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Sunday May 26, 2013

Lost, then found

Frozen In Time
Author: Mitchell Zuckoff
Publisher: HarperCollins, 391 pages

“... WE are poor little lambs who have lost our way / Baa, baa, baa!” In those lines from the opening sequence of the old TV series Baa Baa Black Sheep (aka, the Black Sheep Squadron), one feels all that’s heroic, heartwarming, harrowing and horrific in World War II. The book I’d finished in just one night had the same effect, albeit with a few chuckles.

While rummaging through old newspaper archives, former journalist, and now professor of journalism at Boston University, Mitchell Zuckoff uncovered lots of hidden gems. One of these became Lost In Shangri-La, an airplane crew’s story of survival and salvation in the dense jungles of Papua New Guinea during World War II (which I reviewed in 2011: tinyurl.com/na8r5my).

Now Zuckoff is back with another, similar epic: Frozen In Time. This time, he became more involved with the story he was writing, going so far as to visit plane-crash sites in freezing cold weather and giving a stranger his credit card. The things authors do to write books these days....

Greenland, according to Zuckoff, was a source of natural cryolite, used in processing the aluminium that went into American and Canadian warplanes during World War II. That, and Greenland’s potential as a staging area for a blitzkrieg-style attack on Europe, led to the US setting up bases there.

Greenland was a tough posting. It’s cold, of course, and layers of snow hide deep gaps in the glaciers underneath. When fog or a storm rolls in and covers the horizon, the ground becomes indistinguishable from the sky. Even experienced aviators can’t tell which way is up when caught in this hazardous phenomenon, known appropriately as “flying in milk”.

This book is about not one but three plane crashes. In 1942, the crash of a C-53 Skytrooper in Greenland sent planes in the air in a search operation. One of those planes, a B-17 bomber, crashed while searching for the C-53. Much of the story revolves around the crew of this B-17. Unlike Zuckoff’s other war tale, some of the people involved perished. One of the rescue planes that didn’t make it home was a Grumman J2F-4 piloted by Coast Guard members Lieutenant John Pritchard Jr and Radioman First Class Benjamin Bottoms. The plane, also known as the “Duck”, crashed while carrying a crew member of the crashed B-17.

Zuckoff not only unearthed the story of the three planes and their crew, he also learned about the people who were trying to bring the Duck and its crew and passenger home. To write a complete account of the three plane crashes, the author joined the 2012 quest to find the Duck.

As I see it, the “Duck Hunt”, as the search was called, was primarily driven by two figures. Zuckoff is wary of photographer and explorer Lou Sapienza whose “default posture” reminds the author of a certain windmill-tilter, especially after Sapienza gets him to pay for a shared taxi. And “Don Quixote” wanted Jon Krakauer (of Into Thin Air fame) to write this story. The other guy, retired Coast Guard captain Tom King collects Coast Guard relics to preserve them and keep them away from profiteering wreck-hunters. As Grumman Ducks were rare WW2 planes, the Greenland Grumman may be worth several million.

Tom King has another, more personal reason: “I don’t want to see John Pritchard’s wallet being sold on eBay.”

Those who read Lost In Shangri-La can expect a similar kind of narrative from Zuckoff here, except with even more testosterone. Imagine the Band Of Brothers set in an icy landscape and made by National Geographic. There’s plenty of drama to keep the pages turning, and heaps of background information to slow things down, too. Zuckoff has done his homework, as attested to by over 20 pages of source references.

As we follow the travails of the B-17 crew and their rescuers amidst dangers that lurk in the white, we are taken back to each major character’s beginnings in relatively fairer climes and times and told how they got to Greenland and, later, learn of their ultimate fates.

Back in the present, we see how the search is hampered by inaccurate maps, a lack of thorough planning, expertise and funding, a clash of personalities, and the harsh Greenland winter.

Zuckoff helps out by giving Sapienza cash and, later, his credit card number. “In no time, Lou (Sapienza) blows past the limit I set.” The author’s sacrifices provide much of the humour in the latter-day part of this saga, for which I was grateful.

Too many names to mention this time around, as we go from the crash victims’ makeshift weather-beaten shelters against the cold to the meeting rooms where creases in the Duck Hunt are being ironed out and, finally, what may be the Duck’s final resting place.

Throughout his potentially quixotic mission to bring us the tales of these brave men – in the past and present – Zuckoff is at times asked, “How does the book end?”

Not in the way you would think. History buffs, however, will thank him for getting this story out of the ice.

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