You're Not Going To Believe This

By: 
staff

    Backpacking through remote areas of Alaska might be appealing to many outdoor enthusiasts, but it was not on Lieutenant Leon Crane’s bucket list in 1943. However, despite no survival skills, he did manage to remain alive for 84 days after a plane crash dumped him into the unforgiving Alaskan landscape during the harshest winter months.
    Crane was serving at Ladd Army Air Field at Fairbanks, AK, during World War II when on December 21, 1943, he and four other crew members took to the air in a B-24 Liberator plane to conduct high altitude propeller feathering tests. Crane was the co-pilot.
    What had been a routine flight, suddenly turned into a harrowing experience as one of the plane’s engines malfunctioned at 25,000 feet. The plane began to spiral out of control, and pilot Second Lt. Harold Hoskin ordered the crew to bail out.
    Crane donned a parachute, as did crew chief Master Sgt. Richard Pompeo, and both men managed to exit the plane. Unfortunately, the other three crew members did not make it out and Crane watched in horror as the plane exploded into flames when it crashed into the ground. Crane saw Pompeo carried over a mountain ridge by his parachute about a mile away.
    Crane floated safely to the ground, but landed in hip-deep snow. The fire had destroyed all supplies on board the plane, and Crane was left with just the clothes on his back, his parachute and the contents of his pockets – a pocketknife and 40 matches.
    Luckily, he had not suffered any broken bones, and could walk. He was also adequately dressed in regulation arctic flight gear which consisted of a down flight jacket, parka and overalls. He also had on wool socks and boots.
    Crane planned to follow the first rule of survival, stay near the crash site and wait for the rescue party. He had landed on the side of a rocky mountain above the tree line, but below him was a river. He journeyed down to the river to erect an SOS sign and build a fire.
    The crew did not have time to send a distress call when the plane was spiraling out of control, so their location was unknown. An aerial search was conducted, but after six days of searching nearly 40,000 square miles it was called off and the crew presumed dead.
    Meanwhile, Crane camped on the river with no food, growing weaker as he waited for a rescue. He tried to kill red squirrels with makeshift weapons, but was unsuccessful. After nine days, he determined that if he wanted to survive it would be up to him.
    He made the decision to follow the river which was the Charley River, a tributary of the Yukon River. He started his journey, walking on the ice. It was slow going, but after hours of walking he came upon a small cabin.
    Crane was in a popular trapping area and the cabin belonged to an old trapper who followed the rule of leaving the cabin well supplied to aid those who were facing emergencies in the wilderness.
    An elevated cache outside the cabin included sugar, powdered milk, cocoa and canned food as well as a rifle, frying pan and tents. He stayed at the cabin for several weeks, tending to his frostbitten hands and feet and regaining his strength. He also made several scouting trips to determine a route out of the wilderness.
    Crane did not think his rations would last until the spring thaw, and if he wanted to travel by the river he had to leave before the ice started melting. On February 10, 1944, he struck out pulling supplies in a sled he had made. He took the rifle with so he could kill game for food as he traveled. He eventually had to abandon the sled, and carried supplies on his back.
    At one point in his journey, he fell through the ice and dying from hypothermia was a real possibility. Fortunately, he got to land and started a fire to dry out his clothes and warm up.
    He traveled down the river for two weeks, and found another cabin where he rested for a short time before continuing his journey.
    On March 10, Crane happened on a dogsled trail which led him to a cabin where the Albert Ames family lived. The family took him in, fed him and then showed him the way back to civilization.
    It was estimated that Crane walked 120 miles, almost the entire length of the Charley River. Had he chosen any other way out he probably would have perished in the Alaskan wilderness.
    The body of Crane’s crew mate Pompeo, who also parachuted out, was never found.

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