The Midway Tragedy

The Midway Tragedy

The Mid-Pacific Magazine
By E. Olsen

A follow-on story to the Wandering Minstrel that was wrecked off Midway Island

Not long ago an article appeared descriptive of the vicissitudes of the crew of the bark “Wandering Minstrel” that was wrecked off Midway Island over a dozen years ago. Reference was made to a man named Jorgensen, the mate of the “General Siegel,” which vessel had gone to pieces on the reef off Midway Island, previous to the loss of the “Wandering Minstrel.”

The writer of the article went on to say that Jorgensen had murdered two of his fellow castaways and that the remainder of the crew deserted him and in course of time arrived in Honolulu, where they made no report of Jorgensen’s solitary existence.

There is today working in the carshop of the Oahu Railway & Land Co., Honolulu, a survivor of the crew of the “General Siegel,” by name, E. Olsen. The account of the adventures of the crew of the “Wandering Minstrel” attracted his attention and following his version of the story of the wreck of the “General Siegel” and the extraordinary experiences and subsequent rescue of the crew:

“The schooner ‘General Siegel,’ on which I had signed as seaman, was chartered from the Pacific Navigation Co. for a six months’ sharking expedition and left Honolulu on September  1st, 1886. We had obtained a full load of sharks’ fins, oil, etc. and on our return trip, called at Midway Island, where we stayed for a considerable time. At last preparations were made to continue the homeward journey, but the start was delayed, after everything had been got in readiness for the departure, on account of the goonies, which make the islands their nesting place, having at the last moment started laying. We wanted to take a lot of the eggs back with us and the day of leaving was accordingly postponed for a short time.

“On the night of November 16th, the schooner went on the reef during a terrible gale and became a total loss. The captain, whose name was Asberdine, said that we must stop on the island until a rescue party should come from Honolulu to take us back.

“There were eight of us and we lived in a wooden house which we found on the island and which had been built by the American government in former years, when Midway Islands had been used as a coaling station. Ten days after the wreck of the schooner, Peter Larkin, one of the crew, blew his right hand off while fishing with dynamite and died in ten days.

“One day a boat of the British ship ‘Dunottar Castle,’ which had been lost off Ocean Island, about sixty miles from where we were, drifted ashore.

“In May, 1887, we started in to repair the ‘Dunottar Castle’ boat, but after putting her in shape, as she was too small to accommodate all hands, we set to work on a Japanese sampan which had been left on the island by Captain Paul Bohm, when there fishing with the schooner ‘Kaulilua.’ We fixed the sampan up and launched her but she capsized. We then put ballast in her but she failed to keep afloat, so finally we took the schooner’s mast, cut it into short lengths and fitted them to the side of the boat to act as outriders.

“While we were repairing the sampan. Captain Asberdine, who was a Russian Finn, Jorgensen the mate, and a sailor named Brown went over to Sand island in the ‘Dunottar Castle’s’ boat, the captain being desirous of exploring the island before he left. The captain took with him a shotgun and ammunition and Jorgensen a Winchester rifle. In the afternoon Jorgensen came back to us alone. He asked us what time it was and when we told him, said that it was too late to go back that day. The next morning, he returned to Sand Island alone and remained there ten days. We could see the boat during that time, from our house, but could discern no people. We had no boat to go over with and investigate as we were repairing the other.

“When we had got the boat in shape and were trying her to test her sea worthiness, Jorgensen noticed us, and that same night after dark came across to our island. I think that his intention was to have killed the entire party for I found in his hammock a notebook in which was written, ‘Six men left for Marshall Islands at the beginning of June.’ I also found there a loaded revolver and shotgun.

“When near the island he called loudly for help, as his boat was full of water, and eventually waded ashore. He hid his rifle and stopped in the house that night. I asked him where were the captain and the sailor, Brown, and he replied that they were on Sand Island and that the former had said that we could leave if we wanted to and take whatever we needed with us except instruments and clothes. As none of us were navigators we told Jorgensen that we would not leave before we had seen the captain.

“Next morning we went to Sand Island in the boat and took Jorgensen with us.We previously arranged to leave him on Sand Island if we did not find the captain, as we suspected foul play. Before we got there he said to us, ‘I tell you, boys, the captain killed Brown and I have been keeping him company to prevent him from killing himself. I wouldn’t be surprised to find that he has made way with himself.’

