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4 Daring Rescue Missions Throughout History

From Tanzania to the Antarctic.

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  • The Elephant Island party waves goodbye to sailors on the James Caird, 24 April 1916.Photo Credit: Wikipedia

Nothing grabs the attention more than the story of an intrepid individual attempting a rescue mission against all odds. In the modern world, dramatic rescue operations, such as that mounted to save the Chilean miners in 2010, have made huge headlines, with modern technology allowing people across the globe to watch events unfolding in real time. News did not travel so fast in the past, but people have always been interested in this type of human interest story. Here are four daring rescue missions from history, which still capture the imagination today.

Dr. Livingstone, I presume?

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  • Henry Morton Stanley and Kalulu, his adopted son.

    Photo Credit: Wikipedia

In January 1866, Scottish explorer Dr. David Livingstone set off to find the rumored source of the White Nile. As Livingstone journeyed ever deeper into the heart of the then largely uncharted African continent, news of his whereabouts became increasingly spasmodic and eventually ceased altogether.

With speculation mounting as to his fate, New York Herald editor, James Gordon Bennett Jr., charged one of his novice reporters, Henry Morton Stanley, with the task of leading an expedition to search for the missing explorer. The wealthy newspaper baron did not provide the considerable financial backing required for such a mission purely out of altruism. Rather, the canny Bennett realized the potential it offered in terms of raising his newspaper’s international profile.

Bennett was unaware of his 30-year-old reporter’s own interesting backstory. The illegitimate Stanley (born John Rowlands) had spent a difficult early childhood in Wales before emigrating to the US as a young man. Here he had taken on a new name, inspired by a wealthy New Orleans trader, and after an eventful Civil War, in which he had seen action on both sides, had become a journalist. 

By March 1871, Stanley had reached Zanzibar, just off the East African coast, and was ready to embark on the search for Livingstone. This entailed an arduous 700-mile trek through Tanzania into territory which only a handful of Europeans had ever witnessed. From the start, Stanley was plagued by serious ill health, including malaria and smallpox. He also had to overcome a series of other obstacles, including a tribal war which compelled him to make a significant detour. 

Finally, after a journey lasting nearly eight months, Stanley received the news for which he had been hoping. A white man had been spotted in nearby Ujiji. Stanley hastened there to discover that it was, indeed, Livingstone. 

Stanley’s colorful reports on the mission for the New York Herald made him a global celebrity. In one article, he claimed to have greeted the Scottish explorer with the question, “Dr Livingstone, I presume?” This version of events has now entered folklore, but it is entirely possible that Stanley only later made up this pithy line for dramatic effect, as Livingstone himself had no recollection of it.

Pliny the Elder’s heroic 1st-century rescue attempt

In 79 CE, the ancient Roman towns of Pompeii and Herculaneum were famously destroyed following the eruption of Mount Vesuvius. Unusually for this period, an eyewitness account of a heroic rescue mission in the immediate vicinity of this disaster has survived to this day in the form of a letter written by Pliny the Younger to the Roman historian, Tacitus.

At the time Pliny was staying with his uncle and namesake, a high-ranking Roman naval commander, in the nearby port of Misenum. The first sign of impending disaster came early one afternoon when the two men were alerted to the appearance of an ominous cloud formation in the sky above Mount Vesuvius, unlike anything they had ever seen before. In addition to his military prowess, Pliny the Elder was also a noted scientist.  Eager to discover more about this unusual phenomenon, he was already preparing to take a boat along the coast to have a closer look when a message for help arrived from friends, who lived in a villa close to the foot of the volcano. Theirs was just one of several villas situated on that part of the coastline and so Pliny the Elder ordered the launch of a small fleet of warships to mount a rescue mission. 

Conditions were treacherous and, according to Pliny the Younger, his uncle was at one point advised to turn back by his helmsman. The elder Pliny was determined to carry on with his mission, but by the time the rescue party reached their destination of Stabiae, conditions had deteriorated to such an extent that escape by boat proved impossible. Instead, they tried to shelter inside a friend’s villa before being driven outdoors because of fears that the building was about to collapse.

