Book tells how passengers in a famous 1943 Alaska crash perservered

mdunham@adn.comJuly 27, 2013 

  • ARCTIC FLIGHT,” a celebration of 100 years of flying in Alaska, will be on display through Aug. 11 and “Wrangell Mountain Skyboys,” photos of pioneer aviators in the Copper River region, will be on display through Aug. 25 at the Anchorage Museum of History and Art, 625 C St.

EDITOR'S NOTE:

Harold Gillam achieved legend status in his lifetime. One of Alaska's first bush pilots, he achieved fame for flying in conditions that kept others on the ground. When he did crack up, everyone on the plane walked away without a scratch. Old time Alaskans noted with a touch of awe that "Thrill 'em, Spill 'em, No-Kill 'em Gillam" never lost a passenger.

That changed on Jan. 5, 1943, on a flight from Seattle to Annette when, unable to make radio contact with the airport, ice building on the wings and one engine down, his Lockheed Electra 10 crashed in remote wilderness southeast of Ketchikan.

The accident is remembered because it led to the death of a highly respected airman and folk hero whose name is at the top of Alaska aviation greats; his contributions are noted in a current exhibit at the Anchorage Museum, "Wrangell Mountain Skyboys."

Gillam apparently died of exposure while trying to get help for his passengers.

Less remembered is the fate of those passengers: Susan Batzer, a stenographer for the Civil Aeronautics Administration, Robert Gebo, Alaska general contractor for the Morrison-Knutsen Company, which owned the plane, Percy "Sandy" Cutting, a Morrison-Knutsen mechanic, Dewey Metzdorf, the owner of the Anchorage Hotel, and Joseph Tippets, a radio engineer for the Civil Aeronautics Administration and the Anchorage branch president of the town's fledgling community of Latter-day Saints, Mormons.

Tippets' son John, born in Anchorage in 1941, is the author of "Hearts of Courage" (Publication Consultants), a detailed recounting of the crash and its aftermath. The text is drawn from his father's recollections and writings along with a number of official documents, letters and interviews with people involved with the event. In one of the most impressive survival stories ever set in Alaska, it describes the suffering of the passengers and how, through perseverance and ingenuity, they managed to find rescue.

With the permission of the author, we present excerpts from Tippets' book, which is available at the Anchorage Museum Gift Shop, UAA Campus Bookstore and other stores.


Reach Mike Dunham at mdunham@adn.com or 257-4332


Excerpts

"Hearts of Courage" by John M. Tippets

(The plane left Seattle on Jan. 5, 1943. En route to Annette Island in Southeast Alaska, it experienced engine and icing problems and lost radio contact. Gillam was uncertain of their location, but knew the plane was coming down fast over steep, forested country. Joseph Tippets takes up the narrative:)

While waiting for the crash to come, I calmly put on my galoshes. Others did likewise or performed some inconsequential act. There was almost complete silence in the group, each member of the party mentally preparing for the end. Avoiding one mountain, Gillam veered the plane left, then seeing another mountain straight ahead, Harold tried to pancake into an open spot, but the right wing hit two or three trees, shearing off their tops and perhaps slowing us just a little as the wing broke off. Just before impact, to reduce the risk of fire, Gillam cut the power to the still functioning right engine.

The crash was as if we were in an explosion -- a shuddering impact, the sound of crushing metal, blindness and pain all at the same moment.

I could feel everything leaving my body and I blacked out. As I came to, I found that my shoulders and head were out of the plane and I had a gash across my forehead. In the darkness, a feeling of panic seized me for the moment as I thought I was perhaps the only one alive. However, I soon heard a response from Gillam who, like me, had sustained a head injury. Others also began to stir. We heard their moans. They were each somewhat pinned in. Percy Cutting had considerable pain in his back. Metzdorf's collarbone was broken and Gebo, when he tried to stand, collapsed from a broken leg and fell back into unconsciousness.

But the most seriously injured was Susan Batzer. Cutting, Gillam and I worked two hours to free her, but her arm was nearly severed at the wrist and she was losing substantial amounts of blood. Her legs were broken and her skull was fractured. We bound up her wounds and gave first-aid treatment as best we could.

