The Tale of a Fateful Trip Epilogue: 1978 (R)

Associated Press article October 17, 1978


(AP) — In a scenario worthy of author Daniel Dafoe, survivors of the ill-fated cruise of the SS Minnow were discovered on an uncharted Pacific island early Saturday evening by a deep-sea fishing crew.

The Minnow, an island-hopping charter boat, left Honolulu Harbor on September 24, 1967 and was presumed capsized during the rapid forma­tion of tropical storm Sherwood. A massive sea/air rescue effort failed to locate any trace of the vessel or its passengers save a smattering of debris. In a tragedy widely reported at the time, the boat’s two crewmen and all five passengers, including billionaire entrepreneur Thurston Howell III, his wife Eunice and movie actress Ginger Grant, were declared missing, presumably dead. Until three days ago, that is, when Captain Felton Gaertner of the SS Columbia’s Folly spotted a plume of smoke issuing from a green atoll not appearing on any of his ocean charts, 600 miles southeast of Hawaii.

“It was curiosity more than anything,” Gaertner said, “Cause enough for a look-see, but nothing more.”

Curiosity, so says Gaertner, turned quickly to surprise as his ship approached the atoll closely enough to see through his binoculars what appeared to be native dwellings and a campfire.

Gaertner’s tale continues, “There was a man on the beach, a skinny guy, and when we blew the ship’s horns, he waved back at us.”

Upon making landfall, Gaertner and his crew made the acquaintance of Willy Gilligan, 39, the first mate of the Minnow.

“A lot of what he said didn’t make sense,” Gaertner relates, “but we were able to figure out he wasn’t a native fisherman.”

Escorted by Gilligan to the campsite, Gaertner and his men made note of the rough-hewn huts and ingenious water-gathering apparatus all constructed from the island’s natural resources. Their arrival was then acknowledged by the Minnow’s captain, Jonas Grumby, 64; fellow castaway and Grumby’s common law wife, Mary Ann Summers, 34; and their two sons born since the shipwreck, Jonas Jr., 9, and William, 7; who cautiously approached Gaertner’s crew.

Says Gaertner, “It was a while before they would talk. Almost like they’d forgotten how. Once we figured out who they were, what ship they’d been on, we all were pretty stunned. I mean, these people had been here for fourteen years. They were barely dressed all in shreds of cloth, grass skirts and pigskin loincloths, wild-looking; the big guy in particular with the huge, bushy, white beard.”

Joel Manzari, crewman of the Columbia’s Folly and a pre-med student at Hawaii’s John A. Burns School of Medicine, gave the castaways a cursory examination. “Each of the survivors appears to be in excellent health apart from the usual markings of a hard, outdoor life. The Skipper (Grumby) does appear to have been badly burned at one point in the past but with no apparent effect past the scar tissue.”

The story of their survival, as related by Mr. Grumby, is a harrowing account of a collection of people from different walks of life struggling together against the elements in an unforgiving environment. It is also, sadly, a tale of lives lost to that struggle. According to the survivors, the Howells perished within months of their arrival from exposure, Ms. Grant died in an accidental fall in 1966 and Roy Hinkley, professor of organic chemistry at Van Nuys State University, was the victim of a shark attack a year later.

Though initially eager to tour Gaertner’s boat, Grumby and his family then seemed reluctant to sail back to Hawaii and an America that would likely welcome them back as heroes.

As witnessed by Captain Gaertner, “The woman, Mary Ann, she at first seemed interested in coming back with us, with her kids, but Grumby said no and he seems to speak for all of them.”

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