Courage: Passages From the Diary of Thorleif Mokleby


THE diary of the late Thorleif Mokleby, assistant at the Norwegian Geophysical Station of Quade Hook, in Kings Bay, Spitzbergen, reveals one of the deep tragedies of that vast Arctic for which so many explorers have laid down their lives. The diary, together with the bodies of the two victims, was found exactly a year after the leader’s frozen and faltering hand had written down the last farewell, adding, ‘In Christ’s name; his will be done.’

The opening words of this remarkable record seem to show that these brave men had a kind of presentiment of the terrible fate awaiting them; yet both of them — Mokleby and Simonsen, the latter being the station steward in Kings Bay — started out on their expedition with complete courage and a firm belief in the protection of God.

In the diary we can follow them from the very first day, when they were surprised by a blinding snowstorm and the terrible pack-ice, which had not been expected so near the coast. Then we see them drifting with the ice in their small open craft for twenty-five infinite days — nights rather, for the blackness was complete, until they were brought into Kobbe Bay, only to face the worst and last of all their desperate battles against frost, hunger, and despair — a struggle endured through another three long months and finally stilled by death.

The diary, extending over one hundred and fifteen days, would fill a book; but the following extracts give a picture of this desperately heroic quest. It is a human document, tragic and appealing, and, in its quiet matter-of-fact temper, supreme among the heroic records of the conquest of the North. — H. R. D.

Tuesday, February 21, l922. — In the open three-compartment boat of the station, Harald Simonsen and I to-day set out on a journey to find, if possible, a whaler, Nilson, from Tromso. who is supposed to be lying somewhere in Cross Bay. It is our intention to help him to Kings Bay or to give him some provision, and so forth, as he is supposed to be badly equipped.

This account, if it ever finds a reader, may serve to show how in these regions one may miscalculate regarding weather, wind, and ice conditions.

February 24 (Friday). — So far we have kept the boat safe, but as a precaution we hauled it up on an ice floe. We hoped this morning to be able to reach land on skiis.

We succeeded in advancing only about one hundred yards. Then we had to return, as the sea is heavy and it is far from one safe floe to another. . . .

Ice, ice, wherever we can see — we can only deliver ourselves into the hands of God; we can do nothing to get free.

February 26 (Sunday).— Wec have provisions for a couple of months. We have decided to be as economical as possible with food, oil, and ammunition. So, then, we trust in fate and accept the situation as it is, with calm and fortitude. Verily, we are unwilling prisoners on an ice floe in the Polar Sea in the middle of winter.

February 28 (Tuesday). — During the night we have again drifted southward - half of the distance which, yesterday, we drifted northward. We are, however, much farther from shore: I should think, about four miles. Waves from the southwest were rather annoying during the night. We had to get up from our sleeping-bags and go out on the floe to protect it from other ice floes. . . . If our floe should burst, and the boat should come between the ice and this angry sea, we would surely be crushed. There has n’t been much rest either. It is very chilly and we have to keep moving all the time to keep warm.

March 17 (Friday). — That we are still alive to-day is more than I had dared to hope, so much have we suffered during this interim. It is n’t very clear to me how it has all happened, but I will try to write it down as well as I can remember.

Wednesday night , March 1, we were still on the ice floe north of Magdalene Bay. The sea went high and the mass of ice was pressing against shore so hard that we almost got up into the breakers. Late at night we got a storm and snowdrift from shore. Blinded, we drifted seaward again. . . . The following morning we launched the boat and started rowing toward shore — we were then far north and about 12 to 15 miles southward. We had been going in this way hardly two hours, when we encountered a new belt of ice. We tried in vain to get through. For 36 hours we rowed and sailed without food and without sleep. Friday evening, March 3, we found a floe large enough so that we could haul the craft upon it. Sunday morning a real hurricane broke loose from the north, with a terrible sea that washed over the ice floe. Hurriedly we had to get the boat off. Then began a journey which, I believe, is unique. We fell off from storm and sea. The oars literally froze to lumps of ice, such was the cold. All we ate during the day was a handful of raisins and a couple of zwiebacks each; we had time for no more. . . .

Thus we kept going until Monday afternoon. By that time we were so tired and worn-out that we had to put the boat up on an ice floe; it was then so covered with ice that we could hardly move it, but the wind was abating. The next day we continued, rowing and poling — no end of exasperating work! . . .

It was now calm but cold, and we saw that the water froze to ice around us. . . . We were quit e exhausted. Day after day we had been working to get nearer shore and out of, or rather, through, the ice. But now we sighted ice—ice—mile after mile, as far as we could see in all directions.