We had crashed at the top of a ravine, burying the nose of the airplane in 12 feet of snow. We were about 200 feet below the top of the mountain at an elevation of approximately 1,700 feet.

(Two days later, Batzer died. On Jan. 10, the injured Gillam took a few supplies and headed downhill to get help. Two of the four men remaining were seriously injured but, as the days wore on with no word from Gillam and the meager food on the plane ran out, the survivors decided to move to a more visible location. On Jan. 22, dragging packs and using a wing as a makeshift sled, they moved to a lower camp. They had virtually no food, little warm clothing and two sleeping bags.)

The going was miserable. We were sliding and crawling, and Robert Gebo had limited mobility, walking and sort of dragging his slowly mending leg. Metzdorf was perhaps even more in pain with a broken collarbone and broken ribs. It was, in places, an almost vertical drop and there was no form of trail. We had to deal with ice and heavy snowdrifts and were constantly climbing over fallen logs, rocks and low brush.

We took turns, with two of us trying to sleep while the other two stoked the fire, but it was a terrible night with constant rain and sleet and, even with a fire, we were unable to get warm. We had, by this time, each grown large, disreputable-looking beards and had sort of weird vacant looks in our eyes. It wasn't good.

On Jan. 25 I set about using the axe and building up a stock of firewood while Sandy (Cutting) took the .22 to hunt. He was unsuccessful. The snow was too deep and any game which might have been there in another season had moved on to warmer areas.

That afternoon there was another terrible snowstorm, which was very discouraging. I went out in the trees in back of our camp and prayed. I had prayed so much that it had really got beyond the business of prayer. I wanted to know what we should do and when we should do it. And I prayed again that my wife would know that I was alive.

(Tippets' wife Alta, living in Anchorage, resolutely believed he was still alive and would be found. Officials were frantically looking for the beloved pilot and his plane. But on Jan. 26 she was told that the search had been abandoned. On the same day, Tippets and Cutting made the difficult decision to leave the two injured men and try to reach salt water in hopes of finding help. With cut-up blankets for boots, they reached Weasel Cove on Boca de Quadra, the mouth of a long estuary in present day Misty Fiords National Monument. They found an abandoned cabin with a little rice populated by weevils -- and ate both. "Think about it as sort of carbohydrates and protein," Tippets later said. They also found a derelict boat that they tried to repair. It swamped and they had to swim through the icy water pulling the boat behind them to reach a cannery on the opposite shore.)

As if in answer to prayer, several crows flew down and lighted on a rock quite near us. Given the beating and having been nearly drowned in salt water, if our .22 rifle would even work was a big question, but it did. Sandy's aim was good, his hand was steady, and he shot three of them forthwith. We immediately set to work to eat them -- all but the feathers. There wasn't much to them, but I never knew that anything could be as delicious as roasted crow breast. In our circumstances, they seemed like turkey legs.

(The deserted cannery had nothing they could use. The men then tried to reach open water in hopes of finding a boat.)

After we'd been rowing for about two hours, a violent storm began to develop. The sky turned black and the waves got higher and higher, heavy swells forcing us to bail even faster to keep afloat. Nearly full of water, the boat capsized and we were dumped into the bay. Cakes of ice were floating all around us. We lost our overcoats, cooking utensils, everything but the clothing we had on and our rifle.

Our clothing dragged us down and the waves tossed us around. Just for a moment, I lost all faith and was angry with the Lord. Why, I thought, have you let me go through so much, for so long, only to drown here today? But almost as I completed that thought, with my head barely above water, I found my feet touching the bottom. Pushing off and trying to swim, we kept together and made it the short distance to the shore. But we found only rocky cliffs. The waves were dashing us against the slippery rocks and then drawing us back into the water. We could not find a hold. Our hands were so cold we could not hold on when we did get a chance. It took us more than a half hour to finally grasp a ledge and pull ourselves fully out of the water. In excruciating pain we climbed what seemed to be 60 feet to the top of the cliff. All we could do was lie there completely exhausted, soaked and miserable.

