AUTHOR’S NOTE: This is the second part of a two-part story about Jimmy Johnson, a commercial fisherman who suffered an ignominious demise on the Kenai River in 1958 but also had been instrumental in saving lives during the wreck of the S.S. Yukon in 1946. Part one included the steamship’s departure from Seward on Feb. 3 and the breach of its hull during a storm in the dark, early morning hours of Feb. 4.
Rescue Efforts Commence
As the 360-foot S.S. Yukon perched precariously on the rocks off mountainous Cape Fairfield, near the eastern entrance to Prince William Sound, a blizzard delivered cascades of driving snow, and ocean waves reportedly in excess of 30 feet repeatedly battered the ship and rocked its terrified passengers.
Cracks in the ship’s hull indicated that the vessel was breaking apart amidships, and all passengers and crew were shunted forward.
Meanwhile, about 35 miles away in Seward, not even a snowstorm could prevent Vern and Bernice Trakowski, owners of Alaska Scenic Air Service, from departing at dawn in their single-engine Taylor Craft. As they searched the area near the cape, they spotted an oil slick on the water and followed it to the wreck.
Although high seas prevented them from performing any rescue work, the Trakowskis were able to relay the ship’s precise coordinates to others who could help.
Shortly thereafter, the Coast Guard cutter Onondaga, which had been patrolling in the general area, arrived on the scene.
According to The Seward Weekly Marathon, “There was a complete wall of snow and a 40-mile [per hour] east-northeast wind which made any attempt at boarding the doomed vessel suicidal. Air temperatures were reported at around 30 degrees…. [Commander W.E. Streichert] drove the Onondaga to within 700 yards of the plunging wreck and lowered some small motor whale boats. He signaled that he would attempt to take off at once as many women and children as possible.”
Before the ship broke in half and the stern sank out of sight, Coast Guard personnel ferried about 50 individuals to the Onondaga.
From the bow of the Yukon, a “breeches buoy” — similar to a modern zip-line — was erected to connect the ship to the narrow strip of rocky shoreline at the base of the mountain rising above it. About 100 passengers descended this line, and some supplies were sent down to them to keep them as warm as possible while they were exposed to the storm.
Other ships began arriving on the scene, coordinating efforts to save as many people as possible while the stormy day became another stormy night, and the S.S. Yukon’s passengers and crew huddled on the ship’s bow and the rocky beach.
Back in Seward, medical services had been set up to receive and process those rescued from the Yukon. By early Feb. 5, the first patients began to arrive.
At the same time, U.S. Army Private Jimmy Johnson, nearing the end of his active-duty stint with the military, heard about the shipwreck. He “recruited” the power barge BSP-511, made certain it was adequately fueled, and gathered a crew of a dozen Alaska Scouts.
The Alaska Scouts, according to the Weekly Marathon, was a “unique corp[s], trained in alpine climbing and rescue work peculiar to weather and topography in Alaska. They were equipped with food, warm clothing, first aid, blankets, sleeping bags, blood plasma, coffee pots, etc.”
Skippered by Private Johnson, BSP-511 (106 feet long, weighing 193 tons, and built in 1942 for the U.S. Army) cruised toward the scene of the wreck.
Origin of the Screaming Swede
At 3:15 a.m. on Oct. 5, 1919, in Kalispell, Montana, James William Johnson was born to what must have seemed a decidedly odd couple. The mother was 18-year-old, Wisconsin-born Inez Johnson. The father was a 69-year-old Swedish immigrant and carpenter named Nels Johnson. They had been wedded 20 months earlier.
The marriage did not last. Although Nels would live to nearly 100, he would do so without Inez, who remarried in June 1928 to a man named Adam Bennett. By early 1930, she was living with her new husband and her son in Kodiak.
Jack Jeffrey, a former assistant manager of the Alaska Steamship Company whose 2001 memoir contains a take-it-with-a grain-of-salt chapter entitled “The Screaming Swede,” wrote that Jimmy Johnson “shipped out as a deckhand” on a mail boat serving the Aleutians when he was only 14. It was at this time, Jeffrey said, that Johnson made a name for himself as a brave sailor who knew how to handle boats and rough water.
According to Ed Opham, a lifelong Alaskan from Kodiak, Johnson was fishing commercially in Kodiak in the 1930s and then “dissipeared [sic] for a year or so, and when he came back he could talk Scandinavian, sounded like a old country Swede or Norwegin [sic]. Heard later he [had] saved up enough [money] to go to the old country…. [He] left here to try fishing in Seldovia.”
