As the U.S. geared up for what would become an all-out strategic air war against the Axis powers in Europe in the early days of 1942, the challenge of moving first hundreds, then thousands of military aircraft across the Atlantic loomed large. Given the need for refueling stops where no previous facilities had existed, a plan was developed to ferry planes with short-range limitations from Presque Isle, Maine to Goose Bay, Labrador, to hastily-established bases in Danish-controlled Greenland and on to England and Europe. There was a second reason for establishing bases in Greenland arising from the fear that Germany obviously had their eye on setting up weather stations in that thinly-populated and otherwise undefended island which was the birthing place of European weather.
To understand the challenge which these young, barely-trained and navigationally-inexperienced ferry crews were about to face, we have to spend a few paragraphs painting a picture of that land which bears such a pleasant-sounding name - Greenland.- perhaps coined as part of the Viking world’s first real estate rip-off scheme. Covering 850,000 square miles, it is the world’s largest island with only a tiny population clinging to small pockets along its southern coasts and possessed of the world’s worst weather conditions. Only the arctic regions rival this land of ice, snow, subzero cold, gale force winds, dense fog and glacier-bound approaches. It was an iceberg spawned from these craggy shores which sank the Titanic in 1912, and this snow-crazed continent which continues to send these floating giants into the North Atlantic.
Greenland is a land of mind-boggling extremes with mountain peaks of 12,000 feet, a central basin 1000 feet below sea level, and an ice sheet which is 10,500 feet thick covering 695,000 miles of its ever-changing surface. It contains so much of the world’s water locked in its frozen immensity that if it were to melt, the world’s oceans would rise by as much as 24 feet.
Navigation across Greenland’s airspace in the l940s was complicated not just by weather conditions which could change in an instant, but by the absence of dependable radio direction-finding equipment and basic communications gear adequate to the task. The handful of ground stations – designated with the code prefix “Bluie”, as in Bluie West 8 or Bluie East 1, were usually no more than a landing strip and a shed or Quonset hut with a small staff with a limited-range radio and little more. The strongest U.S. presence in the area to begin with was the U.S. Coast Guard cutter Northland which carried a launchable amphibian aircraft known as a Grumman J2F4 “Duck”, a 1938 era biplane which, with its courageous two-man crew will figure prominently in this two-part story.
The first – and most well-known – mishap occurred in July, 1942, when a flight of six twin-engine P-38 “Lightning” fighters, along with a pair of 4-engine B-17 “Flying Fortress” bombers found themselves running low on fuel and lost in white-out conditions over Greenland’s east coast. With no alternative, they crash-landed on the ice cap, after learning the hard way not to attempt that maneuver with their wheels down. Because it was high summer, and because their radio signals were picked up three days later, all 25 men survived to be found by dog-team rescuers after supplies were air-dropped to them. They eventually found themselves “guests” of the cutter Northland. They became known as “The Lost Squadron”, and returned to the headlines fifty years later, when modern-day aviation archeologists melted one of the P-38s out of the ice at a depth of 268 feet, brought it to the surface in pieces in 1992, and eventually returned it to flying condition.. It enjoyed a new life at air shows and in the headlines as “Glacier Girl”.
Not so lucky was USAAF Captain Homer McDowell, co-pilot Lt. William Springer and their three passengers when their C-53 transport (a version of the C-47 “Gooney Bird”) disappeared over the ice cap in the far more frigid weather of November 5, 1942, setting in motion a story of survival, courage and human tenacity which would play out over the next one hundred and fifty-one days.
Along with hidden crevasses which took the life of one 1942 crash victim and threatened others, wind-blown ridges known as sastrugi hampered winter motorsled or dog sled efforts.