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Extreme Survival Tales

For most of us going on an afternoon hike or spending a lazy weekend at a developed campground is as close as we’ll ever get to roughing it in the wild.

Sadly, we’ll never sleep in caves, suffer the rigors of hypothermia, eat grubs or resort to drinking our own urine while nursing a festering compound fracture.  

On the other hand, some unfortunate folks – like the ones on this list – were thrust into truly epic survival situations due to planes crashing, boats capsizing, world wars, and of course good old fashioned car crashes.

Let’s take a closer look at each. 

Steven Callahan

Steven Callahan
Steven Callahan by North Yarmouth Academy is licensed under CC-BY

In late 1981 28-year-old tinkerer, sailor and adventurer Steven Callahan climbed aboard a sailboat he’d personally designed and built and set out what would become one of contemporary history’s most enduring tales of ocean survival. 

At just 21 feet (6.5 m) the Napoleon Solo was tiny by any standards, but Callahan planned to pilot it to distant ports in England, Bermuda, Spain and the Canary Islands.  

After an uneventful trans-Atlantic voyage with a friend, Callahan entered a solo sailing race from Penzance, England, to Antigua, but along with other boats he dropped out off the coast of Spain due to damage resulting from harsh weather and heavy seas.  

Callahan made repairs and continued his journey down the coast to Portugal, Madeira and the Canary Islands, eventually departing in late January of the following year for Antigua, but a week out in a fierce gale the Napoleon Solo’s hull was punctured after contact with an unknown object, which Callahan later insisted was a whale.  

The boat became inundated with water but didn’t sink thanks to the watertight compartments Callahan had designed into the craft for just such occasions. 

However, conditions aboard were unmanageable, and Callahan set out on an inflatable 6-person life raft that measured just six feet (1.8 m) across. 

He tethered it to the Napoleon Solo and made several trips between the two to retrieve supplies like a sleeping bag, cushions, first aid kit, navigation charts, a spear gun, flares, an ocean survival manual and a solar still.

Shortly thereafter a rogue wave tore the tether and Callahan drifted away into the great expanse moving westward with the prevailing winds and current. 

After exhausting the meager food supplies he’d salvaged from the sinking sloop, Callahan survived by spearing mahi-mahi, scavenging barnacles from under his liferaft and collecting flying fish that landed inside at night. 

Ironically, an ecosystem had evolved around the castaway’s lonely vessel, and it probably saved his life.  

He collected drinking water from two solar stills, which with the rain water he captured usually produced a pint of water or more per day.

Callahan also had an EPIRB (Emergency Position-Indicating Radio Beacon), but at the time they weren’t monitored by satellites, and due to the area’s vastness he knew being spotted by aircraft, passing ships and even dedicated rescuers was unlikely – if in fact anyone was looking for him at all. 

Though during the ordeal he spotted nine ships and fired off numerous flares, none were seen. 

To pass the time he forced himself to stay busy even when things seemed hopeless. 

He exercised, made water round-the-clock, fished and rigged makeshift shelters to protect himself from wind, sea spray and the blinding sun, while simultaneously dealing with marauding sharks, raft punctures, physical deterioration and mental anguish.  

Then in mid-April of 1982 he spotted twinkling lights on the island of Marie Galante southeast of Guadeloupe. 

The following day – his 76th at sea – he was picked up by fishermen who’d spotted the bevy of birds flitting over his raft. 

During his 2+ months in the open raft, Callahan lost nearly a third of his body weight, and his skin was covered with welts, sunburn and sores caused by constant contact with saltwater. 

He was taken to a local hospital for an afternoon, but left that evening and spent the following weeks recovering while hitching rides with local boats traveling to nearby islands. 

Callahan’s remarkable story has been featured on a number of survival television programs, yet since the incident he’s made dozens of similar passages and more than a few ocean crossings, on most of which he was accompanied by other crew. 

All told, he drifted nearly 2,000 nautical miles (3,500 km) across the open ocean – what he refers to as the greatest wilderness in the world.  

Describing the sensation of laying in his raft at night staring up at the stars, he said it was “a view of heaven from a seat in hell.”

Juliane Koepcke

Juliane Koepcke
Juliane Koepcke by Cancillería del Perú is licensed under CC-BY-SA

Born in Lima, Peru in 1954, Juliane Koepcke’s German mother and father worked at the city’s Natural History Museum as biologists, but when she was 14 the family moved to a remote research station in the Amazon rainforest. 