Jeffrey wrote of Johnson, “I never knew him to talk other than in a loud voice; actually, yelling would be more descriptive, as if the wind were blowing or he was in the engine room with two diesels going full blast.
“I first saw the Swede in Seward a week after the war was over in 1945. He and a group of soldiers in various stages of military dress were having a party. The Swede was certainly the loudest, if not the drunkest, of the bunch. You could tell he was a leader of some sort, even though he wore no indication of his rank.”
Jeffrey added that Johnson “fluctuated from private to sergeant. He was made sergeant and busted so many times that he quit bothering with chevrons. What the heck! He didn’t care for rank, anyway.”
The 1940 U.S. Census shows Johnson living in Seldovia with his mother and step-father and working as a commercial halibut fisherman. He signed his draft registration card in January 1941, and he enlisted in the U.S. Army a year or two later.
Johnson to the Rescue
At the scene of the shipwreck on Feb. 6, an officer on one of the rescue vessels offered an idea for saving the shivering masses on the beach: If a power barge could be beached temporarily, crew members could quickly gather the survivors on board and then back the boat off the rocks and deliver everyone to safety.
“Enter G.I. James,” wrote the Weekly Marathon. “Jimmy Johnson … volunteered at once for the task. His skill as a sailor, as well as his courage being unquestioned, he looked like just the man for the job. As a matter of fact, someone suggested at this point that if Jimmy couldn’t take a Power Barge in on that beach, it probably couldn’t be done.”
Just as he was set to attempt the maneuver, a higher-ranking officer issue countermand, saying that taking the barge in for a landing was simply too dangerous.
Jack Jeffrey and the Weekly Marathon offered two different — but similarly themed — versions of what happened next.
According to the Weekly Marathon: “Jimmy gave a more than graphic demonstration of how he got that moniker ‘The Screaming Swede.’ His voice leaped and rose in a high thin crescendo until it towered over the storm. The Swedish brogue got so thick you couldn’t pick out the words he was using, but some of them weren’t printable anyhow….
“’That’s carryin’ extremes a little too far,’ he screeched. ‘What you think we come out here in the first place for, a [expletives deleted] picnic maybe. I take her in on that beach if I have to do it by myself.’ And Jimmy grabbed an ax and made for the cable that made his barge fast to another vessel. But there was no need for him to chop the cable. Nobody raised any further objections.”
According to Jeffrey, Johnson’s retort to the countermand was: “Wall, you can go to hell! And anyway, my radio isn’t working anymore and I can’t hear anybody.”
Johnson rammed the power barge onto the narrow beach, and his crew scampered over the bow to bring the stranded survivors aboard. Within a half-hour, he was using alternating engines in reverse to work the boat, crab-wise, off the shore and back into deep water.
The BSP-511 delivered the happy hundred to a waiting shuttle boat, which then transferred the group to the Onondaga to receive medical attention.
The last survivors of the wreck of the S.S. Yukon were brought ashore in Seward on Feb. 8. “Ensign R.W. Niesz … from the Onondaga gave enthusiastic accounts of the rescue,” wrote the Weekly Marathon, “especially mentioning the feat of Jimmy Johnson.”
Of the 496 people aboard the Yukon when it sailed on Feb. 3 out of Seward, 485 were rescued. In succeeding weeks and months, the Coast Guard held hearings in order to assign blame for the lives lost and the destruction of the ship.
The Yukon’s sister ship, the S.S. Alaska, steamed into Seward to offer the survivors a resumption of their voyage to Seattle, and most of them took advantage of the opportunity, although there were a few who understandably chose to make other travel arrangements.
Later at Fort Richardson in Anchorage, James William Johnson was awarded the “Soldier’s Medal” for his efforts during the rescue. The medal is a U.S. Army decoration for “distinguishing oneself by heroism not involving actual conflict with an enemy.”
After Johnson’s accidental death in 1958, misinformation about his life continued.
In 1983, at a Harbor Commission meeting for the city of Kenai, longtime local resident Waldo Coyle urged that the city’s new boat harbor be named after Jimmy Johnson, a hero “who drowned while attempting to rescue stranded people.”
Jack Jeffrey’s memoir in 2001 claimed erroneously that Johnson’s mother had been an Alaska Aleut.
Jim Arness’s heartfelt tribute on a bronze plaque affixed to his friend’s grave mislabeled the date of the shipwreck.
But one truth — penned by Jeffrey at the end of his chapter about the life and legend of Jimmy Johnson — rang true: “The Screaming Swede died like he lived — wild and woolly and one heck of an Alaskan boatman.”