The Heroic Rise and Tragic Fall of “The Screaming Swede” – Part 1

AUTHOR’S NOTE: I would like to thank Peggy Arness for access to her historical files and the Resurrection Bay Historical Society for access to its archive of old Seward diaries. It would have been impossible to tell this story so completely without their support.

In late July 1958, near the end of the commercial sockeye salmon season in Cook Inlet, Jimmy Johnson took the time to throw a little party offshore.

According to a report three days later, Johnson’s drift boat, the Tony, was moored to the Gulf Stream and Ceylon fishing vessels and was anchored in front of the Kenai Packers cannery on the lower Kenai River.

Partying with Johnson on the Gulf Stream were his operators, Walt and Bed Soule, along with Walt and Kathy Johnson from Ceylon. At one point, the almost certainly inebriated Jimmy Johnson attempted to return to the Tony but failed to properly navigate the transition.

From the August 2 Anchorage Daily Times: “The four (other revelers) said that as Johnson left the Gulf Stream, he missed his skiff and got into the water. … He disappeared and was never seen again.

His body was found almost three weeks later, apparently entangled in a gillnet on Salamatof beach north of Kenai. He was buried on September 3, and news reports and gossip of the time offered only convoluted and partial notes regarding his personal history.

In fact, there was general agreement on just these four things: (1) Despite his ignominious demise, Jimmy Johnson had been extremely good at watercraft of all kinds. (2) His bravery and skill more than a decade earlier had helped save at least 100 shipwreck survivors. (3) His nickname was “The Screaming Swede”. (4) He was a loud, boisterous partier and heavy drinker.

The research

James William “Jimmy” Johnson had been through a lot in the 38 years before his death, and he had left a lasting impression on many of the lives he touched along the way. One of the admiring individuals he had crossed paths with was James Victor “Jim” Arness of Nikiski.

During World War II, Arness and Johnson had both been members of the United States Army Harbor Craft Company operating between Resurrection Bay and the Aleutians, tasked with commanding electric barges to transport goods from freighters and ships of transport. It was hard and demanding work in waters that were often stormy and, in many cases, poorly charted or not charted at all.

In the late 1990s – more than half a century after the end of the war – Arness, then 70, began a quest to find his old friend’s grave.

He knew how and where Johnson died, and he began his search with the premise that Johnson had been buried in Kenai. However, the two James Johnsons listed in the “Kenai Area Totem Tracers Cemetery and Memorial Inscriptions” in the Kenai Peninsula borough of Alaska did not meet the criteria Arness sought – first and foremost, a date of death of July 30, 1958.

Kenai town officials confirmed his findings: The Jimmy Johnson he was looking for was not buried in Kenai or anywhere else on the peninsula. Where were the remains of his friend?

Jim Arness was a difficult man to dissuade. He wrote letters. He read clippings from old newspapers. He did a lot of investigating and digging around until in 2001 he found the answers he was looking for and was ready to do something about the answers he didn’t like.

Johnson’s home at the time of his death had been difficult to pin down. The Anchorage Daily Times at the time of his death said he was “from near Cordoba and is survived by his wife, Annie Ponchee. He is believed to have a daughter living in Sitka. The certificate Johnson’s death certificate, however, listed him as “divorced” and a Times article about his funeral stated that “no member of Johnson’s family lives in Alaska”.

Elsewhere he would have been a resident of Seward and Seldovia. There was also a mention of a house in Kodiak.

In recognition of the heroism of Jimmy Johnson’s sinking in 1946, the Alaska Steamship Company had arranged and paid the bill for his funeral, which had been set for Anchorage, with interment at Angelus Memorial Park.

After the body was recovered in mid-August, U.S. Commissioner Stanley F. Thompson had signed a permit authorizing its transfer by the Alaska Territorial Patrol from Kenai to Anchorage.

In 2001, more than 40 years after Johnson’s burial, Arness was dismayed to learn that Johnson’s remains lay in an unmarked grave.

Arness had envisioned a marker indicating Johnson’s military service, with special notice regarding the lives he had saved. Instead, the identity of the person buried in Space 180, Lot A3, of the Garden of Devotion in Angelus Memorial Park, could only be determined by cemetery records.

Arness determined to rectify the situation.

A receipt issued by the cemetery on August 6, 2001 shows that Arness used personal check #1320 to purchase a bronze plaque for $940 (and pay other lesser expenses) to adorn the grave of James William Johnson.

The plaque – illustrated with an oval portrait of the ship whose passengers Johnson had helped rescue, but also containing factual errors – reads:

SGT. JIMMY JOHNSON “THE SCREAMING SWEDISH”

HARBORCRAFT US ARMY ALASKA

OCT. 5 1919 — JULY 30, 1958

CAPTAIN OF BSP511 (ARMY), A HERO WITH 400 PASSENGERS AND CREW

ON BOARD THE WRECKED STEAMER YUKON EAST OF SEWARD JAN. 26, 1946

The wreckage of the SS Yukon

Officials noted scattered snow squalls in parts of Resurrection Bay at 4:20 p.m. on February 3, 1946, when the steamer Yukon left the port of Seward and headed for Seattle, with scheduled stops at Valdez and Cordova. . On board were 496 people – 372 passengers and 124 crew members, including a number of military personnel and civilians from Fort Richardson in Anchorage.

Skippered that day by Captain Christian E. Trondsen, the SS Yukon was a common sight for Sewardites, having made its maiden voyage to Alaska in late May 1924. Built in Philadelphia in 1899, the Yukon was 360 feet long and 50 feet wide. It weighed 5,746 tons and had an estimated value of $1.25 million.

Like many servicemen aboard on February 3, the ship had played an important role in the recently concluded world war. She had been requisitioned, along with 16 other Alaska Steamship Company ships, by the War Shipping Administration and had been repainted gray as camouflage during her tour of duty. In fact, it was still under government control and still painted gray at that time.

The weather deteriorated badly as the ship left the bay and headed for Prince William Sound. Winds increased and blowing snow reduced visibility considerably. Captain Trondsen found it increasingly difficult to navigate and be certain of his coordinates. He knew it was possible the ship had been blown 3 to 7 miles off course.

To alert other ships that they could not see into the storm, the crew sounded the ship’s whistle every few minutes. Then, just after 4 a.m., the SS Yukon struck rocks off Cape Fairfield, on the west side of Johnstone Bay, west of Montague Island and about 10 miles from Cape Puget, about 35 miles east of Seward.

Informed that the ship’s hull had been breached, Captain Trondsen ordered the Yukon to be beached. He hoped that driving the ship higher on the rocks would stabilize it and prevent it from sinking.

A Yukon distress call was received in Ketchikan, Kodiak and as far away as Honolulu, and was relayed across the territory via the Alaska Communications System. The distress call indicated that the captain was unsure of his position, his ship was aground, and the ship was being hammered by huge icy waves.

But his situation was even more serious.

At some point during the night, the SS Yukon began to break in two.

TO BE CONTINUED

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