Two Incredible Stories of Sole Survivors: Juliane Koepcke and Ada Blackjack Johnson

Introduction

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.

Juliane Koepcke

Early Life

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.

A smiling portrait of a woman, young girl, and man
Maria, Juliane, and Hans-Wilhelm Koepke
A little girl with a toucan perched on her arm
Juliane Koepcke as a child (Photo credit: Panguana Research Center)

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.

A young girl in a long dress and a flower pin posing with a boy in a dark suit
Juliane Koepke and a classmate

“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.

A map of Peru with a path drawn from Lima to Pucallpa to Iquitos. There is an x about halfway between Lima and Pucallpa
The flight path of LANSA 508 with an x on the crash sight

“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 Jungle

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.

A disheveled girl stands in the jungle in a tattered dress facing a snake on a tree in front of her
A depiction of Juliane in the jungle in the film “Miracles Still Happen”
Juliane sits up in a hospital bed on the cover of Observer magazine with the headline “The Girl Who Came Back Alive”
A magazine cover showing Juliane in the hospital

“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.

Aftermath

After the rescue, Hans-Wilhelm and Juliane moved back to Germany.

An older Juliane sits in the jungle next to wreckage from the plane crash
Juliane revisiting the crash site with Werner Herzog

Ada Blackjack

A woman stands in front of a tent in a black and white photo in a shirt and pants
Ada Deletuk Blackjack Johnson

Solomon

Ada Blackjack was born in 1898 near Solomon, Alaska as Ada Delutuk. She was a member of the Inupiat ethnic group.

A rocky path leading to three small buildings beside a river. A street sign reads “Solomon”
Solomon, Alaska (Photo from Mapio.net)

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.

A black and white portrait of a woman
A portrait of Ada

Expedition Preparation

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.

A man sits on steps in a suit, holding a bowler hat
Vilhjalmur Stefansson

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.

“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.

Four men and a woman sit for a portrait in heavy winter gear and fur-lined hoods
The expedition crew

Ready for Wrangler

The final male member of the team was a Canadian, Allan Crawford.

“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.

Wrangler Island

A dark sand beach with icy water and mountains in the background
Wrangel Island

“Like if they were in some European City or an ordinary place and were merely not in in the habit of communicating with you.”

Splitting Up

A man stands smoking a pipe in a heavy winter coat
Errol Lorne Knight

“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,

Ada Alone

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.

A woman sits on box staring into the distance in a campsite
Ada on Wrangel Island

Rescue

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.

“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,

A newspaper clip of Ada and her young son with the Headline “Describes end of ill-fated arctic expedition”
A news photo of Ada and her son after the rescue

Aftermath

She went home to her son and her sisters.

“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.

A photo of Ada in a fancy clothing and an unknown girl
Ada on the right
Ada’s grave marker(Photo from Monumental Road Trip)

Ada’s Legacy

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:

“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”.

Ada Blackjack sits on the deck of a ship staring out to sea

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Campfire Stories: Astonishing History

Campfire Stories: Astonishing History

Gather round, campers, and let me tell you a story! We cover the best true tales of mysteries, histories, true crime, and real heroes from all over the world.