Ernest and Mary Hemingway Survive Two Air Crashes — Africa 1954
“ Now he came over to me and solemnly kissed me on the forehead.”
It was the January of 1954, and Ernest and Mary Hemingway had been on safari in East Africa since August 1953, and were now waiting to fly, in a Cessna 180, piloted by Roy Marsh, the first leg of what Mary called her ‘Christmas-present journey’, as she described later in her memoir, How it Was:
“ Our stop that first night was at Bukavu airport on Lake Kivu, and the next day, Friday, January 22, we left Bukavu airport and flew north up Lake Kivu. We skirted the sides of volcanos spewing sulphurous-smelling steam, with Mt. Ruwenzori a bank of dark cloud to our left, skimmed a yard above the surface of Lake Edward, almost bumping into hippos, buffalos and elephants who had come to the shore to bathe and drink.”
Somehow they managed to reach Entebbe, where they spent the night. The following day they flew low over dried and burnt out land that suddenly became verdant, with streams and rivers that became a lake, with mountains climbing sheer from the water. They saw fishermen catch enormous Nile perch from canoes. When the reached the beginning of the White Nile that flowed north they turned east and followed the Victoria Nile, with herds of buffalo, elephant and hippo on both banks.
“ Gradually the shores defined themselves and we flew over low bushy country which rose into hills with thin-to-moderate-sized timber and so reached Murchison Falls where we circled while I took pictures, circled again, Roy tilting the plane so that I could photograph the falls, circled a third time and ran into the remains of an ancient telegraph wire which shaved off our radio antenna and rudder. Roy tugged and juggled controls and maneuvered the Cessna away from the sharp cliffs close to the falls. But the Cessna kept losing altitude, and Roy said:
“ We’ll have to set down.”
Still struggling with the controls Roy looked for a place to put the plane down, but the ground beat him to it and they crash landed “…with a clash of rending metal among rough clumps of thorn.”
“ let’s get out quickly,” shouted Marsh.
Ernest and Mary jumped and ran as best they could.
After the noise of the crash all seemed quiet, with the exception of Roy Marsh sending out Mayday calls…
“ Mayday, mayday, we are three miles south-southwest of Murchison Falls, nobody hurt. Awaiting overland rescue.”
Roy repeated the message three times, then switched to receive. Silence.
It was then that Mary went into shock. At first Ernest couldn’t find a pulse, but after she had rested in the shade of the plane’s wing her pulse slowly returned and she began to recover, complaining that her chest ached dreadfully.
As night was coming on it was decided to move to some higher ground close by — to be safer from prowling animals, especially crocodiles — and camp there for the night, which they did with some difficulty.
It was only later, when Ernest started collecting firewood, that he realised he’d sprained his shoulder quite badly. He’d suffered worse.
They built a fire, collected great armfuls of grass to use as mattresses, ate what little food they’d been able to carry with them and settled down for the night. With darkness it grew cold.
Before Mary fell into a fitful sleep Hemingway told her not to snore as it might attract the elephants.
The following morning, Ernest brought Mary some coffee and told her there was a boat coming up the river.
The boat was the Murchison, which they managed to flag down by waving their coats, but the officer in charge was none too keen to take on any new passengers, unless they paid one hundred shillings (about £2) each.
They paid up.
Hemingway biographer, Carlos Baker, takes up the story:
“ It was late afternoon when they reached Lake Albert and followed the eastern shore towards Butiaba. A bush pilot named Reggie Cartwright was waiting for them at the dock with a policeman named Williams. They had spent the day searching. The word was out that the Hemingways had been killed. A BOAC Argonaut, crossing near the falls, had reported wreckage, with no sign of survivors.”
Reggie Cartwright’s aircraft was a a twelve-seater De Havilland Rapide, something of an old colonial workhorse that could pretty much land on a ten bob note. Mind you, if you’d just been involved in an air crash the old thing must have looked just a tad fragile.
But it was fuelled and ready to go, and it was proposed by Reggie that they head for Entebbe.
Christopher Ondaatjie, in his book, Hemingway in Africa, describes what happened next:
“ Cartwright was confident of a clean take-off. The engine started, the plane began to taxi, its tail bumped as it rose and then set down again, it rose again, then it nose dived and burst into flame. First the right engine caught and very soon the fire spread to the fuel tank…”
Mary takes up the story:
“ Ernest said, ‘Open the door,’ and I found it in the firelight on the port side but could not budge it. The door was made of solid metal but the door frame was buckled. I heaved my weight against it, my ribs protesting, and kicked with my soft shoes. No result.
“ Roy had gone forward and broken a window and called to me to hurry there, and Ernest, now working on the door himself, yelled, ‘Follow Roy.’ I hesitated. Roy called again and I ran up the aisle and pushed him through the open window head first. Cartwright was still in his seat and flames were licking at the inside of the cabin, aft. I heaved myself up and through the window, feet first, observing that it was much too small to allow the passage of Ernest’s bulk. Roy helped me down to the ground and walked me rapidly windward, ahead of the plane, I thinking, explosions.
“ Twenty paces in front of the plane we looked back and saw Ernest walking on the lower port wing, so we walked another thirty yards away from what was now a bonfire, with Cartwright emerging from it and Ernest in the firelight at the edge of the field to our right. Unable to open the door with any combination of his already damaged bones and muscles, Ernest had used his head as a battering-ram, butting the door open, giving himself a concussion, and saved himself from burning to death. Now he came over to me and solemnly kissed me on the forehead.”
Hemingway’s battered head was bleeding, with a clear liquid seeping down from behind his left ear. Mary was limping badly with a damaged knee.
The next morning a doctor arrived and bandaged them up as best he could and then they were driven (wise choice) to Entebbe, where Patrick Hemingway met them, having flown in from Dar-es-Salaam. He’d brought money and a ‘quiet authority’ which pleased his father.
Mary sent a telegram to her parents saying they were okay, and not dead as some newspapers had claimed.
Hemingway then flew with Roy, in a Cessna 170, to Nairobi, with Mary and Patrick following the next day on a commercial airliner.
Hemingway took pleasure in the premature obituaries, commenting that a good many people would have been pleased at the news of his death.
He was still in danger of course, with a serious concussion, a ruptured liver, spleen, and kidney, temporary loss of vision in his left eye, and loss of hearing in his left ear, a crushed vertebra, a sprained right arm and shoulder, a sprained left leg, paralysis of the sphincter, and first degree burns on his face, arms, and head.
He made the best of it, joking and laughing.
But he was never quite the same again.
Note: Although based on fact I have used some creative licence, especially with the dialogue, and, as ever, I must acknowledge Carlos Baker’s definitive biography of Ernest Hemingway…