"An enchanted continent in the sky, like a pale sleeping princess . . . the aloof and lonely bottom of the earth. . . . Sinister and beautiful she lies in her frozen slumber, her billowy white robes of snow weirdly luminous with amethysts and emeralds of ice, her dreams iridescent ice halos around the sun and moon, her horizons painted with pastel shades of pink, gold, green and blue. Such is Antarctica, luring land of everlasting mystery." Adm. Richard E. Byrd
The weather was ideal. The sky was cloudless, except for a few high skims toward the horizon to my right. The glare of the sun on the expanse of ice below was dazzling. Earlier, we had flown over 13,000-foot mountains and 7,000-foot glaciers.
As our plane began a slow turn to the left to begin its descent for a landing on skis at the South Pole, I could not help but wonder if my uncle, Adm. Richard Evelyn Byrd, had precisely this same view as he circled this remote spot 50 years ago.
My two-week journey to the Antarctic, which ended Dec. 3, was part of an expedition to commemorate the 50th anniversary of my uncle's historic flight. For me, it was a sentimental journey.
One of my prized possessions is a small American flag that Dick, my father's younger brother, brought me from that trip over the Pole. It is framed and hangs on a wall in my Washington apartment.
On the flight from McMurdo to the Pole, I was mentally retracing Dick's flight. It gave me a greater appreciation of the difficulties he had faced.
We were flying at 22,000 feet. The terrain looked rough and seemingly impassable.
Fifty years ago the Byrd Antarctic Expedition first had to take fuel by dog sled 300 miles toward the South Pole. Only after that mission was accomplished could Dick's plane take off for the South. He circled the Pole, but couldn't land.
I found myself wondering how Roald Amundsen and four other Norwegian explorers had managed to make an earlier incredible overland journey to the Pole by dog sled.
Amundsen's party reached the South Pole on Dec. 14, 1911, becoming the first humans there. A month later, four Englishmen led by Royal Navy Captain Robert Falcon Scott reached the Pole, only to find a Norwegian flag stuck in the ice. They knew then they had lost the race. The Scott party turned back to McMurdo, 800 miles away, but didn't make it. They perished from cold and hunger only 40 miles from their base.
Antarctica, 2,200 miles from New Zealand, is a barren continent equal in size to the United States and Europe combined. Except near the shoreline, where one finds seals and penguins, it is a lifeless expanse, a remote ice desert.
With me on this trip were Dr. Edward P. Todd, Polar Division director of the National Seience Foundation, Dr. Norman Hackerman, president of Rice University and chairman of the National Science Board, and Dr. Grover E. Murray, geologist and vice chairman of the National Science Board.
Two other Antarctic companions were the explorer and geologist Dr. Laurence N. Gould, who was second in command of my uncle's 1929 expedition, and Norman Vaughan, who led my uncle's dog sled team.
Vaughan told me about the 1929 overland trip he, Larry Gould and four others made to the Queen Maud Mountains 725 miles from Little America. They were the first humans to visit there.
Norman said they started with 46 dogs hitched to three sleds. As they used up their provisions, they needed fewer dogs, so the excess dogs were used as food. They returned with 20 dogs.
I started to ask him if the food was for the dogs or the men, or both, then thought better of it. I didn't really want to know.
At the South Pole our party visited the snow-buried outposts manned by 19 scientists and support personnel.The temperatre was 31 degrees below zero. I left behind a Virginia state flag before we headed back to the relative warmthof McMurdo, 700 miles north on the Ross Ice Shelf.
Leaving the South Pole, I asked Larry Gould, one of the halest 83-year-old mem I've ever known, if we might be able to fly over the area where Little America was located, where my uncle spent those long months in solitary confinement shrouded in the black Anarctic night. He laughed. t"No way, Harry," he said, "Little America is no more. About 15 years ago, I guess, it broke off from the icepack and went to sea."
