by MARGUERITE GAYLORD TATE
OUR route from Munich to Istres, France, was planned especially to avoid the Alps. They are peculiar mountains, for they have no rolling foothills; they jut right up out of a flat plain like rocks in the middle of a stream. Now you see flat plains, now you see Alps. And here they were, just off to our left, only a few miles. They were completely obscured by the gray, misty nothingness that was nudging softly at the windows of our C-53.
Staff Sergeant Wayne G. Folsom, the crew chief, had completed his principal duties before the ship left the ground. It was his duty to see that the plane was in perfect, running order. He took the responsibility for all the minutiae incidental to the comfort and needs of passengers and crew. When the ship was once in the air, he became a general factotumOccasionally he went up front to the flight deck to check the water in the heating apparatus, and to assist the crew.
His domain was a small area way just off the rear of the cabin, a space about eight feet square. On the left side was the main door through which passengers and crew entered the plane. Back of the areaway was the luggage compartment, which occupied the tail of the ship. The cabin proper had seating accommodations for eight passengers. Five leather chairs occupied the entire length of the left side. There were three chairs on the right, forward. To the right rear of the cabin was a double-decked bunk — the upper bunk suspended from the ceiling by strong wire, the lower secured to the floor by metal braces. All the seats were likewise anchored securely to the floor. The entire fuselage of the plane was insulated. A carpet covered the floor. To these two conveniences we later owed our lives, for without them we would have perished in thirtybelow weather.
Everyone was quiet. Alice McMahon and Alice Mary, her eleven-year-old daughter, sitting opposite each other in the front seats, were reading. Lona Haynes and I were eating. General Loyal M. Haynes, Colonel William C. McMahon, and George Harvey were dozing, all relaxed, with their heads resting against the chair backs. Alberta Snavely was deep in a mystery story. Folsom made his way quietly up the aisle, opened the door to the flight deck and disappeared.
Suddenly we were shaken out of our lethargy. The plane began to dance around. Folsom stuck his head out the door and said, “Please fasten your safety belts. Captain Tate says we have run into a little turbulence.”
We had no sooner done this than we hit a terrific updraft that lifted us like a rocket straight up almost a thousand feet. The plane righted itself, shuddered an instant, then just as suddenly rode a downdraft. The altimeters on the wall just ahead of us spun “like crazy.”
Lona Haynes looked at me, her big eyes wide with wonder. I had no recollection of being frightened— it all happened so suddenly. All I knew was that my stomach was doing funny things. My body was pressed so hard against the chair back as we ascended that it took my breath away. Then the safety belt pulled tight as the plane dropped. It was a terrific sensation. Of course the pilot — my son — knew what he was doing. But I thought: If this is a little turbulence, I’ll take vanilla.
Alberta said, her voice calm and smooth, “Just relax and you’ll be all right.”
But we had no time to relax. The plane made one short leap, like a horse taking a hurdle, and there was a sudden cataclysmic bursting of the universe. Before I shut my eyes, the chair back in front of me came at my face, and I was clutching at it. Then there was nothing to clutch at. My back twisted painfully as I swung around and down. My eardrums almost split as though the whole world had gone off like one big firecracker. A few seconds before, we had been whipped around in space with the crazy indirection of a snowflake in the wind. Now there was no motion.
Out of the mists of semiconsciousness came the knowledge that our plane had crashed.
THE sudden impact ripped everything loose. Seats, people, buns, Vienna sausages, hats, and books went every which way. But the silence that ensued was almost more deafening than the crash. There was no outcry, no hysterics. The first words came from Colonel McMahon, addressed to little Alice Mary. He was still strapped in his seat, which had been flung the length of the cabin. Very white, and speaking with great difficulty between gasps, he said, “Don’t move, Alice Mary, just sit still and you’ll be all right.”
But Alice Mary was made of strong stuff and was not easily disconcerted by such trifles as airplane crashes. She, too, was still strapped in her seat, leaning way back, but was smiling as she held up a small object with a wire attached.
“I’ve still got it, Daddy.”
The brace on her teeth had come loose, and she was holding it up gleefully. That was Alice Mary’s only casualty.
The inside of the cabin was a shambles. The terrific impact had knocked the wind out of us. When my head cleared enough to realize what had happened, I found that my glasses had been knocked off my face. (Two days later we found them under a mass of debris, unbroken.)
Someone from behind was trying to extricate me from my seat, which had turned completely around and had collapsed into the aisle like a cold cheese soufflé. Two other seats were piled on top of my left leg, but I felt no pain. Something warm and wet fell on my head, then cascaded down the front of me. It was blood. It looked horribly red against the light blue of my suit. Only that morning I had remarked that if anything ever happened to my beloved blue suit I would just die. Now something was happening to it, but it didn’t seem to matter.
Turning my head and looking up shakily, I saw that it was Lieutenant Irving Mathews, the copilot, who was tugging at me. Matt kept saying, “Are you all right, Mrs. Tate? Are you hurt? Can’t you stand up?”
But I couldn’t move. Then came the thought:
My back is broken and I’m paralyzed. That’s why I can’t move.
Then we both laughed, for both of us saw at once that my safety belt was still fastened and was keeping me from getting to my feet.
Immediately, those who were able began to move about. Lona and Alberta made a beeline for the door at the rear of the cabin. It was jammed shut. While they struggled frantically to get it open, George Harvey appeared out of the mists and gave it a kick, whereupon it fell away from its hinges and toppled back into the cabin. Both women grabbed a parachute from the shelf as they went. Alberta opened the side door and jumped into the snow to her chin, still clutching the chute in her hand. Laughing about it afterward, neither could remember why it seemed necessary to have a chute when we so obviously were on the ground.
When things began to make sense, and the full realization of what had happened dawned on me, my thoughts raced to the pilots’ compartment, where the hazards of a crash are greatest. My son! Dear God, my son!
As I turned my head toward the front, my heart almost stopped beating, for he was walking toward me down the flight deck, slowly but very steadily. That blood was streaming from between his fingers as he held his hand to his head was of no consequence at the moment. He was walking on his own two feet! If he could walk, he was all right!
A wicked gash extended from between his eyes straight up the middle of his forehead, then curved around on the top of his head, exposing a sickening patch of skull where his scalp fell loose. For an instant he seemed not the grown man who had so skillfully set us down, but my little boy whose head was bloody. The impulse to throw myself into his arms and weep for joy was almost too much to bear. But I didn’t, and how glad he must have been. Remembering how reluctantly I had started off on this trip, and having his mother with him during his first crash — his burden was hard enough to bear without the additional responsibility of a doting, hysterical mother.
When he made no special note of my presence, other than a quick glance in my direction, I knew he was mutely appealing for my support in his momentary defeat, not my tears or sympathy. Gratefully and willingly I fell out of the role of mother and accepted the status of a passenger. I would try to match his courage with all of mine. The deep emotion of seeing him alive was directed quickly into the channel of pride—deep, heartbursting pride in his youth and strength as he calmly took active command of his stricken ship and its occupants.
