Greenland, that misnamed island of glaciers, snow, and ice, perpetually white and forbidding, might have been far from the fighting in WWII but it was deemed a strategic outpost to the Allied war effort. By planting bases on it, there was a place to re-fuel planes on their way from the US to Europe and it gave the powers that be some meteorological insight into the weather that was soon to swirl its way into Europe and onto the soldiers on the ground. But the massive island's variable weather, unpredictable blizzards, and harsh climate made it incredibly treacherous to fly over and throughout the course of the war, quite a number of planes crashed onto its glacial interior. One plane, a C-53, carrying five US military personnel made a forced landing on Greenland and the crew miraculously survived the crash. But their radio contact with base didn't last long enough for their location to be fixed and so the rescue missions that were mounted to discover them not only had to contend with the frustrations of terrible weather grounding planes for days at a time but also with finding one relatively small plane in a vast, blank land. But looking for a needle in a haystack was just the first of the problems about to beset the rescue mission.
A B-17 bomber, diverted from delivery in Europe, was pressed into service looking for the downed C-53 and its crew. But it too flew into disorienting conditions pilots called "flying in milk" and crashed onto the island in the midst of a crevasse-riddled glacier. Amazingly, the nine men on board the B-17 also survived. But now there were two separate crews of 14 men stranded on the ice in one of the most inhospitable places on the planet and fighting for their survival. Zuckoff captures the immediacy of the danger that the men on the ice faced, from their lack of provisions and cold weather survival gear to the danger of frostbite and exposure. He captures the frustration of command at the inability to find a way to safely remove these would be rescuers now in peril themselves. And he follows the planning and determination of a pilot and his navigator on a Coast Guard cutter patrolling the seas off of Greenland as they prepare to risk their own lives to save the men in the B-17 by flying their small Grumman Duck, an amphibious biplane, to the crash site to pluck the men two by two off the ice.
Alternating with the historical chapters of the increasingly frantic determination to rescue the weakened and suffering men from the B-17, Zuckoff weaves in current day chapters about the quest to locate the Grumman Duck, also tragically lost on the unforgiving glaciers of Greenland with her crew of two fearless men and one of the B-17 survivors. He captures the larger than life, forever optimistic personalities who spearheaded the years of research into the fate and location of the little amphibious biplane and her passengers, lobbied government agencies for their support, and by hook or crook and on a showstring managed to assemble the people and the money to make the trek to Greenland to try and physically locate the final resting place of the Duck.
Zuckoff has written a completely gripping, compelling tale. He's captured the terror and helplessness of the downed men and those valiantly searching for them. He's drawn visceral pictures of the aching cold and desperation they felt as the days mounted without their discovery and that they continued to feel even after their discovery as more time passed while the powers that be tried to figure out a way to pluck them from the ice without endangering more lives. The reader truly feels the ways in which they were at the complete mercy of nature and their own psyches. Pulled from journals, declassified documents, interviews with survivors' families, maps, and interviews, Zuckoff stays true to the story as reproduced publically, honoring the survivors' and participants' versions of events, never speculating on what cannot be known. The story of the men and the several attempts to rescue them is compelling. The modern day narrative about the expedition to find the Duck and her three missing men is interesting and provides closure to the sixty year old tale but isn't quite as enthralling as the historic events. This is a tale of heroes and determination, an overwhelming perseverence in the face of danger, and the unthinkable but constant threat of failure. World War II buffs will certainly appreciate it but other armchair travelers will also find themselves captivated by the hellish Greenland winter, the dire circumstances of the men, and the terrible or wonderful consequences that befell every man who dared to go out to try and save his fellows even in the face of overwhelming risk.
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Thanks to Trish from TLC Book Tours and the publisher for sending me a copy of this book to review.