100 Years Ago Today: The Rescue

August 30, 2016

At daybreak of 30 August, 1916, the weather was still foggy. Sir Ernest Shackleton and Frank Worsley stayed up all night, at the bridge of the Yelcho hoping for the fog to ease. They feared that they would run into pack ice, for Shackleton had promised the Chilean Navy and government that he would not take the Yelcho into ice. It is debatable whether Shackleton truly meant what he had said in order to be granted the use of the Yelcho.

Shackleton, Pardo and the 'Yelcho'

Shackleton, Pardo and the Yelcho

(http://www.coolantarctica.com/Antarctica%20fact%20file/History/postcard.jpg)

Captain Luis Pardo was also willing to do anything in his power to reach the stranded men, as can be seen from a letter that he sent his father:

By the time you receive this letter, I shall be dead or have returned with the shipwrecked men…

Soon after sunrise, Shackleton decided that it was time for action. He told Worsley to put the vessel in full speed ahead. Worsley had argued for this course of action earlier and his response then was simple: ‘Splendid,’ he said ‘We’ll soon have them on board.’

At about 10am, the Yelcho passed some small patches of pack ice and isolated icebergs. Worsley wrote that it had ‘become a race between the Yelcho and the ice.’ As they proceeded cautiously, one particular mass of ice was slowly and gloriously recognised as Elephant Island. ‘Depression changed to relief indescribable’, wrote Worsley.

Elephant Island

Elephant Island

Continuing carefully past small pack ice mounds, at 11.40 am Worsley’s ‘keen eyes’ spotted the camp. Shackleton, presumably simultaneously on the edge of anxiety and euphoria, strained his eyes through his binoculars to scan the island for signs of his stranded crew. At last he shouted:

There are only two, Skipper! [Worsley]… No, four!… I see six—eight…They are all there! Every one of them! They are all saved!

Crean, Worsley and Shackleton had sailed 800miles—with Tim McCarthy, Henry McNish and John Vincent—to South Georgia. They trekked across the interior of the island for thirty-six hours. They begged, stole and borrowed to put together four separate attempts to relieve their comrades left behind. On the afternoon of 30 August, 1916, the three men stood together on board the Yelcho, speechless, and utterly relief was granted them.

The Yelcho

The Yelcho

On Elephant Island, the morning and early-afternoon of 30 August was spent collecting limpets, seaweed, and seal bones for a stew. Frank Wild was distributing lunch when Frank Hurley and George Marston, who had been keeping a look out, shouted ‘Ship, O!’ However, their shouts were presumed to be calls to lunch and were promptly ignored. Only when they then came running back to the hut shouting ‘Wild, there’s a ship. Let’s burn a flare’, did things start to happen maniacally. In the flustered excitement, the hoosh pot was knocked over, and as Wild said, ‘it will show you how excited we were when I tell you that nobody paid any attention to that.’

Anything was burned to create fire and smoke signals—clothes, the hut’s canvas walls etc. Wild drove a pick through a petrol tin, poured it over his waistcoat, set it alight to make smoke. The men capable of doing so were dashing around and shouting.

The Yelcho was brought carefully, ‘for navigation there required considerable care’ (Worsley), to within 140m of the shore and a small boat was lowered. Shackleton, Crean and four Chilean crew members jumped in and made for shore. Seeing his men for the first time in 128 days, Shackleton made out the figure of Frank Wild.

‘Are you all well?’ he called out.

‘We are all well, Boss,’ replied Wild, close to tears.

Hurley wrote later that

Cheer followed cheer, the mountains cheered back, the sun even burst momentarily through the clouds.

When Worsley got a chance to observe the reunion after operating the Yelcho into position, he saw the men of Elephant Island ‘crowding round him [Shackleton], wringing both his arms.’ The rescuers had brought packets of cigarettes and had flung them onshore on their approach and the men ‘fell on them like hungry tigers.’

Shackleton didn’t even go to see the hut that had been the home of the twenty-two men since he had left. There was no time to lose, as Shackleton wrote:

A heavy sea was running and a change of wind might bring the ice back at any time. I hurried the party aboard with all possible speed

The scientific specimens, expedition records, the boxes of negatives and cinematograph films were all hastily loaded into a boat. Within an hour all were safely aboard the Yelcho.

Hurley's last shom Elephant Island

Hurley’s last shot from Elephant Island

Although Shackleton recognised that some of the men were in a rather bad way, Wild had kept the men together and alive. The Boss had come back.

 

Sources

Hurley, F. Argonauts of the South. London, New York: 1925.

Shackleton, Sir E. South! The Story of Shackleton’s Last Expedition 1914–1917. London, 1919.

Smith, M. Shackleton: By Endurance We Conquer. Cork, 2014.

Worsley, F. A. Endurance: An Epic of Polar Adventure. London, 1931.

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