“Is everyone all right?” he asked in a matter-offact tone, trying to see through the screen of blood pouring down his face. Then, for an instant, he swayed slightly, and with utter bewilderment in his voice, said, “I don’t know how we got into the mountains.” His voice trailed off as though the scene before him were only a bad dream.
WE hadn’t been on the ground ten minutes, before things began to straighten out. Looking back on it now, it seems almost incredible that twelve people who had just been knocked silly could come out of the shock and gather together their wits and energies as we did that day.
Up to that time we had hardly been aware of the slender, dark-haired civilian who had been sitting in the rear of the cabin — George Harvey, a petroleum expert for the War Department. Except for a few minor scratches, he was unhurt in the crash and he immediately stepped into the role of doctor.
We had found Folsom pinned face down under a chair, clutching the bail of a small pail which was now flatter than a flounder. In the confusion that followed the crash, no one had missed him until we heard him moaning. While the rest of the boys extricated him from beneath the chairs Harvey was opening a first-aid kit. He quickly administered morphine and very deftly set Folsom’s left leg, which was badly smashed.
Harvey went from one to another with amazing coolness. He applied a pressure bandage to Matt’s little finger, which was almost lopped off. That was what had bled so profusely all over me. General Haynes was bleeding badly. His nose had been smashed in and his upper lip cut, inside and out. He refused assistance, saying that it was the fourth time he had broken his nose, and that he could manage alone. Sergeant Louis Hill had been thrown forward into his maze of radio equipment and had neatly removed all the skin from the bridge of his nose, which was also streaming red. Coagulation was slow at the altitude of almost eleven thousand feet. The cabin seemed full of blood.
While Harvey was checking each of us for injuries, someone said, “Say, Harvey, are you a doctor?”
“Nope,” he replied, going right on with his work, “but I’ve had two years of pre-medics and two years as a male nurse.” Right then we knew what a lucky break we had when he chose to ride with us on that trip.
None of us women was seriously hurt. Alice McMahon’s shoe had caught under her chair, wrenching her ankle badly. It began to swell and became very painful. It was discovered later, in the hospital, that her foot was broken and required a cast for several weeks. Alberta got a bad tunk on her head, and a few scratches. Lona skinned both knees. I skinned both of mine, too, and had a bruise on my left shin which soon turned completely black. Resides that, I sprained my left thumb, which probably takes the prize for the most pusillanimous injury resulting from a plane crash. Alice Mary was unscratched.
When Son was satisfied that everyone had been checked for injuries, and attended to, he lay down on the floor and put his head in Harvey’s lap. While Harvey was bandaging the ten-inch gash, Son ordered Hill to try the radio.
Hill made his way through the maze of debris and reclining forms up to the flight deck. We were obeying Harvey’s command to find a place to sit, and to relax for a few minutes.
Actually, though, it was impossible for any of us to relax, for if the radio was smashed, we were really in for it.
We waited, hardly daring to breathe. Then we heard it! That unmistakable buzzing that to our ears was more beautiful than any symphony ever written. The radio worked! We didn’t move or speak. We were figures carved in bas-relief.
Then the Sergeant called down the flight deck to us, his deep voice almost falsetto in his jubilance. “I’ve got ‘em! I’ve got ‘em! It’s Istres! They hear me!”
If the world knew of our crash we had a fighting chance. There was a break in the tension then, and with the relief came a fatigue such as none of us had ever experienced before.
But as I lay there on the floor, trying to relax, little fears and apprehensions began to take form. The plane was tilted on its left side at a thirtydegree angle. Were we on the edge of an abyss, or on the top of a mountain? Our world suddenly narrowed itself to this small space inside the plane. Just outside lay a world of which we knew nothing, hidden behind a screen of falling snow.
Alberta was sitting by me, both of us leaning up against the lower bunk. She turned her head and spoke to me in a low voice. “Marguerite, don’t say anything to anybody, but I think I’m going to faint.”
Her face was ghastly white. I turned around and picked up a handful of snow that had drifted in on the bunk from one of the broken windows behind us and handed it to her. She ate a mouthful and put the rest of it on the huge egg that was slowly rising on her forehead. In a moment she felt better. I ate a little snow, too, but that was the last time we indulged in such a dangerous practice.
Outside, the wind drove the snow against the windows, and frost was beginning to form on them. All heat had gone from the plane.
Up in the flight deck Son, Matt, and Hill were holding a conference. Istres, the British-American airport for Marseilles, was asking for our position. With their heads bent over the blood-spattered map, pilot and co-pilot and radio operator were trying to place us. There was no doubt about our being in mountains. But what mountains? Alps, of course, but French, Italian, or Swiss Alps? According to instrument findings and the length of time we’d been in the air before the crash — counting air speed and wind velocity—they figured our position as being in the French Alps, about fifteen miles from Grenoble. Those coördinates Hill tapped out to Istres, along with the information that all aboard were alive, five injured. Hill asked that Vienna be notified, and told them that help would be needed in the way of food, warm clothing, and medical supplies.
Istres replied that a British Lancaster would start out within the hour, and that rescue parties on foot were already being organized to start early the next morning. It seemed almost too good to be true that, so soon after the crash, help was practically over the ridge behind us. It was a good feeling.
THE crash occurred about two-thirty in the afternoon. By the time order had been established, injuries dressed, and the world advised of our plight, the light was beginning to fade from the sky. By five o’clock complete darkness would be upon us. There was no artificial light in the plane, so arrangements for the night must be finished before dark.
The four boys — Son, Harvey, Matt, and Hill — set about making plans for the night. From two broken seats they made a comfortable bed for Folsom, bracing it to get it level on the sloping floor. There was one sleeping bag, to which he fell heir without question. It was necessary to keep him very warm to prevent static pneumonia, which often occurs with a serious bone fracture.
Colonel McMahon had a back injury which Harvey could not diagnose, and possibly a slight concussion. They made him as comfortable as possible by tilting his chair back to a reclining position, propping his feet and legs up on another chair. The rest of the broken seats were heaved out into the snow.
While we were moving around, getting ready to bed down for the night, we became increasingly aware of the slope of the floor. Every time we started to stand up we reeled and fell down again. At first we thought it was a delayed reaction from shock, but now it was evident that it was the altitude as well as the tilt of the plane. The slightest move required tremendous effort. We all felt a little goofy. In our exhaustion we realized how very important it was that we get settled for the night as soon as possible.
Inventory of the blankets told a sad story. There weren’t enough to go around. The boys brought out four parachutes and unfurled the billowy mass in the cabin. We were virtually buried under white silk. Trying to get under them was like trying to crawl under a pile of soapsuds.
Our efforts to get comfortable that first night were pitiful. Lying sidewise, we rolled downhill; lying crosswise, we shucked down until our knees were up under our chins. Finally, Alberta, Son, and I rolled ourselves into an unrecognizable huddle at the left rear of the cabin. The door into the areaway, which had fallen in after the crash, was propped up against the side of the fuselage. The doorknob kept digging into Son’s back as the weight of us two women kept pushing against him. We had to move ourselves again in the dark to get rid of the door.
