This is an article from the Fall 2014 issue of LSA Magazine. To read more stories like this, click here.

In November 1942, a Coast Guard rescue plane carrying three American military men vanished in a storm of snow and wind in southeastern Greenland. Now, more than 70 years later, an unlikely team of civilian experts is partnering with the military to recover the plane. An LSA alumnus takes us inside the mission to find three men buried in the ice and bring them home.

It’s 6:00 P.M. on September 21, 2013, and the temperature on the southeastern coast of Greenland has already dropped to 24° Fahrenheit. My five colleagues and I are on a mission to find a 70-year-old Coast Guard rescue plane buried somewhere in the glaciers around our camp. We’re packing up our gear, hoping to locate the plane and its pilot and passengers in the next few days, but we’re also hoping not to get buried in one of Greenland’s nasty and brutish sub-zero ice storms. We all have our own reasons to be here. For me, the biggest reason is probably my grandfather. 

Vincent Bratton fought fascists in the deserts of North Africa and in the jungles of Burma, and he was one of the lucky ones who made it back to England. I can only imagine how I would feel if he had gone missing and how much it would mean to have him finally brought home.

I should warn you: This story doesn’t have a happy ending. At least not yet. 

A Snowball's Chance 

1942. England, besieged by Germany, needs to import a massive amount of equipment from its allies to support battles on the western front, but German air and underwater attacks on cargo vessels send millions of tons of supplies to the bottom of the ocean. Shipping losses force the Allies to fly many of their cargo shipments to Europe instead. But flying poses other risks. 

Aircraft of the 1940s lacked the range and navigational technology to fly from the United States to England, so planes executed a series of shorter flights, hopscotching from Canada to Greenland to Iceland en route to British airfields. Although hundreds of planes made the journey, many never reached their destination because of the savage and unpredictable weather along the so-called “Snowball Route.” 

On November 5, a cargo plane returning from Iceland to a base in Greenland went missing. Four days later, a B-17 Flying Fortress out searching for the cargo plane became trapped in a sudden whiteout and crashed into a heavily crevassed area of one of Greenland’s many glaciers. Thankfully, all nine men aboard the B-17 survived the crash. They sent a distress signal, and American forces made a plan to rescue the men. 

And they had the perfect tool for the job: a Duck. 

The Mighty Duck

Suspended from a crane on the stern of a Coast Guard cutter, the Grumman J2F-4 Duck was an odd-looking machine, with a long, ski-like pontoon jutting out from under the propeller. That ugly pontoon made the Duck amphibious, though, and the plane’s versatility greatly expanded the search-and-rescue abilities of the USS Northland, the cutter that this particular Duck called home.

The Grumman J2F Duck was classified as a "flying boat." The long pontoon on the underside of the plane jutted out in front of the propeller, making the Duck a homely but effective rescue vehicle. Photo credit U.S. Navy/Wikimedia Commons

The Northland’s Duck, piloted by Lt. John Pritchard, spotted the crashed B-17 from the air and returned later to ferry two men back to the ship. The plan was to keep on like this, to bring the men back a few at a time until everyone was out of danger, but the ice and the weather made each trip perilous. The Duck’s initial trip was the first time a plane had ever landed on and taken off from a glacier. Now Pritchard and his radioman, Benjamin Bottoms, wanted to do it five or six more times.

On November 29, Pritchard and Bottoms returned to the crash site, quickly landing and taking aboard Cpl. Loren Howarth, the B-17’s radioman, before attempting a return flight to the Northland. As the plane flew over Koge Bay, visibility deteriorated until Pritchard could no longer distinguish sky from ground. Disoriented, Bottoms radioed the Northland, requesting a signal to guide them home. Turning the plane toward the Northland’s signal, the Duck flew blindly into a glacier, killing all three men aboard. 

The men on the Duck were lost, but the remaining six men camping in the crashed B-17 survived, lasting through the winter with food and supplies dropped to them from the air. Mitchell Zuckoff tells their story and those of the Duck’s crew in his bestselling book, Frozen in Time.

The Right Ones for the Job

Lou Sapienza is a gregarious guy with curly, silver hair and an energy that belies his age. He formed the company North South Polar, Inc. (NSP) for the specific purpose of finding and recovering the bodies of the men from the USS Northland’s Duck. In 2009, he recruited specialists from an eclectic array of fields for the mission: a NASA scientist, a handful of geophysicists, a military medic, and a mechanical expert. He also needed mountaineers to help keep the team safe as it searched for the Duck in freezing temperatures and howling arctic winds. That’s where I came in. 

Mountaineering is often described as “the art of suffering in style,” and it is a grueling, demanding endeavor. I have been a mountaineer since 1995, climbing in the French Alps, the Rockies, and the Cascades of Washington state. The Cascades in particular offer important practice for serious climbers because they feature many of the toughest challenges of the sport, including climbing snow, ice, glacier, and rock, along with rugged wilderness travel. Climbing in the Cascades prepares mountaineers for challenging expeditions in the Andes, Alaska, and the Himalayas. And, it turns out, Greenland.

The author, Nicholas Bratton (right, in red hat), taking in the sights during a quiet moment during the mission to Greenland. Bratton had obtained extensive mountaineering experience before joining the Duck rescue trip. Photo courtesy of Nicholas Bratton

When Sapienza approached me about the mission to rescue the Duck, I had been climbing glaciated peaks for 12 years. Listening to the tale of the vanished plane, I was moved by the story of those three lost men. I accepted Sapienza’s offer and started a mental list of what I would need to take with me when we left. 

