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Alaskan Odyssey, 1943

By: Ardis E. Parshall - November 03, 2008

Joseph Henderson Tippets, president of the LDS branch at Anchorage, was heading home to his wife and son in Alaska following a Christmas visit to his mother in Ogden. His small plane, with four other passengers and pilot Harold Gillam, left Spokane, Washington, at 1:30 p.m., 5 January 1943. Four hours later, the plane ran into a violent storm. Pilot Gillam struggled with his controls as he fought a failing battle to maintain altitude. He tried to radio the airfield at Ketchikan (Alaska’s southernmost city, on the narrow strip of the territory that stretches south along the Canadian border), but was only partially successful – he alerted them that the plane was in trouble, but contact was too fragile for him to radio their position clearly. After about 20 minutes of skimming treetops and avoiding rocky ridges in the darkness of the storm, the Twin Beech craft crashed into a peak about 2,000 feet above sea level.

Search planes left Ketchikan the next morning, despite the continuing storm. Tippets and other passengers were, after all, employees of the Civil Aeronautics Administration, and Gillam was popular among Alaska’s bush pilots. Would-be rescuers flew whenever the weather permitted, scanning the coastline and inland mountains in an ever-expanding line from Ketchikan. There was no sign of the missing plane. After many days, the search was abandoned, with the understanding that it would be resumed in the spring.

Meanwhile, back at the crash site …

Tippets regained consciousness, his head and upper body dangling from a hole in the cabin roof. Later, he discovered that one of the plane’s struts had impaled his seat in what could only have been the fraction of an instant following his being thrown clear of it. Dazed from the impact, Tippets gradually realized that he could smell gasoline, and the fear of fire drove him to enlarge the hole and drag himself – his hips and one leg badly bruised and barely functioning – outside. He helped his fellow passengers, returning to consciousness and discovering the extent of their own injuries, to escape. Pilot Gillam had internal injuries and was in shock. Percy Cutting of Hayward, California, had an injured back. Robert Gebo of Seattle had a broken arm and a broken leg. Dewey Metzdorf of Anchorage suffered a broken collarbone, and all the ribs on one side of his body were broken.

Susan Batzer of Idaho Falls was the most seriously injured. Pinned at the bottom of the wreckage with a fractured skull, broken legs, and a hand that had been nearly amputated, in addition to internal injuries, she knew she was dying and urged the men to get away from the plane before it took fire. They did not leave her, of course, although it took nearly two hours to pull her out. Miss Batzer remained conscious and spoke cheerfully to her fellow survivors for two days, then died of her injuries.

The plane did not burn after all, and the passengers used a wing to improvise a shelter next to the wreckage as they waited for rescue. For four days and nights, rain and snow fell without a break. The five men, dressed only in business clothing, were soaked to the skin. Their luggage was intact so they could change into dry clothes, which soon became soaked until eventually they had no more dry clothing. On the fifth day the rain stopped, but the wind began to blow with such force that they could not stand up against it, nor could they build a fire as they had hoped to do once the rain ceased.

Pilot Gillam studied the landscape every day, and eventually believed he had identified landmarks and knew their approximate location. On the fifth day, realizing that there was little chance that rescuers would find them – they had seen planes flying well below their mountainside crash site and had been unable to attract their attention – Gillam decided to hike out to the coast and try to find help. Alone, the courageous man headed out into the wilderness. Months later, his body was discovered a few miles down the mountain.

On the 12th day, passenger Cutting, having recovered somewhat from his injuries, went on a short exploratory trip in the direction of Ketchikan. He returned after a few hours, reporting that there were no signs of rescue planes, no hint of man’s presence as far as he could see. So they remained huddled next to the wreckage – hungry, wet, frost-bitten, and very much alone. They managed to start a fire, and had even shot a squirrel which they devoured, bones and all. Tippets’s injuries, along with Cutting’s, were beginning to heal; Metzdorf and Gebo, though, were unable to care for themselves at all.

