Dakota Datebook

Carl Ben Eielson

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

 

Carl Ben Eielson knew time was running out for the crew aboard the frozen “Nanuk.” The American schooner was ice locked in North Cape, Siberia with her crew and a million dollar cargo of furs.

Eielson’s commitment to a rescue mission was hampered by arctic storms and more bad weather on the way, but he had given his word, so North Dakota native son and famed arctic aviator set forth on this 9th day of November in 1929 into the white void. It would be his final flight.

Every effort of nature and technology seemed to battle the rescue mission. The November weather battered the frigid landscape and made travel by dog sled, much less airplanes, limited and hazardous. Eielson’s new airline company, formed after his historic flight over the North Pole, was about to be sorely tested.

Eielson’s company owned two planes and had reached the Nanuk earlier with the first phase of the rescue. Now, he and mechanic Earl Borup flew their fixed wing Hamilton into a brutal curtain of wind, ice and snow.

The next day, in calmer skies, the remaining plane he had ordered to stay behind arrived at the schooner and learned Ben’s plane had never made its destination.

A search began for the world-renowned pilot whose flight over the North Pole the previous year was one of the most astounding feats in aviation history. Robert Gleason, Nanuk’s radio operator and chief of intelligence for the search, coordinated radio communications between the searchers, which included, for the first time, flyers from three countries – the United States, Canada and Russia. Gleason would later recount the rescue in a book.

Fearful days turned into weeks that turned into months for the flying rescue teams. On January 25th, the torn fuselage of the Hamilton was discovered. Twenty-three days later, the bodies of Borland and Eielson were found in the tundra where they had been pitched in opposite directions by the crash.

Afterwards, North Dakotans, with the rest of an attentive world, followed the news reports of Ben Eielson’s final journey to his hometown of Hatton. It was there, in the fields of North Dakota that one of the world’s most famous flyers found his rest. The Fargo Forum headline was succinct and memorable: Grave Claims Hatton’s Hero.

Dakota Datebook written by Steve Stark

Sources:

Page, Dorothy, edited by Drache, Ada and Hiram M., (1992) Polar Pilot, Interstate Publishers

Gleason, Robert J., (1977) Icebound in the Siberian Arctic, Alaska Northwest Publishing Company

Editors of Time Life Books, (1983) The Bush Pilots, Time-Life Books

This text and audio may not be copied without securing prior permission from Prairie Public.

Dakota Datebook is a project of Prairie Public, in partnership with the State Historical Society of North Dakota, with funding from the North Dakota Humanities Council.

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