Antarctica, January 27th, 1956
Admiral Richard Evelyn Byrd stood firm in the blizzard. He wore his practical winter trench coat today instead of the medal-adorned uniform he usually sported at formal occasions—leading his men through the snows deep in Antarctica was anything but a posh dinner party nor was it remotely like a military briefing back home in America. If there was anything at all he had learned after serving thirty years in the U.S. Navy, it was the appreciation of pragmatic leadership.
It’s not about how gallantly the mission is accomplished, but that it is accomplished—without fail.
He waded through the ankle-deep snows with his thick military boots and found himself striding up a small hill, hoping to glance at the wide, desolate landscape. He squinted towards it and looked closely.
Blast…I can’t see a thing.
The snows whirled around him and his men. Despite the observable fact that the sun was in zenith, any prospects of seeing far ahead were abysmal. The blizzard was simply too thick today. He turned around and addressed his men.
“Corporal Needham! Binoculars, if you may!”
A scrawny young man, barely eighteen years of age from what Byrd could estimate, emerged from the ranks and handed his pair of binoculars over to the admiral. Byrd grabbed the black Bausch & Lomb army binoculars and proceeded to look into them.
I’ll be damned. Still not a thing in sight, other than a thick haze of white mist.
He handed the scopes back to the young corporal, knelt to the snow… and reflected.
We have to go further, with or without a clear line of sight.
He gazed upon his platoon, and despaired.
Green boys. I bet most of them have never seen this much snow or ice in their lives combined. Not that I had first-hand experience of polar weather conditions when I was in their age, though…the climate in Virginia is about as mild as they come.
Twenty-eight years had come and gone since his first Antarctic expedition, but he could recall the voyage to the southernmost outpost of the Earth as if it was yesterday. The same ponderings that haunted him back then came crawling back today.
We are not meant to live here. Human life is not suited for this place.
After five polar expeditions during a span over three decades, Byrd’s boyish facial features had started to wax and wane, and his hair had turned to a rather dour shade of grey—but his old sentiments still stood the test of time.
We are not meant to dwell here.
He rose to his feet and tried to push the nostalgic memories away, which surged like shockwaves through his body and soul.
It is not time for me to retire just yet. I have a job to do…one final assignment. The rocking chair can wait.
He ordered the platoon onwards, and they marched through the snowy inferno. They had arrived with the USS Wyandot one month prior. They reached the outskirts of the Ross Ice Shelf and had stayed the night at McMurdo Base. Swiftly thereafter, a hellish long and tiresome walk followed towards the South Pole, which they had reached two days ago.
We ought to build a base here. A base here at the South Pole so that people can come and go safely and stay the night with a roof over their heads and proper floor under their feet, here as far south as south goes. It would be reasonable to name it after Roald Amundsen…as long as we don’t name the encampment in the honour of Robert Falcon Scott, all is well. If you finish second place, you deserve neither award nor glory. You win, or you lose. There is no middle ground.
The orders assigned to him by his superiors were clear and sound, as always. They were to reach the South Pole and thereafter head forward on foot and emerge on the other side of the continent in the area around Queen Maud Land. They were to settle down at the Norwegian military base at the site and await transport back home to the States. Judging by the briefing in Washington where Byrd had been assigned the task, this was to be the very first attempt at traversing Antarctica in human history.
I better not slip up at the finish line.
The platoon marched onwards with all the strength they could muster, and Byrd decided to set up camp after having led his men forward for two miles. Two corporals and a private were in the process of assembling Byrd’s large admiral tent when the snowstorm suddenly appeared to fizzle out. The blowing wind abated, and the few snowflakes that fell from the sky were minuscule. Byrd stood with his arms crossed and watched over the sad attempts by his men trying to assemble his tent, then he turned around and looked out over the plains—the line of sight had improved remarkably just over the course of a few minutes. To his disappointment, what he saw was the same as always.
Same old tundra. Same old flat lands and the ever-extending ice, glaciers, and snow…snow in spades.
Suddenly, he heard a cry from somewhere ahead of him. “Sir!” It was young corporal Needham, who stood and gazed with binoculars at his position as sentry about fifty meters ahead of the camp. Byrd waded through the thick snow and cut through it like Moses at the Red Sea with his aging albeit still fit body. He approached Needham.
“What have you seen?” Needham held the binoculars in his right hand. He was trembling. “I don’t know, sir. I don’t know.”
“Give me those,” commanded Byrd. Needham handed the binoculars over to him, and he looked in to the optics. “Where should I look?” Needham, still trembling, pointed at the horizon with shaky fingers.
“There. Over there, two o’ clock.” Byrd squinted and looked directly at two o’clock. He saw nothing but the endless, desolate snowy landmass they had wandered through for a whole month.
“I see nothing,” said Byrd. He looked through the optics once more, just for safety. And that was when he saw it. He dropped the binoculars, which fell to the ground with a thud. Byrd rubbed his eyes, hoping that what he saw was a mirage…he picked the binoculars up from the snow and looked again.
Dear God. It’s not a mirage. It looks like…looks like…could it be? Sweet Mary, mother of God.