By all accounts Koepcke became the consummate “jungle child,” whiling away her days often unsupervised learning survival techniques and studying local plants and animals, though she eventually returned to Lima to attend high school. 

In late 1971 her mother made the journey back to Lima to collect her and planned on the two of them returning to the research station on December 20, but Koepcke implored her to postpone departure until after December 23 so they could attend her graduation ceremony. 

In a fateful decision, her mother agreed and purchased two tickets for a flight on Christmas eve with Líneas Aéreas Nacionales S.A. (LANSA), the national airline with a less than stellar safety reputation. 

In fact Koepke’s father had urged the pair to delay their return until a flight could be found on a different airline, though they ignored his warnings. 

After an uneventful takeoff, the 4-engine Lockheed L-188 Electra turboprop airliner was struck by lightning during a thunderstorm, after which according to investigators it broke into multiple pieces before falling to the ground 2 miles (3.2 km) below. 

Out of 92 onboard including passengers and crew, Koepcke, still strapped onto her seat, was the sole survivor, but she suffered serious wounds including deep lacerations, a broken collarbone and a right eye that was swollen shut. 

Koepcke’s first priority was to find her mother who had been seated next to her, but her search proved unsuccessful. 

She later learned that her mother had also survived the crash, but perished a few days later from her injuries. 

Surviving on candy she found strewn around the crash site, Koepcke located a creek and began following its course as her father had taught her to do, since heading downstream almost always led to civilization. 

After ten days, she discovered a rickety boat moored near a small shelter and poured gasoline from its tank on her wounds that had become infested with maggots. 

She spent the night in the shelter, but hesitated to take the boat because she didn’t want to steal it, but the following morning she was found by village fishermen and shortly thereafter a local bush pilot flew her to a regional hospital where she was eventually reunited with her father. 

After recovering from her injuries Koepcke assisted search parties in locating the crash site and recovering the bodies of victims, her mother among them. 

Koepcke’s unlikely survival has been studied carefully, and it’s largely believed that the row of three seats – of which she’d been in the middle – had acted as a parachute that had slowed her fall, and that the chairs beside her and the thick foliage on which she’d landed may have dampened the impact.  

Koepcke eventually moved back to Germany to study biology, and ultimately earned a doctorate before returning to Peru to study bats. 

For her autobiography, When I Fell from the Sky released in March of 2011 for she received the Corine Literature Prize.

Koepcke’s story has also been featured in a number of dramatic and documentary films, one by famed director Werner Herzog who joined her on a trip to the crash site during production, which she described as “a kind of therapy.” 

Hiroo Onoda

Born on March 19, 1922 in a rural village in south-central Japan’s Wakayama Prefecture, at 18 Hiroo Onoda enlisted in the Imperial Japanese Army as the Second World War loomed.  

Onoda trained as an intelligence officer, and in late December of 1944 was sent to the Philippine island of Lubang where he was ordered to do whatever he could to thwart an Allied invasion, including blowing up the small air strip and scuttling the pier. 

Onoda’s orders also forbade surrender and suicide, even if being overrun was imminent. 

Upon landing on the island he joined forces with a group of soldiers already there, but despite their best efforts Philippine and American forces retook Lubang in late February of 1945, and Onoda and his surviving compatriots fled to the hills. 

After just a few weeks Onoda and three others were the only soldiers that hadn’t surrendered or been killed or captured, and he was the senior officer. 

Though survival itself was a fulltime job, the group carried out numerous guerilla raids that included burning the villager’s rice, pilfering food, killing livestock and attacking fishermen and farmers, and they had numerous shootouts with the local police as well. 

But by late 1945 the war was officially over, though Onoda and his comrades were unaware that Japan had surrendered. 

Meanwhile American planes dropped leaflets informing them that the war had been over since October, but the wary survivors thought it was propaganda, and feared they’d be killed in a trap if they surrendered. 

Later more leaflets were dropped, this time with an actual surrender order printed and signed by Army general General Tomoyuki Yamashita. 

To the men who had been in hiding for more than half a year, the leaflets were still suspect, and after close inspection they determined that they weren’t genuine and again ignored pleas to surrender. 

However there was dissension in the group, and one of the soldiers did leave and surrender, but not until 1949. 

Then again In 1952, letters and family pictures were dropped from an aircraft urging them to surrender, but the three soldiers concluded that this too was a trick. 

