Dangerous Crossings: the First Modern Polar Expedition, 1925

John H. Bryant and Harold N. Cones

Naval Institute Press, 2000


Reviewed by Jonathan Dore


This book, a study of Donald MacMillan’s ninth Arctic expedition in 1925, might surprise readers coming to it from a background of interest in exploration and the Arctic. Bryant and Cones are respectively a professor of architecture and a professor of biology who share a passion for the history of radio. Their research into the history of the Zenith Corporation (a pioneer in American radio development in the 1920s), which has already resulted in two books, led them to research and write about one of the most important testing grounds of the then-newly exploited shortwave frequencies, MacMillan’s 1925 expedition. The other groundbreaking aspect of that expedition was the use of aeroplanes in Arctic exploration, providing the first national exposure for the naval flyer Richard Byrd and his team of pilots, which presumably accounts for the book’s publication under the auspices of the Naval Institute Press. Arctic exploration per se is thus a tangential meeting place where these other interests intersect, rather than the main theme of the book, so readers primarily concerned with it should be warned that their interest here sits firmly in the observer’s seat, not the pilot’s.

The 1925 expedition was conceived with three aims: to demonstrate how shortwave radio equipment could enable explorers to keep in touch over truly global distances, overcoming the magnetic and atmospheric conditions that made longwave transmissions impossible over long distances during daylight (and thus the entire Arctic summer) or from north of the Auroral Belt; to demonstrate the ability of airborne explorers to discover more, in Macmillan’s words, "in a period of days than has been done by all the Arctic explorers with their dog teams in the past hundred years" (a pardonable exaggeration); and finally to use these new capabilities to conduct a reconaissance of the million square miles of Arctic Ocean north of Alaska not traversed by anyone before, in order to discover, or rule out the existence of, new land in that region. The first of these aims was achieved with unqualified success; the second was partially achieved, though with important reservations; the third was not achieved at all.

Radio communications were the triumph of the expedition, and their use was masterminded by Eugene McDonald, president of Zenith Corporation and a naval reservist who was second in command of the expedition. Not only did the new equipment allow real-time voice communication between the ships - especially valuable when navigating the icepack of Melville Bay - it also allowed virtually unlimited contact between the expedition and their sponsors at home: daily messages were exchanged with both the Navy and the National Geographic Society in Washington; several "concerts" of music performed by the crews and the local Inuit were broadcast to slightly bemused audiences gathered at Zenith’s receiving station in Illinois; and McDonald was even able to carry on dealing with Zenith business through daily contact with his Chicago office. The expedition’s radio transmissions were picked up by a detachment of the American fleet anchored in New Zealand, as well as many amateurs in Australia - factors that were strongly influential in the US Navy’s decision to adopt shortwave radio as its standard of communication shortly thereafter.

The expedition’s three single-engined Loening amphibious aeroplanes, an untried design, were shipped north and assembled at Etah in trying circumstances, in which bad luck played its part; the previous winter had been the coldest in living memory, and the three-week August "summer" of that latitude passed with barely a break in the clouds, meaning that landing places on open water were very hard to find. Landing on the uneven ice was out of the question, and eventually the original aim of establishing a forward base on the northern shore of Axel Heiberg Island from which flights over unexplored areas of the Arctic Ocean could be made had to be abandoned. The planes didn’t have enough fuel to fly there in one go, and only two landings could be made at possible cache sites along the way in the eight days of flying that the weather permitted. Even these were useless; an open fiord beside a cache might be ice-filled when the plane returned. The air crews were, however, able to see much land in the interior of Ellesmere Island that was inaccessible from the sea and thus had almost certainly never been seen by human eyes before. Yet without being able to land in the interior to measure and survey, and without (apparently) even taking photographs from the air, the information they discovered was anecdotal and only generally descriptive. Thirty thousand square miles had been seen from the air, but "seen" is all. Still, the lessons were learned: greater flexibility of landing capabilities, and the redundancy of multiple engines, were incorporated into future designs.

The book’s importance lies in establishing publicly for the first time two important facts about the expedition. First is the importance of the part played by McDonald, whose business acumen and high political connections did much to get the expedition financed and equipped, who commanded one of the expedition’s ships, and who oversaw both the technical details and the content of radio communications between the ships and the outside world. Second, although the authors are reluctant to put it in these terms, the book establishes that Richard Byrd, who had been trying to organize an airship-based expedition to the Arctic, stole the idea of using heavier-than-air craft from MacMillan and McDonald at the end of March 1925, passed it off as his own while shamelessly accusing them of stealing it from him (still with me?), and used the resulting fracas as leverage with which to get himself assigned to the expedition in command of the flying crews, though he had never before been to the Arctic. Byrd’s version of these events, with himself as the injured party, has until now been accepted without question, but the dates of correspondence about the plans between McDonald and Secretary of the Navy Curtis Wilbur, at a time when Byrd was still advocating an airship-based expedition, incontrovertibly show Byrd’s version to be a fraud.

McDonald emerges as the hero of Bryant and Cones’ narrative. A millionaire car dealer before World War I, he enlisted in the Navy during the war, then branched out into the radio business, becoming one of the founders of Zenith. His diplomatic skills were essential in gaining support for the 1925 expedition, and then in smoothing all difficulties in the ports at which the ships anchored. They were matched by his many private acts of philanthropy - such as regularly sending radio sets and batteries for thirty years afterwards to a remote community they encountered in Labrador - that have only come to light through the authors’ research in McDonald’s private papers. MacMillan, however, despite being the leader of the expedition and a man clearly admired by the authors, makes little impact on the story once the expedition is under way. The authors note that he "retained his well-deserved reputation for modesty, understatement, and veracity throughout his long career. Ironically, these very qualities may be responsible for his relative obscurity today." All the more inexcusable, then, that they contribute to that obscurity by sidelining the expedition commander so much in their account of his expedition. His personal journal seems to have been available to them, yet they content themselves largely with extracts from his anodyne account for the November 1925 National Geographic. This is symptomatic of the focus on radio and aviation, represented by McDonald and Byrd respectively, at the expense of exploration. McDonald was clearly a fascinating and accomplished man, but this was his only Arctic expedition; MacMillan participated in thirty-one.

Almost the only person McDonald really did not like in his entire life, it seems, was Richard Byrd, and this book contributes to and reinforces the pattern of information now emerging about this intriguingly flawed character. Byrd displayed great chutzpah - to put it most kindly - in pretending to have support he had not yet even asked for when trying to put together his airship expedition in early 1925. He lied outrageously to get himself appointed to the MacMillan expedition. Since 1996, when the flight diary of his Arctic expeditions came to light, we have known that Byrd did not fly over the North Pole in 1926 as he claimed, and may have been as much as 150 miles short of it when he and Floyd Bennett turned back. When McDonald remarked, in a confidential report after the expedition, that "our principle trouble with Commander Byrd was that he wanted to report having accomplished feats that we never attempted", it is clear that these are not isolated or uncharacteristic incidents. Yet Byrd displayed authentic courage in extremely hazardous flying conditions during the expedition, was conspicuously generous in his praise of the other flyers under his command, and went on to build major, and this time genuine, achievements, both scientific and explorational, in his series of five major expeditions in Antarctica between 1928 and his death in 1957. Like Frederick Cook, he seems to have let his intense desire for success and acclamation lead him into reckless falsehoods. Unlike Cook, Byrd got away with it - during his lifetime - and used those falsehoods as stepping stones to real accomplishments. By the time Cook gave in to his fantasizing, his real accomplishments were in the past. Byrd managed to walk on thin ice just long enough to reach dry land.