When the Eyes of the World Were on La Côte-Nord: The Adventures of a Paramount Newsreel Cameraman in Québec

Ray Ferns­trom

Fore­word, by Louis Pel­le­tier Uni­ver­si­té de Mont­réal and Ciné­ma­thèque québécoise

The fol­lo­wing first-per­son account of Ray Fernstrom’s 1928 event­ful jour­ney to Green­ly Island, Que­bec, is repro­du­ced from the now out-of-print Dare­de­vil Came­ra­man: The Saga of Ray “Swede” Ferns­trom, edi­ted by Bever­ly Ferns­trom and Rus­sell Ferns­trom (Raleigh, NC: Pent­land Press, 1997), 69–82.

Ray Ferns­trom was a Swe­dish-born came­ra­man wor­king for Para­mount News in the late 1920s. On April 12, 1928, he was dis­pat­ched in Mon­treal by his employer to film the flood devas­ta­ting the East End neigh­bou­rhood of Longue-Pointe (an event also recor­ded on an ama­teur 9.5mm reel from the Louis Pel­le­tier col­lec­tion1). While cele­bra­ting a suc­cess­ful assi­gn­ment at the Mount Royal Hotel the next day, he was infor­med that an aero­plane, the Bre­men, was in the pro­cess of attemp­ting the first cros­sing from East to West of the Atlan­tic. This was soon to be confir­med by a report that the Bre­men had just crash lan­ded a lit­tle after 1p.m., local time, on Green­ly Island, just off Blanc-Sablon in the Gulf of St. Lawrence.

This event coming less than a year after Charles Lindbergh’s legen­da­ry flight from Long Island to Paris was extre­me­ly news­wor­thy. It was even more sen­sa­tio­nal for news­reel pro­du­cers who, as docu­men­ted by Joseph Clark, exten­si­ve­ly relied on air­men for the pro­duc­tion and dis­se­mi­na­tion of their films, but also for content. Accor­ding to Clark, each U.S. news­reel pro­du­cer had for ins­tance deployed at least twelve came­ra­men to cover Lindbergh’s return to New York City on June 13, 1927.2 This heigh­te­ned inter­est for the exploits of air­men fos­te­red the fierce com­pe­ti­tion enter­tai­nin­gly des­cri­bed in Fernstrom’s tes­ti­mo­ny.3 An enga­ging sto­ry­tel­ler, Ferns­trom does not hesi­tate to des­cribe his rela­tion­ship with his arch enemy—Pathé News’ das­tard­ly Tom­my Hogan—as a “god­dam­ned war,” or to des­cribe him­self as a rat­tles­nake… Even Harold Ross’s New Yor­ker, which culti­va­ted an aloof atti­tude, publi­shed a piece on the repor­ters and newsreelmen’s race to the Bre­men entit­led, “The Bat­tle of Gree­ne­ly [sic] Island.”4

Fernstrom’s exci­ting race to Green­ly Island also reveals a world in which media and com­mu­ni­ca­tion net­works are increa­sin­gly inter­con­nec­ted. News­reel­men are seen clo­se­ly col­la­bo­ra­ting with news­pa­per repor­ters (the pho­to­gra­pher Eddie Jack­son in this par­ti­cu­lar ins­tance), while also exten­si­ve­ly relying on wire­less tele­gra­phy, radio, and the tele­phone for com­mu­ni­ca­tion. They also ope­rate in a shrin­king world in which indi­vi­duals from many dif­ferent back­grounds and ori­gins rub elbows: Ferns­trom, a Swede based in New York City, reaches the Cana­dian site where the Ger­man and Irish crew of the Bre­men is awai­ting rescue thanks to a fear­less and resour­ce­ful French-Cana­dian air­man, Roméo Vachon.

The ori­gi­nal figures repro­du­ced in Dare­de­vil Came­ra­man have also been aug­men­ted with a num­ber of docu­ments taken from contem­po­ra­ry film jour­nals and the spel­lings of some of the names have been cor­rec­ted. Fernstrom’s tes­ti­mo­ny has other­wise not been edited.

Fernstrom’s Story

Figure 1: Ray Fernstrom. Screenland (July 1928): 29. Source: Media History Digital Library.
Figure 1: Ray Ferns­trom. Screen­land (July 1928): 29. Source: Media His­to­ry Digi­tal Library.

Flyers, air­crafts, dis­tant flights, any­thing per­tai­ning to air­ships of any nature, and brea­king or set­ting records was big news. Lind­bergh had cau­sed the fever that had swept the world. More and more, far­ther and far­ther, and always fas­ter. The next big anti­ci­pa­ted sto­ry would be who would be the first to dupli­cate Lindbergh’s flight, but this time East to West, from Europe to the conti­nen­tal Uni­ted States, North Ame­ri­ca, where were more came­ras waiting.

Para­mount News, the eyes of the world, wasn’t a year old on the screen, but we had made signi­fi­cant inroads into the competition’s thea­ter accounts. We strug­gled to increase our cir­cu­la­tion, rea­ching for eve­ry chance to improve, expand our faci­li­ties, cap­ture sto­ries and hence the thea­ter busi­ness. Money, of course, was no hin­drance, but news could not be bought until it hap­pe­ned. Then it did.

My assi­gn­ment was to fly to Mon­treal, Cana­da where a flood had occur­red. I cove­red it by air, ship­ped back the film, then threw a par­ty for my pilot and delight­ful people we had met at the Mount Royal Hotel. It was in full swing when a tele­gram arri­ved from E. Cohen5. Two of our staff men in Ger­ma­ny, Stindt and Stoll, had been fol­lo­wing the acti­vi­ties of a pair of fliers there.

The pilots, Baron [Ehren­fried Gün­ther Frei­herr von Hüne­feld] and Cap­tain [Her­mann Köhl], had been pre­pa­ring a Jun­kers air­plane for a mys­te­rious flight and had added addi­tio­nal fuel tanks to it. This led the two news­reel­men to sur­mise that an attempt would be made to fly the Atlan­tic, which could bust into a big news sto­ry if they made it across.