Alice and Alice Mary bundled together on the floor beside the Colonel’s bed in the upper end of the cabin. The lower bunk, at the right rear, was folded up against the two broken windows, thus providing more floor space, and also preventing snow from drifting in until the windows could be repaired the next day.
Hill, Harvey, and Matt, along with the General and Lona, tried to arrange themselves in the center of the cabin. There they ran into interference, as Folsom’s bed in the exact center of the left side made it impossible for those trying to arrange themselves just above him to stretch their legs out full length. It was a reasonably good facsimile of the old Chinese form of torture where the victims are forced to remain in a jackknife position until they can never straighten out again. There was a great deal of laughing and joking about it that night, but as the nights went on, it ceased to be amusing.
After we settled ourselves down for the night, we became aware of something that sent a stab of terror to our hearts. Stalking across a world of eternal snows came the cold — bitter, awesome, frightening cold. It settled down around us quietly and insidiously. The numbing cold crept through our clothes, seeping deeper and deeper until our bones felt brittle and without marrow. Against this greatest of archenemies, we had little defense. We women were clad in lightweight suits, thin hose, and inadequate footgear. Both Alberta and I had brought our fur coats. We were more fortunate than the others.
That first night seemed endless. Fourteen hours of profound darkness. At first we slept from sheer exhaustion. As the night wore on, and the floor got harder and harder, we began to wake up, one by one. Time took on fantastic proportions. When someone asked what time it was, our one feeble flashlight was produced. Harvey said, “Well, well! I do believe it’s eight o’clock!”
Someone said, “In the morning?”
But it was pitch-dark outside, and it wasn’t morning. We groaned in despair and wondered what we would do with the rest of the night. If we could have sat up, lighted a cigarette, and talked things out, it would have helped. But smoking was forbidden. The plane was filled with gasoline fumes. Much of the fuel from the tanks had spilled out into the snow under us. One flick of a match might have blown us into kingdom come, or robbed us of our only shelter against the elements. As it was, we were a little uneasy about the sparks the silk parachutes gave off every time anyone moved.
None of us felt particularly chatty. The General’s nasal passages had closed, and his upper lip was swollen so that he was having difficulty in breathing. Folsom groaned in his sleep. The Colonel moaned with every breath. I tried to turn on my left side, but gritted my teeth in pain; my left leg was getting so sore that any pressure on it was almost unbearable. Alice Mary had a bad dream and cried out in her sleep. We heard her mother comfort her gently, then all was quiet again. Soon Folsom turned in his sleep and cried out in pain. The morphine had worn off, and there wasn’t any more. Some clever character had robbed the other four first-aid kits before the flight, and faultlessly resealed them. It was a cruel, inhumane thing to do.
The plane shuddered and groaned as the diabolical gales marched over us, echelon upon echelon. The heavy rudder on the tail of the ship swung free, pounding and banging. At times it seemed as though the whole ship moved. Once during the night we heard a sound like the distant firing of a cannon, yet it seemed strangely near us. Each fresh onslaught of the wind, each new sound, together with the uncertainty of our position, heightened our misery. Our greatest fear that night was that the plane might become dislodged and skate off& into what, we didn’t know.
Son said, “Lie down, Mommie, and try to sleep.” He patted me gently and pulled me close to him for warmth. I buried my head against the bloody front of his flying jacket and tried to convince myself that all was well. I tried to think a prayer, but all that came was “Dear God.” That was as far as I could go. The warmth of his body against mine finished my prayer, for I had not had to help lift his lifeless body out of his seat in the cockpit.
Enemy number two soon began to manifest itself. Thirst. Harvey and Son both had warned us that to eat snow was tantamount to inviting slow death into our midst. Lung frost is a terrible malady, and is almost a sure result if snow is eaten at high altitudes in a thirty-below temperature. A fivegallon can of water had been put aboard at Munich, but more than half of it had been used to keep the heaters going in the cabin before we crashed. What was left was doled out sparingly to Colonel McMahon and Folsom, both of whom were running temperatures, and to General Haynes, whose mouth was dry from breathing through it constantly. The rest of us could afford to wait until a way could be found to melt snow. But because we knew there wasn’t much, we all became waterconscious.
AT FIVE o’clock the next morning, Wednesday, we were through trying to sleep. It was almost seven o’clock before the windows began to show faint gray squares. When it was light enough to see his way around, Son disentangled himself from the maze of blankets and silk and made his way out of doors. I knew he hadn’t slept a wink all night, wondering where we were and how we got there. Several times during the night he had said to his co-pilot: “Matt, think back, now. What happened? Can you figure out how in heck we got into these mountains?” In low tones they talked it over, rechecking on instrument readings at the time of the crash, altitude, air speed, station calls, and all of the details that might have some bearing on our present predicament. If that night was long for us, it must have been interminable for him.
After a bit, Son stuck his head in the door and called to us. “Hey, everybody, it’s stopped snowing and the sun’s coming up!” His voice was less strained than during the night.
With that, I sat up quickly and looked about me. The windows on the left of the plane were ablaze with the first rays of sun which gleamed through the quarter inch of frost, a beautiful and heartening sight. One by one we emerged from our cocoons. I could hardly wait to get to the open door and look out.
The boys were standing thigh-deep in the snow, looking, pointing, gesticulating, frosty breath jetting from their mouths like steam. All around us were mountains, rows and rows of them, snowcovered. The plane lay sidewise at the top of a long slope. From where I stood in the doorway, I could look directly down that long slope that extended almost a mile directly ahead, then turned and disappeared around a small cluster of lesser mountains to the left. Beyond these were two ranges that pushed themselves up against the foot of the slope, affording a wide valley into which a vast expanse of snow flowed like a frozen river.
One of the boys said, “Holy mackerel!” Looking to the left where he was pointing, I gasped. Not more than fifty yards off the tail of the ship was a huge crevasse, wide enough to have swallowed us whole had we crashed an instant sooner. How deep it was we couldn’t know, but in the bright morning sun we could see the blue ice of its sides. To the right of that crevasse, lying parallel about seventy-five yards further on down the slope, was another one just as wide. They were all around us — a network of ice chasms. We had crashed on a glacier!
Harvey said, “Which way did we come in?”
“Which way did we blow in, you mean,” Hill drawled. “We were sucked in like a piece of paper in a vacuum cleaner.”
Son looked around at the plane, its nose pointing southeast, then swung his eyes back. There, right down the middle of the narrow runway between the crevasses, was a deep mark, showing plainly, even under its blanket of freshly fallen snow, that we had flipped into the valley and had bowled right down the middle of the seventy-five yard space, missed both crevasses, and settled down just above them on the only clear, open space in sight.
“No-o-o. I don’t believe it!” This was Hill, staring at the marks.
“I’m going to church every Sunday if we ever get out of here,” Harvey said.
