Admiral Byrds; Legacy in limbo
Richard E. Byrd -- "Admiral of the ends of the earth," aerial mapmaker of Antarctica, father of the landmark treaty that ensured its peaceful use, flyer of dangerous missions during World War II -- is the true American hero is ever there was one.
On the 50th anniversary of his first flight over the South Pole (November, 1929), the world was reminded of some of the daring exploits that won him his place in America's hall of fame.
And in his five books Admiral Byrd has disclosed much about his exhilarating work, thoughts, and event-crowded career. But there is much more to be learned as soon as a way can be found to open up his papers to the world.
More than 50 four-drawer file cabinets bulging with his memorabilia, as well as some 400 reels of 35mm film, and much of the equipment used on his various expeditions are salted safely away in storage in Boston and Washington, D.C., waiting for the Admiral's children to settle differences over their mother's will.
When the Admiral passed on 23 years ago, the papers went to his wide, Marie Ames Byrd, an enthusiastic supporter of her husband's explorations, for whom he named a vast stretch of Antartica "Marie Byrd Land." In 1966 she established the Admiral Richard E. Byrd Foundation. But she did not will his papers to the foundation. When she passed on six years ago they became involved in the contest over her will.
Many people are eager to study those papers. Any important institution dealing with manuscript material would naturally be glad to have such a valuable historic resource, says Frank Burch, director of the National Archives Center for Polar and Scientific Archives. "Everybody who knows that Admiral Byrd had a large collection of personal papers has been wondering where they are going to be deposited."
Institutions eager to possess them include:
* The National Archives itself. Mr. Burch's unit already has much still and motion film taken by the Admiral on his expeditionary flights.
* The manuscript division of the Library of Congress.
* The Naval Historical Foundation in Washington, a private organization that collects and deposits for research the papers of important naval officers.
* Colleges and universities having special interest in polar matters, such as Dartmouth, Bowdoin, Harvard, and Ohio State.
When Mrs. Byrd established the foundation, the broad purpose she assigned to its trustees was "to establish and maintain a library, reference or information center, or museum to collect, catalogue, document, publish and make available for the general public, scientific and educational purposes and for any agency or department of the US Government all records, notes, manuscripts, film, data, equipment, and other material relating to Arctic and Antarctic explorations commanded or guided by Admiral Byrd." She also wanted it to support Washington's efforts towards international cooperation and peace expressed in the Antarctic Treaty (an international document, largely the work of Admiral Byrd, which has turned the bottom of the world into a great experiment in peaceful scientific cooperation among more than 13 signatory nations) "and any treaty or understanding between the US and other governments concerning the use of outer space." It was thought that the treaty might serve as a model for treaties concerning outer space.
In July, 1967, Mrs. Byrd willed to the foundation the Byrd home on Brimmer Street in Boston (exclusive of furnishings) which had been in her seafaring Yankee family since the early 1900s. Apparently she considered the house a possible headquarters for the foundation, as it indeed became during her later years.
The home is one of those noble red brick town houses at the foot of Beacon Hill. It tall windows look out on the Charles River Basin. The four Byrd childre and all 13 grandchildred revelled in sliding down its plunging five-story banister, occasionally overshooting the newel post and landing on Grandmother Ames's battered alabaster lamp.
Mrs. Byrd also proveded amodest trust fund, believed today to total about $30 ,000, to finance the foundation. In her will probated following her passing, she divided her estate "in equal shores to my children." the result is a legal tangle.
At present the Byrd collection of papers and expenditionary gear are widely scattered:
The National Archives' Polar Center has many still pictures on nitreate film - the first systematic aerial film ever taken of Antarctica. used to produce maps of the region, they were personally given to the archives by the Admiral in 1938. He also gave the archives some 35 reels of motion picture film covering his early flights and expeditions up through 1930. all this footage has been converted to safety film.
In addition, the archives is holding in courtesy storage nearly 400 reels of 35mm movie film of later Byrd expeditions. Most of these were deposited by Mrs. Byrd in 2959 after the Admiral's passing.
William Murphy, in charge of the polar unit's motion picures, says these nitrate films, now in cold storage, "have not been converted to safety film because they have not been legally given to the archives. They will be endangered if not transferred. but before doing so, we would have to have some indication from the byrd estate that they are willing to let the archives have this film permanently."
He says the movies might be good for another 10 to 20 years, "but we don't want to wait that long." He hopes to have final word on the disposition within six months, so that these films may be converted under a project now underway.
"There is no doubt about the films' historic value," he stresses, "because these were historic expeditions. The film the Admiral took for a visual record gives a dimension that you cannot get from books or a journal." It would be used , he says, as the other Byrd film now is used - as a resource for biographical, documentary, and TV film production.
