Authors: Mitchell Zuckoff
For Suzanne, Isabel, and Eve
HIS BOOK TELLS
two true stories, one from the past and one from the present.
The historic story revolves around three American military planes that crashed in Greenland during World War II. First, a C-53 cargo plane slammed into the island’s vast ice cap. All five men aboard survived the crash, and their distress calls triggered an urgent search. Next to go down was one of the search planes, a B-17 bomber, stranding nine more men on the ice. Finally, a Coast Guard rescue plane called a Grumman Duck vanished in a storm with three men aboard while trying to save the B-17 crew.
For nearly five months, through the Arctic winter of 1942–1943, survivors and their would-be saviors fought to stay alive and sane in the most hostile environment on earth, clinging to life in snow caves and the tail section of the B-17. As the war raged on, America’s military tried to rescue the icebound men by land, sea, and air, sometimes with fatal results. When hope seemed lost, a legendary aviator from the early days of flight devised a half-mad plan to land a seaplane on a glacier.
I learned about these events while hunting through newspaper archives for hidden treasures: stories that once captivated the world, only to fall through the cracks of history. After too many brassiere ads to count, I came across a 1943 series of newspaper articles titled “The Long Wait,” about the crew of the wrecked B-17. Intrigued, I dug deeper, collecting declassified documents, maps, photographs, interviews, and previously unknown journals, seeking critical mass for a book.
Along the way, I stumbled upon a loose-knit society of men and women determined to locate the Grumman Duck’s resting place and to bring home the remains of the three heroes it carried. Driving that effort was a tireless dreamer named Lou Sapienza, a photographer-turned-explorer who dedicated himself physically, financially, and emotionally to finding the frozen tomb of three men he knew only from faded photographs. Through Lou and his cohorts I met families who’d been waiting nearly seven decades for the return of their lost loved ones.
I also connected with Duck-devoted Coast Guardsmen who believed that all hands should be present and accounted for, one way or another. One in particular, Commander Jim Blow, committed himself with the same fervor he once gave to his work as a search-and-rescue pilot. Soon I realized that I couldn’t tell the full story of the three crashes without also writing about the modern mission of the Duck Hunt.
In the summer of 2012 I joined Lou, Jim, and their combined civilian and military teams on a remote glacier in Greenland, where we experienced the world’s unfinished attic firsthand. Together we used cutting-edge technology, an overlooked military crash report, and a yellowed treasure map complete with an X to solve one of the last mysteries from World War II.
Although written as a narrative, this is a work of nonfiction. As explained in my note on sources, I took no liberties with facts, dialogue, characters, details, or chronology. Because the story moves between past and present, date markers such as “November 1942” and “October 2011” signal which tale is being told. Also, the historical story is written in past tense, while the modern story is in present tense.
I played a role in the Duck Hunt, and I appear in the book, but it isn’t about me. It’s about ordinary people thrust by fate or duty into extraordinary circumstances, one group in 1942 and another group seventy years later. Separated by time but connected by character, their bravery, endurance, and sacrifices reveal the power of humanity in inhumane conditions. I hope I’ve done them justice.
1942, at a secret U.S. Army base on the ice-covered island of Greenland, a telegraph receiver clattered to life: “Situation grave. A very sick man. Hurry.” The message came from the crew of a crashed B-17 bomber, nine American airmen whose enemy had become the ruthless Arctic.
Two and a half weeks earlier, while searching for a missing cargo plane, the crew’s Flying Fortress had slammed against a glacier in a blinding storm. Since then, the men had huddled in the bomber’s broken-off tail section, a cramped cell in a prison of subzero cold, howling winds, and driving snow. Guarding them on all sides were crevasses, deep gashes in the ice that threatened to swallow them whole. Some crevasses were hidden by flimsy ice bridges, each one like a rug thrown over the mouth of a bottomless pit.
One crew member had already fallen through an ice bridge. Another struggled to keep from losing his mind. A third, the “very sick man,” watched helplessly as his frozen feet shriveled and turned reddish black, the gruesome signature of flesh-killing gangrene.
Their only hope was that someone would answer their distress calls, tapped out in Morse code over a battered transmitter rebuilt by their young radio operator. His frozen fingers curled in pain each time he hit the telegraph key: “Dot-dot-dot-dot; dot-dot-dash; dot-dash-dot . . .”
HREE DAYS LATER,
in the predawn darkness of November 29, 1942, John Pritchard Jr. and Benjamin Bottoms lay sleeping in their bunks aboard the U.S. Coast Guard cutter
. The ship rocked gently at anchor in an inlet on Greenland’s southeastern coast, a place known to the Americans as Comanche Bay. As the United States neared the end of its first year in World War II, the
and other ships on the Greenland Patrol kept a lookout for German subs, ferried soldiers and civilians to U.S. bases, and watched for icebergs in shipping lanes.
