Down in the Arctic

Back to by Captain Benjamin Scott Custer

Jinxed by a faulty compass, robbed of their rations, five men plunged dower in the Arctic. Their call signal, "Mayday, mayday!" was the last sound civilization heard. What happened in the silence that ensued? They returned with this fearful tale.

Although there was a good deal of overcast, with some icing conditions high up in the gray atmosphere, there seemed nothing to worry about as the U.S. Navy plane took off from Churchill, the weather experiment station maintained on Hudson Bay by the U.S. and Canadian governments. The plane was bound for The Pas and civilization. There soon followed a series of faint radio signals, only partially understood at various Canadian stations. Then silence.

Four hours out of Churchill we signaled our distress. "Mayday, mayday, mayday! This is Navy 8-5-1-1-3, Churchill, Manitoba, for The Pas. Estimate position 550 nautical miles south of Churchill, either east or west of Lake Winnipeg. We are running low on gas and are now preparing to make a wheels-up landing. Mayday, mayday--"

Below us the forest stretched in a carpet of long green hair, broken only by the gray sheen checker of the lakes that are so numerous in subarctic Canada. It was bad country, bad as an ocean; how many hundreds of miles to the nearest habitation southward we did not know. East and west the map was blank, and to the north lay only the pole.

The chances were that even if we got down in that mess we would never get out, for the magnetic compass was pirouetting like a ballet dancer and the radio compass had been killed by the icing that was weighting down our wings and hindering radio reception.

"This is Navy 8-5-1-1-3, Churchill Manitoba for The Pas. Four hours----"

Chief Pilot Kastner had more experience with two-engine jobs than any of us so I ordered him forward into the copilot's seat and we pulled our belts in until they made us grunt. Lieutenant Wilcox had jettisoned the door to keep us from being trapped if we hit water; the emergency gear was issued; everything was shipshape as it could be.

I had spent a good deal of time working out standard procedures for ditching an airplane and now here was my chance to see how well I had planned, but I was not thinking about that. One half of my mind was commenting on the fact that I ought to be reviewing my past life but I was actually doing nothing of the sort; with the other half I was thinking what a shame it would be to break up this beautiful Beechcraft.

Landing Amid a Forest
"Mayday, mayday," said Kastner. Down below appeared what looked to my Georgia eyes like a tall field of broomstraw, perhaps 100 yards wide and 800 long, the only break in the interlocked combs of forest. Kastner saw it too, and wrenched at the controls. We came in low over the scrub firs on the downwind side of a little lake, full flaps, nose up, plenty of power on the engines, air speed just under 60. Kastner nodded, his lips formed, "Now." With my right hand I cut both switches and with my left the main gas valve. We slid down a gradient of air and bumped to a stop like a truck on rough concrete.

"Everybody alright?" I called, and four voices chorused assent. I slid aft and stepped out - and emitted a yelp of pained surprise. I was knee deep in icy muskeg.

We would have to get out of that in a hurry. I slogged eastward, trying to find firm ground that would lead to a good-sized lake I remembered seeing in that direction. The lake would give us fish and a space from which we could signal for help.

The going was heavy, like walking through a mass of wet feathers; it required a violent effort to disengage oneself for each new step. Fifteen minutes of struggle brought me to a low shore where marsh stretched away in every direction but that from which I had come. No hope there. I went slowly back to the plane.

"It won't do that way!" I gasped. But the ground looked a little better to westward. "Let's get everything we can out of this crock before she sinks."

We took everything we could on our shoulders and in our arms, and started out in staggering procession. It was only 200 yards to solid ground beyond the first line of trees, but when we reached it, all five of us lay down, gulping for air like men who had run a quarter mile. After several minutes' rest we made a second trip to bring back parachutes and rig some kind of shelter against the storms threatening from west and south. This emergency cared for, we gathered in a circle while I offered a prayer in gratitude to God for bringing us down safely and in request for guidance through an ordeal that might last all winter long.

Then we took stock. Our human resources consisted of five men, alert and in good condition, about as well-assorted as to skills and background as any five men could be. First was Captain Sir Robert Stirling-Hamilton, Bart., of the Royal Navy, a tall blond man of forty-five, the best type of British officer. Lieutenant (j.g.) Charles Wilcox was a fighter pilot and athlete, the bachelor of the party, who was at once appointed morale officer for that reason.

