How a teenage stowaway made it to Antarctica 90 years ago

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On August 24, 1928, a 17-year-old high school boy jumped into the Hudson River and slipped into a ship that was soon heading for Antarctica. Billy Gawronski, the son of Polish immigrants, wanted nothing more than to go to the frozen continent with his hero, the explorer Richard Byrd. But he was caught and sent home.
So Gawronski tried again and again: the third time he hid in one of Byrd's ships, part of the same fleet that was heading to the South Pole in 1928, he was found again. But this time, Byrd offered him a job as a disaster boy, and Gawronski's dream came true. The stowaway, one of the many in the Roaring & # 39; 20, was going to Antarctica. (Byrd's expedition even had a stowaway named Eleanor.)

The child stowaway Billy Gawronski (right) with his parents.Photo: Gizela Gawronski / Jósef Piłsudski Institute of America

The moving story of Gawronski, and that of Byrd, the first person to fly a plane over the South Pole, is told in a new book called The Stowaway, by journalist and filmmaker Laurie Gwen Shapiro. Shapiro heard about Gawronski in 2013, when he was writing an article about the oldest Polish Catholic church in New York, San Estanislao. She stumbled upon several news articles that refer to a certain Polish child stowaway who attended the church.
"I basically stopped my writing," Shapiro tells The Verge. "I just had that feeling that this could be the book."
Through newspaper clips, documents from the Byrd collection and long interviews with Gawronski's wife and son, Shapiro was able to resume Gawronski's life. He even went to Antarctica, leaving New Zealand, as did the Byrd expedition. ("The waves were unthinkable," she says, but at least drank an espresso at the Italian base at the South Pole.) No wonder: the Italians have prepared coffee in space.) The result is an entertaining book that is not only a profile of an adolescent adventurer, but also a portrait of what it was like to get to the edge of the world 90 years ago.

Graphic by James Bareham / The Verge

The Verge spoke with Shapiro about his book, the madness of the stowaway of the twenties and the expedition of Byrd to Antarctica.
The interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Billy Gawronski was just one of the many stowaways in the 1920s. Why was this a thing back then?
In the 1920s, there seems to be a way to get easy publicity, more or less like an Instagram star. Many of the people who were in the news were teenagers or they were little more than 20 years old and they were not only children, they were also girls. There was a young woman who hid in a boat, she appeared before the captain, she went on the news and had a deal with the movie when she arrived in California. That was a way to get the press. Because there were so many ways to be heard, through newspapers and through radio stations, each inspired the next. Actually it was from 1920 to 1929. There were about 500 stowaways in a year registered in 1927.
What is the most surprising thing about the Byrd expedition to Antarctica?
What was really interesting to me is that this was a scientific expedition. They were doing experiments with [penguin] eggs, they were taking samples of minerals. They were also testing the idea of ​​using airplanes as a way to map a location. They had a Paramount camera crew, but they also had a man who was taking pictures from the air and naming new mountains. Then there was great progress in geography. The entire districts of Antarctica were discovered for the first time.

A parade for explorer Richard Byrd, in New York City in 1930. Photo: Laurie Gwen Shapiro's collection

There were many scientists on this trip, but it's hard to explain the little tests they were going to do. It's pretty boring. So, what [Byrd] was proposed was the idea, well, the United States will be the first to fly over the South Pole. That was something people could cling to. This is in the era of American exceptionalism: we were going to do this differently than Europeans. The Europeans associated with expeditions. When Roald Amundsen, from Norway, walked to the South Pole for the first time, he is on foot. That's 1911. This is 1928. This was the modern age and they had planes. They were going to see things that you can not see walking on foot. Scientific journals said things like: "We could find lost people, we could find lost animals."
What is Byrd's legacy in your opinion?
Although there is no country that has Antarctica, there is a dominant American presence. Much of this was due to influence [Byrd’s]. Byrd really worked to make it a scientific basis open to research. And another thing: before 1928, Americans did not even think about Antarctica. There was great pride in the British, with [Ernest] Shackleton and [Robert Falcon] Scott. Norway was very strong in that area, even in Belgium. Even on Byrd's second expedition, he made a lot of radio chats, he came directly to the living rooms of the Americans. The first expedition was covered every day in the newspapers. Byrd helped put Antarctica in the American consciousness.
How did you find Gawronski's wife, Gizela?
I made a crazy table of all the Gawronskis on the east coast and started calling them. If you try to call people and ask them if they are descendants of a child who swam in Antarctica across the Hudson River in 1928, you get many complications. A lot. And I laughed after a while, but I kept going. And I got to number 16, and I got a lady in Cape Elizabeth, Maine. She had an accent and I knew that Billy Gawronski was born in New York and that his descendants probably did not have an accent, but I asked anyway, and I heard in a very low voice: "That was my husband". And I had a chill. She was his second wife, but really the love of his life, 20 years younger than him, that is why he is still alive. And she said: "If you can get here, I have everything." And he really did. She had her mother's scrapbooks, had all kinds of photographs, her high school yearbook, letters from Admiral Byrd. Then I got there.

Eleanor, the stowaway cat of the Byrd expedition to Antarctica.Photo: collection of Laurie Gwen Shapiro

And Gawronski's son, Billy Jr.?
[Billy’s] First marriage was not a good marriage. Their two children had stopped communicating in the 60s and both were very involved with drugs. What happened is that I had William Gawronski on a Google alert. It shot up and I thought: "Oh no, someone has my story!" I took a look and it was a photo of an older gentleman who changes prisons, he was on probation. He had seen pictures of William Gawronski as an old man, because he had known his wife and he looked like him. And I thought: "My God, your son is alive." I got a special permit in Florida to interview him, not about his crime. He was a very eloquent man, and could add much to the story.
I communicated [with him] by letter. One thing he told me: he had been a drug addict in the 60s and 70s and sold many of his father's things, including his Congressional Medal of Honor that they gave to all the people of Antarctica on the expedition. He feels terrible about it and feels terribly that he did not honor his father when he was alive. He felt that this gave his life something of importance, to be able to give me facts that I did not have and to help preserve the story of his father. Now he is an older man, he is an octogenarian.
If there is something you want your reader to take home about this book, what is it?
There are so many stories that are lost in history. When I started writing this story, I wanted to improve my career, but when I realized who was alive and what access I had, I felt a responsibility to rescue a bit of American history. And I realize that I was not writing about Abraham Lincoln, but I realized that if you have the opportunity to hear old stories, from an older person, there is so much history that it is there to take.


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