But when the need arose, they set aside routine jobs for their highest calling: rescue work. They risked their lives and their ships to save sailors lost at sea and airmen whose planes had crashed on the huge, largely uncharted island. Other military branches were America’s swords and spears; the Coast Guard was its shield. John Pritchard and Ben Bottoms embodied that mission as pilot and radioman of the
’s amphibious plane, a “flying boat” called a Grumman Duck.
THE U.S. COAST GUARD CUTTER
DURING WORLD WAR II. ITS AMPHIBIOUS PLANE, THE GRUMMAN DUCK, IS FAR RIGHT.
(U.S. COAST GUARD PHOTOGRAPH.)
The downed cargo plane that had set the search effort in motion remained lost, each day bringing its five crew members closer to death by cold, starvation, or both. But the nine marooned men of the B-17 bomber crew had been spotted, about thirty miles from Comanche Bay as the Duck flies. The question was how to rescue them from a glacier booby-trapped with crevasses. John Pritchard had an answer. His plan had worked once already, and he intended to put it—along with himself, Ben Bottoms, and their Duck—to a far greater test this day.
Pritchard and Bottoms scrambled out of their bunks and into their flight suits, insulated shells that discouraged the cold but couldn’t defeat it. After a fortifying breakfast, they climbed into the Duck’s tight tandem cockpit. Pritchard, twenty-eight years old, an ambitious lieutenant from California, sat up front at the controls. Bottoms, twenty-nine, a skilled radioman first class from Georgia, sat directly behind him. Fur-lined leather helmets sat snug on their buzz-cut heads. Goggles shielded their eyes. Heavy gloves held their hands.
As they belted themselves in, Pritchard and Bottoms could glance west to see the deceptively beautiful island, a massive white moonscape left over from the last ice age. Beyond a fringe of gray-black rock at the coastline lay hundreds of thousands of square miles of unbroken frost. If they’d had time for reflection, the contrast between Greenland’s enormous ice cap and their peculiar little plane might have inspired an adaptation of the Irish fishermen’s prayer: “Dear God, be good to me. The sea is so wide and my boat is so small.”
If Pritchard or Bottoms had doubts, neither showed it. To the contrary, their
crewmates thought the Duck’s masters appeared eager to get going. In fact, they moved with purpose bordering on urgency; the sun shone for fewer than five hours a day this time of year near the Arctic Circle, and the two Coast Guard airmen hoped to make not one but two round-trips between the ship and the B-17 crew before darkness returned.
Adding to their rush, as well as their risk, the weather was deteriorating. Snow was falling, and a veil of fog was closing in. At eight o’clock in the morning, visibility was a generous twenty miles. Soon it would be less than four miles. By noon, the snowstorm would be in full force and the sky would be a grayish-white shroud. Visibility would be less than one mile and dropping fast.
The Duck hung from heavy ropes suspended over the
’s deck. The ropes supporting the Duck were attached to a sturdy steel pole called a boom. At Pritchard’s signal, the
’s crew swung that boom out over the ship’s side, to lower the plane and its men into the frigid bay. The ropes unspooled, their pulleys rattling with complaint, as the Duck moved foot by foot closer to the greenish water.
Pritchard and Bottoms steadied themselves as the Duck splashed down next to the ship, then bobbed like its feathered namesake. It was 9:15 a.m.
LTHOUGH EVERYONE ABOARD
knew the plane as the Duck, its formal name was the Grumman model J2F-4, serial number V1640. Thirty-four feet long, fourteen feet high, with a wingspan of thirty-nine feet, the Duck was roughly the size of a school bus. It looked as though it had about the same chance of getting airborne. Even pilots who loved it said the Duck handled with all the grace of a milk truck. Its nickname came from its looks and its mallardlike ability to take off and touch down on either water or land. Because it was slow, awkward, and looked like a collection of spare parts, wise guys called it the “Ugly Duckling.”
Pritchard and Bottoms’s craft had double wings similar to those of a World War I biplane. Mounted under its narrow silver-gray fuselage was a long metal pontoon that resembled an oversize surfboard. To some, the big float looked like the swollen bill of a Disney duck, adding more justification for the nickname. Smaller floats shaped like miniature torpedoes hung under the tips of each lower wing. A nine-cylinder, eight-hundred-horsepower engine spun a single three-blade propeller. The Duck’s maximum speed was listed as 192 miles per hour, but pilots called that a joke. Maybe, they said, if it was headed straight down at full throttle.
