Road Tales – The Alaska Highway shootout of 1961

(Ed. Note: The following is from chapter four of Mickey’s unpublished stories written for family.
It is a true story and was reported in the news that year.)

In the spring of 1961, Mickey, co-worker (soon to be sister-in-law) Hazel Cole, Hazel’s friend Mel Isbister, and Gerry Braden, planned a trip to Whitehorse in Hazel’s 1961 Volkswagen Beetle. Gerry, an accountant who lived in Whitehorse, also owned Arctic Volkswagen, a dealership, and had sold the new car to Hazel several months previous. It was time for the required 1000-mile check-up, hence the trip to the “City.”

In the 60s, the Alaska Highway, though somewhat improved from its original construction in 1942, was still a winding, narrow, dusty, pot-holed, nasty road that claimed several lives each year. Whitehorse was a 300-mile trip and, in normal driving conditions, usually resulted in a seven or eight-hour journey. After four or five hours on the road, the foursome overtook a 1957 black Oldsmobile carrying three people. Attempts were made to pass the much bigger car, but the driver kept swerving into Gerry’s portion of the road, thwarting his efforts to go by. Finally, on a relatively straight stretch of the road, Gerry achieved his objective and the Beetle sped by the Oldsmobile.

After we had passed, I heard a popping sound from the rear and looking back was astonished to see a rifle poking out the passenger window of the black car and something that looked like a pistol on the other side. 

Hazel later said that my face went chalk white, so she knew we were in some kind of trouble. Gerry also saw the activity from the rear view mirror and accelerated. The Volkswagen was certainly no match for the Oldsmobile and it soon pulled alongside and passed with a few more shots fired as it left us in the dust. We were relieved to see the larger car speed away from us. Our relief was short-lived however. Cresting a hill we found the car stopped partially across the road and two men facing us, one with a rifle and the other with a revolver.

Loathe to stop in such a situation, Gerry pulled partway into the left-hand ditch and we went by. Just before passing, the older man of the two fired his pistol at us and the bullet entered our vehicle through the windshield, about six inches in front of my face.

I must have put my arms over my face prior to the firing of the bullet because suddenly there was a lot of blood running down my bare arms. Hazel and Mel were asking if I was injured, but I could not feel any severe pain, only a slight stinging from the glass fragments that had penetrated my arms. After we had carefully checked my upper body for a bullet wound and found none, Gerry said, “I think I’ve been hit!” When we looked at him, we were astounded to see blood gushing from his throat. The front of Gerry’s jacket, shirt and pants was literally soaked with blood and it was still streaming from his body. I removed Gerry’s tie, opened his shirt collar, and could see the tip of a metal object embedded in his throat. I folded a tissue and held it against the wound for several minutes and soon the heavy bleeding stopped. Gerry opened the vent window and directed air towards the wound, which seemed to congeal the blood.

While all this was taking place, Gerry was still driving the car and the Oldsmobile was again in pursuit of us. Again, the big car passed and swerved in front of us. Rather than collide with the passing vehicle we must stop or go into the ditch.

Gerry said, “Perhaps we can save the girls.” Fully believing that we were all going to be killed. Any thought of heroism was short-lived however as the two men were at our car before we could even open our doors. I had a rifle barrel stuck against my forehead and Gerry’s situation was similar. 

“What do you want?” Gerry asked.
“I just want you, you son of a bitch!” The older man replied. You broke my windshield!” 
He then saw all the blood and said, “My God, you’ve been hit!”
Gerry replied, “Of course I have, you shot me.”
“Well, go ahead, I’ll follow you,” said the older man, who we later learned was Mr. Hees. 
“No, you go!” Gerry said. 
The strangers ran back to the black car and sped away.

The inside of Hazel’s car looked like a slaughterhouse. The white headliner, instrument panel, floor, door panels, Gerry’s white shirt and my white t-shirt all had blood stains on them. The metallic smell of blood was nearly overpowering. Hazel, Mel and I offered to drive but Gerry insisted that he was okay and continued along the highway.

The experience began at about mile 845 on the Alaska Highway, north of Squanga Lake resort. However, seemingly much longer, it lasted for about one-half of an hour, while we traveled a distance of 20 miles or less. After the black car left us, we continued to the old Crystal Palace ledge and stopped there to ask if we could use the telephone. Hazel telephoned that RCMP, explained the situation, declined an ambulance, arguing that we could drive to Whitehorse in the same length of time it would take an ambulance to reach us. The Mounties immediately dispatched a squad car driven by Constable Royce Bates. With Gerry still at the wheel, we continued to Whitehorse. We met Royce 30 or 40 miles further along and he reported that he had not met any vehicle answering the description given him by us.

We later speculated that the Hees’ had turned around and come back looking for us with the thought of finishing us off. We were lucky that a tree belt screens Crystal Palace from the highway, so our attackers were unable to see us while we were making the telephone call. We quickly drove the remaining 60 or so miles to Whitehorse and the emergency room at the hospital. They immediately operated on Gerry, the staff having been alerted by the RCMP to expect us. The operating doctor advised us that Gerry was indeed a lucky man, the bullet missing his jugular vein by a very small fraction of an inch.

Weeks later, Mel and I were required to travel to Whitehorse to testify in court as witnesses to the shooting. We learned that the RCMP had caught the Hees near the Crystal Palace the same day as the incident and found several rifles, shotguns and pistols in the car. Occupants of the Oldsmobile included Mr. Hees, the father, his 18-year-old son, and 15-year-old daughter, with the son taking part in the altercation, but the girl staying out of it. (Sentencing of two years for Mr. Hees for “discharging a firearm with intent to wound” and the son was deported from Canada.)

Later that summer, the RCMP advised us that they had caught the son back in Canada with an “arsenal” of weapons, reportedly intent on breaking Dad out of prison. Hazel and I sometimes speculate that he may have been on his way north to finish the job his father started. The RCMP stopped him miles north of where his father was in prison.

Vanishing point in an invisible car

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