Travel

A Father’s Fame, a Son’s Obsession and the Mystery of Flag No. 98

It arrived without fanfare or explanation, marked Lot No. 313 at the J. James Auction House in Plymouth, Mass. A simple flag, bearing an “E” and a “C” alongside a compass star, against a red, white and blue background.

Few would see it and care. But in New York City, alerts sounded on phones and computer screens. Could it be?

Some flags mark a place and a moment: I was here. See me. This flag had served that purpose once, more than 70 years ago at the bottom of the world, where it had been carried by one of the most famous men alive.

To anyone in America in the 1930s and the decades that followed, Admiral Richard E. Byrd’s name was attached to the extreme limits of human exploration in the uncharted Antarctic. His exploits to the so-called White Continent played out in breathless newspaper coverage in real time: “Byrd, in Isolation, Reports Blizzard.” New York City threw him not one, not two, but three ticker-tape parades.

He was a prominent fixture at the Explorers Club, a New York City institution dating back to the early 1900s. Its members have visited the earth’s poles and peaks, from the summit of Mount Everest to the ocean’s deepest points, in the Mariana Trench. And they carried with them the club’s cherished flags, with the E and C logo. When Neil Armstrong walked on the moon, he carried a club flag tucked in his spacesuit’s sleeve pocket.

Three ticker-tape parades celebrated Admiral Byrd, including one in 1930 after an expedition to Antarctica. Credit…Underwood Archives/Getty Images

The explorers’ adventures were meticulously recorded in their headquarters, now located in a townhouse on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. There, a trove of material tells of the exploits of Admiral Byrd in his prime, in the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s.

But for decades after his death in 1957, someone else was going to great lengths to preserve his legacy — outside the traditional means. What would have been a straightforward, museum-ready presentation of adventure and bravery became something far messier, spread over miles in dank, dark corners of basements and attics: a story about a son forever cloaked by a famous father’s shadow.

Admiral Byrd had four children, one of them a son born in 1920, to whom he gave his name: Richard E. Byrd. The boy, nicknamed Dick, grew up knowing his father more, perhaps, from far-flung headlines than from life in their home in Boston.

Some sons who share the blood and the very name of a famous man pivot toward their own path. Not so Dick Byrd, who would go on to direct his energies back toward the admiral, for decades, to the point of obsession.

Take that flag from the auction house.

The Explorers Club flag appeared without warning on an auction site last year.Credit…Sasha Maslov for The New York Times

Known as Flag No. 98, it has been missing for more than 70 years, and many at the Explorers Club believed it had been lost to the brutally harsh elements on its journey to the Antarctic. Yet here it was at an auction house in Massachusetts, in pristine condition.

And this sort of thing had happened before, over and over. Someone in Boston would find an old box in a garage or a basement or a barn, and inside, there would be lost relics of Admiral Byrd.

The discoveries are like visitations between two men long dead. A father, returning home from the hinterlands with treasure, and the son, hoarding it away, in misguided service to the old man’s legacy.

An Abbreviated Mission

The deployment of the Antarctic Snow Cruiser, designed especially for the expedition, was not a success.Credit…U. S. Antarctic Service

The E.C. on the flag stood for Explorers Club, but this was no everyday souvenir.

The club, since the time of Theodore Roosevelt’s membership, had kept a collection of more than 100 flags that it lent to explorers on their way to worthy expeditions. To be selected to carry a flag has long been considered a great honor.

The flags are returned after these expeditions, and their latest outing is dutifully recorded, so that each flag has developed its own story. Roy Chapman Andrews, an inspiration for the old adventure films that informed the creation of Indiana Jones, took Flag. No. 6 with him into the Gobi Desert and Mongolia in 1928. Flag No. 50 has been part of expeditions to Easter Island and on board a Virgin Galactic flight to space.

Flag, No. 98 was brand-new when, in 1939, it was given to Admiral Byrd as he prepared to lead a third team to Antarctica, a mission more urgent than ever.

His legend, at age 51, already loomed large: In two privately funded trips to Antarctica over the prior 10 years, Admiral Byrd created an outpost on the ice, named “Little America.”

The third trip, in 1939, was different. It was funded by the government, to identify plants and other forms of life that could survive in the cold. But there were other pressing motives: Nazi Germany had sent an expedition to Antarctica the year before, seeking a whaling outpost to supply animal fat back home. Germany claimed in a statement: “The territory is unmistakably marked by Reich flags,” The New York Times reported that year.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt personally directed an expedition to set up two year-round U.S. outposts and put Admiral Byrd in charge. The admiral led a large team on two ships with relatively little time to prepare and yet seemingly lacked for nothing.

For his role in a naval mission, Admiral Byrd was awarded the Legion of Merit by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1945.Credit…Henry Burroughs/Associated Press

A blockbuster addition to this particular expedition was a huge piece of equipment: the Antarctic Snow Cruiser. It stood 16 feet tall and almost 60 feet long. Its giant wheels, taller than a man, were smooth and retractable into the body of the cruiser, so that it might sled downhill on toboggan runners. The interior could sleep four on bunks, with laboratories, a radio room and a galley. There was a platform on top for a single-engine airplane.

And yet for all the fanfare, Admiral Byrd’s visit to the white continent would be short- lived. Months after his arrival, he was summoned home in preparation for war.

In the end, the mission, while abbreviated, was deemed a success, with camps set up beneath American flags, laying the groundwork for a claim to the continent should the need arise.

Less triumphant was the Snow Cruiser. It barely moved on the soft surface, its big bald tires unable to find traction. When the expedition left Antarctica, the cruiser was left behind. Years later, some speculated it had fallen through a crack during an ice shift, sinking to the ocean floor.

