Their trip to fame may well have started when the MacMillian expedition set off from Maine in the race to become the first to fly over the North Pole in 1925. The plan was to put three planes in crates, load them up on two large ships and sail off to Greenland in the first leg of their journey. (One of those ships was a former Canadian mineseweeper.) On arrival they spent time setting up camp about 700 miles south of the pole. Numerous problems plagued the expedition, with the loss of one plane, mechanical and compass issues and even the Canadian government challenging why they were in Canadian territory without permission. The expedition was not a sucess and so everyone went home. But during that venture our two men would have worked together and even flown on the same plane. Their names were Floyd Bennet and Richard Byrd. And it would be during one of these flights that Floyd Bennett, an aircraft mechanic by trade, would save both his and Byrd's lives... in flight.
During a flight, the oil gauge began acting up. In fact it was rising and if something was not done immediately it could lead to an explosion and both men probably dying in a crash over very rugged ice that provided no place for a safe landing. The only thing to do was for Bennett to climb out onto the wing... in mid flght, and open the engine compartment and relieve some of the pressure. Once done he retuned to the cabin with a bad case of frost bite, but both men survived.
They would make the flight on May 9, 1926, and would become instant celebrities the world over.
While it was declared in some circles that they were both awarded the Medal of Honor on 19 February of 1927, 86 years ago yesterday, truth be known, they were presented their medals in person at the White House by President Coolidge on 25 February, after the award was approved several weeks earlier...on January 5th.
From 1926 until today sceptics have come forward challenging the fact that these two men actually reached the North Pole. Documents found seem to suggest that locations were altered, which could be explained several ways. They also argue that with fuel loads and timings involved the destination could not have been reached. Others would counter that prevailing winds, factors into the equation, and could have carried them to the destination and that because of the reputation of the men involved it was highly unlikely that they would have falsified their claims to fame. But who knows?
This is still a medal of honor, but it is a special model that was only in use for the navy, and is in the shape of a maltese cross. It was to be used for actions not involving conflict with the enemy and in use only during the period of 1919 to 1942.
Many of the recipients did not like the appearance as it resembled the Germany Iron Cross. Some asked that it be replaced and it was. Records seem to be very inconsistent on the method of issue. Some got it for battle filed actions, others did not. Confusion reigned over who would get this and who would get the regular star shaped medal.
Aftre all is said and done, there appears to have been less than 30 of these awarded and thus it is a very rare medal indeed.
Regardless, Richard Byrd was so unimpressed with it that he asked for a replacement and got one in June of 1930.
It is said that Byrd's Tiffany MOH was actually sold outside the US to a collector. And the Bennett MOH is apparently being held by the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum. The North Pole Fokker plane is now on display at the Ford Dearborn Michigan museum.
He would receive a full military funeral and would be laid to rest after a very fullfilling life time, at Arlington National Cemetery.
Floyd Bennett would continue with his military career but whilst home on illness in 1928 he would become aware of fellow fliers in distress. A plane from Germnay had crashed in Quebec and while not knowing the crew, he decided fellow flyers needed his help. He immediatelty flew off to Canada, but his illness took the better part of him. He had to turn back and was laid up in hospital in Quebec. Byrd flew there to be at his side in illness, Bennett never recovered and died in his hospital bed.
Later, as Byrd flew over the South Pole... a trip Bennett was supposed to join him on, Byrd tossed a stone overboard.
It was a stone from Bennett's graveside!