Admiral Byrd’s Secretly Boozy Expedition to Antarctica
How the famous explorer and his crew drank their way through their Prohibition-era adventure.
You can’t drink, because it’s 1928 and that marvelously stupid morality law, Prohibition, is in effect. But you’re about to shove off from a New York dock and helm an exploration to the bottom of the earth, where the ice is more than a mile thick and it’s cold enough to freeze spit in midair. Any sailor headed for Tahiti, much less Antarctica, knows you need booze to make a long voyage bearable. But you’re the all-American explorer Richard Byrd and you’re revered by every person in the country. You flew over the North Pole—or at least you said you did—in a little metal airplane that looks like something your brother bought in a hobby shop and glued together himself. You’re going to stick the American flag in the snow on the underside of the planet and give the country another reason to thumb its nose at Europe! But if you’re really all-American, you can’t thumb your nose at the Eighteenth Amendment. You have to respect Prohibition. Er, don’t you?
During the Jazz Age, Americans finally had an Antarctic super explorer of their own—someone who could stand beside the men of the previous heroic age, including England’s legendary Ernest Shackleton and Robert Falcon Scott. And that’s not to mention Norway’s Roald Amundsen, the crafty strategist who in 1911 had been the first to reach the South Pole, just five weeks ahead of Scott’s team. The 39-year-old blue blood “Dick” Byrd from Virginia, was a slight but strong man with a chiseled, smooth-shaven face. He looked the part of a hero and acted like one, too, admired already for the responsible, safety-first ethics he had demonstrated exploring the North Pole by ship and plane in 1926. Now he had his eye on the South Pole.
Byrd was aboard the expedition’s flagship, The City of New York, as it left its namesake’s harbor. But a little past the Statue of Liberty, Byrd turned around and headed to Los Angeles to join one of the two leased whaling ships headed south with the boats his expedition owned. In all, he was in command of four ships. The whaling ships held precious cargo, nearly 100 sled dogs.
This ruse was an unnecessary step in his adventure but it provided the mandatory photo opportunity and romantic shots of the flagship leaving American waters were essential for publicity. The few journalists onboard the old-fashioned multi-masted barquentine, which evoked the previous century, fired off a few last questions and were particularly intrigued by his liquor rations. Byrd pooh-poohed rumors that the two thousand gallons of booze, four hundred gallons of rum, one hundred gallons of port wine, one hundred gallons of sherry, one hundred quarts of Champagne, and additional rye and Burgundy on board were anything but medicinal. What an undignified question! “Just when we are starting,” he told the goading reporter who dared to raise that issue, “I can hardly afford to discuss things that are not so. I have issued the order that there is to be no intoxicating liquor aboard except for medicinal purposes, and that this alcohol is the be kept under lock and key by the medicinal officer of the expedition.”
Byrd’s predecessors, the explorers of what’s been called the heroic age, did not have to suffer the indignity of America’s temperance movement. Ernest Shackleton wisely brought along plenty of hard liquor to cheer on his men. In 2006, several unopened cases of Mackinlay’s Single Malt Whisky his crew imbibed in 1909 were found beneath the floorboards of their expedition hut in Antarctica’s Cape Royds. The whisky was smartly recreated by Whyte & Mackay, the modern owner of Mackinlay’s, and was sold to curious drinkers.
Among the first dangers Byrd’s men encountered on the expedition was a United States Marshal hell-bent on making a newsworthy Prohibition arrest. Halfway to the Virginia Cape (where the ships would load up on coal), the supply boat, The Bolling, suffered the indignity of being boarded by vigilante Coast Guard commanding warrant officer Carl Grenager. He pulled up on an armed revenue cutter with a team of United States Marshals, suspecting a boat with “Byrd Antarctic” painted boldly on her side of being a well-disguised rumrunner. From the deck of his government boat, officer Grenager rather hilariously called, “Heave to ‘til I board you!” (The New Yorker shortly quipped: “To this zealous . . . officer goes this department’s infrequent award of the nickel-plated dumbbell.”)
