By the late 1800s, the northern and southern polar regions remained some of the last unexplored areas on Earth. Looking for the Northwest Passage to Asia and later the North Pole, sailors from many countries journeyed towards the Arctic regions at the top of the world. Antarctica, the southernmost part of the world, was regarded with equal enthusiasm. The discovery by U.S. Navy Lieutenant Charles Wilkes that Antarctica was a continent, not several ice islands, increased the world interest in exploring the coldest place on Earth.
Since the 1840s the United States Navy has played an active role in exploring the Arctic and Antarctic regions. Among the list of renowned naval polar explorers are Admirals Robert E. Peary and Richard E. Byrd. Their remarkable endeavors opened doors to the North and South Poles.
Admiral Peary made five expeditions to the Arctic between 1891 and 1909 covering more than 10,000 miles. On 6 April 1909, Admiral Peary claimed to have reached the ultimate destination of 90 degrees north. With the help of African American explorer Mathew Henson and four polar natives, Admiral Peary achieved his lifelong dream.
Admiral Byrd spent 29 years exploring Antarctica. Beginning in 1928, Byrd established a base on Antarctica, Little America. In 1929, he was the first person to fly over the South Pole. Byrd's success with polar air expeditions encouraged him to undertake a land expedition through Antarctica in 1933. He and a team of men set up a tiny weather hut 123 miles inland from Little America. During this seven-month experiment Byrd conducted meteorological observations and endured a series of harrowing events that tested the limits of his physical and mental strengths. One prominent naval officer who accompanied Byrd was Captain Finn Ronne. Byrd continued his work in Antarctica through 1956 and received the Medal of Freedom for his lifetime contribution to polar exploration.
Commander William R. Anderson continued the Navy's tradition of polar exploration with his journey from the Pacific to the Atlantic Oceans under the polar ice cap in the nuclear submarine Nautilus in 1958. Later that year, Commander James F. Calvert in USS Skate successfully broke through the ice and surfaced at the North Pole. Thus, a polar route to strategic spots in the Arctic was opened for U.S. Navy nuclear submarines.
In 1959 twelve nations signed an international treaty agreeing to keep Antarctica free of all military operations. Scientists from each nation agreed to participate in scientific studies of the continent. Admiral Byrd's vision, that "Antarctica in its symbolic robe of white will shine forth as a continent of peace as nations working together there in the cause of science set an example of international co-operation," is being fulfilled today.