Over the next few years the groups situation became even more dire, and gun fights with indignant locals, fisherman and police became more common, and another member of the group was killed in the early ‘50s and another in the early ‘70s, until Onoda was the only one left, nearly three decades after the cessation of hostilities. 

Then in early 1974, Onoda was visited by an eccentric Japanese traveler who’d come to the Philippines specifically to find him, and after just four days on the island he did just that.  

According to Onoda, the young man was a hippie who asked why he wouldn’t come out, surrender and return to Japan.  

The two became friends, but Onoda still refused to give himself up, claiming that he’d never been officially relieved of duty by a superior officer. 

The young man returned to Japan with photographs of himself and Onoda as proof of their encounter, and the Japanese government tracked down Onoda’s commanding officer, Major Yoshimi Taniguchi, who had retired and become a book merchant.  

Taniguchi went to Lubang Island, and in mid-March of 1974 finally met with Onoda and fulfilled a promise he had made back in 1944 – “Whatever happens, we’ll come back for you.”

Onoda was regarded as a hero, but he shunned the limelight and donated the large sum of money the government gave him for his efforts to a local shrine. 

Instead, Onoda set about writing an autobiography, which he titled, No Surrender: My Thirty-Year War.

Though the book was well received, a Philippine documentary crew who’d interviewed residents of Lubang discovered that he’d left out a few important details, like that he and his compatriots had killed nearly three dozen innocent people after the war had ended.

Nonetheless he was officially pardoned by Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos in a televised ceremony, but the Japan he eventually went home to was much different than it was when he was growing up, and he lamented the shift away from traditional values. 

Angela Hernandez

Angela Hernandez survive from accident
Angela Hernandez

In early July of 2018, 23-year-old Angela Hernandez disappeared while driving her Jeep Patriot from Portland, Oregon to Lancaster, California to visit relatives. 

The 940 mile trip should’ve taken just a few days, but after swerving to avoid an animal in the road near Big Sur she careened over a cliff and crashed into the boulder-strewn beach more than 200 feet (60 m) below.  

Hernandez later recounted that she remembered little more than seeing the animal, but that when she woke later she was still strapped into the crumpled SUV, covered in blood, in excruciating pain, and that the driver’s window was still rolled up and water was lapping at her knees.  

Hernandez unfastened her seatbelt and was able to break the side window with a heavy multi-tool that somehow hadn’t been jettisoned during the descent. 

She then crawled out, fell into the water and waded until she reached the shore before passing out. 

When she woke hours later it was still daylight, and only then did she piece together what’d happened. 

But despite still being alive, the view from her vantage point wasn’t particularly encouraging. 

She saw nothing but ocean, rocks and the unscalable cliffs, and though she could hear and even see vehicles on the road above, she knew the likelihood of the occupants seeing her or hearing her screams were slim at best. 

Hungry, sunburned, dangerously dehydrated, suffering from internal and external wounds, and clad only in tattered clothes and torn socks she began the hopeless task of searching for help after lapping water from mossy rocks on the cliffs.  

Above, unbeknownst to her, Hernandez had been reported missing by her family when she’d failed to turn up at the appointed time. 

The Monterey County Sheriff’s Office disclosed that she’d been last seen by a highway surveillance camera on Highway 1 near Big Sur, but heavy fog had moved into the area adding another challenge for first responders, and even foul play wasn’t ruled out.  

Meanwhile Hernandez passed the days in pain hiding from the blinding sun, at night dreaming about being rescued, even seeing the faces of her would-be saviors. 

Then with her situation worsening by the minute, she was found by an outdoorsy couple who often hiked and explored along the coast. 

Chad and Chelsea Moore were shocked at the shape of the Jeep, but didn’t see any blood, though they were sure they’d find a body since they assumed there couldn’t possibly be any survivors. 

The couple walked up the beach collecting items that had spilled from Hernandez’s car and eventually found her lying amongst the rocks. 

When she saw the couple, she first thought it was just another dream.

Chelsea went for help while Chad stayed with Angela until rescue teams arrived, roped down a stretcher and lifted her to safety before whisking her to a nearby hospital. 

All told the ordeal lasted for seven days and Hernandez suffered from a fractured collarbone and ribs, a brain hemorrhage and a collapsed lung, the latter two of which could’ve been fatal.

Not surprisingly, Hernandez and her rescuers have become friends, and despite her injuries she’s made a nearly complete recovery. 

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