Review: Frozen in Time

Frozen in Time, Mitchell Zuckoff. New York: HarperCollins, 2014.

Summary: An account of rescue efforts in 1942-43 and a retrieval effort in 2012 to recover several lost heroes, all occurring on the Greenland icecap.

In November of 1942, a C-53 cargo plane took off from Iceland to an airfield on the west side of Greenland. For unknown reasons it crashed inland from the eastern coast of Greenland. A B-17 diverted from transport to England joined the search with a crew of nine, captained by Armand Monteverde. Unsuccessful, they ran into a bad snowstorm that was like “flying in milk.” They also crashed, the plane splitting into two pieces. All nine survived the crash and much of the narrative in this book describes their efforts to survive in subzero temperatures, avoiding life-ending crevasses and fighting frostbite and keeping up hope as months went by with little more contact than overflights by another B-17, piloted by “Pappy” Turner, dropping supplies and communicating with the survivors.

Part of the 1942-43 story concerned the efforts to rescue these men either by plane or motor- or dogsled. Sadly, rescuers, both by plane and motorsled died, as did one of the B-17 crash survivors. Three of those who died were on a Coast Guard plane called “The Flying Duck” piloted by John Pritchard and Benjamin Bottoms. They rescued two crash survivors, one who was most severely affected by frostbite. Coming back, they picked up another survivor. Loren Howarth, who had repaired a radio on the crashed B-17. They, too, encountered a fast approaching storm and went down with no survivors.

Here enters the other part of this story. Lou Sapienza, who had participated in previous recovery missions learned the story about the lost men from the Flying Duck. On a preliminary survey in 2010, they identified possible crash sites. Now, he wants to go back. He needs the help of the Coast Guard and a lot of money the Pentagon doesn’t have. He enlists the author to chronicle (and help bankroll) the effort. Offsetting a reluctant bureaucracy is Coast Guard Commander Jim Blow, whose passion is not to leave those missing in action behind. Somehow, they come up with enough for a week on the Greenland ice cap.

So much of what sustains interest in this narrative, which goes back and forth between the rescue and recovery missions, is the uncertainty that they will find a way to rescue the B-17 survivors or recover the Flying Duck and her crew. The big challenge is Greenland itself. There are so many ways it can kill you from crevasses to polar bears to cold. For the surviving crew, the challenge was crash injuries, advancing frostbite, and morale. One is impressed in all the ways this crew improvised shelter, jury-rigged radios, and used what they had on hand. The recovery mission led by Jim and Lou had its own challenges. Faulty GPS coordinates, moving heavy equipment across crevasses, and conflict within the expedition pose challenges, even as they scramble to locate the Flying Duck as another of Greenland’s storms approach, necessitating evacuation.

Zuckoff’s eyewitness narrative coupled with careful historical research makes for a riveting account of the effort to “bring them home” that is a heartbeat of the services. The efforts to survive, to rescue, and to recover are all heroic. In a day when so many public figures disappoint, a narrative about heroes, who have their own struggles, but transcend and work and risk for noble ends, is a welcome gift.