SEPTEMBER 29, 1924
"We did not all come back."
—Captain Robert Bartlett
The island was a no-man's-land, little more than a mountainous slab of rock high above the Arctic Circle. Six miles of cliffs ran across it, four to seven hundred feet high. The only sliver of shoreline came at the northwestern point where the cliffs crumbled into piles of jagged rocks and gravel. The island was impossible to reach by ship or by plane, the winds raging about it, its shores surrounded by violent, raftering ice and fierce currents. So ferocious and unforgiving were the elements at Herald Island, in fact, that no one would ever live there, except for the polar bears, arctic foxes, and occasional birds that sought refuge on its rocky shores.
On September 29,1924, however, eleven men stood silent, on the northwestern point of the island.
Captain Louis Lane and the passengers of the MS Herman had traveled to uninhabited Herald Island intending to claim it for the United States. Even though the island was essentially uninhabitable, men strove to possess it as they do all things, the first person to do so being Captain Kellett, R.N., who claimed it in 1849 for Great Britain in the name of Queen Victoria. And as far as Captain Lane and his men had known, they were to be the first human visitors to the island since Captain Calvin Hooper of the USS Corwin, forty-three years earlier.
Captain Lane had intended to land on September 27; but the tides were impenetrable, and he and his men had been unable to follow through. On September 28, they made it to land, planted the United States flag, and read a proclamation.
Their work accomplished, Captain Lane turned the ship toward the northwest. As they rounded the northwestern point of the island, however, he spotted something from the crow's nest -- a shadow against the beach. Through the field glasses, the crew could make out the outline of a sled and several dark objects. The following morning, they dropped anchor half a mile offshore and once again landed on tiny Herald Island.
Eleven men went ashore that day. The bitter Arctic wind chilled them. It seemed more biting on this side of the island. It was barely October, and although winter had not yet set in with its full force, the weather was already savagely cold.
The outline they had seen was indeed a sled. Its skeletal frame, weathered and broken, lay shattered against the narrow beach. Strewn over the snow-covered ground surrounding the sled were over two dozen of the black objects, thick, rectangular tins: pemmican, that canned mixture of dried meat, fruit, and fat that was the staple of polar diets at the time. One man stooped to pick up a can. It was heavy and when he cracked it open he discovered its contents had never been touched.
The men took photographs before disturbing anything. And then they began to dig through the snow, searching for answers. Beneath all of that white, they uncovered the remains of a fire. From the pile of ashes that lay beneath, it was clear that a great many fires had been built in that very same spot, years and years ago. If this was any indication, the men who had built those fires had probably lived on the island for quite a long time.
Discarded on the gravel beach was a 30-30 Winchester automatic rifle with dozens of cartridges. It was an eerie souvenir, its stock weathered almost white, its barrel dark with rust, its magazine corroded and partially missing. And there, on the side, cut into the wood, two rusted initials were inscribed: "B.M."
Then someone stumbled across something that made these men draw back in horror -- the crossed thighbones of a man. just beyond, a bleached shoulder blade was discovered. The men kept digging. Soon they uncovered a decayed tent, its aged canvas torn and soiled from time and the elements, and underneath a sleeping bag of reindeer skin. Its folds hid other human bones, including a man's hand, perfectly intact, down to the tapered nail of the thumb, lacking only flesh to make it lifelike.
And then someone held up a human jawbone. It was smooth and shrunken, bleached by the snow and wind. It was a strong jaw, with two of its wisdom teeth still imbedded. As one of the men described it: "A young man with a firm, capable jaw, cleft as to chin and with fine, regular teeth. A young man thus to die and leave his bones strewn to bleach on this wind-swept shore! With what hopes and ambitions had he sailed north -- only to die, his deathplace all these years unknown and unmarked!"
It wasn't long before the men uncovered two more jawbones within feet of the first. They seemed to belong to older men. A hundred or so yards away, a fourth jawbone was discovered, the oldest yet. No skulls were found.
It was difficult to discern how long ago the men had come there, or how they had met their fates. Bear tracks encircled the camp, but close examination of the bones revealed no teeth marks or signs of violent death. These four men, whoever they were, seemed to have died with all the necessities of life at their fingertips. There was evidence of too much food for the men to have died of starvation. Even if they had run out of pemmican, there was ammunition for both the 30-30 Winchester and a .22 Winchester automatic rifle. They also had an abundance of matches, two Primus stoves, and a beach strewn with driftwood.
They were probably suffering the effects of slow starvation and might also have been afflicted with scurvy. Only two or three teeth remained in each jawbone, and the men had most likely lost the rest of them while still alive. It must have been dreadful for them. If they had died of illness or the elements, however, it seemed odd that they would all perish at the same time. No one had been buried and the remains of their skeletons lay in similar positions, peaceful and undisturbed, as if the four men had just lain down to sleep.
The remaining discoveries gave few clues. Captain Lane and his men uncovered a silver watch, a pocket compass, snow glasses, field glasses, hunting knives, a sled harness, three pocket knives (one engraved with the letter M), a thermometer tube, ice picks, axes, a shovel, a pair of snow shoes, a pair of skis, a can opener, a tin of tea, three enamel mugs, a silver spoon, two whiskey bottles, a candle, a nickel belt buckle, socks, mitts, caps, a sheepskin coat, rope, and the remains of a horsehair mattress.
The men searched the entire camp, digging beneath the snow and even into the earth, but no paper was found, no diaries and no documents. These men had not left behind any written record of their story. Captain Lane and his men could only speculate as to who they were and what had happened to them.
Back on board the ship, Captain Lane and the others set the four jawbones on a table, side by side. They tried to imagine what the men had looked like in life. Who were they before they gave up their living, breathing souls to this desolate place?