XIX: Guys on Ice

This story is not quite as cheerful as the musical with which it shares its title. But if you lost faith in humanity, prepare to have it restored.

Of all the great battlegrounds of World War II, there’s one that absolutely nobody knows about.

Greenland.

Just because nobody fought there doesn’t mean it wasn’t fought over. It was said that a man in Greenland today knew what the weather would be in Europe tomorrow.

When you’re fighting a war, that’s a pretty significant advantage.

Luckily, the US got to Greenland before Hitler. They had a huge interest in Greenland not only because it would help the ground troops in Europe, but also because American bombers could stop and refuel on the way to Europe, instead of German bombers refueling on their way to the US.

The only problem is that it’s really difficult to set up a refueling station when it’s -70°F outside with 120 mph winds and your planes can’t land on ice.

Struggles.

Yet the determined Americans pressed on and did it anyway. They mostly used aircraft carries out in the harbors as temporary stations until land stations were built. They then proceeded to bring in supplies for these new land stations.

This is where the problems start.

In 1942, an American Coast Guard C-53 cargo plane carrying five men slammed into the Greenland icecap. The Coast Guard was determined to locate it and its five crewmen. But rescuing them was harder than it seemed. It was no easy task to find the downed aircraft in the horrendous weather, land a plane on the ice, pick up the five men, and take off again from the icecap. In fact, it had never been done before.

The US Coast Guard mounted a rescue mission. Four days after the C-53 crash, a B-17 bomber carrying a nine-man search and rescue team found itself lost in a blinding snowstorm. It too crashed onto the icecap. Unlike the C-53 (which remains lost to this day), the B-17 was eventually found.

The nine men of the B-17 had no idea they were in for the greatest ordeal of their lives. A few days later, they were located by a seaplane called a Grumman Duck. The pilot and navigator of the tiny Duck did what no one had done before: they landed on the ice, collected two seriously injured and ill men from the B-17 crew, and successfully took off again. The two men were soon warm and healthy on a nearby Coast Guard aircraft carrier. The remaining seven men hunkered down in the tail section of the plane, focussing on repairing their radio and waiting for the Duck to return. Days later, the Duck was back, this time taking only one man, since the weather was too rough to bring the remaining injured men out into the open.

Yet the success would not last. On the flight to the aircraft carrier, the Duck crashed on a glacier, killing the three men aboard. Other Coast Guard planes believed they had seen the downed Duck, but it would be 71 years before the plane was finally found.

The US Coast Guard had all but given up hope on the six men left in the B-17. The crew of the C-53 had been left for dead long ago. Yet with the help of a daring Norwegian colonel, the rescue continued. In later attempts using dogsleds, one rescuer and one B-17 crewman would die falling into crevasses. Another rescuer would spend months trapped in an underground ice cave with the two men he rescued, one of whom was so frostbitten that his feet literally fell off. But no one ever gave up.

Finally, after 5 full months on the ice, the remaining five men of B-17 would be rescued. In the entire ordeal, 10 men perished — 5 from the C-53, 2 from the B-17, and 3 rescuers. None of the lost men were ever recovered.

But there is hope. Earlier this year, private contractors working with the Coast Guard on behalf of the now-elderly sister of the Grumman Duck pilot mounted a recovery expedition to Greenland. Their goal — to find the Grumman Duck under the glacial ice, bring it to the surface, and return the remains of the three men to the United States. Success was far from guaranteed. But they found something there, a tangle of wires, circuits, and metal deep beneath the ice, close to where the Norwegian pilot claimed to have seen it on the surface 71 years earlier.

In 2014 they will return, this time to bring the wreckage up from under dozens of feet of solid ice, and to bury its long lost crew at the Coast Guard Academy. To bring the fallen heroes home.

If you were intrigued by this story, read Frozen in Time: An Epic Story of Survival and a Modern Quest for Lost Heroes of World War II, by Mitchell Zuckoff. He tells this amazing story much better than I ever could.

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