A short distance away in the National Museum of History and Technology of the Smithsonian Institution are several thousand Byrd artifacts, ranging from aerial navigational instruments and polar survival equipment to the battered khaki uniform Byrd was wearing when ditched his plane off the coast of France when fog prevented a landing at Paris's Le Bourget Airport in 1927. (Admiral Byrd carried the first US Air Mail on that non-stop cross-ocean floght, as well as the first passengers, and accurately forcasted that the multi-enginded plane would be the commerical air carrier of the future.)
Dr. Philip K. Lundeberg, curator of the Smithsonian's Division of Naval history, says the scientific studies Byrd carried out in the Antarctic were not simply concerned with the terrain but showed how man can survive in extreme climatic conditions, and thus have importance in the space age. "His Antarctic expeditions were the threshold to the space age, so far as man's survival in a hostile environment," he says.
Yet only about 30 percent of the nuts and bolts - the furs, sleds, etc. - of the byrd expeditions now in the Smithsonian's hands are owned by it. The rest, like the film at the National Archives is on courtesy storage awaiting disposition by the Byrd family.
The smithsonian,Dr. Lundeberg says, which collects artifacts rather than manuscripts, is not interested in having the Byrd papers, but is eager for access to them to help it document the equipment it has. when the smithsonian completes its Hall of Armed forces Histore, he says, it will definitely contain an exhibit on Byrd's contributions.
In yet a third location of the nation's capital is the little hut which sheltered Byrd in total isolation at an advance bas of Antarctica for nearly five months in 1934 while making meterological observations. This high-risk self-assignment was the basis of his immensely popular book, "Alone." It's been published in 30 languages.
Fifty of those four-drawer file cases containing his papers - his detailed preparations for his expeditions, his correspondence with notable people all over the world - are currently on courtesy storage just outside Boston at a regional center of the National Archives - the Federal archives and Records Center in Waltham. In addition to these there are other papers in storage at undisclosed locations in the Boston area.
The Admiral's secretaries who once handled his files, have long since retired. the one person now hwo knows more than anyone else about the contents of the cases id commander Richard E. byrd Jr. the only son of the Admiral and Mrs. byrd, he won his navy rank while accompanying his father on two of the Antarctic Expeditions.
In 1938, he says, his father turned over to him as "overseer" the collection of expedition equipment and supplies which at that time were kept at 7 Brimmer street, the house next door to the byrd home, which the Admiral used as his office.
a few days before his father passed on in 1957, Comdr. Byrd says the Admiral told him: "Take care of the files, they are the record."
Since then the Commander has dedicated himself fulltime to safeguarding all the byrdiana, and telling the story of his father's illestrious career. He regards the Admiral's records as "priceless", since the Antarctic was the last land mass on earth to be explored.
After his father passed on, the kByrd collection became dispersed still further. No. 7 Brimmer Street was sold. Much of its contents were crowded into 9 Brimmer. Equipment was store in different places, with 50 of the file cabinets going to a fireproof building at the South Boston Naval annex.
According to Comdr. Byrd, from 1957 until his mother passed on in 1974, the two of them carried on the Admiral's work, "doing research and answering inquiries from scholars, schools, and the general public."
Asked the question: "Are the Admiral's papers part of your mother's estate or of the Byrd foundation?" the Commander replied: "They were turned over to my custody and ownership by Mrs. byrd before she passed on, becuause I was the only one left, besides herself, who knew the files and papers, with the final end in mid for them to go to a proper and satisfactory repository and to continue the work she had been carrying on . . . My career is to carry forward what she had in mind. that is what I have done all throught my liftime. why should I change now?"
In 1975, the Navy transferred South Boston annex to the City of Boston. some expedition equipment went to the Smithsonian. It was at this point that the National archives offered the executor of Mrs. Byrd's extate, the State Street Bank and Trust Co. in kBoston, to store the papers on a courtesy storage basis in its Waltham branch. the bank accepted.
What remains in the house at 9 Brimmer street, which Comdr. Byrd continues to use as the Byrd foundation office, is not a matter of public knowledge. Despite a complaint filed in Suffolk County Probate Court by the executor - a court action is still pending - the bank has been unable to gain access to the premises for the purpose of distributing its contents according to Mrs. Byrd's will.
From the exterior, the property presnets and unkempt appearance. Shrubs have become trees, overgrowing windows. Some shedes are drawn. Part of the front stoop railing is missing.
Neighbors, concerned about the volume of items brought into the house from No. 7 and elsewhere, filed a complaint with Boston's housing Inspection Department in January, 1977. A clean-up order was complied with; inappropriate material was removed, and the case was closed in May that year.
Frank P. Henry, director of the Housing Inspection Department, says that during his inspections he saw many file cases and boxes of papers throughtout the house. Comdr. byrd has assured the Monitor that the only files now there are those containing current correspondonce dating back about two years. the rest of the papers, he said, are in storage in the Lboston are.