Matt, bundled up in Folsom’s overcoat, whistled softly. “Ba-rother, what we missed!”
Hill said, “Captain, you’re a wizard in a blizzard. How did you do it?”
Son said, “I didn’t.”
No one spoke. Then Matt, in his softly modulated Virginia accent, said, almost under his breath, “The good Lord was with us.”
Hill replied, “Yes, the good Lord, Captain Tate, and twenty feet of snow to break the fall. Somebody pinch me. I don’t know whether I’m dead or alive.”
Their laughs rang out in the clear morning air.
Matt, still overwhelmed by the strange miracle that caught us up, said, “Captain, what, did you think about when you knew we were going to crash?”
Son looked at him for a moment, as though he would rather not answer that question. Then he said, “All I could think was: No one will live through this.”
Trying to control the panic in my voice, I called to the boys. “Son, Matt, all of you! What are our chances of sliding on down the hill ahead of us?”
They all turned and looked appraisingly at the ship. Son said, “It’s well bedded down in the deep snow, Mommie. Don’t be afraid, it won’t move.”
But I was afraid, terribly, shakingly afraid. From where I stood, it seemed as though the plane would dislodge any minute and skate down the glacier. It would be quite a sleigh ride.
The plane was almost intact. Neither wing was damaged. One prop had snapped off, two windows in the cabin were partially broken out, and the door to the john was jammed part way open. We never did get around to fixing that door, but it became of less and less consequence as the days went by.
At eight that morning Hill went to the radio. Istres came in immediately. Hill again gave them our position, and asked for supplies. He also informed Istres that eight of us were stretcher cases. We later learned that that message caused a great deal of consternation among those who were sweating out our plight, but Son knew that we women never could traverse those snowy wastes on foot, even if we had the proper clothing. Nor could any aircraft land near us.
Istres encouraged us with the message that the Lancaster and land rescue parties were starting out immediately. They asked us to keep the wings of our plane swept clear of snow and to keep a signal fire going to facilitate their search for us, both by air and by land. Then they asked us to call them at twelve noon, and again at six in the evening.
Our first breakfast consisted of one Life Saver apiece. As yet we hadn’t pooled and inventoried our supply of candy bars. Fortunately, all of us had drawn our candy rations in Munich, so we estimated roughly that we would have enough to last us several days, provided we doled it out systematically.
The boys attacked the day’s plans with great enthusiasm. First of all, something had to be done to protect their feet from frostbite, since they would have to remain out of doors most of the time. They solved the problem by using the canvas covers of the chutes. These they slit open at the top, fluffed up the horsehair stuffing inside, and with the shroudlines tied them snugly around their feet and ankles, which had first been wrapped with strips of parachute silk. They were bulky but warm.
Making preparations to build a signal fire got under way. Here they were faced with the difficult problem of building it on top of twenty feet of snow. In the cupboard of the area way they found two long aluminum pans, which had been used to keep food warm. The pans were some six inches deep, ten inches wide, and eighteen inches long. Selecting a spot about fifty yards down the slope away from the plane, they set one of the pans on the snow. A few splinters broken off the partition between the cabin and flight deck were used to get the fire started.
Since we were far above the timber line, there was no wood for fuel, so from there on, the fire was fed by a mixture of engine oil and gasoline from the plane. Keeping it going during the days to come was a task that required easily half their time. Because of the tilt of the plane, removing the cap from the left wing tank caused gasoline to run out into the snow under us, creating a fire hazard. Every precaution must be taken to ensure the safety of the plane, which represented our only hope of survival. Therefore, gasoline must be taken from the right wing tank. This entailed a long, laborious pilgrimage all the way around the nose of the plane and up the other side. With each step, a tremendous effort at that altitude, they sank thigh-deep into the snow. Progress was extremely slow and exhausting, made more so by the clumsiness of their improvised footgear.
To collect the gummy engine oil, Son, Matt, Harvey, and Hill took turns, reaching into a small opening. This was a slow, painstaking chore. Their hands were constantly rubbed raw by the knobs in the tank opening which held the cap on. The oil irritated the rawness until all of them were suffering intensely from sore, swollen hands. Gasoline was dipped out in a small paper cup which was lowered into the tank on the end of a piece of wire. All day, every day, they made constant sorties to the right wing to keep a supply of fuel on hand for emergencies.
During the morning Harvey and Hill climbed out on the right wing to mend the broken windows with a piece of canvas. We had used two of our precious blankets the night before to stuff up the holes. The boys had trouble finding a place in the metal fuselage where the canvas could be fastened. Finally, they came inside, where to their joy they discovered that all around each window were strips of wood fastened on with screws. These strips were removed, the canvas placed over the windows, and the strips replaced, making the closing snug and secure.
AT TWELVE noon Hill again called Istres. He came back into the cabin, his face alight with a glow that was a joy to see.
“Istres says a Lancaster will be circling us in ten minutes!”
He came on through the clutter of people and blankets, picking his way uncertainly as though he were trying to cross a stream on a series of slippery stones, and joined the others outside.
The fire was leaping into the air, forming a column of black smoke, which, against the white slopes of the mountains, should make our position evident. To attract even more attention from the air. since the silver wings of our plane would be difficult to see against the snow, Alberta’s and Alice’s bright-red housecoats were sacrificed to the cause, and were laid side by side on the snow some distance away from the plane.
Harvey stuck his head inside and called to us. “Hey, fellahs, come on out and get some of this heat.”
Heat! That was a magic word.
Coming out of the dead, clammy cold of the plane into the brilliant sunshine was almost like stepping into a heated room. Actual heat waves reflected off the snow. The boys had taken off their overcoats and were working around in their blouses, with beads of perspiration on their faces. This explained the strange paradox of pictures I’d seen of people skiing in bathing suits. There was real heat here. We all got a sunburn that day.
With an Army blanket draped over my head like an Indian squaw, I shivered with ecstasy as the warmth of the sun filtered through the thick wool. In my little teepee I could at last flex my numb fingers, which for so many hours had felt more like wooden sticks than flesh and blood. Life took on a new meaning as numbing cold slowly gave way to delicious warmth and renewed circulation. Except for ihe Colonel and Folsom, everyone was out in the sun now, hungrily soaking in its lifegiving warmth and exhilaration. Before long we were milling around, exuberant with this unexpected piece of good luck.
We were a weird collection of humans. Lena’s smart light-gray suit was smeared with dirt and blood. Alberta said, laughing, “When I think of how chinchy I’ve been about wearing this coat, and how I hung it up in a cedar bag the minute I took it off — and now look at it!” A long rip in the beautiful fur extended halfway around one armhole, and it was matted down where she had slept in it and had crawled around on the floor. She said, “You know, Marguerite, when our husbands come for us, and find out how dirty we are, they’re going to wish they’d left us up here!” Alice, who always has that immaculate, scrubbed look, now wore a dirty face with the rest of us. On her foot, which was swollen to twice its size, with black, ugly streaks running up her ankle, she was wearing one of the Colonel’s bedroom slippers. My gray squirrel coat was dirty and had little flecks of blood sticking to it. All of us women had made peasant scarfs from parachute silk, from which emerged, both fore and aft, stringy, straggly, uncombed hair. The boys were showing five o’clock shadow over the dirt on their faces. Son’s blond hair stuck up out of his bandage like a driedup sunflower.
