In the 1920s and 1930s, few real-life figures captured the American imagination like Richard E. Byrd, the dashing Navy hero and polar explorer who gained international fame after becoming the first man to fly over the North and South poles. After graduating from the U.S. Naval Academy and serving with distinction as a Navy pilot in World War I, Byrd assisted with a number of Navy arctic excursions before attempting to fly over the North Pole with fellow Navy pilot Floyd Bennett in 1926. While Byrd’s claim to be the first to fly over the North Pole has recently come under dispute, it was enough to make Byrd and Bennett national heroes upon their return to the United States in 1926. Two years later, Byrd led a scientific expedition to Antarctica, a massive operation that involved numerous ships, airplanes, snowmobiles, and even dog sled teams. In 1929, Byrd flew into the history books after he and a crew of three other men became the first people to fly over the South Pole.
Byrd returned from his first Antarctic expedition in the spring of 1930 and set out on a hero’s tour of the United States a few months later. In October of that year, Byrd was scheduled to spend nearly a full week in Connecticut, delivering multiple lectures across the state before being honored with a grand celebration in Hartford. On October 11, 1930, Admiral Byrd began the Connecticut leg of his national tour by presenting a lavishly-illustrated lecture of his Antarctic exploits to a crowd of 2,600 at the State Armory in Waterbury, where he received a “rousing ovation” upon his arrival. After giving additional lectures in Stamford and Waterbury, Byrd traveled to Hartford on October 17 as part of a massive patriotic parade, arriving amidst a cacophony of “droning airplanes, martial music, pomp, pageantry, and the cheers of thousands of citizens,” according to the breathless reporting of the Hartford Courant. There, after speaking to a crowd of 6,000 at the Bushnell Theater, Byrd received a special medal with the city’s coat of arms on one side, and a description hailing him as “Conqueror of Land, Sea, Ice, and Air” on the reverse.
By the time he died in 1957, Byrd had become one of the most decorated men in U.S. Navy history, having earned the Medal of Honor, the Distinguished Flying Cross, the Navy Cross, the Navy Distinguished Service medal, and nearly two dozen special citations and commendations for bravery and exemplary service. To thousands of Connecticans, Byrd’s 1930 expedition through Connecticut was an inspiring experience they would never forget.