In his new book, Frozen in Time (HaperCollins), author Mitchell Zuckoff has unearthed – or perhaps, defrosted – a rescue saga that has spent seventy years iced into a Greenland glacier. The book clearly and breezily intertwines two epic stories: one is the World War II tale of a nine-man B-17 aircrew downed on the Greenland icecap and the efforts made to rescue them through the bitter winter of 1942-1943; the other is the modern effort to recover the remains of three Americans who died in a Grumman Duck, an ungainly amphibious search and rescue biplane that crashed attempting to rescue the stranded men.
In the modern story, we first meet Lou Sapienza, a quixotic New Yorker and New Jerseyite with a “default posture somewhere between undaunted and windmill-tilting,” when he’s frisking himself “like a man who’s misplaced a winning lottery ticket.” A civilian MIA hunter, Sapienza is obsessed with recovering the remains of the three men lost in the Duck, but he can’t find the address of the building in which he’s supposed to meet Defense Department officials charged with worldwide MIA recovery. Sapienza hopes to convince them to finance an ambitious expedition to pinpoint and recover the Duck and the remains of the three men aboard. He finds the meeting, but his pitch falls flat. However, Sapienza does engage the attention of square jawed Coast Guard commander Jim Blow, a man equally determined to retrieve the lost men–the pilot and radio operator killed in the plane crash are two of the only three Coast Guard personnel still missing-in-action, and they gave their lives in the service’s finest tradition, while trying to complete a rescue. Sapienza and Blow forge an unlikely partnership, and when they finally secure Coast Guard backing, participation, and financial support, they mount a massive expedition to Greenland.
Even more remarkable is the rescue epic of 1942-1943. Uniquely, it’s a World War II story in which the Axis never fires a shot – the enemy in Frozen in Time is the savage and near-ceaseless storms that rake the Greenland icecap, where winter temperatures range from “bone-rattling to instant frostbite.”
The calamities began on November 5, 1942, when five men flying from Iceland to Greenland survived a crash landing onto one of the colossal glaciers that line the east coast of Greenland. Problem was, they didn’t know which one. Their emergency radio transmissions sparked a massive search. But Greenland has thousands of miles of coastline, and merely finding the missing plane proved no trivial undertaking in a vast frozen wilderness so empty that “if Manhattan had the same population density as Greenland, its population would be two.”
Four days later, a B-17 attempting to locate the missing plane was itself groping blind through a cloud when it crashed into the icecap. Miraculously, all nine men aboard the bomber survived, but they had no sleeping bags, no heavy clothing, no survival gear, and only four days worth of food. Cold, thirsty, hungry, frightened, and stupendously alone, they nested as best they could in the wreckage of their broken B-17 while temperatures plunged to thirty and forty degrees below zero Fahrenheit.
Two planes and fourteen men were down on the icecap, and the Army Air Force couldn’t find either wreck.
Nearly a fortnight later, a search plane spotted the B-17. Airdrops sustained the nine icebound men shivering in the wreckage, but they were in a terrible location, on an “active, crumbling glacier, surrounded by crevasses and deep ice canyons.” Military rescue efforts converged.
The Coast Guard vessel Northland pressed in against the coast, determined to save the stranded men despite the danger of being frozen into sea ice by the gathering winter. From her deck, the Northland deployed a Grumman J2F-4 Duck. Besides its two-man crew, the Duck could carry just two passengers, so the Duck’s pilot and radio operator intended to fly relays until they’d rescued all the stranded men. On November 28, they succeeded in extracting two of them, but the scant winter daylight allowed only one flight before darkness pinched off operations. An overland motorsled mission reached the broken bomber that night, but one of the two heavy sleds broke through a snow bridge and plunged into a crevasse, killing an erstwhile rescuer. The other stayed trapped with the B-17.
Determined to complete the extraction the next day, the Duck’s courageous pilot and radioman pushed too hard in worsening conditions. With one of the B-17 crewmen aboard, they flew into a cloud and crashed, killing all three.
Seven men remained trapped on the ice. Airdrops kept them alive, but relentless storms prevented their rescue. Days dragged into weeks. Weeks dragged into months. Cold sapped their will; dry gangrene attacked frostbite-withered extremities; another man fell into a crevasse and died. A PBY amphibian belly landing on the glacier plucked three of them to safety in early February, but persistent winds prevented the rescue of the final trio until April 6th, 1943, 148 days after their crash. They’d spent the entire winter on the icecap.
The five men aboard the plane whose crash had sparked the original search weren’t so lucky. Rescue efforts never spotted them. They presumably froze to death inside the carcass of their airplane.
Author Mitchell Zuckoff cobbled together the WWII story from memoirs, military records, books, newspapers, magazines, and letters, while simultaneously getting himself tangled into the contemporary effort to locate and repatriate the remains of the three men lost in the Duck — as financier, participant, and journalist – and at times Zuckhoff succumbs to the unnecessary temptation to supercharge his inherently dramatic story, claiming, for example, that the modern searchers are trying to solve “an enduring mystery of World War II: What happened to the Duck and the three men it carried?” when they know exactly what happened to the Duck, they just haven’t pinpointed its wreckage buried in the ice of Greenland and recovered its crew.
At first, the modern Duck Hunt expedition doesn’t go smoothly. Several egregious errors and resulting civilian/Coast Guard friction nearly wrecks the endeavor. Only after half of their time in Greenland has been squandered does an anomaly detected by ice-penetrating radar at a low-priority search coordinate pique hopes. As a storm bears down, the team wrestles a 700-pound “Hotsy” ice-melting device to the site and bores holes in the glacier. With most of the expedition prepping hasty evacuation, Zuckoff and a companion crouch under a coat and peer at camera images coming back from the bottom of a hole and see “a sight so beautiful, so satisfying, so perfect, yet seemingly so impossible that I blink several times to be sure: a black plug with a wire extending from it, with a white band wrapped around the wire.”
Seventy years after it crashed and 38 feet below the ice surface of Greenland, the lost Duck has been found.
Apropos to the extraordinary travails of the airmen stranded through the winter of 1942-’43, but somewhat emotionally unsatisfying to modern readers, the storm aborts the Duck Hunt with the missing plane located, but un-excavated, and Frozen in Time ends at that exact point, with the remains of the Duck’s two heroic crewmen and B-17 evacuee condemned to at least one more year entombed in the ice, thousands of miles from home.
An entertaining and engrossing read, Frozen in Time brings to light yet another forgotten story from World War II, much like Zuckoff did with his other WWII rescue epic, Lost in Shangri-La.
Here’s Zuckoff’s website.