Chief Naval Aviation Pilot Jack Kastner was short and quick of movement. He was a hunter and woodsman from the Southwest. He had three sons back home. Sergeant Jerome Scalise, who had a wife and five children, was tall and husky with iron-gray hair, overdue for his 30-year retirement from the Army. He had come to the U.S. as an immigrant boy of thirteen and had never quite lost his accent. He would be our cook, with his helmet as the only utensil.

The physical equipment was by no means promising. We discovered that greedy ground crews somewhere along the line had looted the plane's emergency rations, the machetes and ponchos, and the sporting rifle with which we might have secured some game, and worst of all, the ax.

The inventory with which we had to face a wilderness consisted of one .22-caliber rifle with 50 rounds; three .38-caliber pistols with 50 rounds; 16 Spam and cheese sandwiches; five pints of fruit juice; 24 bars of chocolate; eight small pieces of cake; one pound of plum jam; one-pound box of fancy candy; four packages of matches; two cigarette lighters with plenty of flints and one can of lighter fluid; one fishing rod and reel; two hunting knives; a shelter half belonging to Scalise, the parachutes, whistles, signaling mirrors and Very pistols.

There were no sleeping bags, no blankets, nothing at all with which we could build a shelter if it started to snow. The only magnetic compass in the plane was thoroughly unreliable. We knew it was misbehaving, swinging a few points, we thought, between southeast and southwest. We were to find out later the real extent of this error. It would take something very little short of a miracle to bring us through.

Plans for "Walking Out"
I pointed out that after five days of searching weather the chances of being rescued would decrease as the cube of the time. Therefore after waiting five clear days, while we were still reasonably well-fed and rational, we ought to begin a determined effort to "walk out," heading southward, bearing to the west whenever forced to make a detour, and carrying the very minimum of equipment.

Sergeant Scalise's lamentations filled the camp. But the more he beefed, the more we gave him to do, and the more we gave him to do, the more he did, revealing a startling range of competence in everything necessary to keep men alive in the open. With nothing but his bands and a knife he dug a well at the edge of the muskeg which produced clear spring water. Then he made a lean-to of fallen timbers and branches, stretching a parachute drum over it to keep out the rain.

We were not too uncomfortable that night but still hungry after a supper of half a Spam sandwich apiece. Wilcox and Kastner had plowed through the muskeg to broadcast an appeal for help on the plane's battery, taking advantage of the improved reception that comes after sundown.

I was thinking: Ben Custer, you now have X days to live. How do you propose to spend those days? After a while it occurred to me that I 'had always thought of myself as a philosopher. If I really were going to be one, here was my chance to place myself in harmony with my environment, as Marcus Aurelius had done with his. "You must seek to squeeze each bit of pleasure out of your awareness of the world about you during the days that remain," I told myself. "Redouble your efforts to be kind and generous; make the way easier for your companions."

In the morning the sarge worked at improving his lean-to while Kastner and Stirling-Hamilton explored the ridge to find a way to the big lake eastward. He had no luck and I had no success in starting a forest fire that might attract attention. But later that day, after a painstaking search through my gear, I found my pocket compass. It was a major discovery; now search groups could go out of earshot of the camp, and if we had to hit the trail, we could hold direction.

By the third day we were well organized. I found a second pocket compass among my gear and took the sarge with me in a determined effort to find the big lake eastward. An hour and a half of the hardest kind of going brought us on the shores of a lake big enough to have used Tahoe as a bay. There were moose tracks on the beach. The specter of hunger receded a little.

The sarge looked for blueberries, which, we had discovered earlier, were quite abundant in the area. Seeing some birds, I fired my pistol and missed, an error which later produced a camp edict that only Kastner and Scalise, the sure-shots, were to use our slender store of ammunition.

On the way in, our luck was better. The sarge shot an animal I saw hiding in a tree. It was about ten pounds, had short legs and a flat, ugly head. I pronounced it a badger on the strength of its resemblance to a drawing I remembered in one of Captain John Smith's logs with the caption, "Thus doth the oragacon look." The others in camp said porcupine; anyway we ate it, smoked over the campfire on a big skewer which the sarge made from a coat hanger, each tiny sliver spread with a spoonful of jam and apportioned by Stirling-Hamilton.