As the minutes rolled by, and no plane appeared, our hopes began to fade. Then, almost as if the elements were conspiring to bring defeat a little closer, the wind whipped down over the ridge above us as though someone had turned on a gigantic fan. Instantly, all the warmth went out of the sun’s rays. We hurried back into the plane, hoping to retain some of the warmth we had assimilated.
We snatched up our blankets to take them back into the plane with us. Son said, “Mom, watch every little piece of snow sticking to the blankets and pick them all off. If the blankets get damp they’ll never dry out and we won’t be able to use them.” So we spent the next half hour inspecting each blanket for even the tiniest beads of snow. We were learning, bit by bit, the importance of extreme care for our comfort and security.
Son and Hill remained outside, still looking and listening, reluctant to give up hope. About threethirty the sun descended behind the mountain back of us. It was too late now to expect the Lancaster. Son and Hill came in. With the very last flicker of light, the chocolate bars were passed. But no one was hungry. We nibbled at them unenthusiastically. Some water had been melted during the day, but it was tainted with the taste of gasoline and oil and smoke. It didn’t mix very well with the chocolate, but it was wet. We felt a little squeamish after our evening repast.
That night, our second, was bad. It had turned colder. Again, that deadly, brutal cold ate through our clothing like acid. The wind battered at the plane with a dull, thudding constancy. We were huddled together like a brood of baby chicks, our noses burrowed deep under blankets and silk. Alberta and I arranged ourselves as best we could opposite the Hayneses, who occupied two chairs. General Haynes was tall and angular. With his difficulty in breathing, trying to lie on the floor had been exquisite torture to him. Lona suffered from time to time with a heart ailment, which made it advisable to keep her sitting up, and as quiet as possible. Her condition was aggravated by altitude.
Colonel McMahon lay alarmingly still. Alice and Alice Mary were rolled into a tight bundle beside his bed. Folsom had slept intermittently all day, and was now wakeful and restive. Hill had, by general consent, been consigned to the upper bunk. He was over six feet tall, and had difficulty in arranging his long body in the already crowded space on the floor.
Harvey, Son, and Matt were lined up just above Folsom’s bed, fanned out a little, with their feet pooled together in a nest of parachute silk they had made at the end of the Sergeant’s bed. They had discovered that their feet were warmer without shoes.
I tossed and turned and squirmed. Every time I moved I pulled the covers that Alberta and I had wrapped around the two of us. She was miserable and so was I. Finally, in despair, I sat up and announced that I was darned near frozen to death.
“Come on over here, Mom, it’s warm as toast.”
In the pitch-black I made my way precariously on my hands and knees, amid various warnings, “Hey, look out! That’s my face!” Or “Ouch! My sore arm.”
Finally I crawled in beside Son, and after taking my shoes off, I stuck my icy feet in with the other six, which were now warm and radiating heat. It seemed incredible that in such bitter and devastating cold there could be a place in the plane as warm as that nest of silk with its snarl of feet.
TO THOSE of you who have trouble with a sensitive conscience, the following will be of interest. On Thursday, Son thought it a good idea to delegate me, as a committee of one, to look under everything to see what could be found in the way of food, especially fragments of flight lunches. As Son so nicely put it, I was built close to the ground. So, during the morning I started out on my job, crawling around on my hands and knees. It was back of General Haynes’s chair that I met my Waterloo. There I found two whole buns — four halves — and lying benignly beside them was a succulent, tempting nubbin of Vienna sausage, not more than an inch long. It looked at me, and I looked at it, like two puppies appra sing each other through a hole in a fence. While we were eying each other, it somehow got up and walked right into my mouth. Filthy dirty though it was, it tasted like a chicken dinner.
But I remembered, from stories I’d read about emergencies of our kind, that people had been shot for eating out of turn. As I pulled my head out and showed my wicked face to the unsuspecting wretches who trusted me so implicitly, I held up the four pieces of bun, intact. During the luncheon party that followed I penalized myself by refusing a piece of bun, temporizing by saying this was as good a time as ever to lose a few pounds.
At twelve noon Hill called Istres, according to schedule. As he came back into the cabin after talking to them, he seemed a little more agitated than usual. Their message said that searching parties started out at dawn, and that a plane should be circling us in an hour. They again asked us to keep a signal fire going in order to help the searchers.
The boys sprang into action. They had accumulated a pan of oil during the morning. Now they tore the curtains from the windows and took them outside and saturated them with oil. Parts of the leather chairs outside were torn away and placed beside the fire. The rubber de-icer boots also were stripped off the wings and laid where they could be reached easily. All those things would make a wonderful black smoke when they burned. The boys worked feverishly, panting and puffing as they tore around.
There wasn’t enough fuel to keep the black smudge-fire going for long, so they didn’t want to waste a bit of it needlessly. It was all we had, and we were staking our all on this one chance. In that exquisite stillness a plane could be heard long before it appeared.
We sat out there for quite a long time. The sun was wonderful. The wings of the plane were swept clean of the snow that had fallen on them during the night. The sky directly above us was clear, but all around the horizon small clouds rested on the tops of the mountains like marshmallows on a birthday cake.
The boys were standing around the fire, talking and laughing among themselves. Suddenly, I saw Son lift his head quickly and cock it to one sale as though listening; then Matt, Harvey, and Hill. With a concerted motion, they sprang toward the pile of material lying there. Feverishly they threw the curtains on the fire, and in a second, black smoke billowed up fifty feet into the air.
Then we heard it, then saw it — a plane! The boys were yelling, “There it is! There she comes!”
We all shot out of our chairs as though springs had propelled us into the air. In their excitement the boys were falling all over each other, floundering and falling down in the deep snow. Crazily they threw more oil on the fire. Next came the rubber de-icer boots. The black smoke boiled out against the glaring white of the snow like an ink stain on a white tablecloth.
The plane swung along the edge of the clouds on the horizon, looking as businesslike and determined as a fat man going to lunch. But it kept going east and not turning. Surely it was only swinging around to come back. We watched it, our eyes strained and aching from the glare, but it didn’t come back. For a few heartbreaking minutes we all stood there, speechless, unable to take our eyes away from the direction in which the plane had disappeared.
After twenty minutes had gone by, we came to the crushing realization that they hadn’t seen us. There was abysmal silence. Finally, Son said, “Well, I’ll be damned!”
Strangely, the sun lost its warmth and cheer. We could never build another fire like that, for there wasn’t anything more to burn. Like a still picture slowly coming to life, we all filed silently back into the plane. The disappointment was almost too much to bear.