“We laid alongside of the island and told Jorgensen to go and find the captain, but he went instead to look for birds’ eggs. As soon as we saw this we returned to Midway Island and got ready to leave.  Everything was packed into the Japanese boat, except an axe, some dried fish and a few other articles, which we left in the house for Jorgensen’s use.

“During the day we told the boy to keep a good lookout in case Jorgensen came across, for as soon as we left Sand Island he had torn his clothes to pieces and made a raft. He came across, and leaving the raft, walked through the water and hid himself in the brush at the back of the house, which grows to the height of a man.

“Towards evening two sailors went down to the shore, where the ‘Dunnottar’s’ boat was lying disabled and cast her adrift. A small ship’s boat which had belonged to the ‘General Siegel’ they sunk in the lagoon.

“When the two men went down to put the boasts out of commission, the boats out of commission, I was left with the boy, who was busy preparing supper.  Jorgensen came to the door with his rifle in his hand.  He was naked. I was sitting down on a bench at the time trying to think what course would be best, when he entered and inquired why we had left him on the island alone. While he spoke he pointed the rifle at my breast ready to fire. I did not answer but grabbed the gun by the barrel and held the muzzle away from my body. After a hard tussle I got the gun away from him and he said, ‘Now you can shoot me.’ I pointed the rifle out of the door and discharged it, and went out to look for the others, who had seen the raft and were coming to the house. I called to them but they were afraid and would not come, but made for the boat.

“I returned to the house and Jorgensen said, ‘Tie me up and take me with you.’ I went down to the boat and told the others what he had said, but they were afraid for their lives, and said he would be better off where he was, as they might all be drowned and never reach land.

“We laid off in the lagoon until morning and then shaped our course for the Marshall Islands, where we arrived after a voyage of twenty days, subsisting meanwhile on water and dried fish. The natives were very friendly, and we gave them water tins in exchange for fruits. They wanted us to come round by the lagoon, but we could not beat to windward, and had to wait for fair wind. This was not the island we wanted to reach so we set sail and arrived next at the smallest island in the group.

“We landed there and the next day the boat sank in the lagoon. V\/e stopped on this island three months, having for company about twenty natives. During our stay we subsisted on fish, breadfruit and coconuts. After a while two of the men left with some natives in a canoe for another island four hundred miles away. When they got there the natives proceeded in their canoe to the first island we had touched at and found there the New Zealand brig ‘Ahukai’ from Honolulu, commanded by Captain Macy. Macy had heard of the missing schooner in Honolulu, and when he saw water tins on the island he inquired where they came from and was told by the natives that four men in a boat had given them. Meanwhile the canoe came along and the captain then had little doubt that the men the natives had spoken to him about were none other than the crew of the ‘General Siegel.’

“Captain Macy brought his schooner to the island where I and the boy were and took us to Jaluit. He refused to go after the other two men as he said he had to return to Jaluit in time to meet the ‘Lillian’ from Honolulu. When we reached Jaluit the ‘Lillian’ was there. I and the boy were taken aboard on the understanding that we should work our passage up to Honolulu. We found on board the shipwrecked crew of the ‘Mana,’ commanded by Captain Neilson, which had been lost on some other island, and who had been picked up by the ‘Ei­ kawahu.’

The next day the ‘Lillian’ left for Honolulu, where we arrived on December 6, 1887, after a passage of forty-one days. The schooner went back afterward to bring the remaining two men. to Jaluit. One man returned with the ‘Lillian’ six months later, but the other remained with the natives.

“When we returned to Honolulu we reported that we left Jorgensen on Midway Island, and that he had killed two men of our crew. Captain Walker of the Wandering Minstrel’ offered to take him off, but the government did not accept his offer.”

* * * * *

In answer to interrogations Olsen said that he would rather eat gonies’ flesh than any meat obtainable in Honolulu, and that the eggs of the bird are so palatable that he used to drink them raw. They were so thick on the island that it was impossible to walk a yard without breaking some. Mullet were very plentiful and the castaways used to fry them in their own fat.

Olsen says that he would not make another trip similar to the one he made in the Japanese sampan for many thousands of dollars.