The two pilots flew to [Bal­don­nel] Field, Ire­land, which assu­red our men of their intent, and added Major [James] Fitz­mau­rice to their crew. Came­ras and men were on full twen­ty-four-hour alert. I recei­ved a wire that read: “Remain Mon­treal, view pos­si­bi­li­ty Ger­man flyers flying Atlan­tic. Lan­ding somew­here Cana­da. E. Cohen.”

I imme­dia­te­ly got Cohen on the phone, and reques­ted expenses money. He wired a lot. The par­ty was over; back to busi­ness. Then ano­ther wire arri­ved: “Alert. Fliers en route. E. Cohen.”6

Now it star­ted. That alert was fol­lo­wed by a news explo­sion that has not been equa­led since. There was a pro­lon­ged buil­dup of sus­pense, dan­gers, silence, ima­gi­na­tion, delays, and extre­me­ly bad wea­ther. All the ele­ments nee­ded for wri­ters to build up the frus­tra­tions of a modern world. The two pilots were trying to reach the vast­ness of an unk­nown area without com­mu­ni­ca­tions, where only an air­plane could go.

Our news should have been bro­ken short­ly. “They made it!” But where? Where were the fliers and plane? Final­ly, some­how, word rea­ched the out­side world. They were on Green­ly Island.7 Where in hell is Green­ly Island? We found it on the map. It was on the coast of Labra­dor, Straits of Belle Isle. It had a ligh­thouse. Maybe the kee­per had a short-wave radio trans­mit­ter. In the exci­te­ment and the anxie­ty, I never found out. But news tra­vels fast, even by car­rier pigeon.

How could we get there? Who had a plane? I made a series of phone calls to all parts of Cana­da, Maine, New York, and found there were only two Fair­childs equip­ped with skis and owned by a lit­tle out­fit in Que­bec cal­led Cana­dian Trans­con­ti­nen­tal Air­ways. A com­pa­ny with a large name but only two planes!

The air­crafts were loca­ted at Lake Saint Agnes8, quite a dis­tance from Que­bec. The only way to get there was via a train, which was made up of a short haul with two cars and a bro­ken down steam engine.

When I arri­ved, I found the Fair­childs were cabin jobs with Radial Pratt & Whit­ney 423-hor­se­po­wer engines. News­men of all kinds had arri­ved at the Châ­teau Fron­te­nac, inclu­ding friends and com­pe­ti­tors. And with the heigh­te­ning ten­sions, friends became ene­mies and ruth­less com­pe­ti­tion began in dead­ly ear­nest. But I found a guy to confide in, for in our frus­tra­tions a com­pa­nion was needed.

Eddie Jack­son was a still pho­to­gra­pher, a real old troo­per, wise in the ways of cut-throat com­pe­ti­tion. Eve­ryone was trying to get those planes, so he and I deci­ded to pool our men­tal resources in an effort to get both of them. We deci­ded that he should go to Lake Saint Agnes and try to get us aboard at least one.

News arri­ved that Duke Schil­ler, the famous Cana­dian pilot, had alrea­dy taken off with one of the planes on a rescue effort over ice and snow, a thou­sand miles from the lake to a tiny spot in the middle of the Straits of Belle Isle. There went half our chances. Pouf! The pos­si­bi­li­ties of fin­ding the area were slim. It was a fro­zen sea with a lit­tle ligh­thouse in the middle, on a lone, unheard-of arc­tic dot.

Eve­ry minute, more and more news­men, pho­to­gra­phers, and news­reel­men arri­ved with eve­ry char­te­red plane or train, giving us ner­vous twit­ters. Eddie and I were no com­pe­ti­tion to each other. His stil­ls were for news­pa­pers and my reels for thea­ters, which made our pact rea­so­nable, and the only way to pro­tect each other’s inter­est was to be in two places—the lake where the lone remai­ning plane was loca­ted, and Que­bec where I would remain. My thin­king was to find the guy that owned the air­line, made the deci­sions, and control­led the aircraft.

He ran his busi­ness from his home, which I final­ly loca­ted. By now he had clam­med up and gone into hiding from the swarm of news hawks, vul­tures, eagles, and rabble that had des­cen­ded on Que­bec. It cost me real dough to see the frail French­man, but he had good cognac and was very gra­cious. Once I wor­med my way into his confi­dence and hidea­way, I hoped he would be plea­sed to have one friend for com­pa­ny. Howe­ver, I was as much a friend as a rat­tles­nake because by that time life itself had paled when com­pa­red to the big scoop that was in eve­ry newsman’s imagination.

My first job was to call the boss from the phone han­ging on the wall. When I ente­red the Frenchman’s home, I wan­ted to rush for com­mu­ni­ca­tion with my boss, but became as cagey and calm as pos­sible. I tur­ned on my best charm for that plane and phone, saying my job was at stake and my wife was expec­ting a baby at any moment, trying to gain his sympathy.

I got New York on the phone. “Keep someone on your end from now on. By all means!” I ins­truc­ted. “I have a slim chance of get­ting the only trans­por­ta­tion avai­lable. Wire me ten thou­sand dol­lars at this address, fast. I’ll be right back, don’t go away.” I retur­ned to the old Frenchman.

“Swede,” he said, after much prod­ding, “Hearst has bought and confir­med one seat in that plane, which has room for only four pas­sen­gers, in addi­tion to the pilot and the mecha­nic.” Then he added that the other three seats were bought and confir­med, except for one that Pathé News­reel had pur­cha­sed but had not yet confir­med by wire, for five thou­sand dol­lars. Dai­ly News had one seat. That meant Eddie Jack­son was in. Asso­cia­ted Press of Cana­da had the other, confir­med. I had one chance—Pathé’s seat. I rushed back to the phone.

“Mr. Cohen, get eve­ry son-of-a-bitch and girl to wire me here, hun­dreds of tele­grams. Tie up the wire ser­vice! Pathé hasn’t confir­med the last seat on the plane. I’ll do the rest. Get ’em going as fast as you can!” Now I went to work, plea­ding with my new French friend. I laid five thou­sand on the table, asking, beg­ging. How long would I have to suf­fer this tor­ture? Where is Pathé, any­way? Why wasn’t someone here for them, like I am for Paramount?