When Admiral Byrd and his team returned from Antarctica, Flag No. 98 was missing. If someone from the Explorers Club saw fit to ask the admiral about its whereabouts, no one wrote down his answer.

The country entered World War II in 1941. As the years passed, Flag No. 98 was basically written off.

Protecting a Legacy

Admiral Byrd’s expeditions made him famous but cast an enormous shadow over the son who bore his name.Credit…Associated Press

When Admiral Byrd departed on that Antarctica trip, his son and namesake, Dick, was 19. He had grown up writing his father from afar. “Did you get the $5 I sent you?” the young boy wrote one Christmas before joking: “I hope your sink doesn’t ship and you get to the Pole South safely.”

The son attended prestigious prep schools and later Harvard University before joining the Navy like his father before him, seeking to make his own name.

“The pressure was on,” Leverett Byrd, one of Dick Byrd’s four sons, said years later.

After serving in the Pacific in World War II, Dick Byrd joined his father on a trip to Antarctica in 1946. He wrote of the journey for The Boston Globe.

“A Boy’s Dream Comes True,” he wrote. “It seems as though I have been living in a world of great adventure all my life — even if it’s been secondhand.”

Personal troubles followed. His marriage ended in divorce, and his former wife took custody of their four sons. Dick Byrd, now carrying the rank of commander, seems to have indulged his eccentricities, especially two: rebuilding old cars — hundreds of them, many incomplete — and creating a museum to honor his father.

Commander Byrd would say later that his father left instructions on his deathbed for his voluminous papers: “Take care of the files. They are the record.”

In middle age, according to press accounts, he hoarded his father’s belongings — papers, uniforms, medals and equipment — all over Boston, in bank vaults and storage facilities, barns and basements.

“He was trying to, in his thought process, protect all the stuff that they had,” said Eleanor Byrd, a niece, last month in an interview. “He would rent space in someone’s basement or garage and pay the first two months and disappear.”

In 1982, at age 62, Commander Byrd was to travel by train from Boston to Washington, D.C., for a ceremony commemorating a postage stamp honoring his father. He was, by many accounts, unwell — gaunt with missing teeth, his short-term memory failing — but he seemed up for the trip.

He never arrived, disappearing from the train en route. After weeks, in October 1982, his body was found in a dark warehouse in Baltimore, dressed in filthy clothes and one shoe. The headline in The Times noted the role for which he was best known:

“Body of Adm. Byrd’s Son, 68, Found in Empty Warehouse.”

“His whole life was pretty difficult,” Leverett Byrd said at the time. “You can imagine what it was like to be the son of Admiral Byrd.”

Following Commander Byrd’s death, for years thereafter, his scattered storage spaces surfaced, revealing their treasures. Someone’s aging father would die, and the children, cleaning out the basement or garage, would discover boxes of items that once had belonged to Admiral Byrd.

“A guy called me and said he found trash bags in his new house in Newton, and all the stuff was Byrd material,” said Kenneth W. Rendell, a Boston dealer of historical materials and rare books, in a 2001 interview with The Globe. “It sounded like junk, and it was — Christmas cards and a Whitman candy box. But all of a sudden, out from one of the bags pours everything that’s important: all his messages from the South Pole to his wife, all of the guts of what Admiral Byrd was all about. I was stunned.”

The discoveries brought no pleasure to the commander’s sons.

“There are still people finding things when they tear down an old warehouse in Boston,” said Richard E. Byrd III, 73, in an interview in December.

He remembers a call from the father of a classmate of one of his daughters: “‘I’ve got all this Admiral Byrd stuff in my garage, and you have to come get it or I’m throwing it in a dumpster.’ It was a real pain in the neck,” he said.

While Byrd material is spread among several institutions, many new discoveries are sent to his archives at the Byrd Polar and Climate Research Center at Ohio State University.

“It’s just not unusual for stuff to show up out of the blue,” Mr. Byrd III said, “and you have no idea where it came from.”

A Flag Reappears

Will Roseman, the executive director of the Explorers Club, knew immediately that the flag needed to come home.Credit…Sasha Maslov

The Explorers Club’s long-lost Flag No. 98 was first noticed on the Plymouth auction house’s website on Nov. 17, by a member with a standing online search for all things Byrd.

A plan to acquire the flag was hastily reached. Will Roseman, the executive director of the club, called the auction house, and Josh Rioux, the auctioneer, answered.

“‘I understand you have an Explorers Club flag,’” Mr. Rioux recalled Mr. Roseman saying. “‘Unfortunately, it is the property of the Explorers Club, and you can’t sell it.’”

Oh, really?

“I’m not in a position to pull it out of the auction until I speak to my client,” Mr. Rioux replied.

“I have a solution,” Mr. Roseman countered. He offered $2,500 for the flag. Mr. Rioux spoke to his client, who accepted, and Flag No. 98 was removed from the auction site before sundown.

Where had it come from? Where had it been all these years? Mr. Rioux said his client did not want to be named or to discuss the flag. The client’s father had been a prolific collector of uniforms and memorabilia throughout his life, and after he died in 2016, the son decided to put some up for auction, including a handful of Byrd uniforms and the flag.

As it happens, Mr. Rioux had met the client’s father years earlier and clearly recalled the man telling him that he had recently purchased a batch of Byrd items, including the flag.

Mr. Rioux remembered seeing a bill of sale. He had recognized immediately the name of the seller. Anyone would have.

It was signed: Commander Richard E. Byrd. A son, with a stroke of the pen, saying goodbye to his father again.

Related Articles

Back to top button