The commander carries on this work of answering queries along withno paid office help. he says only a very minor part of the Byrd papers has been catalogued. The foundation is not listed in the Boston telephone directory.
This manner of operating the foundation as a private organization rather than as a public, charitable trust, as it was set up, has aroused the concern of the Massachusetts Attorney General.
The original trustees of the foundation were Mrs. Byrd, her son, and a friend. Legal action by the Attorney General's office resulted in an agreement whereby a new board of trustees was formed. It is composed of Comdr. Byrd, his son, Richard E. byrd III, and three highly qualified professionals: Bradford Washburn, director of bonston's celebrated Museum of science; Dorothy Brown, vice president of the boston Safe Deposit and Trust company and a trustee of the noted dPeabody Museum in Salem, Mass.; and James b. ames, a senior partner of the boston law firm of Ropes & Gray and past president of the Massachusetts Historical society.
Since the trustees began beeting last March, they have been beseigned by inquiries as to what the foundation intends to do to honor the memory and continue the work of Admiral Byrd.
"There are two broad areas in which the foundation can work," says Dr. Washburn, who was a personal friend of the Admiral. "First, disposition of all these papers and artifacts so that where they wind up they will do the most good. That could proceed right now, if the family wants it to.
"Second, when the Byrd estate is all settled to everybody's satisfaction, we expect there is going to be some money left for use by the foundation. We are willing, eager, and enthusiastic to do with such funds something that would have made Dick Byrd very happy.
"But right now," he continues, "we are on dead center and will remain so until the family has worked out an equitable arrangement of Mrs. Byrd's affairs to the point where we know what resources we hae to work with. Until that is resolved, we can't do a thing except wait - slightly impatiently."
Carol Fubini, assistant attorney general in the division of public charities, says her office has a legal obligation to insure that the property at 9 Brimmer Street, which the foundation clearly owns, is used for the purposes for which it was intended in Mrs. byrd's trust.
The trustees' responsibility, she explains, is to make the judgment whether or not the estate can be settled and whether or not they can obtain any of the Admiral's memorabilia.
"If not," she says, "then I think they will have to use the house for some kind of charitable purpose or sell it and use the proceeds. Our position is that they have a reasonable amount of time to make that decision." She did not spell out what se means by "reasonable."
One realtor estimates the byrd home could bring as much as $200,000. An option open to the trustees is to use proceeds from the sale of the house to set up a scholarship in the Admiral's name for polar research at some educationals institution.
Since the house is not fireproof, it would appear to be an inappropriate repository for the Byrd collection. Certainly, however, the house could qualify as a historic site of national importance. But experts estimate it would require an endowment of $1million or more to support it as a house museum.
And the necessary city permit to do so might be difficult to secure. The Beacon Hill Civic Association has a long history of opposition to institutional expansion. Its standing position is against any museum in the area that would take a house off the city's tax rolls or increase traffic on this stylish bu narrow street.
Conceivably the National Park Service could gallop to the rescue. It would take an act of congress to authorize it, but the NPS does have in its bag of historic-preservation tricks a variety of combinations under which it could take over ownership of such a house and operate it, or operate it for its owners, perhaps even tapping the expert knowledge of Commander byrd as its superintendent.
Byrd foundation trustee Dorothy KBrown says that "because of the tremendous knowledge the Byrd family has of the Admiral, we all want them to feel very related to the foundation and its purpose. The board would like to have the family pleased with our ideas and conclusions and with whatever action the board takes."
Word from attorneys representing the estate is that negotiations have now reached a delicate stage. Yount Richard E. Byrd III says, "Everybody in the family - all the Admiral's children - are very much interested in this foundation. Everybody wants to get the ting settled up so that we can go ahead with it, and everybody can go back about their business."
In 1962 the National Geographic Society erected on the Avenue of Heroes near Arlington National Cemetery a heroic bronze statue of the "Admiral of the ends of the earth."
The same year New Zealand, used by Byrd as a base for his Antarctic expeditions, unveiled the cairn that commemorates his explorations and especially his leading role in the Antarctic Treaty. The simple concrete hut, studded with stones from the Antarctic and facing southwar, cooputies a commanding view of Wellington's magnificent harbor.
The US Postal Service is currently considering issuing a centennial stamp to commmemorate the Admiral's birth in Virginia in 1888.
Interested observers are now watching to see if the Byrd Foundation, despite a slow start, will be able to give Boston and opportunity to add its own recognition to this celebrated adopted son.
"We are all hoping," Dr. Washburn says, "that the problems of Mrs. Byrd's estate can be resolved as soon as possible so that the foundation can move forward on two broad fronts: First, to take action that will honor Admiral Byrd as one of bonton's most distinguished citizens; and second, to use whatever funds that may become available to the foundation to do the most appropriate and effective things possible with the extraordinary resources that Admiral Byrd left to the United States and the world."