Final­ly, the door­bell rang. I ran to ans­wer. He tried to stop me, but I told him to pour us a drink. The tele­graph mes­sen­ger han­ded me a bunch of tele­grams. I rip­ped one open. It was a confir­ma­tion from Para­mount News, which I stuck in my pocket. He ope­ned all the others; all from Para­mount. I asked to use his type­wri­ter, and wrote out a contract as best as I could, in duplicate.

Then a thought struck me. How would we fly over two thou­sand miles of wil­der­ness, snow, ice, and open sea without gaso­line? I asked him about that.

“Oh, we have gaso­line cached all the way to Labra­dor, for we are trying to get an air­mail route flying up the coast in the spring.” It was now April.

“How much do you have sta­shed all the way?” He told me. “I’ll buy it, eve­ry last drop!” But he was too smart for me.

“Not until you have a seat on the plane.”

“How long are you going to make me wait for Pathé?” I ques­tio­ned. He final­ly agreed on six o’clock p.m.. It was now five-fif­teen, and the tele­grams kept arri­ving. I glad­ly obli­ged at the door, sho­ving tele­grams under rugs, seat cushions, behind the pia­no, anyw­here I saw a chance.

Six o’clock arri­ved, and we shook hands. I signed, he signed, then we both swig­ged a well-ear­ned drink. I wrote ano­ther contract, han­ded it to him, and with a sly smile on his face, he sold me eve­ry drop of gaso­line the com­pa­ny owned that was cached or at Lake Saint Agnes, which thwar­ted any and all competition.

The French­man pho­ned for a train to the lake, char­te­red the loco­mo­tive and one pas­sen­ger car, and I made him go with me to make sure there were no hitches, because he owned the whole setup and gave orders.

When I got off the train, I knew Pathé’s man would be there, so I hired a few lum­ber­jacks for body­guards, for no one in our busi­ness at that time took any chances. The four I hired were mean, tough hombres, and I paid them twen­ty buck each; ten now, ten when I boar­ded the plane. “Watch me, my equip­ment, and my film,” which during those hec­tic hours had been sent from New York by way of a char­te­red plane Cohen had kept as a stand­by in Quebec.

No wil­der gang ever assem­bled like that at the lake air­port on the ice for one lone ski-equip­ped Fair­child. Roméo Vachon, our pilot, was a fine, tough guy who could easi­ly have been a lum­ber­jack.9 He had steel-blue eyes and an easy grace about him that was reas­su­ring. He had flown the was­te­lands many times, and it sho­wed on his face. He wore an amu­sed “what’s all the exci­te­ment about” expres­sion. “Yes, I think I can find the way,” he assu­red us. And I felt better.

Among the ear­ly mor­ning crowd, ange­red and frus­tra­ted com­pe­ti­tors wat­ched as two news­pa­per men, one still pho­to­gra­pher, and one news­reel­man clim­bed aboard. I was glad I had given my body­guards the ten spots, as they had loyal­ly elbo­wed eve­ryone out of the way while I lug­ged my came­ra to the Fairchild.

Figure 2: Fairchild Model 71 of the type Swede and Vachon flew to Greenly Island on the big “Scoop.” It was fitted with skis for the venture. Source: Daredevil Cameraman.
Figure 2: Fair­child Model 71 of the type Swede and Vachon flew to Green­ly Island on the big “Scoop.” It was fit­ted with skis for the ven­ture. Source: Dare­de­vil Came­ra­man.

He skim­med fast and smooth over the ice and snow of Lake Saint Agnes as we took off into the wild unk­nown. Thanks to the Almigh­ty, none of us knew what lay ahead. We no soo­ner rea­ched the cor­rect alti­tude when the air got rou­gher than hell. “What’s up?” I asked Roméo.

“Oh, this is nor­mal. It’ll be like this quite often,” he explai­ned. As I retur­ned to my seat, I noti­ced the two repor­ters. They loo­ked green. So I whis­pe­red to Eddie, if one can whis­per in a noi­sy Fair­child. “Eddie, let’s talk about those two bas­tards off the plane when we land if there’s a place for them to stay.” They were air sick. Eddie and I had the sto­machs of goats and did not feel the trip, but their ill­ness would be a way to get rid of them.

“I’ll ask Roméo,” he volunteered.

Roméo had plan­ned our first over­night at a place cal­led Seven Islands [Sept-Îles]. He said there would be a dog sled there to meet us when those on the ground spot­ted the plane over the vil­lage. There was also a Hudson’s Bay store, accom­mo­da­tions, and a tele­graph ope­ra­tor. This would be the last civi­li­za­tion before we rea­ched our des­ti­na­tion, Labra­dor and Green­ly Island.

At the first oppor­tu­ni­ty, Eddie asked rhe two green-faced repor­ters if they would like some grea­sy pork for a snack. The looks on their faces told all. I think they wan­ted to die, so we sug­ges­ted they stay at Seven Islands, as we good guys would bring them back the sto­ry. We remin­ded them that we had three more days of rough air ahead, and they agreed to our sug­ges­tion. What would they write about any­way? We could bring them back all the sto­ries they nee­ded. Eddie explai­ned that he had been a news­pa­per repor­ter before beco­ming a still pho­to­gra­pher and pro­mi­sed them the world; human inter­est, side­lines, the works. No need for them to go on. Stay at Seven Islands. We fed them sicke­ning sug­ges­tions of food, like the one about the guy who had the stron­gest sto­mach in a contest. The chap won at break­fast when he ate a mou­th­ful of oat­meal, puked it up into his dish, and went on eating it. That did it! The two repor­ters couldn’t wait to get off the plane, and wouldn’t think of flying ano­ther mile with us cra­zy bastards.

Roméo Vachon slip­ped the plane, then leve­led off for a smooth lan­ding. “All hands to work,” he yel­led, and he meant labor. First, we had to fold up the hin­ged wings, then drain the oil from the engine, dig deep holes in the ice for tie-downs, tie her down, cover the engine with a can­vas hood, unload our stuff, and then came the dog teams. Pilot, mecha­nic, cans of oil, lug­gage, and three of us on one sled, three on the other. I stayed with Roméo and the mecha­nic, for Roméo was a tho­rough­ly expe­rien­ced bush mail pilot, with plen­ty of rough wea­ther and ter­rain flying time. [Georges Ouel­let] was the mecha­nic, a capable, willing man of twen­ty-one years.