It was then that Son decided to take a definite step. Hill was to call Istres, even though it was not on time schedule, and ask for a triangular “fix.” Something was wrong. We were confident that they were bending every effort toward us, but when a plane goes practically over us and doesn’t see our signal, they must be looking for us in the wrong place. Possibly our report on location was incorrect, and we weren’t where they, or we, thought we were. Certainly visibility was perfect.
Hill went to the radio. It was still working, which was another miracle. The normal expectancy from the batteries was twenty-four hours. Now, after more than forty-eight hours they were still functioning, although growing a little weaker. They must have been buried deep in the snow, which kept them from freezing.
Istres came in immediately. We at least had the comfort of knowing that someone on that end was vigilant and alert, for our signals were caught almost instantly. They, too, were anxious for a “fix.” Six o’clock that night was agreed upon as the time it. should be taken. That would give them time enough to notify the other stations.
At six Hill called Istres for the “fix.” In the dim glow of the flashlight, we could see all the boys grouped around the radio, their faces almost ghostly in the faint light. They stood there, tense and silent. Hill pressed down on the key and held it for two minutes. Then the batteries died. We could not know if it had succeeded. We could send no more messages.
I have little recollection of the rest of that night. There was none of our usual banter and talk, which had helped us through the other two nights. I can only remember that it was a terrible night — very long, and very cold.
FRIDAY morning dawned without hope for us. It was snowing hard. The wings of the plane were thickly covered with snow and the sky was cloaked with gray. No one left the plane.
About noon that day, Matt went up to the flight deck. A few minutes later he emerged into the cabin, walking unsteadily as he strove for balance. Opened before his face was a small black Bible, which he was reading as he came. He looked for all the world like any impassioned young parson leading his first group of converts to the altar. As we recognized the book, a new interest, sprang up among us. Matt came over and sat down by Alberta and me.
“What are you reading, Matt?” I asked, trying to look over his shoulder.
“To tell the truth, Mrs. Tate, I just opened it up and there was the Hundred and Twenty-first. Psalm.”
“Read it to us, Matt. I love the Psalms.”
“Sure enough, you want to hear it?” He looked at me quizzically, to be certain I meant it.
“Sure enough,” I replied.
He began to read, his voice even and calm. Something quieting and solemn stole into that cold, icy plane and seemed to warm us through and through.
“I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help. My help cometh from the Lord, which made heaven and earth. . . .’” When he had finished, we begged for more.
Matt thumbed through the Book, stopping here and there to read one or two verses which seemed appropriate. As we listened, one or another would suggest a passage. Into the chaotic, unhappy, uncomfortable frame of mind we all had shared for days came a strange sort of peace.
Suddenly the boys raised their heads like dogs pointing game. The air was electrified. Then we all heard it — a plane! We heard the roar of engines in the distance, coming closer and closer. The boys shot out of doors, Son grabbing the Very pistol as he went. They fell all over themselves and everybody else on their way out. Hill sputtered as he tried to find his shoes.
“It’s the 906!” he shouted, as he tore up to the radio in his stocking feet. He knew every plane at Tullin and had flown on practically every one of them.
Pulling ourselves together after the human avalanche passed by, Alberta and I crawled to the window and scratched a hole in the frost.
As we knelt there looking out, over the ridge to the east came a B-17 like an angel straight out of heaven. It came at us through the narrow corridor of blue sky that extended directly over us.
Hill was crouched over his radio set, alternately listening and tapping. The batteries were so weak it was difficult to hear what was being said, but we could hear the faint voice of the radio operator on the B-17 come in and then we distinctly heard the words Tate and Snavely. Our husbands had come for us! We hugged each other and jumped up and down like crazy people.
As the B-17 swooped down into the valley and came over us with a roar, they dropped two flares to let us know they had seen us. Son replied with two of ours. They circled around once, then came back.
On their third trip over, large objects began to fall. Supplies were coming down to us! Now we could eat! Perhaps there would be warm clothes and blankets! From then on there wasn’t much sense to anything. We were all drunk with excitement. Our world suddenly lost its small confines. There was a great, wide, beautiful world out there somewhere, and it was waiting to welcome us back into the fold.
Within the hour, the sky was cluttered with planes. Obviously they had been cruising in the vicinity waiting for the signal that we had been located. I can just see them all turning tail and making a beeline for the spot. Our “fix” had not been in vain.
By now there were ten or twelve planes circling and swooping above us, all coming over to drop the supplies they must have carried for days. Large canvas bags began falling like nickles out of a jackpot, plummeting down and going out of sight in the deep snow. Alice Mary was jumping up and down, her pigtails bobbing crazily. “Wheel” she exclaimed, “it’s just like Christmas.”
There were American C-47’s, one C-54, and one B-29, British Lancasters, and French transports. Then came the Swiss planes. I shall never forget that beautiful sight. The clouds had almost disappeared from the sky. Remnants of them were hurrying off to the north like frightened chickens making for the hen house. It was another miracle: the sky was clear as crystal.
The C-47’s came over first, one at a time, and began to jettison their cargoes. Many bags were dropping too far away to be of any good to us. They were trying to drop them closer, but terrific updrafts upset their calculations. As they’d get nearly over us, the planes would rock and tip, and the bags would go every which way. However, enough fell within a hundred yards of us to keep the boys busy for the rest of the day.
They set out immediately to bring in what they could. We still had darkness to reckon with. But they found their troubles as they reached the nearest hole, for the bags were dropping with such force they were going down into the snow anywhere from six to eight feet. Retrieving one bag at a time took the efforts of all four.
Panting and heaving, but deliriously happy, they dragged their first bag of loot back to the plane.
By now we were inside the cabin. They threw the bag through the doorway onto the floor of the areaway, climbed in over it, and dragged it part way into the cabin. We were so excited we could hardly wait till they got the heavy rope fastening untied and spilled the contents on the floor at our feet.
I shall never forget that particular incident. Our eyes must have stuck out like stops on an organ as we waited to see what we would get first. Heaven only knows what we expected. Food, of course. When the bag disgorged twelve pairs of overshoes we didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.
For a moment there was utter silence. It was certainly not a sight to start up activity of the salivary glands, for there could be nothing less appetizing than a pile of rubber shoes lopping all over each other, toes pointing in all directions. Suddenly I thought of the man who went into a restaurant and asked the waiter to give him something to jade his appetite. We had it. right here.
“Well, folks,” Harvey said, his hands on his hips as he swayed back and forth, surveying the pile before him, “there you are. Chew on those till we get back.”
By a quarter to five all planes had gone from the sky and again all was quiet there on the mountain side. In our own plane, though, there was much excitement and chattering. The boys had managed to bring in four or five bags which had produced a wide variety of articles — food, clothing, blankets and medical supplies, even little chemical cubes for fireless cooking.
Our first real food for days was K-rations. Son doled out one package apiece, with the warning, “Take it easy now, folks, and eat very slowly. Chew every bite a long time before you swallow it, and wait a minute or two between bites.”
