Two Incredible Stories of Sole Survivors: Juliane Koepcke and Ada Blackjack Johnson
On the surface, the stories of Juliane Koepcke and Ada Blackjack are very different. One survived the brutal cold and barren tundra of Siberian island. One found her way through the sopping heat and hidden dangers of the Amazon. One was desperate to reunite with her heartbroken father, and the other with her sick son. 50 years apart and over 7,000 miles away from each other, these two women both were the sole survivor of terrible disasters. And both of them used every bit of their strength, smarts, and grit to make it through these terrible tests.
In the late 1940s, two German scientists were earning their doctoral degrees at the University of Kiel, in the German city of the same name. Hans-Wilhelm Koepcke was a biologist, and Maria Emilie Anna von Mikulicz-Radecki (I know my Polish ancestors are crying right now at that pronunciation) was an ornithologist, a type of scientist specializing in birds.
At the time, they were both studying zoology but they found more than just an education. They found love, and also a partner who shared their dream of moving to Peru to conduct research. Together they moved and they married there in 1950.
There the two of them began their dream life studying the animals of the county, particularly birds, and they co-published a number of scientific articles. While living in Miraflores, a suburb outside of the capital of Lima, they had their only child and future badass Juliane Margaret Beate Koepcke on October 10th, 1954.
Hans-Wilhelm and Maria managed a visitor center called Casa Humboldt until 1967 and they also worked for the Javier Prado Museum of Natural History in Lima. In 1968, they wanted to get even closer to the action and closed the visitor center. Juliane’s childhood then took an unusual Bindi-the-jungle-girl style turn.
The Koepke family moved to a remote part of the Amazon rainforest to create a research center called “Panguana” where they could study animal life in the low-lying parts of the rainforests. Juliane lived there for a year and a half, homeschooled by her parents and exploring with them. Hans-Wilhelm and Maria were able to instill in her the same love and passion that they had for biology, which is very lucky considering I have a feeling teenage rebellion would have been pretty exacerbated living if your parents took you to live alone with them in the jungle.
LANSA Flight 508
But, eventually, the Peruvian authorities forced the Koepcke’s to send Juliane back to formal schooling at Deutsche Schule Lima Alexander von Humboldt. She graduated two days before Christmas on 23 December 1971. Her mother had wanted to leave a few days earlier to go home to Panguana to be with Hans-Wilhelm for Christmas. There’s no place like home for the holidays, even if your home is a remote Amazonian research hut. But Juliane, who was now 17, wanted to go to her graduation ball and the ceremony.
The pair decided to fly out on Christmas Eve day so Juliane could go to the events and they could still be back for Christmas. There was only one flight left, with Líneas Aéreas Nacionales S.A. (abbreviated as LANSA). The airline had a bad reputation and had already had two plane crashes and Hans-Wilhelm told them not to trust it. But, as Juliane stated later,
“We knew the airline had a bad reputation but we desperately wanted to be with my father for Christmas, so we figured it would be alright.”
Many of the passengers were Peruvian students in similar situations going home.
Juliane and her mother boarded LANSA Flight 508, which was a Lockheed L-188 Electra if there are any plane nerds out there, at Jorge Chávez International Airport in Lima right before noon on Christmas Eve. The plane was seven hours late, and people were annoyed, which I can definitely imagine. Its destination was Iquitos, another city in Peru, with one stop in Pucallpa. There were 92 people on-board, including six crew members. It was a quick flight, supposed to be just an hour.
Everything went smoothly at the beginning. Then at 21,000ft above sea level about forty minutes after takeoff, the plane entered a severe thunderstorm. Not wanting to delay passengers traveling for the holidays, the pilots pressed on. It flew in extreme turbulence for twenty minutes.
Then the plane was struck by lighting. A fuel tank ignited and the right wing caught fire and then both wings started to come off the body of the plane. The pilots tried to level out the plane, but systems failed. It dove and they tried to pull up but the fire and the force caused the right wing and most of the left to tear off. It broke up in mid-air, some sources actually say that it disintegrated. Later authorities would say the cause of the crash was “Intentional flight into hazardous weather conditions”.