Vachon knew what we were doing to the repor­ters and was hap­py to lose their weight in the plane. He even hel­ped out by offe­ring infor­ma­tion that the air was sel­dom as calm as we had expe­rien­ced. That encou­ra­ged our dead-weight pas­sen­gers to do their repor­ting from a nice warm haven on Seven Islands. Then I whis­pe­red to Roméo to fill them in on the hazards ahead. He told of the bad wea­ther, fog, and rough air, with the only refuge being scant Indian vil­lages, etce­te­ra. The repor­ters spoke with sled dri­vers and the store kee­per at the Hudson’s Bay Coma­ny and were fur­ther filled with the hor­rors of the vast snow coun­try that lay ahead up north. If we had heard the yarns spun or read the news accounts these two excellent repor­ters sent out to the world during the days and nights we were gone before our return to pick them up, we wouldn’t have gone on the flight either, and that includes Vachon, for ima­gi­na­tion is far worse than fac­tual experiences.

While we were at Seven Islands, Duke Shiller’s plane arri­ved from Green­ly Island with the Irish­man, Major Fitz­mau­rice. They had come to help the Bre­men and rescue the stran­ded fliers, and nee­ded fuel to get to Lake Saint Agnes. This, of course, would com­ple­te­ly ruin me, and wreck all of Para­mount News’ chances for the big­gest scoop of them all. This would have been okay with me, except for the pre­vious arri­val of my arch ene­my, Tom­my Hogan, in a nif­ty lit­tle Waco plane.

Since the birth of Para­mount News, our kee­nest, most resent­ful and com­pe­ti­tive news­reel had been Pathé News (sees all, knows all), and of all the thorns in my side, Tom­my Hogan was num­ber one. And I know it was mutual. If the two reels were com­pe­ti­tors, we two guys made it a per­so­nal feud. Feud, hell—a god­dam­ned war!

When our boss for­med Para­mount News he took Pathé people with him, which inclu­ded all but Tom­my Hogan, whom he had left behind. Tom­my was jea­lous because we got more sala­ry. Now, here he came, cra­shing my free-rei­gn par­ty, and arri­ving with his old flying bud­dy Bob Fogg. Bob was a New England pilot of great abi­li­ty, daring and experience.

“You in charge of this exclu­sive sto­ry, Swede?” he asked. His “exclu­sive sto­ry” soun­ded like the hiss of a dia­mond back rat­tler, the son-of-a-bitch! We both shot the arri­val of Shiller’s plane with our Ake­leys10, then the exo­dus from our sis­ter ship, and I shud­de­red with fear that all were aboard. Thank God, only Duke, the Major, and the Duke’s mecha­nic had arri­ved. The stran­ded pilots had opted to stay with the Bremen.

Figure 3: Fernstrom with his Akeley camera. American Cinematographer (December 1930): 17.
Figure 3: Ferns­trom with his Ake­ley came­ra. Ame­ri­can Cine­ma­to­gra­pher (Decem­ber 1930): 17.

We com­ple­ted the cove­rage joint­ly, for now he had cut into my cake. Some­how I had to get the film back to Lake Saint Agnes and thwart Tom­my. I knew he was sche­ming to screw me, too. But I held the aces—gasoline.

Fogg tried to get Vachon to give him gas, but Vachon explai­ned that I owned all the fuel. Score one. Vachon told me Fogg had deci­ded to use casing head gas which he could pur­chase at the Hud­son Bay store. But Roméo told him he wouldn’t fly fif­ty miles without bur­ning up his valves and cra­shing. Tom­my plea­ded with me to give him gas.

“Give you gas to kill my sto­ry? Hell no! You bas­tard!” I thought if I gave them gas they would fly north, but Tom­my wan­ted no more. He swore that he, Fogg, Duke, and the Major would head for Lake Saint Agnes, and agreed to take my film with them if I’d give them the gas to fly the two planes south for the sake of the Ger­man pilots’ lives. I wei­ghed the values. Fitz­mau­rice was not the sto­ry; the Bre­men and the fliers were, and that was ano­ther day’s flight north to Labra­dor, and they couldn’t fol­low. So I agreed.

So they all flew south, Tom­my and Fogg in the Waco and Duke, the Major, and the mecha­nic and my film in the Fair­child. But unk­nown to me, Duke also was an old bud­dy of Tommy’s, and he faked a for­ced lan­ding which allo­wed Tom­my to get to Lake Saint Agnes first with his film and a beat of my Seven Islands cove­rage. The sli­my bunch of bas­tards. I would never do any­thing like that! I can ima­gine the reac­tion at Para­mount News head­quar­ters. I’m glad I was in the icy was­te­lands and knew naught the­reof.11

Ear­ly the next day, Roméo and Georges were up hea­ting the engine oil while we ate. Then eve­ryone got onto the sleds. A chan­ged appea­rance had taken place with the four of us who were to fly. I had bought a par­ka, hea­vy mat­ching wool pants, a pair of muk­luks, big flying boots, a beret, a huge knife and hol­ster, and sun goggles and used film tape to make slits across the lat­ter to prevent snow blind­ness. Eddie was dres­sed in equal­ly dra­ma­tic fashion.

This was all old hat to Vachon and Ouel­let, “Away, dogs. Mush!” After the sled ride to the plane, the pre­pa­ra­to­ry work began in ear­nest. First we loa­ded the gear aboard, remo­ved the engine hood, and pro­cee­ded to heat the engine with two blow torches. Then the warm oil was pou­red in, and the engine star­ted. While the plane war­med, we unfol­ded the wings, and locked them into place. Then Vachon repla­ced the mecha­nic, who sat in the pilot’s seat, rev­ving the engine while the rest of us tried to break the air­plane skis from the ice. Once that was accom­pli­shed, Vachon taxied in circles, smoo­thing the crus­ty ice and the bot­tom of the skis for takeoff. Then we all clim­bed aboard and waved good-bye to the repor­ters who had so gal­lant­ly ligh­te­ned the plane’s load. But it wasn’t long before we felt they were the lucky ones, as we were enve­lo­ped in hea­vy fog.

