‘Frozen in Time’: The fate of brave airmen, locked in the ice
“Frozen in Time” by Mitchell Zuckoff tells the true story of three crews of World War II airmen who crashed in Greenland, the daring rescue efforts mounted to save them, and the modern-day quest to learn what really happened.
Special to The Seattle Times
‘Frozen in Time: An Epic Story of Survival and a Modern Quest for Lost Heroes’
by Mitchell Zuckoff
Harper, 400 pp., $28.99
When America entered World War II, one key imperative was sending planes to Britain. The most expedient method was the Snowball Route, island hopping from Newfoundland to Scotland. It was not the safest, particularly over the massive, ice-covered island that Erik the Red, one of the great propagandists of history, had labeled Greenland.
On the first day of the flights in June 1942, three planes ditched, followed a month later by a squadron of eight more. Amazingly, all 25 men survived. Not everyone who crashed would be so lucky.
In his new book “Frozen in Time: An Epic Story of Survival and a Modern Quest for Lost Heroes of World War II,” Mitchell Zuckoff reveals for the first time the amazing story of Greenland plane crashes early in the war, what happened to the crews, and the fate of an unlikely rescue mission. But this is not just a story of the past — it is a story of modern searchers and their commitment and passion.
On Nov. 5, 1942, a routine cargo mission from Greenland to Iceland crashed on its way back to its Greenland home base. The five men in the C-53 Skytrooper, a modified DC-3 passenger plane, survived and radioed for help. Unfortunately, they weren’t sure exactly where they were. Within days, at least 44 planes had been sent to search for the C-53. One of those was a B-17 Flying Fortress with a crew of nine men. Four days after the initial crash, the B-17 also crashed. Again, all survived.
Neither crew, however, was prepared for the Greenland wilderness, especially with winter and its 40-below-zero temperatures on the horizon. Though not as bad as it would get, the weather initially had prevented searches from taking place.
Then on Nov. 24, legendary pilot Bernt Balchen, who had flown for Antarctic explorer Roald Amundsen, found the B-17 and was able to drop supplies to the cold, hungry men. The food and clothes helped, but what the downed men needed was a rescue.
In stepped the Coast Guard with an unlikely savior, a plane known as the Grumman Duck. Pilot John Pritchard proposed landing the squat, amphibious Duck on the glacier near the B-17 and ferrying the crew out.
With clear weather on Nov. 28, Pritchard and Benjamin Bottoms took off from Comanche Bay on Greenland’s southeast coast, about 30 minutes from their target. They landed, picked up two men and headed home.
The next day they did the same, picking up one survivor, but this time they didn’t return to their ship. Now three planes were lost, three crews down, with the weather getting ugly. All the men were in peril: “In the sky, the men of the B-17 were warriors. On the ground, they were frozen sardines in a busted-open can,” Zuckoff writes.
In August 2012, Zuckoff, who wrote the best-selling “Lost in Shangri-La,” joined a team who traveled to Greenland. Led by Lou Sapienza, who had spent years and much of his own money and Zuckoff’s, too, trying to get support for his obsession to find the lost Grumman Duck, the searchers carried an array of advanced technology to penetrate into the ice that had accumulated over the plane.
Their efforts eventually pay off, but not without their share of mishaps, bad weather and conflicting personalities.
Alternating between chapters about the modern search and historic crashes and rescues, “Frozen in Time” is clearly a work of passion on Zuckoff’s part, from ponying up cash to helping Sapienza and doing meticulous research, both in the archives and in the field.
Zuckoff has produced a wonderful book that combines telling details, thoughtful background and vivid storytelling into a fascinating tale of courage, war and perseverance.
Seattle author David B. Williams’ latest book is “Cairns: Messengers in Stone” (Mountaineers Books).