Juliane described the experience:
“There was very heavy turbulence and the plane was jumping up and down, parcels and luggage were falling from the locker, there were gifts, flowers and Christmas cakes flying around the cabin. When we saw lightning around the plane, I was scared. My mother and I held hands but we were unable to speak. Other passengers began to cry and weep and scream. After about 10 minutes, I saw a very bright light on the outer engine on the left. My mother said very calmly: “That is the end, it’s all over.” Those were the last words I ever heard from her.”
The plane and the passengers fell 2 miles down deep into the Amazon rainforest. A fall of about 48 feet is generally fatal for humans or .009 of a mile. LANSA 508 still holds the Guinness World Record for Highest Death Toll Caused By Lightning In-Flight.
“The plane jumped down and went into a nose-dive. It was pitch black and people were screaming, then the deep roaring of the engines filled my head completely. Suddenly the noise stopped and I was outside the plane. I was in a freefall, strapped to my seat bench and hanging head-over-heels. The whispering of the wind was the only noise I could hear. I felt completely alone. I could see the canopy of the jungle spinning towards me. Then I lost consciousness and remember nothing of the impact. Later I learned that the plane had broken into pieces about two miles above the ground. I woke the next day and looked up into the canopy. The first thought I had was: ‘I survived an air crash.’”
Juliane also said later,
“I was definitely strapped in it [the airplane seat] when I fell. It must have turned and buffered the crash; otherwise, I wouldn’t have survived. Maybe it was the fact that I was still attached to a whole row of seats. It was rotating much like the helicopter and that might have slowed the fall. Also, the place I landed had very thick foliage and that might have lessened the impact. I didn’t wake up until nine o’clock the next morning. I know this because my watch was still working. So I must have been unconscious the whole afternoon and the night.
When I came to I was alone, just me … and my row of seats.”
Juliane suffered a broken collar bone, a deep gash to her right arm, an eye injury, and a concussion. Partially blinded and still strapped to her seat, she searched for her mother who had been sitting next to her but wasn’t able to find her. It is believed that her mother survived for several days but was too severely injured to move. Up to 14 other people may have survived the initial crash but died waiting to be rescued, as the heavy jungle canopy prevented search planes from seeing the crash site.
But Juliane was no ordinary 17-year-old. She had lived in the Amazon for a year and a half and learned survival skills. She once described the rainforest by saying,
“It’s not the green hell that the world always thinks.”
Juliane had been taught by her father that if you follow water, it will lead to civilization. So she gathered her strength and waded through knee-high water for ten days. Her only food was some candy that had fallen from the plane. She was wearing the hearty expedition outfit of a sleeveless mini dress and one sandal. She had lost her glasses in the fall and had to use her one shoed foot to feel out in front of her. She could hear search planes overhead but couldn’t see them through the thick trees.
The river was full of piranhas, devil rays, and crocodiles. Juliane said she wasn’t afraid of the crocodiles, because she said she knew they didn’t attack humans. She was concerned about snakes in the leaves, so the river was safer. It was hot and rainy during the day and cold at night.
“I had a cut on my arm and after a few days I could feel there was something in it. I took a look and a fly had laid her eggs in the hole. It was full of maggots. I was afraid I would lose my arm. Later, after I was rescued it was treated and more than 50 maggots were found inside. I still wonder how so many maggots could have fitted into that little hole, it was no bigger than a one euro coin.”
Her knowledge of birds actually added to her fear, as she recognized the call of vultures that had been drawn to the disaster. She slowly found more victims of the crash, who had fallen with such a hard impact that they were stuck 2 feet into the dirt. Wanting to ignore it, but also wanting to make sure they weren’t her mother, she poked their shoes and saw that the toes had nail polish. Her mother didn’t wear nail polish.
“By the 10th day I couldn’t stand properly and I drifted along the edge of a larger river I had found. I felt so lonely like I was in a parallel universe far away from any human being. I thought I was hallucinating when I saw a really large boat. When I went to touch it and realized it was real, it was like an adrenaline shot.
But there was a small path into the jungle where I found a hut with a palm leaf roof, an outboard motor, and a litre of gasoline. I had a wound on my upper right arm. It was infested with maggots about one centimetre long. I remembered our dog had the same infection and my father had put kerosene in it, so I sucked the gasoline out and put it into the wound…the next day I heard the voices of several men outside. It was like hearing the voices of angels.”