Vachon flew high then low sear­ching for a way out. He didn’t want to crash, so out to sea he hea­ded, trying in vain to get out of the mess. We spent hour after hour in the thick hea­vy fog. Sud­den­ly, a bank see­med to open up. Eddie felt his rosa­ry, which had been bles­sed by the Pope, and belie­ved his prayers had been ans­we­red. Our spi­rits soa­red. Then, wham, into ano­ther mess. We flew far­ther and far­ther out to sea, clim­bing to find clear sky. Gas was dan­ge­rous­ly low. The only cache within our esti­ma­ted reach was in a lit­tle Indian vil­lage cal­led [Nata­sh­quan]. The out­look grew dar­ker. It began to snow. First light­ly, then thick and heavy.

Vachon esti­ma­ted he had gone far enough out to sea to miss any moun­tains, so he hea­ded land­ward. If we ran out of gas, we had a bet­ter chance on ice than water. Care­ful­ly, he began a des­cent, while all eyes sear­ched ahead. Then a light ope­ned in the blin­ding snows­torm. A dark patch. “Open water!” shou­ted Vachon, as the day waned fast, our fuel exhaus­ted. Snow and fog ahead, water below.

Sud­den­ly, the dark patch of water was repla­ced by the eerie gray of snow cove­red ice. “We’ve rea­ched the shore,” Vachon cal­led out. A slight clea­ring, and Roméo deci­ded now was the time to land. But just as we were about to touch down, there was water again. He gun­ned the Fair­child into a slow turn, and set­tled into a cal­cu­la­ted final approach as the engine quit, com­mit­ting us to land.

Eddie prayed there would be no more water. Our right ski just mis­sed a large chunk of ice, then mira­cu­lous­ly the wea­ther clea­red to a magni­ficent flat field of ice, and we gli­ded toward a per­fect lan­ding while Roméo exclai­med, “Look!”

We saw them. Low Indian huts, black as ink against the snow and ice. A few dark spots moved. “Indians!” we shou­ted. “God bless them!” The plane slid to a well-ear­ned stop. More Indians. We were sur­roun­ded. They had heard but could not see us. They had also heard about our flight on the radio, and of course the sto­ries our two intre­pid repor­ters were pain­ting from Seven Islands. It seems they, too, were in the middle of a bad storm, a day’s flight back.

Vachon sho­wed us a stick he had used to mea­sure gas. Not a drop!

“Has anyone got a drink?” I asked. They did, and we drank, then fol­ded the air­plane wings, drai­ned the oil, per­for­med the whole rou­tine, then reti­red to our limi­ted accom­mo­da­tions on a floor. But it was warm, com­for­table, and inter­es­ting, as it was the kit­chen, town mee­ting hall, and radio lis­te­ning post. We heard over the air­waves in utter ama­ze­ment the sto­ries of our flight. It sca­red the hell out of us, almost as much as the real thing had. But the warm cof­fee, spi­ked with anti­freeze of course eased our cares.

We had an Indian send-off that top­ped Lindbergh’s from Cur­tiss-Roo­se­velt Field. He had one lone repor­ter, Russ Bird­well, and his crew, while we enjoyed hun­dreds of wild­ly chee­ring Indians, who hel­ped us refuel from my pri­vate cache, the Indians hel­ped us with the warm oil, etce­te­ra, and off we went through the day, mono­to­nous­ly, over the moun­tains, snow fields, huge rocks, until once again we were aware of the dwind­ling gas sup­ply. And still no Green­ly Island.

“We should be there by now,” Vachon infor­med us, not reas­su­rin­gly. Lower went our gas sup­ply, and the panic flag was flying in our chests once again, when Georges spot­ted the two red flags on the ice, then the island with the lighthouse.

Vachon ban­ked and dove, then I spot­ted the cra­shed Ger­man Jun­kers plane, the Bre­men, lying flat, behind a stone hedge near the ligh­thouse. All was excitement.

“Bank this way, Roméo,” I shou­ted as I shot pic­tures. “Now, over there, now here, stea­dy,” then we lan­ded, sli­ding fast over the ice mar­ked by the two red flags.

I knew they thought we were there to rescue them ins­tead of just making pic­tures, and we sure as hell didn’t tell them any dif­ferent. We put on a great show. Eddie and I gree­ted them with open arms as rescuers. But the whole idea was strict­ly pic­tures, our life’s blood.

Figure 4: Newspaper clipping of the big story. Photo, adapted from Ray’s newsreel, shows Greenly Island as taken from the Fairchild. Note the credit lines at the bottom. Source: Daredevil Cameraman.
Figure 4: News­pa­per clip­ping of the big sto­ry. Pho­to, adap­ted from Ray’s news­reel, shows Green­ly Island as taken from the Fair­child. Note the cre­dit lines at the bot­tom. Source: Dare­de­vil Came­ra­man.

The Ger­mans trea­ted us as if we were guests in their homes in Ger­ma­ny ins­tead of stran­gers. We took our first series of pic­tures, then sto­wed our equip­ment on a dog sled, and all wal­ked up to the ligh­thouse keeper’s home, where we met our char­ming hosts. This was a gathe­ring of people from the three cor­ners of the world, toge­ther in a strange sort of void. A tru­ly dream world, com­ple­te­ly away from the life we knew. A cold, lone­ly island in an unk­nown was­te­land. So for­bid­ding, but dra­ma­ti­zing how our twen­tieth cen­tu­ry was gro­wing up. Civi­li­za­tion was stret­ching its fin­gers into unk­nown areas of mother earth, like our lit­tle group stan­ding there in 1928, and some­how eve­ryone knew we were friends, and that was right.

We shot pic­ture in eve­ry cate­go­ry of our work—human inter­est, the ligh­thouse kee­per, his wife, kids, pets, and the whole kit and caboo­dle with the Ger­man fliers, then more of the Bre­men and the flyers, sho­wing the island people their fabu­lous ship. We shot eve­ry angle, eve­ry news idea, eve­ry side­line of our yarn, until Eddie and I ran out of film. Only one thing remained—souvenirs. We asked the flyers and people who lived out there to write lit­tle mes­sages about the lan­ding of the Bre­men.