On the 21st day, Cutting went on another exploring trip in the direction opposite his first attempt, while Tippets stayed to care for the other two men. Cutting was gone for four days, and the three remaining at the wreckage site had given up hope of his return. He reported that he thought he and Tippets could hike out to the coast, their only chance of survival being to signal a passing boat. For the next two days, Cutting and Tippets helped Metzdorf and Gebo, despite their broken bones, to slide down the nearly vertical mountain to a more sheltered spot. Then Cutting and Tippets climbed back to the wreck to bring down a load of canvas and wet clothing. They built another fire, left the last food remaining from the plane’s emergency supplies – two bouillon cubes – and themselves took a last drink of warm water, and started walking.

On the 25th day, Tippets and Cutting reached the shore of a little bay. They cut holes in the ice and tried to fish, but nothing bit. At night, they would dig a hole in the snow to make a cave, then one would try to sleep while the other remained awake, periodically waking the sleeper to make sure he was still alive. They could make no more progress toward the seacoast, though, because of the sheer cliffs that framed the bay.

They found logs in a drift in the bay, and tearing their blankets into strips, they tied the logs together to make a rude raft. It barely supported one of them, and much against their inclination, the men separated. Tippets remained on shore, while Cutting attempted to float across the bay. Miraculously, he found the remains of an old cabin, together with a leaky old boat, and turned back across the bay towing the boat behind the raft. The tide changed while he was midway, and Tippets was helpless to aid Cutting as he fought for four hours to reach shore. Finally he came near enough that Tippets could wade out into the icy water and help him in.

They spent the next day repairing the boat by stuffing bits of blanket and everything else they had into the cracks, and finally the boat stayed afloat long enough for them to reach the cabin. It was a disappointment, too wrecked to provide much shelter, but they did find about half a cup of weevil-filled rice, which they cooked and ate as if at a feast. Three crows – the first animal life they had seen since the squirrel weeks earlier – flew down and landed near them, and soon fell to the careful aim of the men’s rifle. So hungry were they that they ate the birds raw, all but the feathers.

Knowing that their own chances of survival were slim, but that their friends left behind had absolutely no chance without them, Tippets and Cutting decided to use their fragile boat to float out of the bay and along the seacoast. About an hour after they started, a violent storm arose and tossed them out of the boat and into the ice-filled sea. They nearly drowned as they struggled to reach shore 100 yards away, and neither man could understand how they both succeeded, and stayed together, weak as they were. Now they were utterly without supplies, except for their soaked clothing and a sealed box of matches in one man’s pocket, with which they managed to build a fire. After warming themselves a little, they walked along the shoreline toward their old camp – their only hope of shelter – until they became too cold again and stopped to build another fire. Making this slow progress, they came upon the wreckage of their little boat, in which Tippetts found a bundle of books and documents which he had wrapped in waterproof material.

Approaching their old campsite, they saw a Coast Guard cutter far out in the bay, turning out to the open sea. They ran toward it, screaming and waving their arms, but the boat disappeared from view. The two men felt a discouragement they had, to this point, succeeded in keeping at bay, especially when another boat appeared in their bay the next morning but failed to see their signals.

More days passed, without food. More desperate than they had ever been, the men decided to cook and eat some mussels they had discovered on the beach, but which they feared were poisonous. They roasted them over their fire, and picked out the tiny match head-sized pieces of meat, then sat up during the night to monitor the pains they expected to feel from poison. When neither man had suffered any ill effects by the next morning, they gathered more mussels.

That day was February 2, 1943 – four weeks from the date of their crash. During the day, another boat entered their bay, but turned to go toward the far corner of the bay. Tippets and Cutting built a signal fire, carrying driftwood until they were exhausted, to build the fire as large as they could maintain. Night came, with no indication that their signal had been seen.

During the night, a blizzard arose. The two men could no longer carry wood, and they did not know whether the boat was even still in the bay. They let the fire die, then turned to hike back up to the tree line, hoping to take shelter there.