Our hands and feet were bleeding. Our clothes were quickly freezing on us. Normally, a man falling into water at those temperatures would suffer shock and likely drown. Doctors later told us, however, that our long period of exposure to cold had conditioned our bodies to the elements and that shock just didn't happen.

Fortunately we had kept our matches in a bouillon cube tin sealed with adhesive tape and they were dry. We made a small fire and tried to warm our feet. It was like trying to thaw out a piece of ice. We then set out to try and return to our camp, encouraging each other as we went. Our clothes froze in the angle of a bent leg and all we could do was shuffle our feet.

After traveling some distance, we saw an object on the shore of the bay. On investigation, we found the remains of our old boat which had been washed up on the shore, beaten against the rocks and smashed. Under the seat, I found my valuable bundle of documents and papers, still wrapped in oil cloth. Somehow they were still preserved and dry. Included in the bundle were my Bible, Book of Mormon and the "Unto the Hills" book.

We were able to shorten our return hike by a mile or more as ice at the north end of Weasel Cove was thick enough to hold our weight. It had been 12 hours since we had left.

As we walked back toward the shelter, we saw a Coast Guard cutter circling the bay. Wildly, we ran toward shore, yelling, stumbling and falling in desperation to get them to see us. The boat went up the channel and right past Weasel Point before disappearing into the fog beyond.

Then we did feel discouraged.

(Tippets and Cutting saw a second boat on Feb. 1, but were unable to get its attention. The next afternoon they spotted a yet another boat six miles away.)

We began a vigil. We lugged driftwood and branches and built a pretty good signal fire hoping for a signal back from the boat, but no signal came. We made excuses for their not seeing our fire. We carried wood until our strength was completely gone.

(The Tuscan, a small fishing vessel, was picking up a kerosene lantern and fuel from Orca Point on Boca de Quadra. The men continued their vigil into the early morning of Feb. 3.)

A blizzard started up about 4 a.m. We couldn't see a thing. At 5 a.m. we built the fire again and at 9 a.m. the storm quit. Everything was white with snow. We couldn't see the boat. We didn't know whether it had gone or not.

We had gotten too numb and too weak to keep the fire going and it began to flicker out. We thought that if the ship had gone out, there was no use in having the fire. We turned back into the trees to get out of the bitter wind. Five minutes later, we were both thinking we were hearing something but, at first, neither of us said anything, not wanting to raise false hopes. Our silence, however, didn't last long and we turned to run back to the shore as fast as we could go.

We had heard the motors of a boat.

We could see it turn in our direction. As it neared the shore we shouted and waved frantically. From the beach, we ran out into the water to meet it. We fell over into the boat almost unconscious.

(The Tuscan took the men to a hospital in Ketchikan. But they insisted that they had to go back for their companions. They joined the Coast Guard and Alaska Territorial Guard search team that went into the wilderness to find the other two survivors, and located them on Feb. 5.)

It was 31 days after the crash. Bob (Gebo) and Dewey (Metzdorf) were in bad condition, lying in thawing snow water surrounded by snow three feet deep. They had become too weak to move from the pine bough bedding and the lean-to canvas covering or to reach the fire and fuel it with the wood we had left them. They were preparing for death, placing their official identification cards in their hatbands. Bob and Dewy broke into tears as did Sandy and I. We were blubbering, but there was no reason to be embarrassed for doing so.

Afterward

Gillam's body was found the following day. The survivors were taken back to Ketchikan. Batzer's body was retrieved on Feb. 16.

Metzdorf died in 1966, Tibbets in 1968, Cutting in 1977 and Gebo in 1981.

In 2004, a team led by the U.S. Forest Service returned to the crash site, the first visit by humans in more than 60 years. They made a survey of the wreckage with an eye toward placing the site on the National Register of Historic Places. The exact location was not divulged to the public to prevent looting, though that may have been an unnecessary precaution; the spot is among the most inaccessible places in Alaska, even now.

Among other items, they found a woman's shoe.

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