The men were shocked when they found her and believed that she was a half dolphin, half blond white woman from mythology, a water goddess. She spoke to them in Spanish, which she was obviously fluent in. The men treated injuries as much as they could. They had a small boat with them that Juliane hadn’t taken when she arrived because she didn’t want to steal. The men, who had been working nearby as loggers, took her in the canoe for seven hours to the town of Tournavista. A pilot there volunteered to fly her to Pucallpa, the original stopover for the flight.
There she was reunited with her father and recovered. She said,
“He could barely talk and in the first moment we just held each other. For the next few days, he frantically searched for news of my mother.”
Juliane helped lead authorities to the crash site where they found her mother’s body and the other victims. On January 13, 1972, ninety of the bodies were recovered and 52 were identified.
Juliane received hundreds of letters from strangers, and she said,
“It was so strange. Some of the letters were simply addressed ‘Juliane — Peru’ but they still all found their way to me.”
After the rescue, Hans-Wilhelm and Juliane moved back to Germany.
Hans-Wilhelm exemplified the idea of throwing yourself back into your work, publishing a massive 1,684-page biological piece called “Die Lebensformen: Grundlagen zu einer universell gültigen biologischen Theorie” or “Life Forms: The basis for a universally valid biological theory” published in 1971. The head of the department of ornithology at the Natural History Museum in NY said of the piece,
“The number of topics covered in this monumental work is simply astonishing… Richly illustrated, this work draws its empirical examples from many forms of life, where birds, and Peruvian or South American birds especially, figure prominently.”
Hans-Wilhelm then became a professor at the Zoological Institute and Museum of the University of Hamburg.
Juliane graduated from her parents’ alma mater of the University of Kiel with a degree in biology in 1980. She got her doctorate in mammalogy, specializing in bats, and conducted research in Peru. For the past thirty years, Juliane has been living near Munich with her husband Erich, and now goes by the name Juliane Diller.
She is the librarian of the Bavarian State Collection of Zoology in Munich. She published her autobiography “When I Fell From the Sky” in 2011 and won the Corine Literature Prize. In 2019, the Peruvian government gave her the Order of Merit for Distinguished Services, in the degree of Grand Officer for her scientific work, her contribution to creating the Panguana Conservation Area, her work benefiting the quality of life for the Ashaninka people in the area, and her devotion to connecting Germany and Peru.
Two movies have been made about the experience. The first was partially fictionalized Italian film I miracoli accadono ancora in 1974, released in English as Miracles Still Happen. It was low-budget and apparently not good.
In 1998, acclaimed director Werner Herzog made the film “Wings of Hope”, which in German has the much more aggressive name of “Juliane’s Freefall into the Jungle”. Herzog was actually supposed to be on the doomed flight but his plans changed at the last minute. Herzog took Juliane back to the crash site, which she described as being therapeutic. They took a flight along the route and sat in the same row of seats that she had during the crash. The two of them found large pieces of debris, walk back through the river she traveled, and return to where she was found. One of the men who helped rescue her is also in the film.
Herzog said he wanted to make the film ever since he missed the flight, but had trouble finding Juliane, who avoided the media. He found her through the German priest who had performed Maria’s funeral.
The LANSA airline had bought this type of Electra plane after a different model, the Lockheed L-749 Constellations, crashed in 1966. This Electra crash was the second one of its kind in the LANSA fleet to crash and kill over ninety people within a single year and they stopped using Electras after Flight 508. LANSA’s flight permit had been suspended in 1970 because of a crash but they were granted an extension to fly until December 31st, a week after the crash. They stopped flying after this crash and in 1972, their permit was permanently canceled. Over their 8 years of operation, LANSA had three plane crashes that killed 241 people.
A species of Peruvian lava lizard, Microlophus koepckeorum, was named for Juliane’s parents, and there are five bird species named for Maria.
Today, Panguana research station is still in operation. In 2011, it was officially named a conservation area by the Peruvian government. Over 180 scientific papers have been published about the station’s research. Juliane has been the head of the station since her father passed away in 2000, along with a local farmer Carlos Vásquez “Moro” Módena. Panguana also supports a nearby school for the children of the indigenous Asháninka group. The station can now house up to 15 people at a time and was recently equipped with satellite internet. Their protected area has increased from less than ¾ of a square mile to almost four square miles.
