Hunter S. Thompson was right. “History is hard to know because of all the hired (expletive).” But then the rascally originator of Gonzo Journalism never met Massachusetts author Mitchell Zuckoff.
A crack investigative reporter turned Boston University journalism professor, Zuckoff calls up a forgotten chapter from World War II, cuts through the confetti and myth and hones in on the behavior of those most involved.
In his 2011 best-seller “Lost in Shangri-La,” Zuckoff focused on the ordeal of three survivors of a U.S. Army plane crash in an uncharted region of New Guinea inhabited by a prehistoric tribe rumored to be cannibals.
But if that book, set in 1945, was riveting, its subtitle — “A True Story of Survival, Adventure, and the Most Incredible Rescue Mission of World War II” — was wrong. For that honor surely belongs to the subject of the author’s latest true-life thriller.
“Frozen in Time: An Epic Story of Survival and a Modern Quest for Lost Heroes of World War II” uncovers the story of three plane crashes on the Greenland ice cap in 1942 and the epic attempts to find and rescue survivors in that vast and trackless Arctic wilderness.
If “Lost in Shangri-La” was a prize-winning page-turner, “Frozen in Time” is even more enthralling. Set in a land of howling winds, sub-zero temperatures and blinding blizzards, it’s about men, many barely beyond boyhood, struggling to endure while others try repeatedly by sea, air, motor sled and dog team to save them.
This time Zuckoff is juggling three plane crashes, a host of rescue attempts and a modern-day effort to locate and recover a downed Coast Guard aircraft and the remains of the three men aboard from under 38 feet of ice.
On Nov. 5, 1942, a U.S. C-53 cargo plane crashed on the way back from Iceland to its home base on the far side of Greenland. All five men aboard survived.
Four days later, a B-17 Flying Fortress bomber on a search-and-rescue mission for the C-53 lost its way and slammed into a glacier, stranding nine more men on the ice.
In deteriorating weather, a Grumman Duck amphibious plane on the U.S, Coast Guard cutter Northland joined the search. After locating the B-17 crash site and picking up one of its crew, the Duck with three men aboard disappeared in a storm.
And it’s this plane with its ice-entombed heroes that photographer turned explorer Lou Sapienza convinced the U.S. Coast Guard should be found, dug up and returned to the U. S. before a wreck hunter recovered the “flying boat” and sold it to a private collector.
First and foremost a nonfiction narrative storyteller, Zuckoff told the American-Statesman: “Story comes first for me because that’s the structure upon which I can display extraordinary examples of human behavior.”
And it’s the behavior of the men marooned on the ice, battling cold, darkness, hunger, frostbite, and hypothermia and their rescuers, thwarted by weather and perilous landscape, that make “Frozen in Time” a must-read.
How the crew, sent over Greenland without Arctic survival gear, guide or food, hole up in their broken B-17’s tail section and then an ice cave for months without losing their humanity and how those sent to rescue them persevere is the stuff of legend with shades of Ernest Shackleton.
The 2012 search for the Grumman Duck, driven by Sapienza’s sense of mission, Zuckoff’s participation (and money) and the Coast Guard code of “leave-no-man-behind” proves rather less compelling than the chapters of life-and-death on the ice 70 years ago.
Still the saga of the amphibious plane exhumation continues. “Details have to be worked out so we’ll know better in the next few weeks,” Zuckoff told the Statesman, “but all signs point to a Duck recovery expedition in early July.” Stay tuned.
We learn a lot in these 400 pages: that Viking Erik the Red (“the world’s first real estate shill”) named the ice-covered island Greenland to lure settlers; why the island was so crucial for the Allies in WW II; and that of the 83,000 American servicemen and women missing and unaccounted for, only three served in the Coast Guard — two in the Grumman Duck.
We meet outsized characters like Norwegian aviation pioneer Bernt “The Last Viking” Balchen, who flew with Antarctic explorer Roald Amundsen, commanded the northernmost American base in Greenland in WW II and devised a “half-mad plan” to rescue the icebound men.
B-17 pilot Armand Monteverde, a 27-year-old Californian, and with copilot Harry Spencer, 22, of Dallas are credited with keeping fellow crew members alive after the crash. Another Texan, former ranch hand Donald Tetley of San Antonio, a member of the motorsled rescue team, spent more than two months with B-17 survivors.
Zuckoff sets the scene with a detailed description of the history and geography of Greenland. As the British say, he “puts us in the picture” and keeps us there with photos and stories of the men involved. “I hope I’ve done them justice,” Zuckoff writes in “A Note to the Reader.” Surely even Hunter Thompson, who once covered sports for an Air Force newspaper, would give him a nod.
Frozen in Time: An Epic Story of Survival and a Modern Quest for Lost Heroes of World War II