If family lineage alone is an indicator of greatness, then Richard Evelyn Byrd Jr. was born to succeed. The Byrd family was descended from the First Families of Virginia, and Byrd could call among his relatives John Rolfe and his wife Pocahontas, and the founder of Richmond, Virigina, William Byrd II. He married Marie Donaldson Ames, the daughter of a wealthy industrialist, and had four children—one son and three daughters. Byrd counted Edsel Ford and Henry Ford (yes, that Henry Ford) among his close friends as well.
While Byrd was given every advantage due to his family's connections, he worked diligently to prove his worth as an individual. In 1912, Byrd graduated from the U.S.Naval Academy and was assigned to the battleship the USS Wyoming (BB-32). He quickly received his first commendation—and later a Silver Lifesaving Medal—for twice diving fully clothed off the side of his ship to rescue a sailor who had fallen overboard. After serving on the Wyoming for two years, in 1914 he was assigned to the USS Dolphin (PG-24) and brought once again into the circles of power, as the gunboat served as the yacht of the Secretary of the Navy. Byrd was in contact high-ranking officials and dignitaries, including then– Assistant Secretary of the Navy Franklin D. Roosevelt.
After suffering a foot injury on the Dolphin in 1916, he medically retired and was promoted to lieutenant (junior grade) and assigned as an instructor for the Rhode Island Naval Militia. This post was short-lived. After the United States' entry into the First World War in 1917, he was recalled to active duty and trained men in aviation at the aviation ground school in Pensacola, Florida. He qualified as a naval aviator (number 608) in June 1918. It was this expertise gained during the war that resulted in his appointment to plan the flight path for the NC-4's transatlantic crossing.
Byrd's adventures in aviation did not stop with the NC-4's flight. In 1926, he and Floyd Bennett attempted a flight over the North Pole, and when they returned from the claimed successful flight (there is still controversy regarding the truth of this claim), both were declared national heroes and awarded the Medal of Honor from Congress. Byrd (at this point a lieutenant commander) continued his adventures, when he completed a non-stop transatlantic flight on 1 July 1927, less than two months after Charles Lindbergh snagged the title of the first solo transatlantic flight.
There are some who could attain multiple accomplishments and numerous awards and allow themselves to exchange a life of adventure for one of leisure. Richard Evelyn Byrd Jr. was not one of those people. Having already allegedly made it to the North Pole, Byrd set the South Pole in his sights. To finance and gain support for his first Antarctic Expedition, Byrd called on all the connections he made in his personal and professional life, including President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Henry Ford, Edsel Ford, John D. Rockefeller Jr., and Vincent Astor. Because of their support, in 1928 Byrd set out with two ships and three airplanes for the Antarctic. The expedition lasted two years, and during that time Little America—base on the Ross Ice Shelf that lasted from 1929 to 1958—was established, and Byrd gained the uncontested achievement of the first flight to the South Pole. It was this accomplishment that granted him the rank of Rear Admiral by an act of Congress in 1929, making him the youngest admiral in the history of the United States Navy.
Byrd's Second Antarctic Expedition in 1934 was marked more by perilous situations than by accomplishments. For five months of the expedition, Byrd operated a meteorological station in solitude. During his solo mission, the men at base camp started to become increasingly alarmed by Byrd's radio transmissions, until they at last decided to go rescue him. Byrd was found in poor physical health, and it was later discovered he would have died from carbon monoxide poisoning if the men had not come to his rescue.
Byrd's Third Antarctic Expedition, from 1939 through 1940, was the first to be financed and conducted by the United States government. Unfortunately, Byrd never made it to the Antarctic as he was recalled to active service in early 1940 for World War II.
After the war, Byrd's relationship with the Antarctic continued, and he served in two more operations for the U.S. Navy, Operation Highjump (1947) and Operation Deep Freeze I (1955–1956). Operation Deep Freeze I marked Byrd's last trip to Antarctica and the beginning of a permanent U.S. military presence on the continent. Byrd died one year after his last Antarctic mission in 1957, at the age of 68.
Byrd is still counted as one of the most highly decorated officers in the history of the United States Navy. Yes, chance gave him greater opportunities, but one thing you can say about Richard Evelyn Bird Jr.: he did not squander a single one.