Ada Blackjack was born in 1898 near Solomon, Alaska as Ada Delutuk. She was a member of the Inupiat ethnic group.
Solomon is 30 miles east of Nome, which is the closest town. It was originally settled by the native Alaskans of the Fish River tribe as a summer fishing camp which later became permanent. It was once called “Erok”. The year after Ada was born, the gold rush hit the town and it became a mining camp with thousands of people. Giant dredges surrounded the town. Saloons, a post office, a ferry dock, and a railroad stop popped up. By 1904, it was the supply center for the miners on the peninsula around the Solomon River.
But after the boom, the miners mostly left, and it became a primarily native village once again. The railroad was supposed to be extended, but the company building it went bankrupt in 1907. In 1913 massive tidal storm destroyed the railroad with 40-foot waves, and the 1918 flu killed many of its citizens. In 1939, those who were left moved to a different site with the same town name.
The town survived through the 1940s and appeared on the census, and the Bureau of Indian Affairs opened a school, but a large number of families moved during World War II. In 1956, their school shut down and families with children left to find educational opportunities. The town faded off the census. In 1980, Solomon began an Alaskan Native Village Statistical Area (ANVSA). In the 2010 census, it did not have a single inhabitant. Solomon today has one road that operates seasonally, the Solomon State Field Airport airstrip, and a single bed and breakfast run by the Village of Solomon tribe that opened in 2006 in the building that was once the schoolhouse. It is used by Alaskan surveying crews. It also features “The Last Train To Nowhere”, the rusted remains of the abandoned train.
Ada’s Early Life
When Ada was eight, her father ate spoiled meat, and Ada and her little sister had to dress him, haul him onto a dogsled, and try to bring him thirty miles to Nome, but he died during the journey.
Her mother sent her to the city after this where she was raised by Methodist missionaries. She did not study traditional wilderness or survival skills that would have been very helpful later. She instead learned English at a third-grade level, math, composition, singing, basic finances, and household skills like sewing, housekeeping, and cooking European cuisine. The missionaries, as missionaries do, also instilled in her a deep religious background which she would later fall back on during her darkest times.
Her main trade was sewing, but it wasn’t a particularly lucrative job. It was one of the only traditional tribal skills she developed, but she still had deep ties to her heritage. She loved the tribal stories from her childhood about the stars. From these stories though, she also gained a deep-seated fear of polar bears.
Ada moved to Nome and married dog-musher Jack Blackjack when she was only 16. She had three children, but only one survived, a boy named Bennett. Jack beat her regularly and starved her. Ada was a small woman, in fact, she often bought clothes in the children’s section of stores, but she was tough. In 1921, her husband abandoned her on the Seward Peninsula where they lived. She walked 40 miles to Nome to her mother’s house, carrying five-year-old Bennett.
Ada was now forced into poverty and Bennett needed treatment for various illnesses including tuberculosis, which she couldn’t afford. Nome was violent, barren, and dirty with miners and fortune-seekers coming and going. She temporarily put her son in an orphanage where he could get medical care and started looking for work to get the money to take him back. She found some work as a seamstress for the miners, but it wasn’t enough. She would never be able to save up enough to get Bennett back with the money she was making.
Then she heard of an expedition to Wrangel Island. Explorer Vilhjalmur Stefansson was putting together an expedition to the uninhabited piece of land that today is Russian territory. Roald Amundsen, the Norwegian leader of the Fram expedition to the South Pole covered in Episode 3, once described Stefansson as “the greatest humbug alive”. His reputation was damaged and this was a chance to restore it.
At the time, it had already been sighted several times by explorers, and landed on and claimed by the U.S. in 1881 as “New Columbia”. In 1916 it was claimed by the Russian Empire and this is who it was how it was recognized by most of the world. However, this apparently didn’t matter to Stefansson who exactly he claimed it for, he just wanted to be part of claiming it. He offered to claim it for Canada, and they refused to sponsor it, because he had previously led a failed expedition which I’ll mention in a moment. He then offered to claim it for Britain. Stefansson financed it himself.
