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Choosing people of character

Richard Byrd Expedition, 1930.

Richard Byrd Expedition, 1930.

[by Earl Blacklock] Richard Evelyn Byrd was a remarkable explorer and adventurer whose accomplishments made history. An officer in the U.S. Navy, he flew perilous journeys over Arctic regions, one of which won him the Medal of Honor. In 1927, he crossed the Atlantic with three others, and survived a crash landing at Normandy, France. And in 1929, he began a series of expeditions to Antarctica, his best known accomplishment.

So what did Rear Admiral Byrd look for when choosing his crew for these quests? Before leaving on his first expedition to Antarctica, he set out the criteria he used to select his team from the thousands of applicants who wanted to serve.

First, he sought men who knew what it was to face prolonged danger without fear. That ability, he felt, arose in large part from “good heart and digestion” and exercise. Those who were in good health, he observed, were often those best able to deal with extraordinary challenges.

While he gave strength its due, he also observed that there were young men who could not stand long muscle strain, while others such as Lawrence of Arabia – dubbed “that runt” in his youth – outlasted men who were seemingly stronger. Age, too, was a factor. The young tended to be stronger, he felt, and the youngest of his Antarctic expedition, Paul Allman Siple, was only 19 at the time. However, he also pointed to the example of Alaskan missionary Archdeacon Struck who, at 60, was able to walk 45 miles a day over a rough trail at minus 52.

Outside of these obvious physical characteristics, Byrd sought men of character, seeking to exclude those who had built up a “resistance to hardship, discomfort, and all the other irritations of a voyage into the unknown”. For that, he looked to the man’s friends and what they think of him, seeking a “sociable man, good mixer, and tolerant enemy” who could work well with an imperfect team and who lacked vanity.

He also looked for those who had “antidotes to weakness” such as hobbies, noting that those who could spend endless hours of inactivity doing carving do better than those who cannot. He also looked for those with a spirit of complete devotion to the job at hand – men like Floyd Bennett who, on one of Byrd’s overflights of remote Ellesmere Island, dealt with a malfunctioning oil tank by crawling out on the wing in the cold Arctic air to relieve the tank’s pressure before it exploded.

Finally, Byrd looked for men of faith. “I need not argue the value of religious faith as an asset”, he said. “Annals of exploration are full of heroism and sacrifice premised in a belief in God’s will.” He sought men who lived Romans 12:2, which says “Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is–his good, pleasing and perfect will.”

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