After supper Stirling-Hamilton prayed for comfort and solace for our families in their ordeal of waiting, a prayer I would hardly have trusted myself to make. There were choked amens and every man turned his back on the rest and stared at the parade of the stars until he could regain his composure. I had the fire watch that night and as I piled on the wood, I thought of the heartbreak back home, with my ten-year-old son as the man of the house.

The following night we decided to strike south on the theory that a southerly course from any point in northern Canada would carry us to civilization. Though, if we were where we thought we were - according to the misbehaving compass on the plane - a trail 28 miles to the northwest would take us to the town of Bissett.

Navigator Does a Good Job
But that day had brought the end of a job Stirling-Hamilton had undertaken, that of finding our position by navigational methods with no other instruments than watches and a compass. He worked it out that we were in 105 degrees west longitude - in Saskatchewan - many miles west of where we should have been had the compass in the plane been reasonably accurate. (It was later demonstrated that his 33 years in the Royal Navy saved our lives, for he was almost exactly right and if we had gone northwest we would have been lost.) We had no means of finding latitude, but we broadcast the longitude on the plane's battery as long as it lasted.

The Pas, Manitoba, Sept. 19 (AP). The most concentrated air search ever assembled in Canada continued to comb central Manitoba tonight hunting for a U.S. Navy plane that disappeared last week with five men. The search is carried out under the supervision of the Royal Canadian Air Force.

The morning of the sixth day came in blustery and chill. The hunters caught nothing. The snares we had set for birds and rabbits remained empty; we dared not use the few remaining rifle bullets for anything but big game. We could not break camp without supplies for the trail.

The decision was that I should head for the big lake next morning with Kastner, the sarge, two pistols and the shelter half, and he prepared to stay at least three days, during which we ought to be able to kill a deer or moose and catch some fish. With a big animal we would have provisions for 30 days of marching, which ought to take us somewhere before the first heavy snows.

We turned in at 7:30; 1 had the fire watch and the sarge snored all night, though he complained in the morning that he had hardly slept at all. Our trip began with a prayer, two fingers of smoked porcupine meat and a chocolate bar apiece.

It was noon before we reached the big lake. Kastner shot a bird and the sarge another. We called them grouse, how accurately I do not know, since they weighed about five pounds apiece. Kastner enthusiastically wrenched their heads off and took a bawling out from the sarge. "You no need pulla head off like that. The head and a neck very good to eat."

That night I was so weak with hunger that while trying to get wood for our campfire I had to lie down twice to keep from fainting, but I felt better after the sarge made some wonderful soup from the giblets -- heads and necks -- of the grouse. He showed me how to chew up necks, bones and all. . After dinner Kastner went off to ambush a moose; I dragged myself weakly to a dominating point and built a signal fire.

Just as the fire began to die down I saw a light in the east. It developed into a huge orange moon, clearer and nearer than I had ever seen it. No imagination was required to picture the face that looked down with cold, mirthless eyes, and I remembered how my mother used to read James Whitcomb Riley's Raggedy Man. I was still thinking about this and the Donner Party as I drifted off to sleep. Waking in the morning I discovered that the sarge had given me his knapsack as a pillow.

The Pas, Manitoba, Sept. 20 (AP). Messages spelled out on the ground of the bleak north Manitoba country aroused hope tonight for the five persons lost September 12th, when a United States Navy plane disappeared.

A search plane was attracted by flashing mirrors and cloth strips on the ground in the wilderness community of Skownan, 100 miles southeast of here. A message was dropped asking if the Canadians knew anything of the plane, lost in flight from Churchill to The Pas. "East in woods on ground," the cloths spelled out. "About 25 miles east," another message a little later said. To a query about whether the plane personnel were safe, the villagers replied, "We don't know." Preparations were made to send a six-man parachute team to the area.

The other two came in soon after I woke. Kastner had several more grouse. The extra food altered our plans. After a breakfast on giblets and their soup I decided to take the sarge and two of the birds, return to Muskeg Station (as we had named the camp) and pack for the trail, planning to return to the lake the following day.

Extra Rations for Hunters
The sarge missed a grouse at 20 paces on the way in, an unusual event for him, but when we reached the camp Stirling-Hamilton produced part of the rations that had been left for the two there and insisted that we eat it, since ours had been the greater exertion.