During my visit to Antarctica, it was the beginning of summer, when the sunlight lasts 24 hours a day. This season lasts for about four months, after which two months of twilight herald the approach of four months of darkness followed by another period of twilight.
My mind kept drifting back to my childhood and the fleeting, now dimming memories of my Uncle Dick. He liked young people. All of his nieces and nephews called him "Dick."
He was warmhearted and considerate, but it was difficult to get him to talk about his expeditions.
Through the years when he was not away on an expedition, he would visit his mother in Winchester. It was there that I would see him and we would take long walks together.
Dick was forever curious about nature. During one walk I remember him pausing at a limestone outcropping, which is rather common in the Wincester area, kneeling down and examining the cracks and crevices and rubbing traces of lichen or downy moss between his fingers.
I asked him what he was doing. He continued to examine the lichen. Then he looked up and said, "My boy, that is one of the oldest forms of plant life. hIt's nutritious, they say. But I'd hate to try to pick enough for a meal."
While I wanted to talk with him about the North Pole and the South Pole and his being awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor, he wanted to talk about his family, his hometown and old friends, and his brother (my father) Harry's political career.
I remember Dick telling me that he took no special pride in his accomplishments, except one: that in all of his many expeditions not a single life was lost.
Dr. Gould told me of Dick's great concern for the safety of his men. Dr. Gould referred to Dick as a "loner" who, as expediton leader, remained aloof. But he demanded the utmost safety conditions for every person under his command.
I heard Dr. Gould tell two separate audiences that Dick would not ask another member of his expedition to do anything that he, Dick, would not do himself.
It was for this reason that he lived alone near the South Pole for 4 1/2 months in an effort to record and better understand the greatest hazard of the Antarctic, its treacherous weather.
The original plan was for three men to live the long Antarctic night at an advance base. Dick concluded, however, that adequate supplies could not be hauled the necessary distance to sustain three men.
After holding detailed discussions with psychologists and taking into account his own knowledge of human nature, he decided that two men could not live in such adverse conditions without one killing the other. So it had to be one or none. As leader of the expedition he would not ask another man to undertake that assignment, so he did it himself.
Through the years, I learned of the great affection the men of Dick's expeditions had for him. The latest evidence was on this trip.
On the same day that I flew to Antarctica, an Air New Zealand commercial sighting flight crashed at Mt. Erebus, Antarctica, killing all 257 on board. I was 30 miles away at the time.
That flight coincided with ours. Our pilot was in voice communication with the pilot of the Air New Zealand DC10 for several hours as we flew the 2,200 miles from Christchurch, New Zealand, to Antarctica. As out pilot began his landing descent, he radioed that information to the Air New Zealand plane. There was no response. We didn't know until hours later that it had just crashed.
The next morning my daughter, a professional photographer, was taking photos on a beach near Wellington, New Zealand. An elderly fisherman came up to her and asked if she had heard about a plane crash in Antarctica. The news alarmed her greatly. She identified herself and told of my having left the previous day for Antarctica. Astonishingly, the fisherman told my daughter that he had served as a crew member on two of Admiral Byrd's ships: The City of New York and The Eleanor Bollng (named after my grandmother).
He helped my daughter obtain the facts about the plane crash and continually expressed affection and admiration for Adm. Byrd.
Dick had a good sense of humor. When asked what he missed most during his lonely vigil near the South Pole, I remember him replying with one word: "Temptation."
He disappointed me only once, at age 14. I asked him to take me on his Antarctic expedition. He said it was a bit dangerous and that one Byrd at a time was enough.
He reminded me of that decision when I talked with him by radio just after he had made hs 1929 flight over the South Pole. My father, who was governor then, and my grandmother and I stood around a box microphone in the front parlor of the Executive Mansion for a long time before the radio connection was finally made. Dick's voice sounded tinny, and we missed some of his words, but you could tell he was elated.
My father spoke to him first, and Dick's voice practically yelled through the speaker: "We did it, Harry, we did it!"
When it came my turn, I recal Dick's saying that perhaps he should have let me come along, after all.