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How a teenage stowaway made it to Antarctica 90 years ago

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Meet Billy Gawronski

Crew members of the Byrd expedition descending the Ross Ice Barrier in Antarctica.
Photo: National Archives and Records Administration

On August 24th, 1928, a 17-year-old high school kid jumped into the Hudson River and snuck inside a ship that was soon headed to Antarctica. Billy Gawronski, the son of Polish immigrants, wanted nothing more than to go to the ice continent with his hero, explorer Richard Byrd. But he was caught — and sent back home.

So Gawronski tried again, and again: the third time he stowed away on one of Byrd’s ships, all part of the same fleet heading to the South Pole in 1928, he was again found. But this time, Byrd offered him a job as a mess boy, and Gawronski’s dream became true. The stowaway — one of the many in the Roaring ‘20s — was going to Antarctica. (Byrd’s expedition even had a stowaway cat named Eleanor.)

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

Gawronski’s heartwarming story — and that of Byrd, the first person to fly an airplane over the South Pole — is told in a new book called The Stowaway, by journalist and filmmaker Laurie Gwen Shapiro. Shapiro first heard about Gawronski in 2013, when she was writing an article about New York’s oldest Polish Catholic church, St. Stanislaus. She stumbled upon several news articles referring to a certain Polish stowaway kid who attended the church.

“I basically stopped my writing,” Shapiro tells The Verge. “I just had that spidey sense that this might be the book.”

Through newspaper clips, documents in the Byrd collection, and lengthy interviews with Gawronski’s wife and son, Shapiro was able to retrace Gawronski’s life. She even went to Antarctica herself, departing from New Zealand, like the Byrd expedition did. (“The waves were unthinkable,” she says, but at least she drank an espresso in the Italian Antarctica base. Not surprising: Italians have brewed espresso in space.) The result is an entertaining book that’s not just a profile of an adventurous teenager, but also a portrait of what it was like to go to edge of the world 90 years ago.

Graphic by James Bareham / The Verge

The Verge spoke with Shapiro about her book, the stowaway craze of the 1920s, and Byrd’s expedition 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, sort of like an Instagram star. Many of the people that were in the news were teenagers or in their early 20s and it wasn’t just boys, it was girls as well. There was a young woman who stowed away on a ship, presented herself to the captain, it got in the news and she had a film deal by the time she landed in California. That was a way of getting press. Because there were so many ways to get heard, through the newspapers and through radio stations, each one was inspiring the next one. It was really from 1920 to 1929. There were about 500 stowaways in one year recorded in 1927.

What’s 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 on [penguin] eggs, they were taking mineral samples. They were also testing the idea of using airplanes as a way to map a location. They had a camera crew from Paramount, but they also had a man who was taking photos from the air and they were naming new mountains. So there was a lot of progress on geography. Whole districts of Antarctica were discovered for the first time.

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

There were lot of scientists on this trip but it’s hard to explain the little tests that they were going to do. It’s quite boring. So what [Byrd] came up with was the idea, well, America is going to be the first to fly over the South Pole. That was something that people could latch on to. This is in the era of American exceptionalism: We were going to do this differently than the Europeans. The Europeans were associated with expeditions. When Roald Amundsen from Norway walked to the South Pole for the first time, he’s on foot. That’s 1911. This is 1928. This was the modern age and they had airplanes. They were going to see things that you can’t see walking on foot. Science magazines were saying things like, ‘We might be finding lost people, we might be finding lost animals.’

What’s Byrd’s legacy in your opinion?

Although there’s no country that owns Antarctica, there’s a dominant American presence there. A lot of it was due to [Byrd’s] influence. Byrd really worked to make it a scientific base open to research. And one other thing: before 1928, Americans didn’t even think about Antarctica. There was a great pride in the British, with [Ernest] Shackleton and [Robert Falcon] Scott. Norway was very strong in that area, even Belgium. Even on Byrd’s second expedition, he did a lot of radio chats, it came right into Americans’ living rooms. The first expedition was covered every single day in the newspapers. Byrd helped put Antarctica in American conscience.

How did you find Gawronski’s wife, Gizela?

I made a crazy chart of all of the Gawronskis on the eastern seaboard and started calling them. You try calling people and asking them if they’re descended from a kid who swam across the Hudson river to Antarctica in 1928, you get a lot of hang ups. A lot. And I was laughing after a while, but I kept going. And I got to number 16, and I reached a lady in Cape Elizabeth, Maine. She had an accent and I knew that Billy Gawronski had been born in New York and his descendants probably didn’t have an accent, but I asked anyhow, and I heard very quietly, “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’s why she’s still alive. And she said, “If you can get here, I have everything.” And she really did. She had his mother’s scrapbooks, she had all sorts of photographs, his high school yearbook, letters from Admiral Byrd. So I got myself there.

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

What about Gawronski’s son, Billy Jr.?

[Billy’s] first marriage was not a good marriage. Both of his sons he had stopped communicating with in the ‘60s and they were both heavily involved with drugs. What happened is, I had William Gawronski on a Google alert. It went off and I thought, “Oh no, someone has my story!” I took a look and it was a picture of an older gentleman changing prisons, he was up for parole. I had seen pictures of William Gawronski as an old man, because I had met his wife, and he looked just like him. And I just thought, “Oh my god, his son is alive.” I got special permission in Florida to interview him, not about his crime. He was a very articulate man, and he was able to add much to the story.

One thing he did tell me: He had been a drug addict in the ‘60s and the ‘70s and he sold a lot of his father’s things, including his Medal of Honor from Congress they gave to all the Antarctica people on the expedition. He feels terribly about this and he feels terribly that he didn’t really honor his father when he was alive. He felt that this gave his life some significance, to be able to give me facts that I didn’t have and help preserve his father’s story. He’s an older man now, he’s an octogenarian.

If there were one thing you wanted your reader to take home about this book, what is it?

There are so many stories that are lost to history. When I started writing this story, I wanted to better my career but by the time I realized who is alive and the access that I had, I felt the responsibility to rescue a little bit of American history. And I realize that I wasn’t writing about Abraham Lincoln, but I realized that if you have the opportunity to actually listen to old stories, from an elderly person, there’s so much history that’s there for the taking.