Now it was time to get the hell out of there in time to reach [Nata­sh­quan] before dark. We took off with our pre­cious film. I don’t know to this day if the Ger­mans thought we were there to rescue them or not, but we were news­men and conclu­ded that they had figu­red us out and went along with the game, for we wan­ted them there on the ice while we retur­ned with our pic­tures and the scoop.

Ger­mans are smart people, and when I look back I don’t think they wan­ted to leave their Bre­men, their won­der­ful craft, that had so capa­bly car­ried them to the lit­tle haven on the North Ame­ri­can conti­nent. They had sent Duke and the Major for help to save the plane, but what kind of help God only knows, for no one could fly that plane off the island. It would have taken too many people and much equip­ment to repair her, then get it down on the ice for a takeoff—equipment that was next to impos­sible to get to the island. But those hard-hea­ded krauts stayed with their ship like good cap­tains, and with that thought we were off a lit­tle reluc­tant­ly because by this time we had all become good friends. But news­reel trai­ning took over. “Get the pic­tures; to hell with your­selves. Don’t get invol­ved. Get the god­dam­ned pic­tures, and get them back!” And with that thought, as we flew home, we dum­ped eve­ry drop of gas left in each cache to kill any slight chance of competition.

We picked up the repor­ters at Seven Islands, and there was no need for them to ima­gine any­more. We had our pic­tures, so we lived up to our pro­mise and gave them the vivid ones to write about, eve­ry detail. That night while we slept, they stayed up and wired eve­ry iota of what we had told them, as if they had been on the mis­sion. This kept the news hot in the out­side world. The dra­ma­ti­za­tion they gave was won­der­ful. Howe­ver, had they been along, their weight and ours would have fini­shed the job in the waters off [Nata­sh­quan].

We were a jubi­lant crew as we flew south from Seven Islands. One long, safe and sound, hop to Lake Saint Agnes, with not a drop of gas behind us. It was mine, so why not dump it?

We ran into trouble. That frig­ging fog, all around us! No use flying back for gas. Roméo sear­ched for a clea­ring, then final­ly ban­ked. He saw a clear ope­ning, a pas­ture in the snow beside a farm­house with smoke cur­ling from a chim­ney. Life! “Pull up your feet!” Vachon yel­led. “We’re going to crash.” And in panic, up came our legs. We hit, then came the scree­ching of the skis, and silence. He cut the old Pratt & Whit­ney, and clim­bed out to check the damage. He had lan­ded okay, but we had struck what Vachon fea­red was a stone hedge. But it tur­ned out to be a woo­den one, and we had shea­red off a stump that had been part of the structure.

We stood as the dark­ness moved in, night on our heels. Where were we? Final­ly a few people appea­red. They had never seen an air­plane on the ground before, and we had never met people like them; simple in one word, plain in ano­ther. They were nei­ther friend­ly nor help­ful, but inter­es­ted in giving us a res­pect­ful wel­come, as though we were cele­bri­ties. Of course, we did not ful­ly rea­lize what radio had been tel­ling these folks. Where were we?

A beau­ti­ful, young school tea­cher ans­we­red for the lit­tle French pro­vin­cial parish, “[Sacré-Cœur-de-Sague­nay],” and you can still find it on the map today. I am cer­tain no one in our par­ty had ever seen a stran­ger group on the Ame­ri­can conti­nent. I loved that lit­tle school tea­cher from the moment I saw her, and couldn’t take my eyes off her.

We were shown to the parish leader’s home, where we all gathe­red in the kit­chen-living room, appa­rent­ly a mee­ting place for the whole vil­lage because all came to view these people from ano­ther pla­net. Inter­pre­ters were about, and the parish priest spoke Engligh; other­wise we would have felt we had lan­ded in France. They spoke a strange tongue that even Vachon and Georges had trouble with, but they became very hos­pi­table, and we were now gree­ted by eve­ry sould.

We washed up, were fed, then infor­med that there would be a dance in our honor. I nud­ged Roméo. “How the hell does one get a drink around here? I need one.”

“I do too.” He went over to the boss man and pret­ty soon after I had given Vachon a few bucks, someone left the room steal­thi­ly as the music star­ted. A vio­lin blen­ded with an accor­dion, flute, and a har­mo­ni­ca in a haun­ting sound, but with a very good dance beat. I loo­ked across at the school tea­cher and felt that old yearn to dance. I asked Vachon if it was the pro­per thing to do. He, in turn, asked the head man, and someone left the par­ty again. Then the dance star­ted. By this time we had some fine Cana­dian whis­key to go with our host’s Horse Blanch ale, and eve­ry­thing began to look almost natu­ral to us. Final­ly, in ans­wer to my request to dance, a mes­sen­ger retur­ned to talk to the head man, who nod­ded to Roméo, and I got my wish. We dan­ced and dan­ced, and later went for walk in the moon­light and found a com­for­table hay-filled barn. Ooh la la! C’est magni­fique, c’est si bon, and vive la France!

They didn’t talk much, very serious people, but…

We had trouble slee­ping that night. Vachon had che­cked eve­ry­thing on the plane, so our thoughts went back to Lake Saint Agnes, won­de­ring what had gone on during our absence of four or five days. I had lost count. My fear was that someone had found a way to get to the flyers, but knew that was impos­sible with the gas situa­tion, and felt bet­ter. But I wor­ried anyhow.

Before dawn, Vachon and Ouel­let awa­ke­ned us, saw to it that we had a good break­fast, then after the oil and wing rou­tine and all the chee­ring and waving from the vil­la­gers, we rea­ched once again for the clouds. It was a rela­ti­ve­ly short flight to Lake Saint Agnes and on the approach we obser­ved the scene below with unbe­lie­ving eyes. I had expec­ted some­thing, after recei­ving a wire at Seven Islands, which said: “Fer­vent­ly hoping for a scoop. Good luck. E. Cohen.”

But below, on the ice, we saw the stran­gest of sights. There was a long dark line, like an air­craft lan­ding strip, and at one end stood a black mono­plane, prop spin­ning. I fea­red it was a com­pe­ti­tor wai­ting to ruin my lead, hoped for scoop, and exclu­sive pic­tures I had. Many other ships were around the plane, mid hun­dreds or people scat­te­red about the han­ger and offices nearby.

