First Lt. Leon Crane's very bad day began on the morning of Dec. 21, 1943, when the West Philly native overslept after a late-night poker game at Ladd Field in Fairbanks, Alaska. He might have wished he had missed the training flight in the B-24 Liberator dubbed "Iceberg Inez" altogether.
Copilot Crane was the only survivor on that winter solstice day, when the heavy bomber with its five-man crew crashed from an altitude of 23,000 feet into the Alaskan wilderness. In the rush to bail out, Crane forgot one crucial piece of clothing: his mittens. Sleeping bags and food provisions were incinerated in the wreckage.
So begins "81 Days Below Zero," by author and Washington Post journalist Brian Murphy, a thrilling page-turner of a tale that is all the more incredible given the fact that Murphy wrote his book without ever interviewing Crane, who died in 2002. Murphy's instincts for pacing and re-creating emotions, dialogue and details are so finely crafted that you might find yourself shivering right along with Crane as he struggles to hang on in subzero conditions with only his Boy Scout knife, 40 matches, a parachute and the clothes on his back.
Crane's engineering education would serve him well. He sized up each situation in a careful, logical manner. He knew a search team would be unable to locate him and so he chose to walk out following an unknown waterway, hoping it would connect with the larger Yukon River.
"He would have to stick with the river until the end, whichever way that played out," Murphy writes. "Crane also chose to walk atop the frozen ice. There was a risk of breaking through, but it was faster than picking his way through rocks and gullies along the bank."
Strengthening the book, Murphy expertly mixes the narrative with several fascinating diversions, including other stories of winter survival, the history of the B-24 bomber, and the anxious vigil kept by Crane's parents Sonia and Louis.
Crane's mental toughness and endurance are equally impressive but when he finally makes contact with another human being on March 10, he is far from the same person who began the ordeal.
"What Crane learned was gathered in increments, plucked like stray threads from crises and moments of doubt. His transformation bound him, in ways he probably couldn't yet imagine, to some of the greatest feats of resolve."
Stephen J. Lyons is the author of four books, most recently "Going Driftless: Life Lessons From the Heartland for Unraveling Times." He lives in Illinois.