Editor’s note: This is the first of a two-part story about the attempted rescue of two World War II bomber pilots who were injured when their plane crashed high in the mountains across Cook Inlet. Part one follows the rescue team traveling on foot toward the crash site, and part two will follow the team as it attempts to recover the wounded men and return safely. Most of the information for this story comes from a 1943 Saturday Evening Post article written by one of the rescuers — Anchor Point’s Milo Fritz, who later gained renown for his medical work throughout the state and for his three terms in the Alaska House of Representatives.
By Clark Fair
When U.S. Army Air Forces Sgts. Don Harris and Charles Michaelis arrived in a fishing boat in the port of Anchorage at two o’clock in the morning on June 17, 1942, their appearance created an immediate stir among the military.
The two enlisted men, comprising half of the crew of a bomber bound for Anchorage, had been missing for more than two weeks. The aircraft’s last known location had been in a mountainous region west of the Redoubt volcano — a region on aeronautical maps of the time left blank except for the word “UNSURVEYED.” An extensive aerial search of the general area at the time of the disappearance had turned up no sign of the bomber.
In 1942, which was 17 years before Alaska became a state, information and population in the Cook Inlet region was considerably sparser. The 10,197-foot Mount Redoubt was not yet arrayed with sophisticated seismic and photographic equipment. Across the inlet, Kenai and Ninilchik were mere fishing villages, many of the residents of Kasilof were still farming foxes, and homesteading was five years away in the areas that would become known as Soldotna, Nikiski and Sterling.
Harris and Michaelis informed the authorities that on June 1 their plane had crashed into the side of a volcano they believed was Mount Redoubt, and that both their pilot and co-pilot had been injured too badly to leave the plane. The pilot, Lt. Edward Clark, had either broken or badly sprained one of his ankles, and the co-pilot, Lt. Joe Donaldson, had suffered a compound fracture of his lower left leg and had “something wrong with his eyes.”
After remaining with the aircraft for two days to tend to the officers and wait out a severe storm, the enlisted men were ordered by the officers to leave the crash site and attempt to find help. In difficult conditions and in territory with which they were unfamiliar, Harris and Michaelis spent the next five days descending the mountain and traveling overland to the west coast of Cook Inlet.
At the coast they discovered a shelter cabin, where they spent the next week, until they were able to signal a fishing vessel that rescued them and delivered them across the inlet to Anchorage. Although Lts. Clark and Donaldson had shelter inside the bomber and had been left with provisions, Harris and Michaelis had no way to know whether they were still alive.
Almost immediately a reconnaissance flight was ordered. Included in the flight was Maj. Milo H. Fritz of the Army Medical Corps. According to Fritz — who would garner renown in later decades as an Alaska physician and politician — the skies over Redoubt were overcast, but the clouds dispersed just enough for the recon crew to spot the plane at an estimated elevation of 7,500 feet on the southwest flank of the mountain. In that brief glimpse of the craft, they were unable to discern any movement that might indicate that Clark and Donaldson had survived.
After he reported back to commanders in Anchorage, Maj. Fritz was ordered to lead a rescue mission, and a plan was hastily pieced together: The rescue team would be taken by boat across the inlet to Redoubt Bay, which lay directly west of lower Kalgin Island, across the inlet from Kasilof. They would disembark and make their way overland about 12 to 15 miles to the mountain, climb and then locate the bomber, rescue the pilots, and return with them to Redoubt Bay.
As the rescue attempt proceeded — early on, they estimated it would take only 18 hours once they reached the west coast of the inlet — the rescuers were soon to learn that they had grossly underestimated their task, and that their hardiness and determination would have to compensate for the heaviness of their supplies and their general lack of adequate clothing, footwear and gear.
And their guide — an experienced 50-something outdoorsman named Lee Waddell, who had trapped in the Skwentna area — would have to make up for some poor military planning and the rest of the team’s complete ignorance of the countryside they were about to enter.
As the military portion of the rescue crew was being organized — Sgt. E.I. Robinette Jr. and Cpls. Earl E. Karnatz, Darrell E. Prince, Miles H. Prince, Costello W. Pizzutillo and John W. Garner (all in their early 20s) — Fritz set about putting in order the medical supplies.
The major, who was then in his early 30s, did not scrimp on supplies: “three units of plasma, two ampoules of 50 percent glucose, 12 rolls of prepared plaster splints, dressings, antiseptic solution, two Thomas splints, adrenalin in ampoules, and two Stokes litters.”
The litters, which were deemed essential for transporting the wounded down the rugged mountainside, were constructed from “small-mesh chicken wire, reinforced with steel” and weighed about 25 pounds apiece.
At 2 p.m. — 12 hours after Harris and Michaelis had arrived in Anchorage — the rescuers were under way.
In a 34-foot cabin cruiser, piloted by a Sgt. Thompkins and a Corp. Van Skike, they departed Anchorage and aimed in the general direction of Harriet Point, which juts into the inlet at the southern tip of Redoubt Bay. Because of the muddy beaches along the bay, they towed a dinghy behind the larger vessel in order to ease transportation ashore.
They arrived at midnight and slept on the cabin cruiser until 4 a.m.
Although Fritz was not specific in describing the landing site, they probably began their cross-country journey just north of Harriet Point, and before they departed the cabin cruiser they had to leave behind some of their supplies because of weight considerations. “If we had unloaded all that we thought we should bring along, it would have taken twice our number to handle it, so we had to eliminate what we thought we could do without,” Fritz said.
On the boat they left the splints and most of their tinned military rations. At 5 a.m. they started up the slope from the coast and headed inland. On their backs, Waddell, their pathfinder, carried 35 pounds of supplies and equipment, Fritz carried about 50, and each of the other men about 60, in addition to taking turns hauling the heavy litters.
Each man carried a sleeping bag, head net, .45-caliber pistol, knife, gloves, tinned rations, candy bars and a few extra clothes.
“We each should have had a change of footgear,” rued Fritz, “and I should have seen to it that each man had sunglasses and a little table salt.”
Following game paths and old hunting and trapping trails, Waddell led the men in a generally southwestern direction, intent on reaching Redoubt Creek — Fritz referred to it as the Redoubt River — and following its channel upstream to the base of the mountain.
Despite the effort required in this sometimes-difficult terrain, Fritz frequently noted the beauty surrounding him — blooming violets, active beavers in small ponds, trumpeting swans, bear tracks and the mountain itself.
By 2 p.m., they reached a stand of spruce trees surrounding a pair of unnamed lakes — now known as Bear and Wadell lakes — and then began to hack and pick their way through immense thickets of alders. At 5 p.m., exhausted, they made camp.
At 2 a.m., Waddell, who had spent an additional four hours creating a passable trail through the alders to Redoubt Creek, woke the weary team and urged them back into action. In order to travel more swiftly — always mindful that the pilots’ lives were on the line — they decided to leave some of their gear at this campsite, so they stashed their sleeping bags and more of their food, and headed out.
Only an hour later, Garner, who had been wearing an infantry pack that none of them had known must be adjusted to each particular wearer, was so sore about his kidneys that he could no longer continue. He was sent back to the previous night’s camp and instructed to wait for their return.
As the remaining members of the rescue team dropped into the Redoubt Creek drainage, spotted the plane high on the mountain, and made their way west toward the boulder-strewn glacial moraine in the distance, Garner could not have known that he would be waiting for more than 48 hours before any member of the team returned to his camp.