By Brad Dison
Miller was a tall, broad, outdoorsman. His father wanted him to become a doctor. His mother wanted him to become a cellist. Miller, however, wanted a life filled with adventure. He served in both World Wars and was an avid sportsman. Some of his favorite sports included watching bull fights, deep sea fishing, and hunting in remote locations around the world.
In the Winter of 1953-54, Miller and his fourth wife, Mary Welsh, enjoyed a vacation in Africa. They spent the second week of January 1954, at Amboselli National Park, whose main feature is Mount Kilimanjaro, the tallest mountain on the African continent. As a late Christmas present to his wife, Miller chartered a 600-mile flightseeing trip from Nairobi, capital city of Kenya, over Lake Victoria and Lake Albert, with the main attraction being the breath-taking 400-foot Murchison Falls on the Victoria Nile River in Uganda. Due to the length of the trip, a distance of over 1,000 miles, they planned to land at the halfway point, Masindi, to refuel the Cessna.
On Saturday, January 23, 1954, Miller and Mary met pilot Roy Marsh, a former Royal Air Force pilot, at the airport in Nairobi. After stowing their luggage in the small, single-engine silver and blue Cessna, Roy, Miller, and Mary set out on the beginning of what turned out to be an unforgettable, yet exciting, adventure. The trio took in the beautiful scenery as they flew over 500 miles toward Murchison Falls. They flew over some of the most inaccessible spots in Uganda. From the safety of their airplane, they gazed at crocodiles, elephants, buffaloes, lions, and a plethora of other wild game in their natural habitat.
Within three miles of Murchison Falls, they ran into trouble. Without warning, a flock of Ibises, large black and white jungle birds with long, down-curved bills, descended toward the Cessna. Flying through the flock was not an option. Just one of the birds was large enough to crash the plane. Roy flew lower to try to avoid the birds, but they descended as well. Roy quickly looked in every direction, but the plane was surrounded by the large birds. As they neared treetop level, Roy realized they would have to land the plane. Roy had to choose between landing on a small sandbar which was teeming with crocodiles or on an area covered by thick shrubs surrounded by a herd of elephants. Roy chose the better of the two bad choices, the elephant herd.
Roy flew just over the shrubs and slowed the engine to just above stall speed. Just before the tires on the Cessna touched the shrubs, Roy pulled back on the controls, which forced the front of the airplane into the air, and they struck the ground on the underside of the plane. The Cessna sustained only minor damage, and Roy, Miller, and Mary were unharmed. Their adventure had just begun as dusk approached.
The crash survivors assessed their situation. They were unable to call for help because the Cessna was not equipped with a radio. They knew it would be hours before anyone realized their plane was missing. They had emergency supplies but no water. They set up a campsite, and Roy and Miller took turns going to the river for water. Elephants trumpeted warnings to Roy and Miller as they walked to the riverbank, which was crowded with hippos and crocodiles. That night, they built a fire for warmth and to keep predators away. Several times during the night, wild animals ventured near their campsite. Miller, being an avid outdoorsman, used a trick he had learned years earlier on one of his many jungle safaris. He howled like a wild dog, which all other animals detested. Each time he howled, the other animals answered and gave away their positions.
Searchers began looking for the missing plane when they failed to land at Masindi for refueling. A police boat left Butiaba, a small town on Lake Albert about sixty miles from Murchison Falls, but it would take several hours for it to reach the search area. When the Cessna failed to return to Nairobi, the East African Airways ordered search planes from Entebbe to join the search on the following morning. There was little anyone could do.
The next morning, search planes scoured the hills and forests around Murchison Falls for the downed aircraft. British Overseas Airways Captain R.C. Jude diverted his airplane off course and joined the search. He began his search at Murchison Falls and made larger and larger spirals until he located the downed Cessna. He radioed in the location of the crash and notified them that he saw no signs of life. He pointed out that the plane had sustained only minimal damage and reported that he suspected that the trio had survived.
Miller, Mary, and Roy did not wait around to be rescued. After a weary night in the jungle, they walked to the river and saw a tourist boat heading back from Murchison Falls. They yelled and waived to the boat and the captain sped to their location. They explained their predicament and they joined the tourists for the remainder of their return trip to Butiaba.
Miller jokingly told reporters at Butiaba that his wife’s snoring attracted elephants to their campsite. “We held our breaths about two hours while an elephant 12 paces away was silhouetted in the moonlight, listening to my wife’s snores.” Mary retorted, “I never snore. You’ve got a fixation about it.” To which Miller replied with a sly grin, “So has that elephant.”
As Miller’s adventure seemed at an end, another adventure was beginning. At about dusk, Miller and Mary boarded a DeHavilland Rapide, a twin-engine bi-wing airplane piloted by T.R. Cartwright enroute to Entebbe, a town about 175 miles to the southeast. The pilot taxied the plane to the runway and increased its speed for takeoff. As they sped down the runway the airplane hit a bump, bounced, hit another bump, and veered off of the runway where it rolled over and burst into flames. Miller forced the rear door of the airplane open and he, Mary, and T.R. scrambled from the burning plane. Miller sustained cuts, burns, and bruises. Mary suffered two cracked ribs, an injured leg, and multiple bruises. T.R. was uninjured. Miller and Mary went to a local doctor, who bandaged the cuts and burns on Miller’s head. The doctor suggested they X-ray his injured arm, but Miller just shrugged him off because he thought the injury was minor.
Through his entire weekend’s adventures, surviving two airplane crashes in two days, Miller kept his sense of humor. Clutching a bunch of bananas in one hand and a bottle of gin in the other, Miller remarked with a smile, “My luck—she is running very good.” Not wanting to test his luck further, he declined an offer for another airplane ride out of the jungle.
Miller was one of only a handful of people who were able to read their own obituary. Many newspapers around the world got the news that Miller was missing and assumed he had perished in the first crash. They compared Miller’s might to those of the characters in his books “From Whom the Bell Tolls,” “A Farewell to Arms,” and his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel “Old Man and the Sea.” Miller was the middle name of…Ernest Hemingway.
Honolulu Star-Bulletin, January 24, 1954, p.1.
- Standard-Speaker (Hazleton, Pennsylvania), January 25, 1954, p.1.
- The Tribune (Scranton, Pennsylvania), January 25, 1954, p.1.
- The Shreveport Times, January 26, 1954, p.1.
- The Cincinnati Enquirer, January 27, 1954, p.4.
- Corsicana Daily Sun, January 27, 1954, p.4.