2015 BookPage Summer Reads
It’s no surprise that Alfred Lansing’s 1959 book, Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage, is still in print. The harsh reality of survival near the Poles continues to make gripping reading, especially from the safety of our own homes.
In 81 Days Below Zero, journalist Brian Murphy pieces together the improbable story of a young World War II pilot named Leon Crane. On December 21, 1943, Crane set out from Alaska’s Ladd Field on a test flight in a B-24D Liberator bomber. On a whim, co-pilot Crane grabbed two packs of matches, knowing that the pilot had a fondness for smoking a pipe. That quick action might just have saved his life.
Somewhere near the Yukon River, a failed engine and elevator controls sent the plane spiraling toward the ground. Crane managed to bail out, becoming the only member of the five-man crew to survive the fiery crash.
Crane’s situation was dire. His flight suit was intact and he had his old Boy Scout knife, but he’d forgotten his mittens on the plane. Crane’s first act was to grab piles of driftwood near a frozen river to spell out a huge SOS in the snow. But he soon realized that without a last-minute radio call, rescuers would have little idea of their location or where to search. A week after the crash, hunger drove Crane to a decision: His only chance of survival would be to walk out of the wilderness.
Using military records and interviews, Murphy has meticulously pieced together details of Crane’s trek, as well as later efforts to identify the remains of his fellow crew members. The result is a riveting tale of survival. It seems that Crane, who died in 2002, seldom spoke about what happened in 1943 and was always reluctant to be seen as a hero. Murphy’s account brings his inspiring story to light.
Our second survival story is a first-person account by one of the lucky few to survive a sinking ship. Matt Lewis, author of Last Man Off, was just 23 in 1998 when he joined the crew of the Sudur Havid, a South African fishing boat. Lewis signed on as a scientific observer to ensure compliance with fishing regulations and watch for endangered albatrosses. A trained marine biologist, he was pleased to have a job in his field, even if his first sight of the rusty 30-year old boat gave him pause: “That’s the boat I’m living on for the next three months. Is it too late to change my mind?”
The boat left Cape Town on April 6, 1998. Two months later, on June 6, a couple of hundred miles from South Georgia Island in the southern Atlantic, the Sudur Havid began taking on water in a violent storm. The crew had no choice but to abandon ship. Without leadership from those in charge, Lewis stepped up to organize the escape onto three life rafts and was the last man to leave the ship.
What followed was a grueling ordeal: Of the 38 men on board, 17 perished. Based on Lewis’ own recollections and testimony at the South African inquiry, Last Man Off is a sobering reminder of the power of the sea.