They called him Ben, but he was a “Viking in the Sky.” Carl Benjamin Eielsen was born July 20, 1897, in Hatton, one of North Dakota’s most solid Scandinavian communities. The Eielsens had their roots in Hallingdal, Norway (my earliest ancestry in America).
Ben’s father operated a family store in which the future Arctic hero often clerked. Those country stores sold everything a family needed: groceries, clothes, hardware, toys and even salt blocks for the livestock. They also bought eggs and cream from the farmers.
But Ben’s heart wasn’t in the store. It was out of doors where he could hunt, swim and go hiking in the woods. In school, Ben was a true scholar and excelled in debating and sports.
After high school, Ben went off to study law, first at the University of North Dakota at nearby Grand Forks, and later at the University of Wisconsin. In 1929, both schools selected him as one of their most famous alumnus.
While at Wisconsin, he enlisted in the air service of the U. S. Army on Jan. 17, 1917. After completing his training, he became a second lieutenant (and eventually a colonel). But the war ended and instead of going to France, he went back to Hatton. There he did more clerking and helped to organize the American Legion Post.
Flying became Ben’s passion. He organized a flying club and went into a partnership to buy a single engine Curtis plane for $2,585. He had found his love — stunt flying and giving rides at country fairs. It went pretty well until he hit an air pocket and the plane lost a wing to a telephone line.
Having received his university degree, Ben enrolled at Georgetown University in Washington, DC, to become serious about law again. People growing up today may not see anything so unusual about this, but back in the 1920s this was not typical.
Many North Dakotans at that time were lucky to complete eight grades and only a few graduated from high school, not mention, college or graduate school.
While in Washington, Ben met a congressman from Alaska who offered him a job as a high school principal in Fairbanks. No sooner was he there when he took to flying again. The Yukon Indians were so amazed at Ben that they called him a “Moose Ptarmigan,” a grouse with feathered feet that habitated on a moose.
On Feb. 21, 1924, Ben made history by flying 500 pounds of mail over 300 miles. It took about five hours instead of the usual month by dog sled. Ben also developed a new type of ski for heavy planes.
Ben was a “pro” and in demand by the best in the business. Wilhjalmur Steffanson, a famous Icelandic-American explorer of the Polar Regions, wanted Ben to work for him. On one such trip, he was forced down on an ice flow and had to walk over 100 miles to safety. It took 18 days. He was also the first to fly over the North Pole.
In 1928, Ben was an international hero and was honored wherever he traveled. He had not forgotten Hatton, however, and his hometown friends had not forgotten him. On July 21, 1928, they gave him one of the biggest welcomes ever held in the state.
Ben was born for flying and there was no stopping him now. He also made aviation history in Antarctica, covering 1,200 miles that had not been previously mapped.
Then came the final flight. A ship was frozen off the north coast of Siberia. Ben and his mechanic, Earl Borland, responded. One rescue attempt was successful. A second was never completed.
Ben was lost on Nov. 9, 1929, in a storm. It was suspected that the altimeter was defective. It took over two and a half months to find the wreckage.
On March 24, 1930, Hatton and the whole state paid tribute to Ben in the largest funeral ever held in North Dakota’s history. Special trains carried mourners to the funeral.
Over 10,000 people crowded into the little city. Memorial services were held in other cities too. Schools closed as all eyes focused on St. John’s Lutheran Church where the family held membership.
Is Ben forgotten? Not in Hatton. His childhood home has now become a Registered Landmark Historical Site and museum to honor him. It’s an impressive building on the outside and the inside reveals woodworking craftsmanship that’s difficult to find today. Pictures of Ben and other memorabilia reveal the high estimate in which this young Halling was held by famous people of his day.
Ben is also remembered at the North Dakota’s Heritage Museum in Bismarck. His artifacts have been displayed at the Norsk Høstfest in Minot and Ben was inducted into the Høstfest’s Scandinavian-American Hall of Fame in 1984. He is also remembered in Alaska at the Strategic Air Command’s Eielsen Air Force Base and by Mt. Eielsen, near Mt. McKinley.
There will be more honors for Ben. Heroes like this “Viking in the Sky” will never die in the memories of people whose ethnic pride is just beginning to bloom.
Next time: “Knut, The Dane Who Ruled England”