At the height of World War II, three U.S. military plane crashes in the immense, unforgiving nether regions of Greenland marked the harsh winter of 1942-43. A C-53 Skytrooper cargo plane was the first to go down, with five men aboard. Soon afterward, a B-17 with nine men aboard crashed on arctic ice “crisscrossed by deep crevasses” in an attempt to rescue the men of the first plane. Finally, a Coast Guard plane, a Grumman Duck, disappeared with three men after landing near the B-17 and taking the most severely injured member of that crew aboard with a promise to return. The Duck had already made one earlier successful landing and rescue. It was the second attempt that proved fatal.
This tragic chain of events sets the stage for Mitchell Zuckoff’s “Frozen in Time” (Harper, 391 pages, $28.99), a masterfully told dual narrative that contains not a mote of dust in its retelling while seamlessly alternating between the past and present. Coming off the bestselling “Lost in Shangri-La,” Zuckoff again offers a vivid story of Americans performing extraordinary acts of courage in extraordinary circumstances.
Although several of the men on the B-17 would eventually be rescued after months of deprivation, it was the vanished Duck and its three missing servicemen that would haunt the Coast Guard for 70 years and lead to a present-day quest by Lou Sapienza, a civilian who presides over “an exploration company devoted to recovering lost military aircraft and fallen servicemen.”
Zuckoff’s portrayal of Sapienza is a study of singular obsession. His successful attempt to get funding and logistics support from the Coast Guard to return to Greenland and search for the missing plane is a testament to persistence. Sapienza was “surviving on savings, an inheritance, a supportive girlfriend, and faith.” I won’t spoil the ending, but Sapienza’s efforts are not in vain.
Also skillfully portrayed is the horrific price exacted by the Greenland winter on the men of the B-17 as they fought the elements while huddled in the wrecked carcass of their plane. Even with frequent supply drops, the months of isolation and cold bore into the marrow of their psyche. At one point, surrounded by “the smell of rotten food mixed with the stench of burned fuel, body odor, and human waste,” they make a suicide pact that they later put aside. Looking back, survivor Bill O’Hara, the navigator of the B-17, who lost his feet to frostbite, would only say, “I can recall being a son-of-a-bitch for eighty-eight days.”
Stephen J. Lyons is the author of three books, most recently, “The 1,000-Year Flood: Destruction, Loss, Rescue, and Redemption Along the Mississippi River.”