CONTINUED FROM PART 1
After spending four days sheltered in a snow cave he’d dug against bad weather, David Steeves was tired of waiting for rescue. The 41st Air Rescue Squadron, out of Hamilton AFB, north of San Francisco, had been searching for him. Despite bad weather, search aircraft managed to spot two crash sites that weren’t on their maps of previously identified aircraft wrecks. However, ground search teams were not able to reach either site due to adverse conditions. Fearing he’d die of starvation before anyone would ever find him in this remote valley high in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, Steeves decided he couldn’t wait for better weather, and headed off in a southwesterly direction.
His ankles were excruciatingly painful to put weight on, although not broken. Leaving the shelter meant mostly crawling on his hands and knees, although he could slide down slopes on the parachute seat the way he’d slid down the mountain side. The parachute also helped keep him warm at night. Days went by. Pain and hunger tortured his mind. There were times when he wondered if he’d died and this was a cold, twisted version of Hell. Thoughts of his wife and daughter kept him going, although he knew he hadn’t been a good husband and father. Steeves had been having an affair, made possible by regular trips to California that the USAF had been sending him on official business.
After fifteen days of struggling across the rugged wilderness, he chanced upon a park ranger’s cabin. He hadn’t eaten a meal in nineteen days. Without food, his chances of surviving another nineteen days were grim. Incredibly, the cabin featured a canned ham, a few cans of beans, and some rusty fishing hooks which he used to catch fish. He rigged his pistol with a trip wire along an animal trail, and bagged a deer which he skinned and butchered with his knife. After rest and replenishment at the cabin, it was time to try to reach civilization, or at least a park campground where there’d be people. Steeves headed off in a southerly to southeasternly direction this time. We don’t know, but perhaps he’d found a map at the ranger’s cabin that showed him where the park amenities were located. Steeves was able to walk this stretch of the wilderness, although he had to cross a swift-flowing river at one point and nearly drowned.
On July 1, 1957, the 54th day of his ordeal, Steeves was resting on a rock along a park trail. To his surprise and amazement, the first people he’d seen in nearly two months suddenly appeared on horseback, two men and two women. The first woman said, “Hello”, as she passed by him. The next rider passed by as well. Steeves began to fear they weren’t going to stop, and excitedly began telling them what had happened, how he’d bailed out of his jet, crawled across mountains and canyons to get to this place. He needn’t have worried, they only passed him to reach a spot where they could tie up their horses. He must have looked a sight, with tattered flight suit, long hair and full heavy beard, all of which made his wild story believable. The horsemen and horsewomen were two married couples camping in the national park. They gave him a snack to eat, and invited him to their campsite a mile or so down the trail where they would fix him a real meal. The first horsewoman insisted that he ride her horse while she led the animal on foot.
After eating, Steeves was anxious to get to a phone to let his wife know he was alive. Naturally, the gracious campers took him to a nearby park ranger office where he could make a few calls. Telephoning the nearest Air Force base, Castle AFB (near Merced, although Edwards AFB wasn’t much further, just in the opposite direction), Lieutenant Steeves announced his survival. This came as somewhat of a shock, as the Air Force had declared him dead about the time he’d stumbled into the ranger’s cabin. Excited officials told him they’d send a car to Kings Canyon for him right away, (although it would take a few hours to get there), and that he should just sit tight and wait for them.
Steeves couldn’t reach Rita by phone. She and their daughter had moved out of the base housing unit they’d lived in at Craig AFB, Alabama, before he’d become lost and declared dead. He called his mother in Connecticut next, and you can probably imagine the joy she expressed. After a long talk with mom, they said goodbye, but the phone in the ranger’s office rang shortly thereafter. It was Rita. She’d arrived at her mother-in-law’s just after his mom had hung up. Rita, too, was besides herself with joy. She and the baby were now living with her parents, not far from David’s parents.
The Air Force public relations office wasted no time letting the press know that Lieutenant David Steeves was alive and well. Members of the press magically appeared at the ranger station, all eager to hear his story and get a scope. Steeves talked to them for hours, until he was beyond exhausted. This was the first of many interviews he’d give in the coming weeks and months. Steeves was about to be a national hero and a household name.
TO BE CONTINUED NEXT WEEK