Roméo Vachon cir­cled, leve­led smart­ly, tou­ched our skis down to a per­fect lan­ding, and taxied up to the black air­craft. I had the door to our plane open and the maga­zine case with the pre­cious film in my hand. “Mac” Mac­Kean, our assi­gn­ment edi­tor, came run­ning for all he was worth, as I jum­ped out.

Figure 5: The original photograph of “Swede” Fernstrom as he first steps off the Fairchild at Lake Saint Agnes. Notice Paramount’s assignment editor MacKean grabbing the film magazine and racing to the awaiting black monoplane for the non-stop flight to the lab in New York. The film screened that night. “Scoop.” Source: Daredevil Cameraman.
Figure 5: The ori­gi­nal pho­to­graph of “Swede” Ferns­trom as he first steps off the Fair­child at Lake Saint Agnes. Notice Paramount’s assi­gn­ment edi­tor Mac­Kean grab­bing the film maga­zine and racing to the awai­ting black mono­plane for the non-stop flight to the lab in New York. The film scree­ned that night. “Scoop.” Source: Dare­de­vil Came­ra­man.

“Where’s the film, you son-of-a-bitch?” he shou­ted, hug­ging and ban­ging me on the back. He grab­bed the maga­zine, then raced to the big black mons­ter with wheels, not skis. That explai­ned the dark run­way we saw from the air. The snow had been scra­ped clear, lea­ving a smooth strip for the hea­vi­ly loa­ded plane. Two men hung onto the struts, and within seconds the pilot rev­ved the engine to the maxi­mum, while the men tried to hold back the air­craft, as it broke loose in a blast and cata­pul­ted far down the run­way, trying des­pe­ra­te­ly to become air­borne. Final­ly, just when it loo­ked as though it would crash, the pilot pul­led fier­ce­ly on the stick and the plane slow­ly, gra­dual­ly gai­ned alti­tude then swung about and hea­ded straight south to New York.

I asked one of the men what that was all about. He explai­ned that Mac­Kean had brought the plane from the States, the cabin was cram­med full with five-gal­lon gas cans of avia­tion fuel, and had ins­tal­led a waddle pump, so he could refill the plane’s tanks in flight.. The aim was a non-stop flight to New York with my film. I found out later that only once did they see the ground, and that was not until they were near New York’s Cur­tiss Field. I stood there, sud­den­ly alone on Lake Saint Agnes, fee­ling com­ple­te­ly defla­ted. Roméo Vachon came over to me. “Come here, Swede. I want to show you something.”

We wal­ked over to our plane, and he poin­ted up to a sec­tion of the fuse­lage where the big engine was moun­ted. Then I saw it. A quar­ter inch of sky sho­wed bet­ween the two sec­tions. Ano­ther few minutes and we could have lost our motor and cra­shed. “God!” I whis­pe­red. “Thank you, God.”

Eddie Jack­son wal­ked up to me. “How are you going to get back to New York, Swede?” I hadn’t given it a thought. “Let me fly you with us to Hart­ford, Connec­ti­cut. There, you can make arran­ge­ments to get back to New York.”

Eddie’s office had sup­plied him with a large cabin plane, so I flew with him to Hart­ford, where we bid each other fare­well for a job well done, and he took off in his Waco. I pho­ned E. Cohen col­lect, from the airfield.

“Char­ter a plane, and land at Cur­tiss, Long Island. We’ll have some boys meet you,” he ins­truc­ted. And that’s what I did. We lan­ded at Cur­tiss, where I was sur­pri­sed to see our guys shoo­ting pic­tures of me and the plane. It hadn’t daw­ned on me that during the flight to Green­ly Island and back, our expe­di­tion had become such impor­tant news. The sus­pen­se­ful buil­dup the two repor­ters had wired home had made our trip exci­ting reading.

Then I heard about all their efforts, the pre­pa­ra­tion for our arri­val at Lake Saint Agnes with the film, and to hell with me and my came­ra. The pic­tures were the inter­est. That’s all Mac wan­ted. Poor Mac! I guess he waddle pum­ped his war from Que­bec to New York, and almost pas­sed out by the time they lan­ded at Cur­tiss where Al Richard, assis­tant edi­tor, grab­bed the maga­zine case of film, jum­ped into and Ire­land amphib, flew to the Hud­son River, hop­ped into a speed­boat, then a motor­cycle with a side­car and a police escort, up the wrong way of a one-way street, West For­ty-third, and direct­ly to our office lab.

While tal­king to Cohen on the phone in Hart­ford, I had read off all the cap­tions for the film to him, so the titles were rea­dy by the time Al got there and within an hour thea­ters all over Man­hat­tan had our pic­tures, our scoop.

Then came the sur­prise of a life­time for Eddie and me. While we were gone, it seems the Asso­cia­ted Press (AP) and my boss had got­ten toge­ther and agreed to coope­rate so AP could have still pho­tos made from my nega­tives. Some­thing I had never heard of, as AP had never had pho­tos of films before nor shown inter­est in them until this sto­ry broke. Cohen, ever alert for any­thing that would build up Paramount’s pres­tige, had agreed to sup­ply them with my stuff.

Eddie Jack­son had made a fast retreat to Gover­nors Island and his office, but there throu­ghout a spe­cial issue of his own news­pa­per, were my pic­tures, prin­ted hours before Eddie’s arri­val. He gazed in dis­be­lief at his paper and the cre­dit lines. “Para­mount News—Associated Press Photos.”

That was the birth of the great Asso­cia­ted Press/newsreel coope­ra­tion and my pal Eddie hasn’t spo­ken to me since. I don’t blame him. Even had I known it, which I didn’t, I pro­ba­bly would have double-cros­sed him any­way, for that’s how fierce the com­pe­ti­tion was among us bas­tards in that gol­den era of news gathering.

Mr. E. Cohen cal­led me on the car­pet when I sub­mit­ted the expense account for that trip, but he signed it, and gave me a fif­teen-dol­lar-a-week raise and a five-hun­dred-dol­lar bonus. The fol­lo­wing mor­ning, he asked me where I had been the night before?

“Out doing the town.”