When I apologized for not dragging in more firewood because my hands were cracked and bleeding, he said, "Ben, don't apologize. They're not your hands, you know. Every hand, every back, every ankle belongs to us all, and our survival depends on keeping the group equipment working."

That Sunday afternoon the sun shone warm; we prepared messages to be left in our lean-to and to be attached to the windshield of the plane, saying we were heading south. I wrote a letter to my wife, trying to keep it on a high business plane, telling her about investments, insurance, schools for the children. But I could not avoid reviewing sane of the beautiful times we had had together and adding that 1 did not want her to wear mourning for me, but to put on her brightest gowns and remember that I had always wanted her to be beautiful and admired.

All light had left the peaks as I waded through the icy muskeg to the plane. There were six inches of water on the floor, and, as I turned, my foot struck something that gave off a metallic ring: Sir Robert's hatbox. I had thought it was leather, but now when I picked it up and brought it within a yard of the instrument panel, the magnetic compass jumped to over 50 degrees deviation, as though it had been hit with a stick.

Here was the major cause of our disaster! Ice had put our radio compass out of commission, and we had been relying on a magnetic that was thrown off by that confounded metal hatbox. The thing had been aboard His Majesty's ships for over 25 years, soaking up residual magnetism for release at the moment when it would do us the most harm. It had taken us nearly 400 miles off our course.

The Pas, Manitoba, Sept. 21 (AP). Hope ebbed tonight as a promising-looking clue to the whereabouts of a U.S. Navy plane, missing since Sept. 12th with five persons, was eliminated. Royal Canadian Air Force Group Captain Z. L. Leigh, search master, said that the clue provided by an Indian has been "washed out, to all appearances." Search headquarters said it was probable that the Indian had seen a bush plane that might have swooped low and then without his noticing it, zoomed skyward. The Skownan area has been scoured by aircraft since word front the Indian was received yesterday.

When the pack was hoisted on my shoulders as we prepared to leave I could not stand under its 80 pounds. I wanted to sit down and cry, but the sarge was consoling and intelligent. "You carry the big leather coat in your hand, we throw way lotta stuff your hag. You no wanna carry your long drawers, you put on two suits now, take 'em off next summer. Maybe you be a little lousy then, but thassa all right, you be warm now."

I repacked, reducing the weight by half. Behind us we left the long white arrow of cloth, pointing southward, and planned to repeat the symbol daily as long as our parachutes lasted.

Three hours later we broke through the brush at the corner of the big lake and greeted Kastner. "Did you get our moose?" I asked.

"No, sir. But I killed some more grouse and we now have nine. And I wounded a bobcat, but it got away from me after I chased it a mile."

I had to make it an order that the rifle was not to be used on anything smaller than a deer, and with a prayer for the trail, we set out. Jack Kastner had collected a number of seasoned pine poles to use as quarterstaffs. Wrapped at the top with friction tape, they became our most vital equipment next to shoes and firearms. At the lake we discarded and cached more gear. The going was easier now. All that day we held to high ground, glimpsing lakes, blue as jewels. At four o'clock we made camp beside a little stream. We had covered 18 miles, we estimated, but only 10 to the southward.

The sarge killed a grouse before we hit the trail next morning. The going was easy at first, but rapidly became a nightmare as we reached a ridge where all the trees had been blown down by those "outrageous winds" from the west which Martin Frobisher logged on his trip to Hudson Bay in 1578. They were northern firs, six to nine inches thick; we had to go through the tangle by sometimes walking a log, sometimes jumping from one to another, sometimes crawling under one.

We tried the margin of a lake, but it was deep in muskeg. We had to camp early for fear I would give out. I was mortified by my own weakness. After supper and prayers I did some more discarding, tossing away such things as socks and gloves. I gave Stirling-Hamilton my extra suit of woolen underwear. Like the man he is, he tried to make me take the clean one while he would use the set the sarge got me into on the previous day.

Next morning we climbed a big ridge south of the camp and staked out another panel of parachute cloth. We were among fallen timber again, worse than the day before, and to add to our pleasures, a harsh southeast wind blew in under the overcast. Toward noon it backed into the south, threatening rain. Swarms of gnats and mosquitoes followed us, a cloud to a man; it was a constant struD gle up and over or down and under the fallen trees.

