American writer survives two plane crashes in Masindi

Ernest Hemingway and his wife Mary Welsh.

What you need to know:

  • Cheated death twice. American novelist Ernest Hemingway and his wife were rescued from the scene of the crash at Murchison Falls National Park by a tourist and taken to an airstrip in Butiaba on the shores of Lake Albert to wait for another plane to fly them to Entebbe.
  • Following the direction of the plane above them, Mills and his search team first drove in his Land Rover until they reached a point where they had to walk to the falls. The plane crash landed on a clearing close to the Murchison Falls.
    However, by the time of search team arrived, there were no people.

From a historical perspective, it seems Uganda was more attractive to the international newsmakers before independence than it is now.
It hosted a wide range of people from politicians to nobles, authors and sportsmen as Uganda was a destination of choice although infrastructure like roads and hotels were not anywhere near what they are now. The major places of attraction were the national parks.

On January 23, 1954, American novelist Ernest Hemingway and his wife Mary Welsh departed from Nairobi, Kenya, in a chartered plane. They flew over Lake Victoria and Lake Albert to the Murchison Falls.
Writing in the Overseas Service Pensioners’ Association (OSPA) Journal 92, J. R. F. Mills, the man credited with the opening of Murchison Falls National Park, says: “This is one of the most inaccessible spots in Uganda dominated by crocodiles, elephants, buffaloes, lions and other big game and one of the most beautiful.”

African tour
Hemingway was in Uganda as part of his African tour. Together with his wife, they survived two plane crashes in a space of 12 hours during their botched safari to Murchison Falls.
“One Saturday afternoon in January 1954, I happened to be in Masindi. About 5pm, I met the assistant district commissioner who told me that Mr Hemingway and his wife, who were flying round Uganda, had lost contact,” Mills writes in the OSPA journal.

At the time it was believe that Hemingway could have landed on one of the airstrips in the countryside.
But by the next day a report from Entebbe airport indicated that the American writer and his wife were still missing and nothing about their flight had been heard.

As the person in charge of the park, Mills was directed by the authorities in Entebbe to start a search for the missing plane and its occupants.
“The park was some 1,500 square miles of uninhabited country bisected by the River Nile with the Murchison Falls at the centre. I had a small labour force that was making a track from Masindi to the Nile, which had not progressed very far. Being Sunday, most of the staff had gone off for the weekend; however, I sent those in camp to start the search,” writes Mills.

The local search team was joined by a Lancaster bomber and a de Havilland Rapide plane from the Royal Air Force in Nairobi and another plane from the East African Airways.
It was these planes that directed the foot search team where the wreckage of the plane was.
“Eventually, the Lancaster dropped a message tied to a handkerchief. It said, ‘Have located plane close to the falls. Please go there and if all is well, stand on the wing and wave your arms,” Mills says in the journal.
The New York Times reported that that pilot of one of the Royal Air Force (RAF) planes said: “I piloted the Argonaut airliner 80 to 100 miles off course to search and saw a silvery Cessna plane lying among scrub trees after circling the Murchison Falls a few minutes.”

Following the direction of the plane above them, Mills and his search team first drove in his Land Rover until they reached a point where they had to walk to the falls. The plane crash landed on a clearing close to the Murchison Falls.
However, by the time of search team arrived, there were no people.
The New York Times of January 25, 1954, quoted the pilot of the RAF plane as saying, “It was the right plane without a doubt. We saw the identification letters VPKLII very clearly. After having noted that the plane appeared a little damaged, I would think the passengers climbed out and made for the river, which was only 300 yards away, but you cannot tell about these things.”
Writing in the OSPA magazine, Mill says after the plane was reported missing a British Overseas Airways Corporation pilot reported that he had sighted the plane near the lower Victoria Nile.

The Associated Press of January 25, 1954, quoted Capt R. C. Jude, a pilot of a British Overseas Airways Corporation, as saying: “One wheel of the undercarriage was broken, but otherwise the plane appeared little damaged.”
“It looked like the chap did a neat job of landing the aircraft,” he said.
The cause of the crash was attributed to the plane flying low and its tail getting caught up in the abandoned telephone lines running from Masindi to Arua.

Mills writes, “The plane had plopped right into scrub trees and the thick bush had made it impossible to discover any signs of human life nearby, although he [the pilot] circled low enough to see several elephants and buffaloes roaming about on the other side of the river.”

Rescued, and in another crash
Hemingway and his wife were rescued from the scene of the crash by a tourist and taken to an operating airstrip in Butiaba on the shores of Lake Albert to wait for another plane to fly them to Entebbe.
A Royal Air Force plane which had been part of their rescue mission came to fly them out. Unfortunately, that plane also crushed at take-off. The plane crashed and burned, but all aboard escaped unhurt.

The New York Times reported that “Captain Reg Cartwright, flying the East African Airways’ Rapide, flew to Butiaba’s small airstrip to pick up the America couple back to Entebbe. However, on taking off from the airstrip, wheels hit an anthill and then a thorn bush at the end of the runway and the Rapide nose-dived. The plane crashed and burned on the take-off.”
After the second crush, the couple was rescued by road. A police team was dispatched from Masindi to Butiaba. The couple was then driven back to Masindi where they spent a night before being taken to Entebbe.

About Ernest Hemingway

Ernest Hemingway (July 21, 1899 to July 2, 1961) was an American novelist, short story writer, and journalist. His writings became famous and had an influence on the fiction writing during the 20th Century.

His works were produced mainly between 1920 and 1950’s though more was produced posthumously. In 1954, he won the Nobel Prize in literature. Most of his works are considered classics of American literature.
After publishing The Old Man and the Sea, he went on a safari in Africa where he twice survived plane crashes that left him with ill health for much of his life. He later committed suicide in 1961.

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