Saturday, May 3, 2014

The Most Daring Rescue Plan Ever Devised

"The people you are about to meet were as remarkable as the story they lived.  Called upon to accomplish what most believed to be the impossible by no less than the president of the United States, they were thrust into the harshest and most dangerous environment in the world, an immense region of ice and snow with temperatures that fell to as low as sixty degrees below zero, a place where every person's step might very well be his last..."

The intense tone of this excerpt from the introduction of Martin W. Sandler's The Impossible Rescue proves accurate, if not understated. In 1897, eight whaling ships were trapped in the precarious Arctic Ocean just North of Alaska. 265 men found themselves stranded when their shipping route froze over so completely there was absolutely no hope of getting the ships moving before the men would die from hunger, disease, and exposure to extreme cold.  The Impossible Rescue recounts the shockingly daring rescue mission, using the first hand accounts of the three men who undertook a mission many thought would prove fatal.

Map of overland route traveled by rescuers

The whaling company appealed to president Mckinley for government support in their attempt to save the lives of their men, and Mckinley granted it.  In many ways Mckinley was the mastermind, authorizing and helping engineer a plan so dangerous, failure would have considerable negative political ramifications. To understand the extreme circumstances of the mission, first consider the vast area of Alaska.  The three heros of this story, Second Lieutenant Ellsworth Berthoff, Dr. Samuel Call, and First Lieutenant David Jarvis were tasked with first sailing as far North as the treacherous Arctic would permit.  This in itself was dangerous, as the extreme cold of that year had made several common sea routes impassable. Due to the extreme weather, the ship the men traveled on almost met the same fate as the whalers.  Forced to land almost 700 miles further south than they had hoped, the trio had to secure several hundred reindeer (to be used as food for the starving men) from any traders they could find, and travel a full 1,700 miles to the area where the ships were stranded.

From Left to Right, Berthoff, Call, and Jarvis

The trek forced the men to travel over precarious terrain; mountainous inclines, pitfalls, and all of it through several feet of snow.  One feature of The Impossible Rescue that stood out was the inclusion of the men's reliance of native eskimos and other indigenous peoples, who on several occasions helped in key ways, serving as guides and providing food, more reindeer, and perhaps most importantly, critical tactics for surviving in the Arctic. Both Sandler and the two main writers who chronicled their expedition in detail (Berthoff and Jarvis) attribute the overall success of their mission to help from natives. 

Still studied by the military and seafarers for the incredible tactics employed, the Coast Guard offers a concise summary of the expedition.

Ultimately, the trio made it alive to Point Barrow in Northern Alaska with 382 reindeer to feed the men, as well as dog sleds to take the very ill and injured back home, and a doctor who stayed to provide his services.  The food allowed the men to survive until the Arctic finally released its grasp and opened the seas for more ships to rescue survivors. Ultimately, 66 men died; however, the mission parameters suggest this was an extraordinarily low number given the circumstances. 

Sandler writes this non-fiction with the craft of a storyteller, and presents Jarvis (quite correctly it would seem) as the hero; a man with keen intelligence, a steel will, and the natural qualities of a leader.  Thus, The Impossible Rescue makes for a short yet compelling read. Sandler achieves with a wonderful synthesis of first hand sources from the trio, pictures taken along the trek, and his own information and voice. Furthermore, while many American history stories exclude Native Americans, Sandler shows how pivotal they were to the mission, demonstrating a valuable lesson for young readers.


Fernando Arce said...

This is very interesting indeed. I always loved an underdog story and these three men were definitely underdogs. Stories like this are engaging since: 1) they are real 2) adventure appeals to if not all, most readers--especially if they are teenagers and 3)This is pretty freaking badass. In order to survive such harsh weather on a mission that was not viewed favorably, it must be a great story to tell and read about. I wonder, how could a teacher incorporate this book in the lesson--as in, what unit would this book fit in perfectly?

I also liked the incorporation of images and link that you used. It was helpful to have references to what you were talking about.

Brittany Ranney said...

This story sounds like a great read of bravery and the attempt at the impossible. I feel like this would be a good book for kids to learn bravery and what it means to put your life on the line to save other people and why it is important. What are some of the strengths that you saw that young adults could use?