By the time the ships passed through the Panama Canal, Byrd faced another Prohibition dilemma. How would he cover for his men when they reached the Panama Canal, a stop famous for sin?
It was all ashore on Oct. 4, 1928, at Cristóbal, on the Atlantic Ocean side of the Panama Canal. Byrd’s supply ship, The Bolling, as The New York Times put it, was “scarcely bigger than a tugboat,” and dwarfed by freighters and oil tankers. It entered the locks heavily laden with coal. At port, every man raced off board except for the unlucky four left on watch.
The same situation occurred when The City of New York arrived at the port. Cristóbal was well known to mail-deprived and sex-starved sailors, and letters from home waited for them in duffels onshore but they had others things on their mind. They knew exactly what they would spend their pocket money on: for some opiates, but for most, prostitutes, who waited on the dock to do business with the randy crew, including the eminent academics on board.
Veteran sailors on the expedition were wiser than that, and raced in hungry packs to the crooked, narrow streets of “wet” Colón, just blocks way. (Cristóbal was technically “dry,” since it was part of the territory leased by America from Panama.) Married men might have stopped at flirtation and been satisfied with the American-style partner dancing the local ladies had mastered from watching motion pictures, but discretion was rare after so many weeks at sea.
Seamen with beery breath were late reboarding the ships after “toot stops” at Colón’s dance parlors and cantinas, such as the Over the Top and the Atlantic Café.
Byrd’s flagship and supply ship both arrived in Tahiti on Nov. 1, 1928. The residents of Tahiti had enjoyed a considerable amount of contact with sailors on American ships, since the opening of the Panama Canal in 1914; the nation had become a regular refueling spot for commercial vessels and tourist boats. The government had recently extended Papeete’s wharf to permit two large ships to dock side by side, and it actively wooed U.S. trade dollars and trade.
Certainly the members of the Byrd expedition were wooed, and in a far more forward fashion. By one sailor’s account, native ladies dropped their brightly colored cotton dresses and swam naked to the ships. The evening of the crews’ arrivals, an expatriate living in Papeete, one Mrs. Miller, gave a party against the wishes of the American consul. She would be damned if the U.S. government was going to extend Prohibition to French Polynesia. She was aided by what one expedition member called a “South seas princess in silk pajamas.” Other native beauties poured Champagne donated by the French crew of the Chicopee Cruise Line, who had also been invited to the party.
The next day the men explored the town. Just a skip from the waterfront were fifteen saloons with dance floors, automatic player pianos, and drinks aplenty: beer and French Champagne. And the dancing! But soon it was time to ship off again.
The supply ship reached Dunedin on the southern island of New Zealand on Sunday, Nov. 18. The Sabbath was taken seriously in those parts, and Sunday blue laws were strictly enforced. So, while there was no official reception, hundreds of people personally welcomed The Bolling men at the piers. Conveniently for the crew, New Zealand had repealed its Prohibition law four days before its arrival, and in private homes, the liquor flowed legally—a celebration that continued in the pubs as soon as Monday dawned.
For the lucky men selected by Byrd to winter over with him in the Antarctic, it was hard to keep from going stir-crazy. There were unusual beard contests and a follies performance featuring some of the crew as chorus girls and others in blackface. However, what got left out of the newspaper reports of their activities was the “medicinal” alcohol mixed with lemon powder for a secret Antarctic cocktail the men called a Blowtorch.
You have to hand it to Byrd, who according to diary accounts of some of his men, drank many a Blowtorch despite his teetotaling reputation.
Even at the party held for the expedition’s return in 1930, which was held at the Hotel Astor in Times Square, before a room of a thousand, Byrd kept up his temperance act. Prohibition would not end for another three years, so at Byrd’s bequest, a toast of ice water was made.
No doubt many of the crew sitting on the dais smiled to themselves, knowing damn well how much liquor had been consumed during their “dry” expedition.