In the history of Antarctic Exploration, few stand taller than Admiral Richard Byrd. Between 1928 and 1956, he led five expeditions to Antarctica. However, it was his 1946 expedition known as Operation Highjump, Byrd would most be remembered for, albeit for dubious reasons.
A quick review of his achievements is enough to secure his place among the greatest explorers of the 20th century and American history. In 1926 he led the first crew to fly over the North Pole (albeit with controversy). In 1927 he very narrowly missed claiming the Orteig Prize for completing the first Trans-Atlantic flight when his plane crashed during the attempt. The honor famously went to Charles Lindberg, who succeeded while Byrd’s plane was undergoing repairs. In 1928 he made his first expedition to Antarctica, and on November 28, 1929, he successfully flew over the South Pole, becoming the first man to fly over both poles. The achievement earned him the rank of Rear Admiral at the age of 41, the youngest man ever to do so. In 1934 he returned to Antarctica and spent five months alone, monitoring a meteorological outpost. The experience almost killed him and is the topic of his autobiography “Alone .” In 1938 he declined Adolf Hitler’s invitation to be part of Germany’s 1938-39 Antarctic expedition. In 1939 he returned to the Antarctic for his third expedition, the first funded by the US Government. From 1941-45 he served during WWII in the South Pacific, for which he received two awards of the Legion of Merit.
In December of 1946, Admiral Byrd and Task Force 68 arrived on the Antarctic continent with 13 ships, 33 aircraft, and 4700 men. Their principal objective was establishing a military presence on the continent, ostensibly expanding United States territory. Further, they intended to assess the feasibility of operating a military base and possible airfield there. At the time, Byrd warned that if the United States or its Allies were to be attacked, it might very well be with bombers flying over the north and south poles. Considering the fear and paranoia of the new Atomic Age, the threat seemed extremely viable. To Byrd’s credit, if ICBMs were to target the US, some would indeed pass over the poles.
Ultimately, bad weather forced an early retreat, ending the expedition in late February 1947. The entire operation was extensively filmed, documented, and compiled in a film called The Secret Land, which won the Academy Award in 1948 for Best Documentary. Despite this publicity, or perhaps because of it, fringe authors of pseudoscience and new-age spiritualism were quick to superimpose their own interpretations of Byrd’s expedition, and variations have continued to evolve over the years. Let’s take a moment to examine some of the more outlandish and pervasive myths.
Was Operation Highjump a Secret Mission to Fight Nazis?
As fun as it sounds, no. There was indeed a German expedition to Antarctica from 1938 to 1939, led by Captain Alfred Ritscher, in which the area of New Swabia was founded. Admiral Byrd was invited to participate, though he declined. Germany’s interest was twofold; first, to secure a source of whale oil, and second to scout for a possible naval base. However, as Germany invaded Poland soon afterward, neither of these endeavors panned out, and Germany released any claim on the continent in 1945.
This, however, was more than enough fuel for conspiracy theorists. The core of the story is that Germany maintained a secret base in Antarctica throughout the war. Then after losing the war, they consolidated their remaining resources for their big comeback. Some versions place Hitler there as well, claiming that he escaped Germany on a submarine. This theme is often bolstered by factual accounts of high-ranking officers that escaped to South America. If Task Force 68 encountered any renegade German forces, none of its 5,000 members seemed to remember it.
One of the wilder claims is that the Germans were in contact with a race of aliens who bequeathed them flying saucers (yes, flying saucers) and other valuable technology. A variation delves into Hitler’s fascination with the occult and claims rather than aliens, it was an ancient civilization of highly evolved “humans” that they contacted. Both have traceable roots that we will discuss later.
Did Admiral Byrd Discover Ancient Aliens?
Nope. As the story goes, Admiral Byrd encountered extraterrestrial beings while flying over the continent’s interior. One popular version states that Byrd’s plane was seized by a tractor beam and pulled down into a hidden city, where the aliens lecture him about the dangers of atomic war. Another variation describes a giant hole in the ice that Byrd allegedly flew into to discover this secret city. In other accounts, the aliens are hostile, sometimes aligned with Germany, and a massive battle breaks out.
The theme of ancient aliens in the Antarctic is a layer cake, with numerous sources adding to the mythology over the years. One of the most infamous sources is the pseudoscientific narrative of A Description of the Rainbow City by Gladys and H.C. Hefferlin. It was first published in a 1948 issue of Amazing Stories Magazine, allegedly as an excerpt from the nebulous Hefferlin Manuscript.
A quick perusal of the story raises some immediate red flags. First, the timing of it is certainly suspect, as it was published soon after Byrd’s documentary, The Secret Land. Then, of course, there is the content. The story claims that aliens from Mars came to earth millions of years ago and founded seven cities in what was at the time a very tropical Antarctica. The largest of these was called the “Rainbow City” by the authors because it was made of brightly colored plastic. According to the narrative, the people there were peaceful and wanted to bring a universal brotherhood to humanity. However, all was not Kumbaya as the Martians did have an arch enemy that hailed from Venus, that were – stop me if you’ve heard this before – reptilian lizard people.
There are two major influences of the Hefferlin manuscript that are impossible to ignore. The first is that the politics and spirituality of the Martians are a straight rip off of H.P. Blavatsky’s Theosophical Society, which was in vogue at the time. It’s way too deep of a dive to take here, but in synopsis, Theosophy is a spiritual movement that blends Buddhism and other eastern religions with western Hermeticism and a seriously wonky theory of human evolution.
The second influence is that of H.P. Lovecraft, specifically his novella At The Mountains of Madness, published in 1936. In my opinion, it is one of Lovecraft’s best and most imaginative works. The story details an Antarctic expedition that stumbles across an ancient city of The Great Old Ones, buried in the ice. Lovecraft’s tale does not emerge from a vacuum; even he had his influences. In this case, he borrowed heavily from Edgar Alan Poe’s The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket, written nearly 100 years prior. Poe’s work also includes an ill-fated Antarctic adventure that spirals into horror and madness. Poe also touches on one of our reoccurring themes, the Hollow Earth Theory, on which so many of these Antarctic myths depend.
When put into context, the Hefferlin Manuscript, despite being presented as a factual account, cannot be taken seriously. Considering that Lovecraft was a regular contributor to Amazing Tales, the work might even be considered an homage to him. Nonetheless, later writers cite it as fact, tossing it into the melting pot with so many other myths.
Did Admiral Byrd Have a Secret Diary?
He did not. Byrd wrote one memoir on his Antarctic experiences titled Alone. The book known as The Missing Diary of Admiral Richard E. Byrd, while credited to him, was actually written by UFO and Hollow Earth theorist Walter Siegmeister, AKA Raymond Bernard. It can still be found in print today, presented by another infamous UFO author, Tim Beckley. The account is, yet again, another amalgamation of Hollow Earth Theory, Theosophy, and UFO pseudoscience.
In many of his contemporary interviews, Byrd used the phrase “land beyond the pole,” generally in context to his regret that Highjump was cut short and he could not complete his exploration. This, however, has become fodder for writers like Siegmeister to interpose long-rejected theories of some hidden paradise lurking just over the next mountaintop or cleverly concealed in a gigantic chasm. Someday, some intrepid explorer may discover the Rainbow City, Atlantis, or Cthulu’s hometown, but for now, we’ll have to take what science gives us.
So, by now, you may have noticed a pattern forming in the mythology of Antarctica. Just like Lovecraft’s At The Mountains of Madness was in part derivative of earlier works, these icy myths do have their origins, which we will explore more thoroughly in Part Three.