When Homer McDowell’s C-53 and its five-man crew went down on the Greenland ice cap on November 5, 1942 under conditions of zero visibility and with no radio transmissions to aid searchers, early attempts to map a search strategy grew out of reports of flares seen at night by several ground stations. As other aircraft on ferry flights arrived on the scene, they were diverted to aid in the search, crewed in each case by airmen similarly handicapped by limited flying experience in general, and any real familiarity with ice-cap navigation in particular. One of these was a four-engine B-17 Flying Fortress bomber, which settled onto the runway of Bluie One, East, Greenland on November 5th – the same day the C-53 went missing. Not yet even given a name by its green crew under the command of ferry pilot Armande Monteverde, it was logged in as PN9E. On the fourth day of that B-17’s search for the missing C-53 transport, Monteverde and co-pilot Harry Spencer, trapped in a violent storm and trying to fly out of a fiord, made the wrong turn and flew into Greenland’s unforgiving ice cap, beginning what for the nine man expanded crew would become a five-month long nightmare.
And that was not the end of the island’s revenge. On November 10th a twin-engine A-20 attack bomber of the Royal Canadian Air Force carrying a three-man crew – anxious to help in what had now become a search for two lost planes - ran out of fuel and time, with only one choice left; the ice cap had claimed yet another victim, although – as it turned out – the crews had survived the impact in both cases, even though not without injuries.
“Surviving” more than a day or two in Greenland’s unforgiving winter environment was a concept not yet appreciated by these “fresh-from-the-States tourists of war”. In addition to its violent, almost explosive storms and heavy snowfalls, the surface of the cap is a maze of hidden fissures, often nearly bottomless and covered by deceptive snow bridges. While these deadly man-traps open and close as the glacial ice shield moves toward the sea, surface travel is made difficult anyway by long wind-blown ripples known as sastrugi. Motorsled or dogsled travel is slow, dangerous, and challenging even for the most experienced, like famous polar explorer, Bernt Balchen who would become involved in this story.
With the leadership of Pilot Monteverde and Co-pilot Spencer, the crew of B-17 PN9E sheltered in the relatively-intact tail section of the bomber together with such survival equipment and emergency supplies as they had, including their parachutes. Thanks to the “genius” of radioman “Lolly” Howarth, the badly damaged radio was rebuilt just in time to get a signal off to a searching U.S. Coast Guard amphibian known as a “Duck”, which had been dispatched from the cutter “Northland” and was able to locate the downed bomber and drop some emergency supplies. Nicknamed the Duck, the aircraft was a Grumman J2F-4 bi-plane, carried on the ship’s deck and taking off and landing from either land or water. Flown by pilot John Pritchard with radioman Ben Bottoms sitting behind him, the Duck was to become the salvation of all the airmen “lost” on the ice cap, along with another in-transit B-17 flown by ferry pilot Kenneth “Pappy” Turner, from Salt Lake City, Utah who, in the next five months was willing to challenge the worst Greenland’s winter could throw at him in making almost daily supply drops to the suffering crash victims. Realizing it was just a matter of time before they froze to death or were swallowed by a moving crevasse if they stayed in the B-17’s tail section, Harry Spencer called upon his knowledge as an Eagle Scout, to carve out, constantly enlarge and fortify an ice dugout which became the saving refuge for the suffering men of PN9E, until plucked from their despair by the daring landing on the ice of a PBY flying boat. (Harry Spencer returned to the crash site 50 years later to install a memorial plaque on the ice. He died in Texas at age 83, after a lifetime of service to the Boy Scouts whose oath is his gravestone epitaph.) Before the ordeal was over, five men, including the two courageous “Duck” flyers would lose their lives, either victims to motorsled attempts on the ground, or the subsequent loss of the “Duck” itself, with its crew and passengers, and PN9E navigator Bill O’Hara would lose both legs to frostbite and gangrene. The C-53 and its crew would never be found, but a group of dedicated aviation archeologists would uncover the remains of the “Duck” at a depth of more than 100 feet in 2012. In 2013 they hope to return in an effort to bring the remains of those brave men home at last.
A Grumman J2F-4 amphibian landed on the ice field to extract the stranded crew of the Canadian A-20. Later, it would be lost in an attempt to do the same for others.