Failed Queens teen ‘Stowaway’ uses moxie to join Antarctic voyage
When Admiral Richard Byrd’s ships set sail from New York to Antarctica in 1928, one carried some unexpected cargo: William Gawronski.
The life of the then-17-year-old is recounted in “The Stowaway: A Young Man’s Extraordinary Adventure to Antarctica” by Laurie Gwen Shapiro.
Like the rest of the country, the first-generation Polish kid was caught up in Byrd-fever. Americans cheered the determined explorer’s quest to be the first man to reach both poles.
Newspapers were filled with breathless accounts of Byrd’s preparation for the expedition. Everyone clamored for any sort of connection to the journey. Well-connected college graduates angled for jobs as Byrd’s bottle-washers.
Gawronski’s parents had different plans for him. They expected their Billy to go to Cooper Union, then join his father in the upholstery business.
But the Queens teenager longed to travel the world with Byrd.
Too young to apply for this dangerous mission without parental permission, he begged his father. The old man wouldn’t budge. Gawronski decided that he was going anyway — come hell or high water.
He chose high water.
Pacing the piers of Hoboken in his high school graduation suit, Gawronski dove into the Hudson River. A lifelong swimmer, he was strong enough to reach the Manhattan side.
He shimmied up a rope on the side of the docked ship City of New York and scampered to his pre-planned hiding place. As flimsy as it seems, he had a plan.
Gawronski was among the hordes checking out the City of New York, one of the four ships Byrd was taking on the expedition. He discovered what appeared to be the perfect hiding spot — a small storage space.
“The Stowaway,” book by Laurie Gwen Shapiro.
But when Gawronski finally slogged aboard the ship and into his secret spot, he found two people already squeezed inside the small open space. They started arguing.
The end was near, even before the expedition even started.
Gawronski got as far as the Statue of Liberty when he was discovered. Commander Byrd asked his name and Gawronski refused to answer.
“Byrd was a gentle interrogator,” Shapiro writes. “He said he understood the tearful kid was an adventurer like him and told him not to be scared.”
At Sandy Hook, N.J., the miserable 17-year-old was handed over to customs agents and sent packing.
The ‘City of New York’ crew is pictured in an undated photo.
(Gizela Gawronski/Jósef Pilsudski)
His furious father retrieved him, determined this would be the end of his son’s antics. But the daring tale of the teen’s swim, his climb up the side of the ship and his attempt to stow away surfaced.
The teenager became famous. And then, two weeks later, Gawronski tried again.
He leapt from his second-floor bedroom in Bayside — again without even a change of clothes — and made his way to one of the expedition’s supply ships. It was still docked, so he put that great swim stroke to use again.
And yes, he was caught again. Although the captain was amused by his moxie, he gave Billy the boot again.
The third time was the charm. Gawronski again left home and hitched rides down to Virginia to meet the crew, which was already having a rough go at sea.
Gawronski gained Byrd’s respect with his stowaway attempts.
(Gizela Gawronski/Jósef Pilsudski)
“The crew members, drained from the tempest, faces splattered with grease, cheered out loud,” Shapiro writes. “The Bayside kid! Holy cow!”
The cook told Billy he could work as a mess boy — if Commander Byrd approved. Byrd, who keenly understood the elements of a good story, had by now taken a liking to the brash teen.
When word reached New York, The Daily News called Gawronski’s final acceptance into the expedition “The Triumph of the Century.”
Explorers captivated the country then. A Norwegian, Roald Amundsen, had reached the South Pole in 1911 — but Byrd was determined to be the first American to fly over and chart the desolate continent.
Gawronski had always longed for adventure. He grew up in railroad flats in the then-Polish neighborhood around St. Stanislaus Parish in the East Village, and was fluent in Polish.
A story about Billy Gawronski from Sept. 26, 1928, was published in the New York Daily News.
(New York Daily News)
The small family later moved to Bayside, but Gawronski’s sights were always set way beyond New York.
To make the move to Queens more palatable, his dad had let the boy keep bees. An animal lover at 14, the boy had adopted a stray dog, Tootsie. The pooch won a contest and received a write-up up in The News, Gawronski’s first fleeting brush with fame.
Gawronski helped with milk deliveries and taught Tootsie to balance on top of the milkman’s horse. That ease with animals would come in handy later when he was chasing the penguins Byrd had planned to bring back to American zoos. Sadly, none survived the voyage home.
The expedition was extremely complicated, and costly. Byrd had to raise money in advance, its own rugged adventure in the days before GoFundMe.
John D. Rockefeller Jr. and Edsel Ford were Byrd’s main backers; companies desperate to cash in on the public’s interest gave tons of goods.
Billy Gawronski is pictured with his adopted stray dog, Tootsie, in an April 21, 1925 article published in the New York Daily News.
(New York Daily News)
That came to about $600,000, a huge sum then “possible only because Byrd traded favors shamelessly — as much a wheeler-dealer as he was a voyager.”
Among the companies that paid to be part of this thrilling expedition was The New York Times. Though all newspapers covered the journey and a film was made about it, the Times paid to have their reporter on board.
Unlike Gawronski, at least he was supposed to be there.
But the teen earned his keep. When the sailors endured storms that left old salts heaving off the side of the ships, Gawronski maintained his sea legs from the start.
He worked incredibly hard at a number of less-than-glamorous jobs. He was promoted from mess boy to coal pusher, then to fire stoker. His telegrams home were published in the papers.
Henry Harrison descends the Ross Ice Barrier.
(National Archives and Records Administration)
The ships made their way down to New Zealand, where they would restock and the men could have some fun.
When they finally reached Antarctica, the crew went about building Byrd’s underground Little America, a compound that included a library.
It was hard work in horrific conditions. Gawronski kept at it, hoping to be picked to stay over the winter with Byrd.
Gawronski even proved himself a hero.
One day, a shelf of ice broke off. The men were separated on the floes, and an aluminum plane wing fell through the gap into the frigid water. Without it, there would be no flight to map the South Pole.
Billy Gawronski is pictured on the SS Manhattan in 1937.
(Gizela Gawronski/Jósef Pilsudski Institute of America)
“Fear gripped all near. Lives were at risk, and if they lost the Ford (aircraft’s) wing, there would be no South Pole flight — the signature event of the two-year endeavor,” Shapiro writes.
While others held his legs, Gawronski wedged his body into the ice crack and fished out the fallen part.
Still, Byrd did not choose him to stay for the rest of the mission and Gawronski sailed south on one of the ships.
The returning sailors were heralded as heroes, given Congressional honors and huge parades. They were celebrities.
Soon, though, the Great Depression hit.
The next time the shipmates held a reunion, they shared a free Thanksgiving meal for hungry sailors.
Gawronski returned to a landlubber’s life, but couldn’t stand it. He tried a few jobs, even considered becoming a dentist. But the sea always called. He joined the Merchant Marines, rising to the rank of captain. He served in World War II, but never made it back to Antarctica.
There’s no mention of whether any kids ever tried to stow away on his ship.