Five minutes later they heard the motor of a small boat heading toward them, and turned to run toward the sound. They ran into the water of the bay, then collapsed unconscious into the arms of their rescuers, who had indeed seen their fire but had been unable to approach before then due to the storm.

Tippets and Cutting were taken to the hospital in Ketchikan where they were fed and treated for only four hours before turning around to guide a rescue party to the camp where they had left Gebo and Metzdorf. They flew over the site in a small plane, and were cheered by the sight of Metzdorf climbing out from under the shelter to pick up emergency supplies dropped from the plane. The next morning, a 24-man rescue party, led by Tippets and Cutting, hiked toward the site, through terrain so rough that a number of them had to turn back with broken bones and sprains. But they found Gebo and Metzdorf, alive, 31 days after the plane wreck, and brought them out by stretcher. Then finally all four men got the treatment they needed in the hospital.

Tippets had lost more than 60 pounds during his ordeal. Said Tippets,

I shall never forget the courage and faith of my companions. Their undaunted courage in the face of adversity will always be an inspiration to me. We join in thanking God for performing a miracle in our behalf. May we ever remain faithful to him.



11 Comments »

  1. wow. just. wow.

    Thank you, Ardis.

    Comment by Coffinberry — November 3, 2008 @ 1:50 pm

  2. This is an incredible story. I’m surprised that all four of the survivors made it after all they went through. I’m not sure I would have been that tough.

    Comment by Maurine — November 3, 2008 @ 10:51 pm

  3. Amazing story. It is reminiscent of that horrible Jack London story we had to read in junior high school, “To Build a Fire.”

    It also makes me feel like going and turning the thermostat up a couple of degrees.

    And avoiding small planes.

    And staying far away from Alaska.

    Comment by Researcher — November 4, 2008 @ 7:27 am

  4. It makes the BYU “survival” trip I took 35 years ago seem, well, luxurious. Would you please pass the caviar?

    ST

    Comment by S. Taylor — November 5, 2008 @ 8:20 am

  5. FWIW, Tippets has now described his experiences in a book, according to the Mormon Times.

    Comment by Kent Larsen — April 30, 2009 @ 2:22 pm

  6. Yeah — the book is written by Tippets’ son, drawing on materials left by the subject of this story (who died in 1968).

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — April 30, 2009 @ 2:32 pm

  7. Make that John Tippets, his son, wrote the book.

    Comment by Kent Larsen — April 30, 2009 @ 2:36 pm

  8. The book “Hearts of Courage” is Dad’s (and Mother’s) story and I have written it largely in Dad’s first person voice. It is an Alaska aviation and survival adventure but it is also a story of their faith, their love and their prayers answered.

    Comment by John Tippets — August 19, 2009 @ 8:56 pm

  9. […] the lds blogs I found details of this event are given nicely in a blog called “Alaskan Odyssey“ written about a year ago, which includes pictures from the […]

    Pingback by Elder Joseph Tippett’s Incredible Survival of Alaska Plane Crash « Grace for Grace — October 5, 2009 @ 12:31 am

  10. After being rescued and having a while to build up his strength, Joseph with Alta (and Johnny) traveled to Utah where they spent about a month with family and friends….Joseph’s sisters largely in Ogden and Alta’s (Mahoney) family largely in Heber. Dad spoke of his experience at several Sacrament meetings and Firesides. Interview articles appeared in the Deseret News (March 7th) and the Ogden Standard Examiner (March 12th)1943. This week the AP has distributed an article ‘Gillam crash hits 70th anniversary’. This story of courage,faith and perseverence has a continuing message of encouragement to all who hear of it.

    Comment by John Tippets — March 5, 2013 @ 2:56 pm

  11. I’ve been watching (and occasionally searching) for it in the Salt Lake papers, John, since you alerted me to it. Neither Salt Lake paper seems to have picked it up … but here’s a link to it in the Anchorage Daily News.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — March 5, 2013 @ 3:39 pm

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