Stefansson put together a team of four men: Captain Allan Crawford, 20, Lorne Knight, 28, Fred Maurer, 28, and Milton Galle, 19 and sent them to Alaska with only six months of supplies and said he’d pick them up in a year. This was no fully-funded, multi-year, fifty-man polar expedition. Crawford was Canadian, and Knight, Maurer, and Galle were Americans. They were about as prepared as Michael Scott playing Survivor man.
The Failure of the Karuk
Soft-spoken and kind-hearted Fred Maurer with golden hair and piercing blue eyes had left home at 18 in search of adventure and joined a whaling ship. He met Stefansson and gained a hint of that “Arctic fever” and in 1912 Maurer joined Stefansson on his failed and deeply embarrassing expedition on the ship Karluk.
The ship became stuck in ice and Stefansson abandoned most of his crew to walk to the mainland of Alaska. Maurer and many others were left behind and they struggled to reach Wrangel Island. Eleven of the twenty-five men died. Stefansson, who had been assumed dead, was rescued by another ship, the Polar Bear.
When he was rescued, Maurer was fascinated by the cars, the sounds, the stores, the food of his home in Ohio. But you can take the explorer out of the arctic, but you can’t take the arctic out of the explorer.
In 1921, Maurer had left his job at Goodyear to travel with Stefansson on a speaking tour of the U.S. Along with them came Errol Lorne Knight, another young explorer who had been on the Polar Bear, 230 pounds and six feet tall with round red cheeks and a rough-around-the-edges charm, engaged to a young woman named Doris Jones who visited when she could. Maurer also had a girlfriend, Delphine Jones.
Maurer was quiet and serious. Knight was loud and boisterous. The two of them fought often but also became friends as they warmed up the crowd and flipped slides for Stefansson. Knight enjoyed telling people that adventure was born in him. Although probably not in front of Stefansson who once said,
“An adventure is a sign of incompetence.”
Another young man joined the traveling team, nineteen-year-old Milton Harvey Robert Galle, tall and sharp-featured, with a quick wit and sense of humor. His job was running the projector for Stefansson’s tour, and he recorded the experience on his prize typewriter. Knight and Maurer insisted that their new friend come along on the arctic journey they were planning.
Stefansson wowed the crowds with his stories and photos. He told the crowd,
“Given a healthy body and a cheerful disposition a family can now live at the North Pole as comfortably as it can in Hawaii…” and also “I think anyone with good eyesight and a rifle can live anywhere in the Polar regions indefinitely.”
Which is pretty easy to say when you’re not the one actually going.
Ready for Wrangler
The final male member of the team was a Canadian, Allan Crawford.
Word spread that the little team was looking for native Alaskans to join them, including an English-speaking seamstress. Stefansson had told them to find several native families to come with them so the men could hunt and women to cook and sew. They promised $50 a month, which would allow Ada to get her son back, who was now eight years old and suffering from tuberculosis.
As the details of the expedition took shape, every other native member backed out except for Ada. She needed the money. It was improper and uncomfortable for her to go alone with these strange men, but they promised they would hire more native Alaskans on the journey, but that never happened. So on September 9, 1921, she boarded the Silver Wave ship and set sail for Wrangel.
Ada later told the news,
“I thought at first that I would turn back. But I decided it wouldn’t be fair to the boys, so I felt that I had to stay.”
Wrangel Island was north of Siberia in the icy Chukchi Sea. It’s 2,800-square-mile of barren icy tundra filled with polar bears. Stefansson thought it would be a good air base, weather station, or reindeer environment for Britain. Britain couldn’t care less about the ice chunk.
Fred Maurer has previously spent eight months on Wrangler island when he was shipwrecked with the Royal Canadian Arctic expedition in 1914 when the ship Karluk was destroyed by ice. Eleven men died, and guess who led that expedition? Stefansson. Stefansson promised the arctic was “friendly”, but he was too busy on a lecture tour in the U.S. to go with them.
When the team first arrived, there was game to hunt and their supplies were full. The men were supposed to buy an umiak hunting boat but thought it was too expensive and brought a much smaller one that was destroyed by a storm. But when the summer ended, so did their success. Stefansson had promised them there would be enough animals to supplement their rations, but when the cold weather came, the animals disappeared. Pack ice closed around the island, sealing them in. They fought to survive the year, holding out for the ship that was supposed to pick them up. The temperature dropped to -56°.