On the Verge of Despair
The gnawing hunger made us weak. Every few minutes we had to pause to check the southward course by compass. Each time we reached a ridge we looked forward hopefully, but always in vain; every slope ahead was covered with the same wilderness of downed trees, lying precisely 90 degrees to our course and promising further hours of that debilitating struggle.

Hope of finding big game that would put us beyond reach of starvation was melting in that forgotten land. No deer or moose would venture where it could not move. The only sound was the occasional rapping of a woodpecker on a fallen trunk.

About noon, to avoid a seven- or eight-mile circuit, we had to wade through a mile of muskegs and cross a big stream between two lakes. As we reached the other side we heard a growl of thunder and a few minutes later it began to rain.

Kastner and the sarge called a halt, saying that we should gain little by walking in wet clothes with wet packs. The slender protection of the shelter half gave little comfort against the driving wind and rain. We huddled together with little talk and none of the earlier persiflage about how fine it would be to have a donkey to carry our packs, or whether the Mounties would throw us in jail for trespassing on their woods.

An hour and a half later the wind backed into the west and the rain abated to a drizzle. The timbers became more tangled. We started a fire on a ridge, hoping the west wind would turn it into a forest-fire signal, but it burned out after two hours.

demanded to be left with a pistol and a canteen while the others pushed on. The others would not agree and before daylight, after a breakfast of slightly spoiled grouse, we were on our way and we had hardly gone 50 yards when the sarge shot another bird, which jumped and flew, trailing feathers and a broken leg until it pitched down in a thick clump of broken branches.

I stood and prayed with all my heart that we be permitted to find that bird. That prayer was answered, and while the sarge plucked it for barbecuing, the rest of us gathered blueberries. They might have tasted better if the sarge had not remarked that all the leaves were gone from the bushes. "In couple more days there be no more blueberry."

Another Desolate Valley
About quarter to twelve we had reached the high crest of another ridge and as we gazed before us across a long valley containing nothing but the same melancholy desolation of fallen timber, Stirling-Hamilton remarked: "I shawn't ever want again for material for nightmares." At the bottom was a lake; we agreed to take our noon rest there, with fishing lines out, since it was clear that we must soon catch fish or perish. Stirling-Hamilton issued a tainted grouse leg apiece.

We were watching a few holes in the overcast through which the sky showed blue and I was winding my watch when Kastner said, "Quiet!" and stood with his head cocked on one side, listening. "I hear a train or a truck engine," he said.

He had been pretty rational up to that point. I said severely, "Don't you remember how the express trains ran around the ridges at Muskeg Station day and night?"

"Yes, sir, I do. But I still hear something. It goes wooer, wooer, wooer, like a truck engine on a long pull."

I looked at the others; they didn't believe him either. But exactly three minutes later a big transport plane suddenly burst through the overcast with the sun shining on its wings, about three miles away. Before I could shout to fire the Very pistols Kastner had let go, followed by Stirling-Hamilton. With one hand I helped Wilcox cut the cord of his pack and release a long streamer of parachute cloth for attention, with the other I held the compass, checking the course of the plane and praying that it might come our way. Instead it soared gracefully to the north. But if it held that course it would have to cross our panel markers and could hardly help seeing the plane at Muskeg Station.

We started a series of fires with green stuff to make them smoke, while Kastner climbed the ridge to make another and to listen. Ten minutes later he called down to say that he thought the plane was circling our old camp. There was clearly only one thing to do camp where we were, keep smokes going by day' and fires by night.

Our nerves tingled like piano wires while the sarge and Wilcox joined Kastner on the ridge. Today I am not quite sure how long we waited, Very pistols in readiness and signaling mirrors focused, before we heard the call: "A plane engine sounds like it's coming this way." Just north of the lake at 1,000 feet there appeared the most beautiful of all God's sights - a Catalina flying boat headed toward us.

We fired the pistols. The Catalina changed course and came on, waggling its wing tips. We cheered, jumping up and down on the timber until Stirling-Hamilton for the first and only time showed emotion: "Come here, all hands on your knees and thank God for deliverance."

Afterward we opened up the box of candy and ate the good grouse the sarge had shot that morning, then smoked the last of our cigarettes. By night we had sleeping bags and dry socks but the best of all was a meal of corned beef and soda crackers.

It was the irony of fate: When we looked out the window of the plane just before taking off we saw the only moose of our journey, swimming across the lake, where we could have had him easily.

Collier's for January 29, 1949