A GRUMMAN DUCK SIMILAR TO THE ONE FLOWN BY JOHN PRITCHARD AND BENJAMIN BOTTOMS FLIES OVER GREENLAND.
(U.S. COAST GUARD PHOTOGRAPH.)
Beneath the Duck’s cockpit was a cramped compartment in the fuselage designed to fit a few boxes of cargo or two grown men. Pritchard and Bottoms had stripped the space to its bare essentials so they might squeeze in three or possibly four survivors. Before strapping himself into the rear cockpit, Bottoms had placed two hastily built stretcher-sleds in the otherwise empty compartment. The sleds were to be used to haul B-17 crew members too hurt or too weak to hike from the wreck to a relatively flat, crevasse-free stretch of ice more than a mile away, where Pritchard intended to land. The crewman with ice-block feet would certainly need a sled ride to reach the plane. So would the one with a broken arm and frozen toes. Those two men were the priority passengers on this day’s rescue plan.
As they prepared for takeoff, Pritchard and Bottoms were buoyed by the knowledge that, although dangerous in untold ways, their mission was possible. The previous day, they’d made a similar round-trip between the ship and the glacier, returning with two less seriously injured men from the B-17. One had frostbitten feet, the other had broken ribs and frostbitten toes, and both were thin and haggard. But now the two rescued airmen were sipping hot coffee, eating all the soup they could stomach, and being pampered in the
’s sick bay.
The Duck’s deliverance from its shipboard nest to the rolling sea happened regularly, but this morning it drew special attention from the 130 officers and enlisted men aboard the
Many lined the rail to watch, their breath making vapor clouds in the crisp, salty air. Every man among them knew what the Duck’s crew had already accomplished. They also knew where the Duck was headed, and why. Their presence on deck was the way they showed appreciation and paid respect. They wanted to bear witness to the best among them, two men on their way to becoming legends.
ITH THEIR AUDIENCE
rapt, Pritchard and Bottoms detached the rope umbilical cords and set the Duck free. Pritchard set the Duck’s propeller to the “climb” position. He adjusted the air-fuel mixture, primed the engine, hit the starter, and ran through the final items on the preflight checklist. He reached to his right to engage the water rudder, then taxied away from the mother ship.
When he reached an open stretch of Comanche Bay to use as a runway, Pritchard disengaged the water rudder and pulled back on the control stick. He pressed his gloved left hand on the round ball atop the throttle lever, moving it smoothly forward. The engine roared a throaty rumble in reply. The Duck gained speed, bouncing from one wave crest to the next across the choppy water, each impact rattling the bones of its pilot and radioman. A fountain of white spray foamed behind the Duck’s tail. A V-for-Victory-shaped wake pointed back toward the
Pritchard jostled the control stick forward and back as he searched for the sweet spot, the proper position for takeoff. With each move of the stick, he fought to keep the Duck’s nose level as the plane’s speed approached fifty miles per hour. Making the task harder was the fact that forward visibility from the pilot’s seat in a Duck is almost zero. Pritchard had to perch high in the cockpit and crane his neck to see in front of the plane, or turn his head from one side to the other to gauge whether he risked colliding with a stray bit of iceberg riding low in the water.
About a quarter-mile from the ship, Pritchard increased the Duck’s speed to sixty miles an hour, then sixty-five. The stubby little plane rose from the water and took tentative flight. At first, the Duck flew barely a foot above the waves. Pritchard pulled back on the control stick to gain altitude. The Duck answered, rising several hundred feet into the air. Pritchard pointed west toward Greenland and the desperate men waiting in the B-17’s tail. The Duck grew smaller in the eyes of the
’s crew until it disappeared. It was 9:29 a.m.
As they flew off, Pritchard and Bottoms knew that they had volunteered for fogbound flights, snow-filled skies, perilous landings, and hazardous takeoffs from icy terrain. They accepted the job without complaint or hesitation, without the promise of fame or reward. And they did so with every intention of succeeding.
Yet as Coast Guardsmen and rescue fliers, Pritchard and Bottoms couldn’t help knowing the wry, unofficial motto of their service: “You have to go out, but you don’t have to come back.”
For nearly seventy years after the morning of November 29, 1942, the echo of that phrase haunted the Coast Guard and the families of Pritchard, Bottoms, and a third man, a crew member of the B-17 they’d tried to save. Before more time passed, before memories faded and the world moved on, an unlikely group of adventurers, explorers, servicemen and -women, amateur historians, and professional scientists committed themselves to proving that saying false.
One way or another, they insisted, the Duck and its men
have to come back.