This thing of being a hero, about the main thing to do is to know when to die. Prolonged life has ruined more men than it ever made.
-- Will Rogers
"It was so bad," the solemn-voiced Eskimo woman said. "I was 11 years old. . . . We had saw some airplanes before, but we never seen one crash before."
Rose Okpeaha Leavitt of Barrow, Alaska, now 61, is believed to be the only living witness to a tragedy that threw millions of Americans into disbelieving despair 50 years ago today.
"I still can see it in my mind still today," she said. "It was very foggy. It was red and silver, the airplane. It just went upside down . . . in the water. It was not very deep. We was camped there at Walakpa--my father was hunting walrus and seal."
Her father, Claire Okpeaha, went to the water's edge. "He was hollering, 'Hello!' maybe about four times," she recalled in an interview. But there was only silence.
"Then," she said, "he ran 15 miles to Barrow to tell about it. I didn't know the men in the airplane. Only later did I know who they was."
American Folk Heroes
They were two American folk heroes--Will Rogers, the humorist and common-sense philosopher, and Wiley Post, the one-eyed aviator famed for his record-breaking around-the-world and high-altitude flights.
Post and Rogers were en route from Seattle via Alaska to the Soviet Union to chart a possible trans-Siberian airline route.
They had taken off from Fairbanks that morning for Point Barrow, the most northerly point in the Territory of Alaska. Hampered by poor visibility and navigating by dead reckoning, Post had gotten slightly off course and, late in the afternoon, had put down on a shallow inlet to ask directions from Eskimos camped there.
Claire Okpeaha and his English-speaking wife told the aviator that Barrow was only 15 miles north.
Engine Coughed, Quit
It was 3:18 p.m. when Post took off. The hybrid Lockheed Orion-Explorer got up to about 100 feet when the engine coughed and quit, apparently out of fuel. The ship fell into a dive and crashed into about three feet of water. Rogers, 55, and Post, 37, died instantly.
Their deaths sent a shock wave of anguish rolling across a nation already demoralized by the Great Depression.
Post, with his jaunty eye-patch, was greatly admired for having overcome his visual handicap to become a top pilot.
But the grief for Rogers was of a different order of magnitude; it was almost as if everyone had lost a member of his family.
Americans, quite simply, loved Will Rogers. Loved him for his easygoing humanity and generosity, for his instinctive sense of what the ordinary man was thinking and feeling.
And, most of all, they loved him for his irreverent sense of humor--what Lowell Thomas called "his fine scorn for all shams and pretensions."
His slangy, sometimes ungrammatical newspaper columns, usually examining the latest political or social folly, were read by 40 million Americans, according to author Bryan Sterling, at a time when the population was only 120 million.
The name \o7 Will Rogers \f7 on a movie marquee virtually assured a hit--in 1934 he was the top box office draw, beating out Clark Gable. In 1935, he was No. 2, behind Shirley Temple.
In less than 14 years, he made 70 films. Sterling said Rogers' last contract with Fox Film Corp. called for three pictures a year at $250,000 each--the equivalent of nearly $2 million each in 1985 dollars.
He was paid $350 a minute for his drawling Sunday radio performances--and quietly donated the money to help feed the hungry.
But Will Rogers was much more than rich and famous.
Cowboy and Indian
He was the Oklahoma country boy--literally both cowboy and Indian--who had made it big in the big city but never got the big head. He was an extraordinary man who seemed to epitomize the ordinary man. He could socialize with and satirize the high and the mighty and get away with it.
Once, for example, he opened a speech before a bankers convention like this: "Loan sharks and Interest hounds! I have addressed every form of organized graft in the U.S. excepting Congress. So it's naturally a pleasure for me to appear before the biggest."
Americans cherished Rogers for such lines--and even the bankers laughed.
The story of the Arctic crash made banner headlines around the world. And in Los Angeles, because Rogers and his family lived on their ranch in Pacific Palisades and he worked in Hollywood, the story dominated the news as few events have before or since.
On Aug. 16, The Times put out an "extra" with a brief account of the accident. The next day it carried seven front-page stories. Inside, there were five pages of stories and pictures on Rogers' death.
Countless Americans, according to news accounts at the time, simply stopped wherever they were and broke into tears.