According to Pliny the Younger, the group fled with pillows tied to their heads as a way of protecting themselves from falling pumice. His uncle made for the beach to see whether escape by sea was now possible but was overcome by the toxic fumes coming from the volcanic ash and died of asphyxiation. His body was found on the beach two days later, just one of the several thousand people who lost their lives as a result of this devastating natural disaster.

Shackleton’s mission to save the crew of the Endurance

In late 1914, the Anglo-Irish explorer, Ernest Shackleton, set sail from South Georgia on board the Endurance, along with a crew of 27 menHis destination was the Weddell Sea, from where he aimed to make the first overland crossing of Antarctica via the South Pole to the Ross Sea. 

Only a few weeks into its voyage, the Endurance became trapped in ice off Queen Maud Land. For the next nine months, Shackleton and his crew made several valiant attempts to break free from the ice, but to no avail. In the end, with the Endurance in imminent danger of sinking, the men were compelled to abandon ship. They eventually reached the uninhabited Elephant Island aboard three lifeboats, but their location was so remote that the chances of being discovered were virtually non-existent. 

Shackleton’s solution was to set out on an 800-mile journey to South Georgia on board the largest of the lifeboats, the James Caird. He asked for five volunteers to accompany him, leaving the rest of the crew behind on Elephant Island. Facing a perilous journey on a small boat in heavy seas and hurricane-force winds, Shackleton only took enough supplies to last a month. He figured that they wouldn’t survive anyway if it took longer than that to reach their destination.

They made it to South Georgia within three weeks, but their problems were far from over.  They had landed on the wrong side of the island, which meant that they had to undertake a 40-mile trek over uncharted terrain to reach help at the Stromness whaling station. Three of the men were judged too unwell to make the journey, so they sheltered under the upturned lifeboat whilst Shackleton and two others set out on their mission. The rescue party marched more or less non-stop for 36 hours in treacherous conditions, before finally arriving at Stromness in time for a well-earned breakfast. After several false starts, all of the Endurance’s crew members were eventually rescued, with no loss of life. 

Back home, there had been no news of the Endurance for well over 18 months. When the story of Shackleton’s dramatic rescue mission finally hit the papers in early June 1916, it represented a rare moment of good news in the midst of the unrelenting misery of World War I

Gerard Kuiper’s daring WWII mission to rescue Max Planck

historical rescue missions
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  • Gerard Kuiper in 1964.

    Photo Credit: Wikipedia

During a long and illustrious career, Gerard Kuiper made many important contributions to planetary research. He also predicted the existence of the Kuiper Belt in the outer solar system, which was later named in his honor. Perhaps less remembered today, though, is a daring rescue mission he undertook to save a fellow scientist during the final days of World War II.

Kuiper was born in the Netherlands, but moved to the United States to pursue an academic career at the University of Chicago and was granted American citizenship. During World War II, he was recruited to the top-secret ALSOS mission. As Allied forces advanced across Europe in the final stages of the war, the ALSOS mission was tasked with locating the enemy’s top scientists and ascertaining the veracity of claims that Nazi Germany was close to developing the world’s first atomic weapon

Whilst in Berlin in May 1945, Kuiper discovered that German physicist, Max Planck, was in imminent danger of being captured by the Russian army which was advancing from the Eastern Front. Planck had played no part in the Nazi regime’s nuclear program and had been notably outspoken in his criticism of the German authorities. He had been forced to flee Berlin in 1943 and was now reported to be sheltering in a farmhouse, not far from the eastern banks of the River Elbe.

The 87-year-old Planck’s safety fell outside the remit of the ALSOS mission, but the German’s reputation as one of the giants of early 20th-century theoretical physics was such that Kuiper was not prepared to leave him to an uncertain fate at the hands of the Russians. Kuiper commandeered an army jeep, enlisted the help of two GI soldiers, and then set out on a daring rescue attempt.

To the east of Berlin, the country was in a state of total chaos, and Kuiper risked provoking the unwanted attention of fleeing German soldiers. He reached the farmhouse where Planck and his wife were sheltering only hours before the Red Army arrived in the area and persuaded the couple to allow him to escort them to safety. During their perilous return journey to Berlin, they only narrowly missed a couple of Soviet patrols. 

Despite his advanced age, Planck remained in West Germany after the war and spent the remaining two years of his life at the forefront of the movement to reconstruct the country’s scientific community.