Just before dark Son made some tea in a tin can outside. It was a long process, trying to get the water hot enough over the chemical fire to steep the tea. Actually, it wasn’t very good when it was finished, for it was weak and thick with tea leaves. However, it was wet, and by straining it through our teeth, we all got a swallow as the can went the rounds. The real pièce de résistance was the canned sliced peaches. They were wet, sweet, and cold to our parched mouths. We ate them right out of the cans, with our hands. They tasted so good that I wanted to rub them into my hair, my face. I wanted to take a bath in sliced peaches.
Ultimately, the excitement died down and we got a reaction from our strenuous last few hours. Suddenly we were tired — beautifully, deliciously tired, like children on Christmas night.
Before settling down for the night, I went outside. With overshoes to protect my feet now, I walked part way down the path that had led to the fire and sat down on one of the empty canvas bags that lay on a snowbank.
The night was calm and still. Stars shone coldly in a clear sky, unperturbed by the recent roar and commotion of man’s contrivances. There in the dim whiteness I remembered Matt’s reading of the Psalms. “When I consider thy heavens, the work of thy fingers, the moon and the stars, which thou hast ordained; what is man, that thou art mindful of him? and the son of man, that thou visitest him?”
All around lay the same mountains, the same snows, the same crevasses. We had achieved our metamorphosis, but they were ageless. Turning, I surveyed the scene in panorama until my eyes came to rest on our plane, lying there in the semidarkness like a monument to the Fates. In that plane was my son, my adored first-born, who had saved my life and the lives of ten others. But he had broken his own heart. His usual joyous, exuberant nature had changed frighteningly into a sober, dangerous calm. The face that always lighted up from within when he smiled was pale and drawn now. He had lost much weight, much blood. Yet his efforts had been unflagging. It was not enough that a war should make an old man of him before his time; he must now have this tragedy to mar his days and nights forever.
Suddenly, the floodgates opened, and I began to cry, silently and bitterly, for all the boys who had carried the war on their young shoulders. Tears streaked down my face and froze into little beads on the front of my coat.
After a bit, when the blessing of tears had washed away some of my mental and physical turmoil, I rose to go back into the plane. Again I heard that muffled boom, near yet far. The ground under my feet shook slightly. It was the crevasse just off the tail of the plane. I actually saw it open farther. Foot by foot, it was creeping up on us.
WE awakened on Saturday morning after our first real rest. Our hearts were singing, our hopes real. Almost before we could get organized, two Swiss planes came over. First came a Fieschler-Storch, painted snowy white. On its underside was a white cross within a red shield, the national emblem of Switzerland. Flying slowly, almost hovering, it came over us so low that the message they dropped nearly fell into our outstretched hands.
Eagerly we watched the bright red package, with long red streamers, as it tumbled down to us. The message inside said that a ground rescue party started out at dawn and should reach us early that afternoon. My spine tingled. This was it! All of a sudden I wanted to go to the bathroom; I wanted to clean my teeth, to wash my face, to comb my hair. This was pretty special. All those luxuries were just around the corner.
The Fieschler-Storch swam away through the sea of blue sky overhead with the dignity of a swan parading before a group of Sunday strollers in the park.
Then a biplane bustled in. It dropped a large, oddly shaped object a short distance away. The boys bounded for it, lugged it in, and had it opened almost before the biplane got away. In it was a five-gallon thermos of hot, sweet tea. There were also a slab of bacon, four huge loaves of fresh whole-wheat bread, Swiss powdered chocolate, Swiss canned milk — more like real cream than milk — and four portable aluminum cookers. Heat for cooking was provided for by small chemical tablets which, when lighted, gave off an intense, white flame. The boys assembled the cookers and got our kitchen department going. There in the brilliant sunlight Son was busy slicing bacon, and Matt was slicing bread.
And then came to us a sensation we hadn’t had for many days — an odor that tops all odors — the smell of frying bacon in the open. The saliva began to gather in my mouth, and a sharp pang hit the pit of my stomach.
Son yelled, “Come and get it!”
What a treat, what a thrill! The bacon was almost raw, even though great quantities of fat had broiled out of it. It would never cook through at that altitude, but it didn’t matter. Between jagged, thick slabs of soft, fresh bread went the half-cooked bacon, a chef-d’oeuvre if there ever was one. We sopped up the bacon grease with our crusts, and laughed at each other’s greasy faces as we stood there, dunking bread into the sizzling fat. We carried bread, bacon, and hot tea into the cabin for Folsom and the Colonel. We found ourselves slapping each other on the back and saying, “We don’t want to be rescued — we’re having a wonderful time.”
With a roar and a swish, over the peaks came several small white fighter planes, Swiss. They, too, had the shield painted on their little white bellies. They darted in and out of the smaller peaks, swooped down into the valley like bees in a hatbox. They darted around so fast and so low that at times we would lose sight of them against the snow. Then, just as we began to fear they might have cracked up on the side of a mountain, they would puckishly rise into the blue sky and flit around again. It was a private air circus.
About eleven o’clock the American planes began to arrive. After the quiet efficiency of the Swiss planes, they were very noisy and boisterous, like a crowd of boys heading for the ball park. One by one, they peeled off and came over us, dropping bag after bag, box after box. They were pinpoint bombing now. The stuff was coming too close for comfort. Occasionally a bag hit the fuselage of the plane and bounced off. We wondered why they didn’t go right through the top. The Hayneses returned to the plane and settled themselves quietly in their chairs. Alice went in and took Alice Mary with her. Alberta and I stayed out.
At first this was just another thrilling bit of excitement for us, but it wasn’t long before we, too, were running for cover. We didn’t get all the way in the plane — we just stuck our heads inside the door like silly ostriches, with our derrières making very good targets.
Then we heard a roar in the distance. Four or five planes nosed over the ridge and came at us again. This time it was the British.
As each plane lost altitude to drop its offerings, it would begin to wobble and waver like a little boy walking a fence rail. We could see the first bag as it left the bomb bay, and in a few seconds a parachute to which the bag was attached, opened and began to drift in. The chute was bright crimson, a beautiful sight against the cobalt sky. Alberta screamed as we watched it drift down, “I’ve got dibbs on that one. I’ll make a housecoat of it!”
Down came another, this time a bright green. “Okay!” I yelled back at her, trying to make myself heard above the roar of the planes, “you can have the red. I’ll take the green!”
Down came the bags with their brilliant couriers — blues, greens, reds, and yellows — but alas, we never got them. As the planes came almost over us and released the chutes, they would open and start right down toward us. About five hundred feet up they’d begin to shift their directions, then float far off course like soap bubbles, coming to rest on the snow much too far away to be retrieved. We stood there, disconsolate, and watched them go off at a tangent as though some imp of fortune had laid in wait for them and puffed them out of reach. It was a tantalizing disappointment.
Not long after the British had gone away, a new group of American planes barged in on the scene. Flying in formation, they stormed at us where we lay so helplessly in our mountain pocket, came low, then pointed their noses up, skimmed the top of the mountain back of us, and went away. When they circled short and came back like a March gale, and no objects fell, the boys knew they were getting aerial pictures of our situation.