Ada was afraid of Knight. She was 100 pounds and five feet tall and he was a massive and loud man who referred to her as “the woman”. But slowly the group grew closer. They were not worried the supplies were running low, as they were getting picked up soon.
What the team didn’t know was that the ship that had been sent for them, called the Teddy Bear, couldn’t get through. Stefansson had convinced Canada to pay for it from a humanitarian standpoint. But it was forced to turn around. Stefansson told the worried families of the men that they didn’t need any kind of extreme rescue. It was just,
“Like if they were in some European City or an ordinary place and were merely not in in the habit of communicating with you.”
They started rationing their food. After surviving another year without rescue, On January 8, 1923, Crawford and Knight tried to go in their dog sleds to Siberia in search of help but had to turn back when Knight became grievously ill. On 28 January 1923, Captain Crawford, Fred Maurer, and Milton Galle decided to go out searching for help set off to walk to Siberia in search of help. They were never seen again.
Ada stayed behind with Lorne Knight, who was dying of scurvy, and the ship’s cat Victoria. Now doing the job of all the men and herself. A newspaper summarized her work by saying Ada was a “doctor, nurse, companion, servant and huntswoman in one.”
Ada wrote in her diary that Knight was rude to her, his mood likely affected by his growing state of delirium, stating,
“He never stop and think how much it’s hard for women to take four mans place, to woodwork and to hunt for something to eat for him and do waiting to his bed.”
He threw things at her, told her husband was right to abuse and abandon her. She wrote that
“He [mentions] my children and saying no wonder your children die you never take good care of them. He just tear me into pieces when he [mentions] my children that I lost. This is the [worst] life I ever live in this world.”
Knight developed sores, lost his teeth, and bled from his face. She still gave him the best pieces of game and covered his feet with warm sand every day. She took care of him until June 23, 1923, when he died. She used Galle’s typewriter to record her diary and his date of death and she wrote,
“I had hard time when he was dying. I never will forget that all my life… I try my best to save his life but I can’t quite save him.”
She put up a wall of boxes to cover his body. Then she moved into the supply tent and started strengthening the structure with driftwood. She also put up a gun rack above her bed in case she was surprised by a wild animal. Polar bears were a constant threat, and she built a platform to spot them from her shelter.
For the three months she was alone, Ada survived. She hunted foxes, seals, and birds. She collected animal skins and made a boat. She used the photography equipment to take photos of herself. She learned to use traps and shoot, even though she hated the rifle fire. She “fussed over” and “mothered” the cat, her only surviving companion.
She worried that the isolation was driving her crazy, but she clung to hope and the promise of seeing Bennett again. One of her diary entries simply read “I thank God for living.” She started developing scurvy and narrowly escaped a polar bear that took a seal she had just killed instead.
She typed an informal will:
“This very important noted in case I happen to died or some body fine out that I was dead I want Mrs. Rita McCafferty take care of my son Bennett. My sister Rita is just as good his on mother I know she love Bennett just as much as I do I dare not my son to have stepmother. If I got any money coming from boss of this company if $1,200.00 give my mother Mrs. Ototook $200.00 if its only $600.00 give her $100.00 rest of it for my son.”
Then on August 20, 1923, 703 after she first set foot on Wrangel Island and 57 days since Knight died, Ada was rescued by the crew of the ship Donaldson and Captain Harold Noice that had been sent for her. She thought the whistle of the ship was the wind before catching sight of it and ran down to the beach in her hand-stitched reindeer jacket, grinning.
They were shocked that the men had died and at how well she had handled the experience, writing,
“Blackjack mastered her environment so far that it seems likely she could have lived there another year, although the isolation would have been a dreadful experience.”
The cat Victoria also survived. Aa told them, “There is nobody here but me. I am all alone.” Noice wrote,
“Even I, who had long since ceased to believe in hero worship, found myself unconsciously a little thrilled by the quality of her spirit.”
She went home to her son and her sisters.