I prepared myself to leave the world this sad Tuesday afternoon. I committed my soul to God and bade farewell to the dear ones at home. Because I could see no hope of rescue for us, nothing but death ahead, I bade farewell to life and all that had been dear to me. It was a bitter and heavy feeling; it was as if the heart was torn out of my breast.

My God, what an hour! But I bowed my head before his good and mighty will. . . .

Friday night the ice loosened once more and we were in danger of being carried out anew. . . . We had no choice but to row toward shore and try to land, one way or another. It was a hard job, as our arms were worn-out so that we could hardly lift the oars, and we were both as in a trance. At last, however, we came ashore and brought most of our belongings with us. The edge of the ice along the shore is 6 to 8 yards high, so it was impossible to get the boat up. . . . We dug ourselves into the snow close to the sea and crept into our bags. Later in the day we made a snow hut in which we still are living. . . . The chances of getting away from here in the near future are small and it is a long way to Quade Hook. All our clothes, especially our shoes, are wet and frozen, and it is no pleasure to put them on.

We can now only wait and hope — wait and hope — for milder weather and ice-free waters, and we shall endeavor to get southward bit by bit. Simonsen has all this time been untiring and brave; if he had n’t been we should n’t be alive now. We pray each day to God that we may be able to get out with our lives, for now I know what life is and how death tastes. . . .

We are two miserable, frozen men, far, far out in the snow-desert, in the middle of winter. We who meant to be rescuers are now ourselves badly in need of rescue.

[From now on we note that their minds turn more and more to religion and their thoughts linger ever around their home in Norway.]

March 19(Sunday), — We are still living in the snow hut. Ice stops us from getting away, and most probably the ice is lying all along the coast. As long as we have kerosene and food we are pretty safe. . . .

Both yesterday and to-day it has been snowing almost the whole time. We keep to the hut on account of our worn-out shoes.

March 20 (Monday). — Simonsen has been out on a trip and returns with the discomfiting news that our boat, our last hope and only means of escape, has broken loose and drifted off during the night. . . . We can only trust in God the Almighty, who only is able to help us in our great need. . . .

March 29 (Wednesday). — We still keep inside the hut and the days pass slowly. We have shortened our rations, and we may still have enough for about three weeks, but the kerosene, I am sorry to say, will soon be finished.

Another question, which very much occupies our mind, is, whether the Geophysical Station is searching for us northward. . . .

April 4 (Tuesday). — To-day it is six weeks since we started out on this disastrous voyage, the outcome of which we don’t yet know . ...

Since we landed, my health has been in bad condition, my right side seems kind of withered and worn out; I can, however, still move about without too much difficulty. . . .

The way we now live, we shall have food to last us till about April 20, and within that time we hope to shoot something. Our bodies, however, are not much to brag about, worn-out as they are with the toil, the frost, and the scarcity of food. It does n’t exactly strengthen a man to be literally lying on ice in a snowdrift; one undeniably gets somewhat uncomfortable both in body and in soul. . . .

April 14 (Good Friday). — A few things have happened since I wrote last — mostly of an unpleasant nature, I am sorry to say. . . . Monday when I was going to take a look at the weather, I sighted a whaler near the point on the south side of the bay. I shouted to Simonsen, and we both started to run as best we could in that direction. Simonsen had taken along the rifle and the revolver and fired seven shots. I yelled at the top of my voice, but, alas, we were not observed. The whaler headed away southward. There we stood — miserable, exhausted, frostbitten, and despairing! So near had we been to rescue and yet we were as far off now as ever. . . . Slowly we sauntered back and, comforted by a cup of coffee, we crept into our bags again. . . .

April 18 (Tuesday). — We have made a tin can into a rather good stove and are now cooking our scarce rations with wreckage-wood, of which we luckily have found quite a lot — if only we had anything to cook! The ice is still lying all around and hardly any birds are to be seen. We have so far used five buckshots and have shot one sea gull and three small, very young sea hens. . . .

Easter Eve we erected the mast with an ‘anarok’ on top, on the outermost point here.

The worst for us now is the thought of our dear ones, and the dreary life of uncertainty which they are now probably going through. However, we have n’t yet abandoned the hope of a reunion in this life.

April 24.—We, Simonsen, my brave dear friend, and I, have fought hard — harder, perhaps, than most men have to fight. And really it looks as if we shall have to give up soon. Our strength will soon be exhausted, we can hardly keep warm in our sleeping-bags. There is a snowfall every day, frost and ice, so there is no game yet. We have cherished a faint hope of sustaining life till egg-time, and then of eating enough to get strength sufficient to go overland to Kings Bay; but now I clearly perceive that this will be the end of us. I have made myself quite familiar with the idea of saying farewell to this life. How that feels I can’t describe, it can be felt only by the one concerned. Instead of spring, we have a severe winter just now, and we have n’t much power left. But I will continue writing till I feel I can do no more. It may be a week, perhaps less, perhaps more — that I don’t know, I am a mere shadow of myself, and it looks as if a snowdrift in the Arctic will be my grave.

