By Rupert Pratt
Alaska’s history is littered with aviation tragedies. According to the National Transportation Safety Board and the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health, the commercial aviation accident rate in Alaska is four times that of other states. And with a long list of well-known names lost in plane crashes – including Carl Ben Eielson’s disappearance in 1929, Wiley Post and humorist Will Rogers in 1935, William Huatala’s death in 1943, and U.S. Reps. Nick Begich of Alaska and Hale Boggs of Louisiana in 1972 ‑ stories of gravity’s victory over man’s attempt to soar are numerous.
But Rupert Pratt’s memoir, “Touching the Ancient One: A True Story of Tragedy and Reunion,” is a story of a different type. As the title suggests, the book isn’t just about the crash, although that compelling story is the first half of the book. The story is really about Pratt and the men who survived a tragic accident – and how they reconnected years after the crash. It’s not so much a tragedy as a tale of survival and strength.
Rupert Pratt grew up in Salt Rock, WV, a rural area in the Appalachian Mountains. He joined the Army at age 20, because “in the early fifties, entering the military was almost a certainty for a healthy young man.” Although he deferred his services for several years while attending college, eventually, Pratt was tired of the process of deferrals and ready to begin his service. He wanted to be a pilot, but poor eyesight precluded that, and he was assigned to petroleum school for eventual work in “petroleum laboratories.” He was assigned to Ladd Air Force Base in 1953 for a two-year stint.
On his arrival, however, he found his petroleum lab was a myth; he and his buddies Ed Knapp and Don McDonough were assigned to drive oil and gas rigs, a dirty, smelly job that was far from the glamour Pratt had envisioned.
Pratt writes of his introduction to the Fairbanks cold, disillusionment with his assignment and his personal story of loves lost and found. It’s a meandering journey, first here, then there, throwing in an explanation as almost an after thought. It’s not the chronological, 1-2-3 order most of us expect when reading history, but it’s more real, as if we’re sitting down face-to-face with Pratt as he tells us stories about his life. The back story is necessary to help us understand how Pratt ended up on that C-47 that ill-fated day, and, like any real life journey, begins long before the actual event, with fits and starts along the way.
Pratt and his buddies learned there was a petroleum lab in Anchorage, but because Ladd was short-staffed, they were pretty much stuck in their dirty, smelly job. But finally, they were “loaned” to the Army’s lab in Ft.Richardson, TDY (temporary duty) for up to three months. They landed in Anchorage in November 1953; they were recalled back to Ladd on Feb. 3, 1954.
Pratt was told their loan to the Army was over; he was to notify Knapp and McDonough and be on a flight back to Fairbanks by Feb. 5. Atypically, he writes, he let the order to find a flight slip from his mind, and it wasn’t until late the next day that he was reminded – forcefully – by his superior.
“ ‘You get all squared away with air transport about your flight to Fairbanks?’ [Capt. Reardon] asked.
“I felt my knees go weak as I realized I’d forgotten to make arrangements. It had been nearly 24 hours since he’d given me the order to take care of it. It hadn’t crossed my mind all day.
“ ‘Sir,’ I managed to say. ‘I haven’t yet made those arrangements.’
“ ‘What! And why not?’
“ ‘I forgot, sir.’
“ ‘Dammit, soldier!’ he said loud enough for anyone within a hundred feet to hear. ‘I am not accustomed to having my orders disobeyed.’ His face was red.”
So it was that Pratt got himself and his friends on that unfortunate C-47 out of Elmendorf, finding himself plummeting to earth when the plane broke up over Denali National Park and his subsequent landing on Kesugi Ridge.
Sixteen men boarded that flight: Pratt, Knapp and McDonough, pilot Lt. Earl (Bob) Bescher, co-pilot Col. Edward Burge, crew chief Cpl. Richard Knickerbocker, and passengers Edward J. Fox, Eli LaDuke, Edward W. Olson, Huey T. Montgomery, Bobby G. Sallis, Edward Knapp, Edmund McMahon, Alvi Raymer, Jacob Siplivy, and Lt. Col. William West-Watson of the British Royal Air Force (assigned to the British Joint Military Services in the U.S.).
Six men survived the explosion, break-up and parachute-fall to the ground. The survivors were rescued by Bush pilots Cliff Hudson and Don Sheldon. The six men were airlifted to Elmendorf, where they underwent recovery and eventual reassignment. And life after that.
Such is retired schoolteacher Pratt’s writing skill that even though you know – you KNOW – that only six men walk away from the downed craft, the reader hopes along with the author for the safety of all of them. Pratt has tapped deeply into 40-year-old memories, bringing the reader vividly close to the experience – I felt the cold wind rushing through me as I fell from the plane, earned bruises from landing on unforgiving rock and waved frantically at an unseen plane flying overhead, hoping I would be seen.
But this book is not a mere survival tale. Pratt finishes out the first half by detailing his reaction after returning to Fairbanks – too much booze, time and what we would these days call Post-Traumatic Stress. But he pulled himself together, finished his military time, married his sweetheart and got on with his life.
Until 40 years later, when he began wondering about the other five survivors and the families of those who hadn’t survived. Who they had been, what they were like, how their families had fared. With the aid of his letters home (saved by his mom), newspaper clippings and a CD-ROM with all the residential telephone numbers in the U.S., Pratt began with the five men who had shared the mountain with him: Fox, La Duke, Olson, Montgomery and Sallis.
It was slow going, but eventually, Pratt found them. The story of his search is as compelling as the tale of the crash, because he is honest about the emotions dragged up from the wells of memory. He worried that the others wouldn’t want to remember the crash, and that the families of those who didn’t survive were resentful of those who had.
“The reunion idea just popped out,” he writes early in the chapter. “I guess the idea had occurred to me before, but I hadn’t given it much thought. Now it seemed the most logical thing in the world.”
And the others thought so too.
Eventually, Pratt found family members who were willing to talk about their lost loved ones – indeed, the forward to this half of the book was written by Keith Betscher, who was 20 months old when his father piloted his last flight.
Pratt writes vivid biographies of both the survivors and the victims, using information he garnered from family members, survivors’ stories and newspaper clippings. He speaks with wonder at the interest the reunions picked up – newspaper articles, a film documentary, and calls from families. Eventually, the survivors plan a trip to Kasugi Ridge, thus closing out a chapter in their lives that colored everything they did.
Pratt’s book is not just another plane crash story. It is literally a survival tale – not just surviving the actual crash, but surviving the ensuing years – the guilt of living while friends died, the pain of loss, the stress of getting back to the mundane job of waking up and being fruitful after such an intense experience. It is about overcoming fears –he eventually learns how to fly, thus slaying the final demon – and rejoicing in all that makes life sweet – family, friends and waking up each day.