Waiting for Gustafsson

Greenland is a strange place. It’s barren and bleak and almost entirely inhospitable to life, but it also possesses a severe beauty. The soaring peaks along the coasts and the long, snowy expanses of the inland landscape are majestic, drawing your eye up and across the ice. But it punishes any living thing that tries to stay there. 

We arrived on August 23, 2012, with only a week to work. Several Coast Guard officers were supporting the effort, eager to see their fellow servicemen returned. We set up our camp near Koge Bay, organized our equipment, and packed the things that we needed for the first day’s search. Sapienza and the Coast Guard had done extensive research on where the Duck might have ended up, piecing together possible crash locations and making estimates about the flow and movement of glaciers. At base camp, the NSP team divided into groups, locating the different potential Duck sites that Sapienza had mapped out using GPS receivers.

Meal time in base camp. (From left to right) Brian Kimball, U.S. Air Force, forensic photographer; Mindy Simonson, JPAC civilian archaeologist; Isaac Moreno, U.S. Marine Corps, communications officer. Photo credit Nicholas Bratton

After arriving at each of the sites, geophysicist Jaana Gustafsson scanned the area with ground-penetrating radar. Gustafsson carried the radar in a 30-pound backpack linked to a 12-foot sensor cable that snaked behind her across the surface of the ice. Deep crevasses spider-webbed the glacier, and the danger to life and equipment was constant and serious. A wrong step could mean a smashed camera or a snapped femur. A rope team accompanied Gustafsson at each site to ensure her safety. After surveying each point, we all returned to camp where Gustafsson downloaded the data onto a computer for analysis. 

With no luck at the pre-selected locations, the NSP team looked further afield for targets. With only one full day left on our trip, Gustafsson scanned a point atop a broad ridge two miles from camp and found a radar anomaly under the ice. Something was there. But time was running out. 

Hotsy and the Anomaly

The NSP crew had a secret weapon to find the Duck, a customized Hotsy industrial pressure washer that could melt holes in the ice. Once a hole was created, the team dropped a video camera in to get a better view of what was down there. But the Hotsy was a heavy piece of equipment with a slew of bulky accessories. Without helicopters available to move the Hotsy and its equipment, the team had to haul the half-ton washer up the ridge to the site of Gustafsson’s anomaly. Once in place, we hurriedly melted as many holes as we could before the helicopters arrived to pluck us from the ice as a storm bore down on the coast. 

That night, we crowded around the laptop to review the video footage. The screen clearly showed debris at a depth of about 40 feet. Further analysis confirmed that we were looking at a plug and fuse panel — wreckage from the Duck. The team was elated. We were shocked that we had somehow found a small piece of one long-lost plane in all of that ice, and we were relieved that our mission had produced concrete results. We were one step closer to finding the men on the Duck. 

The Second Search

The discovery of the plug and fuse panel caught the attention of some people in the American military, and Sapienza and Commander Jim Blow of the Coast Guard were able to convince the Pentagon to support a second trip to Greenland. This time, the mission would be funded and managed by the Joint POW-MIA Accounting Command (JPAC), an agency within the Department of Defense that specializes in recovering missing service members. 

In 2013, the search team took 39,000 pounds of machinery and gear, including four Hotsies, two front-end loaders, a fleet of trench-diggers, and enough supplies to support a team of 19 for six weeks on the ice. Two massive C-130 Hercules planes flew everything to Iceland, where we transferred much of the equipment onto a freighter bound for ice-choked Koge Bay. Helicopters ferried our remaining gear from the freighter to our new base camp perched on a rock outcropping half a mile from the search area.

JPAC researchers set up a search grid around the location where we had found the Duck’s plug and fuse panel the year before. Mysteriously, the readings didn’t show up on the radar this time. Members of NSP, JPAC, and the Coast Guard melted holes at various points in the grid and inspected the depths of the glacier. New anomalies were discovered at the same depth as the plug and fuse panel, but no fuselage — the main body of the plane that might contain the bodies of the crash victims — was found.

Winds as high as 78 miles per hour howled across the icy sheet of the glacier’s surface, damaging tents and forcing the team to take cover. Whenever the forecast came in for sustained high winds, JPAC ordered the team to evacuate by helicopter to the village of Kulusuk, where we waited out the weather. Of the 45 days scheduled for the mission, weather prevented us from working on all but 27 of them.

North South Polar Safety Officer Brian Horner signals to Air Greenland pilot Siggi Asgeirsson during loading operations at the end of the 2013 mission. Photo credit Nicholas Bratton

As time started running out, the team’s focus shifted from discovering new material to retrieving the debris identified in 2012. The team was one day away from melting its way down to the target depth when Greenland struck its knockout blow, dumping 36 inches of snow on our camp in 30 hours. JPAC declared the mission over five days early and evacuated everyone to Kulusuk. For now, the Duck had to stay where it was. 

Going Out and Coming Back

No matter how hard the work was and no matter how frustrated we became with the pace of the search, none of us ever forgot why we were there: to find those three men beneath the ice. Our challenges paled in comparison to the suffering of the families who lost a father, son, or brother in the Duck crash. My grandfather came back from the war. We owed it to these men to see if we could help them do the same. 

The Coast Guard has an unofficial slogan: You have to go out, but you don’t have to come back. As JPAC and NSP make plans to return to Greenland to continue the search for the Duck, I am reminded of the selfless determination and sacrifice that Lt. John Pritchard, Radioman 1st Class Benjamin Bottoms, and Cpl. Loren Howarth showed in 1942, and of how eager they were to risk their lives to save their fellow soldiers. And I am humbled and eager myself to go once more into that frozen country to scour and search the ice, doing whatever I can to bring three men home.

This is an article from the Fall 2014 issue of LSA Magazine. To read more stories like this, click here.