February 8: The Search for Ben Eielson
Carl Ben Eielson is a famed North Dakotan, known for being a pioneer of polar aviation. On November 9th,1929, Eielson and his mechanic Earl Borland disappeared on a flight to Siberia. They were on a rescue mission to an ice-bound ship. By November 16th, the ship reported that the plane had not arrived.
A Russian trapper reported hearing a plane, but hadn’t seen it. A dogsled driver reported seeing smoke from a fire about thirty-five miles away from the trapped ship.
Newspapers across the country reported on the search. In December, 1929, the Nome Nugget of Nome, Alaska reported that an air search had turned up no sign of the missing plane. The Evening Star of Washington DC reported that bad weather was holding up the search, with gale winds reaching fifty-five miles an hour.
Bad weather plagued search attempts as December turned into January. Several planes were wrecked when they tried to take off. Complicating the search was the fact that no one knew where Eielson had gone down. Had he crashed in the vicinity of the ship? He may have decided to turn back toward Alaska. Secretary of the Interior Ray Wilbur approached the War Department for assistance and asked the Soviet government to help. Civilian and military pilots joined the search. A Soviet ship reported that natives had seen smoke and reported hearing a plane.
By the end of January, hopes for the survival of the missing men had dwindled. The Bismarck Tribune stated what everyone knew in their hearts, that “Only bare hope remains for Eielson and Borland.”
The discovery of Eielson’s wrecked plane came on January 25th. It now became a search for the bodies. On this date in 1930, it was reported that the plane had been covered over by a blizzard. Russian searchers were determined in their efforts to dig it out. Borland’s body was finally found on February 17th; Eielson’s on February 20th.
Carl Ben Eielson is buried in St. John’s Cemetery in Hatton. Several North Dakota schools are named for him as is Eielson Air Force Base in Alaska. He was inducted into the North Dakota Aviation Hall of Fame in 1997, and honored that same year by governor Schafer with the Theodore Roosevelt Rough Rider Award.
Dakota Datebook by Dr. Carole Butcher
- Bismarck Tribune. “Wreck of Eielson’s Plane Buried Again by Recent Blizzard.” Bismarck ND. 2/8/1939. Page 1.
- Nome Nugget. “Nothing Seen of Eielson.” Nome, AK. 12/21/1929. Page 1.
- Evening Star. “Gale Still Delays Search for Pilot.” Washington DC. 12/31/1929. Page 6.
- Bismarck Tribune. “Only Bare Hope Remains for Eielson and Borland.” Bismarck ND. 1/27/1939. Page 1.
- Explorer North. “The Search for Carl Ben Eielson.” https://explorenorth.com/library/aviation/eielson-the_search-chronology.html Accessed 12/24/2023.