May 7. — We are still alive, but are growing weaker from day to day. . . . Like aged men we are trudging along, when the weather permits, Simonsen to fetch wood, and I to shoot auks beyond a rock, near by. If a God’s miracle does not happen, we shall have to lay down our lives here in the snow desert, just now in the springtime, when all is sprouting with life, and it is light and beautiful. It seems as if it were preordained that we should be sacrificed here, we two wretches. We have fought all we can, but it seems in vain. Certainly nobody can imagine what it means to lie here in a snow cave and starve through the coldest months of the year.

It also looks as if we had been forgotten by the world. Why don’t they search for us along the coast? When we did n’t get to Cross Bay the conclusion should have been obvious to them that we had got out of our course, and had attempted to save ourselves by going ashore somewhere or other. Those who knew us ought to have understood that we were not such weaklings as to give up if we were stuck in the ice. Are our lives, then, so little worth? At home, when a man has been drowned, for instance, they will drag the water for days to find the body. Shall our lifeless bodies lie here as a prey for beasts? We have had a spark of hope of their searching the coast, but now we commence to lose all that is called hope. . . .

June 7. — Now the hour has come, when we have arrived at the end of our journey and shall wonder away from this world. I no longer see any escape. The late spring finished us. We had expected to find eider eggs by the end of May, but it is still almost full winter. We had suffered, starved, frozen, and toiled hard, but still we had some kind of hope as to the eggs. Now our power is broken. Together we die, as we have fought together—my splendid friend, Harald Simonson, and I. No whalingships can be expected hereabouts for at least 14 days. And that will be too late for us. By then we shall be already in Heaven.

Yet we are calm and glad to get away, because now we deserve the rest. If our bodies are found, it is my last wish, to be brought inside the church for a moment, before I am lowered down in the sacred soil. This is now my hope. But no white coffin nor white stone. I have been seeing only white for such a long time now that I am longing for something else. And plant flowers on the grave! Blue and red. Daisies, pansies, and forgetme-nots.

[From a letter written the same day.]

Now I am so tired that the rest will feel good. I am like a man eighty years old and I know what age and exhaustion are. And the old man has learned to bow himself humbly before the will of God and knows that his will is best for me.

June 12. — We are still hanging on to life and have, for a couple of days, cooked soup of the birds’ skins. Simonson can hardly stir. I have gone out of the bag for the last time to warm a cup of tea. Perhaps the thread of life will hold till the middle of June. Well, we lived to see the summer, but, alas, we did n’t find food.

Hand in hand we go my brave friend Simonson and I, to the glory of God, and we are satisfied and glad. . . .

We were at Spitzbergen, and were put to a task that we really had nothing to do with. We wanted to help. Please also help us by looking after our dear ones!

The weather is so beautiful now at midnight that I had to write a little to divert my thoughts. It is dead calm and brilliant sunshine. Eight days more and we should surely have found duck eggs. We are slowly starving to death under full summer and sunshine.

[Later—no date, but probably the next day. The writing is hardly legible.]

The last tea leaves I have boiled today. Now we shall lie down for good. I have erected a cross over our restingplace. We might lie here and live a couple of days more perhaps. Now I place the box with our diaries under some stones and hope they will be found.

Life was short, but beautiful. We have resigned and are satisfied with our fate.

In Christ’s name: his will be done!

[The ‘whaler’ sighted by the two men on Good Friday was the S.S. Foca, sent out by the Geophysical Station at Quade Hook to search for their two missing members; and Mokleby is wrong and somewhat unfair when he writes on May 7, that they are forgotten by the world, and were not searched for. Every effort was made to find them, and it is probable that, if the two explorers had erected the mast before and not after they sighted the Foca, they would have been discovered.

It was this mast which was sighted by the Fram, and which led to the finding of the bodies. It is of sad interest to note that Dr. Stoll, the leader of the Quade Hook Station, took Mokleby’s and Simonsen’s tragic fate and their accusation so much to heart that he died a few days later, after the Fram brought the bodies back.

Their last wishes were fulfilled. They were given a beautiful and solemn funeral, their flower-decked graves are in Norway, their native soil, and their families are well taken care of, through a general collection started by Aftenposten, Norway’s leading newspaper, to which their countrymen, not only in Norway but all over the world, contributed.]