“Well,” replied Cohen, “you lost five hun­dred bucks, because I tried to get you to make a per­so­nal appea­rance at the Para­mount.” That one scoop became a spe­cial issue with Para­mount News, and it ran in thea­ters all over the world until final­ly my old friend, Bernt Bal­chen, in a Ford Tri-motor equip­ped with skis, could go to Green­ly Island and bring the Ger­man fliers to civi­li­za­tion and a Broad­way ticker tape parade.

Para­mount News recei­ved a whop­ping amount of money from the news­reel accounts of our suc­cess­ful expe­di­tion, close to a mil­lion dol­lars, which was a lot of money in those days. Now our news­reel was num­ber one, and eve­ryone was hap­py. This meant we had to fight even har­der to stay on top.

Figure 6: Autographed edition of a Paramount News periodical congratulating Ray for his “splendid work.” Source: Daredevil Cameraman.
Figure 6: Auto­gra­phed edi­tion of a Para­mount News per­io­di­cal congra­tu­la­ting Ray for his “splen­did work.” Source: Dare­de­vil Came­ra­man.
Figure 7: Film Daily (22 April 1928): 6-7. Source: Media History Digital Library.
Figure 7: Film Dai­ly (22 April 1928): 6–7. Source: Media His­to­ry Digi­tal Library.

  1. The ama­teur 9.5mm reel is avai­lable at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6MgH1xAstTk.

  2. Joseph Clark, News Parade: The Ame­ri­can News­reel and the World as Spec­tacle (Min­nea­po­lis: Uni­ver­si­ty of Min­ne­so­ta Press, 2020), 20–25.

  3. Accor­ding to Film Dai­ly: “Pathé News was first to bring to New York views of any of the air­men, obtai­ning shots of Major Fitz­mau­rice on Seven Islands. Fox News had been first in with views of the rescue pre­pa­ra­tion at Mur­ray Bay. Fri­day (April 20), Para­mount News elec­tri­fied New York with pic­tures taken on Gree­ne­ly [sic] Island.” Motion Pic­ture News also lists issues of the MGM News and Inter­na­tio­nal News news­reels with Bre­men foo­tage. “News­reels Bask in New Light of Popu­la­ri­ty,” Film Dai­ly (23 April 1928): 1, 4; “News­reel Resume,” Motion Pic­ture News (28 April 1928): 1349.

  4. “The Bat­tle of Gree­ne­ly Island,” The New Yor­ker (28 April 1928): 15.

  5. Emma­nuel “Jack” Cohen, head, Para­mount News news­reel. Cohen had for­mer­ly been mana­ging edi­tor of Pathé News until 1927, when he had been recrui­ted by Para­mount to launch the company’s new news­reel. News­reel his­to­rian Ray­mond Fiel­ding cre­dits him for the “speed, qua­li­ty, and scope” of the orga­ni­za­tions he direc­ted. See: Ray­mond Fiel­ding, The Ame­ri­can News­reel, 1911–1967 (Nor­man: Uni­ver­si­ty of Okla­ho­ma Press, 1972).

  6. Von Hüne­feld, Köhl and Fitz­mau­rice took off at 05:38 GMT from the Bal­don­nel Aero­drome, near Dublin, on April 12, 1928. “Bre­men (Air­craft),” Wiki­pe­dia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bremen_(aircraft) (last acces­sed 2 Janua­ry 2022).

  7. Loca­ted a few kilo­me­ters off Blanc-Sablon, Green­ly Island is now a bird sanc­tua­ry.

  8. Loca­ted about ten kilo­me­ters inland bet­ween Baie-Saint-Paul and La Mal­baie, and now known as Lac Nairne.

  9. Roméo Vachon (1898–1954) is one of the most accom­pli­shed avia­tion pio­neers in Cana­dian his­to­ry. Born in Beauce to a large far­ming fami­ly, Vachon joi­ned the Royal Navy as an engi­neer during the war, and then the Royal Cana­dian Air Force in 1920. After obtai­ning his com­mer­cial pilot license in 1923, he wor­ked as a bush pilot doing fire patrols and pho­to­gra­phic work over remote areas and mail ser­vice for Lau­ren­tide Air Ser­vice, the Onta­rio Pro­vin­cial Air Ser­vice and, by 1928, Cana­dian Trans­con­ti­nen­tal Air­ways. He became in 1938 Super­in­tendent of the Eas­tern Divi­sion of Trans-Cana­da Air­lines, and then sta­tion mas­ter of the new Dor­val air­port in 1940. Vachon also contri­bu­ted to the Bri­tish Com­mon­wealth Air Trai­ning Plan during the Second World War. In 1944, he was nomi­na­ted on the Cana­dian Air Trans­port Board and par­ti­ci­pa­ted to the Chi­ca­go Confe­rence that led to the crea­tion of the Inter­na­tio­nal Civil Avia­tion Orga­ni­za­tion, whose head­quar­ters were esta­bli­shed in Mon­treal. Sources: “Joseph Pierre Romeo Vachon,” Canada’s Avia­tion Hall of Fame, https://cahf.ca/joseph-pierre-romeo-vachon/ (last acces­sed 2 Janua­ry 2022); “Roméo Vachon,” Wiki­pe­dia, https://fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rom%C3%A9o_Vachon (last acces­sed 2 Janua­ry 2022).

  10. Desi­gned by US natu­ra­list Carl Ake­ley in the 1910s, the Ake­ley came­ra incor­po­ra­ted a gyro­sco­pic tri­pod head pro­du­cing smooth pans and tilts, a view­fin­der sys­tem pai­ring the lens used for cine­ma­to­gra­phy with a second auxi­lia­ry lens inte­gra­ted to the non-reflex view­fin­der (both lenses were ins­tal­led upon a single sli­ding plate that could be chan­ged in a few seconds), and a cylin­dri­cal shut­ter with a 230° ope­ning. It also used 200-foot maga­zines that could be pre-loa­ded and repla­ced in about ten seconds. These unique fea­tures made it the favo­rite of explo­rers, docu­men­ta­ry film­ma­kers (Robert Fla­her­ty famous­ly used it for Nanook of the North [1922]), and news­reel came­ra­men in the late silent era.

  11. In “The Bat­tle of Gree­ne­ly [sic] Island,” The New Yor­ker indeed cre­dits Tom­my Hogan for brin­ging “the first pic­tures of Fitz­mau­rice to town”.