Supplies were now stacked around us like a warehouse. We wondered if they thought we expected to spend the winter here. We had enough food for a regiment.
AT LAST we could have a good fire from the packing cases in which the supplies had been sent. The water the boys were preparing now wouldn’t taste of oil. I announced my intentions of washing my teeth, so Hill ploughed down the incline and brought me a can of warm water. I could hardly wait to get over to one side and start scrubbing my teeth. I was going great guns, thrilling to the taste and feel of the clean tooth paste, when Harvey let out a yell that almost sent me headfirst into a snowbank: “Look! God Almighty, look!”
My arm stopped in the middle of a jab. Everyone was running toward the tail of the plane. Without rinsing my mouth, I joined them. There, silhouetted against the westering sky, like two cherubim, stood the first of our rescuers. They sighted us, lifted their arms in salute, and swept gracefully down the long, high slope, their skis leaving tiny trails behind them in the snow.
Everybody was yelling his head off. The two Swiss skiers hugged us, kissed us, slapped our backs, then hugged us again. I must have looked as though I were frothing at the mouth, for I had forgotten to wipe the tooth paste off. The words Grüss Gott were repeated time after time. I hugged Hill, then turned and hit Harvey a whack on the back that almost knocked him over. He hit me back, then we hugged each other. We were stark raving mad. Everyone was talking at the same time, but it didn’t matter.
As the two Swiss sipped happily on the whiskey we had jealously saved for just this occasion, the boys quickly opened some cans of stew and got it on to heat. The skiers hadn’t eaten since four that morning, when they started out. It had taken them eleven hours to reach us. Eleven hours to traverse fifteen miles. No small wonder they looked haggard and fatigued. While they were eating, they told us that eighty more men were on their way. Eighty! Great balls of fire, where would we put them? Oh, well, that was of minor importance now.
Not long after, they started coming, following the ski trails marked out by the first two. They came in groups of perhaps twenty. We went back into the plane, and as each group arrived, they all filed through the plane in a circle, and solemnly shook hands and Grüss Gott-ed every one of us. Each wore the same incredulous expression in his eyes as he bent low and greeted us. Later, when we were conversing with the Swiss doctor, a handsome fellow who spoke very precise English, he explained it to us. They had never seen anything like this before. They were all highly trained for just this sort of thing, but never before had arrived at the scene of a crash to find not only the plane intact, but all its occupants alive. Nor could they, or the doctor, understand how we had withstood the days and nights of extreme cold, or how we had avoided frostbite, at least. We were given a cursory physical examination, mostly questioning. He shook his head in disbelief at our general condition. As he examined Folsom’s leg, he complimented Harvey very highly, saying that, under the circumstances, he had given the very best of first aid, and had done a splendid job of setting the shattered limb. We were all so very proud of Harvey.
All eighty men were fed as they arrived. Now we knew why such great quantities of food had been dropped: supper that night and breakfast the next morning for almost a hundred people. They weren’t taking any chances on the Loaves and Fishes sequence, even though we had survived only by a series of miracles. The boys worked frantically for hours, opening boxes of food and trying to heat it on our little cookers. Finally, they gave up trying to play host and turned the Swiss loose on the supplies to let each man take care of himself.
DESPITE their fatigue after their long day’s trek the Swiss fell to making preparations for the night. One group scooped out a large area in the snow under the left wing, lined it with paper, and even had a little door on it. In a jiffy they had a dugout that was as snug as a kangaroo’s pouch.
The luggage compartment was stripped of its contents, which were placed in an orderly pile near-by, and as many Swiss as possible jammed themselves inside.
Others preferred to remain in the open, standing or sitting around the four huge charcoal fires built, at intervals on the down slope. These they kept burning brightly by throwing on bits of wood from packing cases. The firelight played on their white wind-resistant jumpers which they wore over their uniforms, pant legs stuffed down inside their ski boots. A hood attached was pulled snugly down around their faces, which shone red not only from the firelight but from the day’s exposure to wind and sun.
Inside the plane we all sat around in a stupor. Light from the fires outside came through the frosty windows and cast an eerie glow throughout the cabin. There was too much noise outside and too much confusion inside to allow for sleep. We moved around sluggishly, trying either to sit up or lie down.
Each of us had been given a warm outfit, padded trousers and a parka, to wear down the mountain the next morning. I had jacked myself into a pair of football jobs that were much too long and bunglesome for my short legs. Over these I had a pair of fur-lined flying boots. I felt like a fat man at a potato race as I waddled around and shifted position. My back and head were aching and I was tired enough to die. Finally, I knew there was just one thing to do, and I did it. I crept over and lodged myself alongside Folsom’s bed. I didn’t care who stepped on my face.
Sometime during that night, when I came out of a doze, I overheard Son talking to Matt about the plans for the morning.
“I’m staying behind and will follow you down.”
My heart skipped a beat. What was he talking about? Staying behind! And why? I rolled over and reached out to him.
“What are you talking about?” I queried. “Why should you stay behind?”
“Take it easy, Mom. I won’t be alone. Some of the guides will be with me. I just want to check out here after everyone is out, and see that everything is all right before I leave the ship.”
For a sharp moment bitter tears welled up. I remembered the tradition: the Captain is the last one to leave his ship.
I watched him as he lay there in a half-reclining position, supporting himself on one elbow, talking seriously to Matt, who had assumed the same position facing him. In the half-light I could see the outline of his face, looking so like his father. The dirty bandage that encircled his head, and a five-day growth of beard, made him look older than his twenty-five years. In that quarter century he had experienced more than most men do in a lifetime. Mothers have a universal and common weakness: they never see their sons grown up — they see only little boys running around, busy and enchanted with their countless occupations of youth. Was this man-child the little boy who had run to me once, his grubby little hand outstretched, ecstatic with wonder at a tiny iridescent feather from a nameless bird lying upon it? Was he the one who had wept unconsolably when one of his baby rabbits died?
“No,” I told myself, “that was yesterday. Today is today. I must accept that thought. He is big—far bigger than I ever can hope to become. I can keep and cherish my memories, but him I must release. Those memories are mine, not his. I have finished my work; now he must finish his.” At that very moment, deep in the night, I relinquished him to the world.
Chapters and chapters more could be written concerning our ultimate rescue, the chief credit, for which goes to the valiant Swiss. In the choice of words, one feels beggared. Vainly I have sought for the ones which will convey, in utter simplicity, the valor, the complete lack of self-aggrandizement, the strength of endeavor that brought these dauntless souls out of their warm homes, sent them out into the biting cold of a winter morning, to give succor to us twelve. I know what cold they faced, what terrain they traversed, what risks they ran. For them there was no profit, no reward, except what they earned in knowing they were going out to save twelve lives. None was urged, or even asked, to join the searching party. The distress signal was sounded, and eighty heroes responded to the call. They came of their own volition. Greater love hath no man. To each of those eighty men we twelve owe our lives.