But Noice, a friend of Stefansson, blamed Ada in the press for Knight’s death. She became a villain in the story on the doomed Wrangel Island expedition. When she arrived back in Alaska, a U.S. Marshall refused to let her off the ship, insisting that she must have cannibalized her companions to survive. One of her rescuers tried to tear out pages from the diary to mislead the public into thinking she had let Knight die. Eventually, public opinion did shift in her favor.
Knight’s family changed their mind completely, and Ada and they developed a friendship. She returned some of his belongings to them in Oregon. Knight’s father tried to defend her in the media, stating,
“I still maintain that Ada Blackjack is a real heroine and that there is nothing to justify me in the faintest belief that she did not do for Lorne all that she was able to do… I feel that I owe [this statement] to the public and to a poor Eskimo woman who is being wronged and is helpless to defend herself.”
Called the female Robinson Crusoe, she reportedly hated the attention and the media storm around her story. She never made a penny off her fame, including the book that Stefansson published using her diary, and Stefansson didn’t pay her everything she was promised, but she was able to afford to take Bennett back and bring him to Seattle to be cured of tuberculosis from her salary and money made from selling animal skins. She refused to speak to the news and her story was largely forgotten.
Ada remarried and became Ada Backjack Johnson and had a second son named Billy in 1924. The lost men’s families continued to pressure Stefansson to search for them but he never did, and tried to minimize his connection to the failed mission. Rumors popped up in the area about them being spotted, but nothing was ever confirmed.
Ada and her second husband eventually divorced and she lived in relative poverty and obscurity until the age of 85. She died in the Pioneer Nursing Home in Palmer, Alaska in 1983. She was buried in Anchorage Memorial Park Cemetery next to her son Bennett with a very small gathering of friends and family.
Wrangel Island was formally claimed by Russia and it was used as a prison, political concentration camp, and KGB training center.
Billy ordered a plaque and flew it from North Carolina to Alaska to be placed on her grave which read: “HEROINE — WRANGEL ISLAND EXPEDITION.” Billy described his mother as follows:
“I consider my mother, Ada Blackjack, to be one of the most loving mothers in this world and one of the greatest heroines in the history of Arctic exploration. She survived against all odds. It’s a wonderful story that should not be lost of a mother fighting to survive to live so she could carry on with her son. Her story of survival in the arctic will be a great chapter in the history of Alaska and the Arctic”.
A Boston Globe reporter said, “Some say she is the greatest heroine in Arctic history.” A neighbor described her as an old woman,
“She was a quiet prayerful little lady not much taller than five-feet and perhaps 100 pounds. She held a countenance of serenity wrapped around steely rebar.”
Jennifer Niven wrote a book on Ada’s experience titled “Ada Blackjack: A True Story of Survival in the Arctic”. Peggy Caravantes wrote another account titled “Marooned in the Arctic”.
Her son Billy Johnson was a U.S. Army private in World War II and Korea and later became an activist for the native people of Alaska. He helped found the 13th Regional Corporation, an organization that represents Alaskan natives living outside of Alaska. He worked tirelessly for this cause for almost 50 years.
Billy had been working for years to get his mother recognition for her heroism. He wrote to them,
“The final chapter should read that the state of Alaska recognized Ada Blackjack as the heroine of the Wrangell Island expedition. It could read that the State of Alaska had a true native heroine that participated in the early exploration of the arctic. The State of Alaska has within it the power to write a happy ending to such a sad happening.
And Alaska did. The Alaska State Legislature formally honored Ada a month after her death, on June 16th, 1983, stating “a small token of remembrance for a woman whose bravery and heroic deeds have gone unnoticed for so many years.” A representative also added, “I deeply regret that we were not able to serve Ada with this citation while she was alive.”
The honor read:
“Not many Alaskans remember this soft-spoken and vital woman. In the years following her heroic feat, she was forgotten by most people who knew of her ordeal. The middle years of her life were not pleasant, although we are convinced she would have been the last to complain.
We urge Alaskans to become familiar with the story of Ada Blackjack Johnson who recently passed away in Palmer. From her story, we can each gain an insight into the life and personal courage of a resident of our state who survived under unbearable circumstances only to be forgotten by her friends and neighbors. It is our duty and our obligation to honor Ada Blackjack Johnson for her astounding courage, her spiritual strength, and her commitment to her fellow man.”
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