd matter? When, a few years ago, a British writer thoroughly debunked Scott (the Royal Navy had edited out of his diary references to drink or mismanagement), the outcry was loud in Britain. America's Antarctic tradition is less hallowed, so the revelations will cause less splash than if, say, the book revealed our astronauts as heavy drinkers and poor navigators.

Deborah Shapley, the author of "The Seventh Continent: Antarctica in a Resource Age," is completing a book about Robert S. McNamara.