ALONG THE FROZEN WATERFRONT (WORLD WAR II IN THE ARCTIC)

by Bruno Yoka

 

.... it wasn’t until years later that the full story of this crash site came to light. An adventure on the Greenland Icecap.

While visiting the Air Force Museum at Wright-Patterson, an Arctic rescue display by the late Col. Bernt Balchen caught my eye with articles preserved from a B-17 Flying Fortress that crashed on the ice cap of Greenland.

Its location was vaguely familiar, its rescue efforts from Comanche Bay was enough to recall the many operations that took place in that time.

I was a member of the Coast Guard Cutter COMANCHE, a light ice breaker that assisted cargo ships in the construction of the main base at Bluie West One (Narssarssuak) and Bluie West Eight (Sondrestrom), and was aboard during the discovery of Comanche Bay.

CGC WESTWIND IN LATER YEARS

The operations in Greenland were kept secret; crewmembers were neither permitted to take cameras on operations, nor keep a diary during the ship’s travels. During these early operations we carried two Army Air Corps officers on board, Capt. Alan Innis-Taylor and Maj. Norman Vaughn. It wasn’t until these two officers signed our Arctic Circle certificate did we realize that they were also with the Byrd Antarctic expeditions One and Two in 1928-30 and 1933-35.

After an encrypted message was received, the ship returned to our base at Narssarssuak. Several dog teams, motor sleds and extra lumber were immediately loaded on the ship.

It was with a sense of urgency that we departed the base on July 14, 1942. CAPT Von Paulsen, the Coast Guard base operations officer, also sailed with us as we set course for the east coast of Greenland. Instead of taking the usual sea route around Cape Farewell, we made a shortcut via the Inside Passage, known only to the experienced Danish navigator, with sheer cliffs rising several thousand feet and cross currents making steering difficult.

It was then that we were informed we were also Commander of the South Greenland patrol. It didn’t appear normal to have the Coast Guard Command Decision officer of Greenland Operations aboard for an off-the-beaten track operation. Rumors began that we would be investigating a downed B-17 Flying Fortress somewhere near the coastline.

Armed landing parties frequently went ashore to investigate survivor huts along the shore. Volunteers were plentiful, as it seemed the crew just wanted to get ashore to stretch their sea legs. I didn’t have to be volunteered. I was told to join the landing parties and look for signs where a radio antenna could be used for transmissions. The huts were emergency shelters built along the coast for stranded sailors or people needing shelter from the elements.

After we passed Angmagsslik on the east coast the ship’s navigator noticed the coast line began to differ from our navigation charts. Where our charts indicated glacier ice flowing down to the sea, we were looking at an open body of water, which appeared to be a bay. With the ship’s lifeboat preceding the ship, we sounded out its depth. We had the pleasant surprise of finding this unknown bay also provided an excellent anchorage. Charting and naming it for the ship met with the unanimous approval of the crew. Maps were drawn with its new name and depth recordings, then sent to the Navy Hydrographic Office in the next available mail. Many of our navigation charts at the time dated to 1892.

After anchoring in our newly discovered bay, the dog teams and motor sleds were unloaded. Captain Taylor and Major Vaughn split into two salvage teams and began their trek up the ice cap to the crash site of the B-17. Lumber was put ashore, and the ship’s carpenter began building an emergency hut on the rocky beach, earning its nickname Beach Head Station. Weather observers later manned it as a reporting station.

Radio units, bombsight stabilizers, machine guns and the important item, the Norden bombsight, were brought back to the ship. The IFF equipment caused us some concern, as they were known to carry self-destruct charges.

The ship remained at anchor for about a week, taking aboard material salvaged from the crash site. Captain Alan Innis-Taylor and Major Norman Vaughn remained behind at the Beach Head Station. A Thompson submachine gun and several old 30-30 rifles were also left behind for their protection.

But it wasn’t until years later that the full story of this crash site came to light.

Records show that it wasn’t one B-17 that crashed, but two, along with four P-38s—the Lost Squadron that crashed en masse on a secret flight from Bluie West Eight bound for Reykjavik, Iceland, on July 4, 1942.

Bogus radio transmissions, traced to an illegal German radio station in northeast Greenland sending false weather information only added to the squadron’s woes. Running low on gas, they decided to crash land on the ice cap. To assist rescue, the entire squadron stayed together. The first plane failed in an attempt to land with the wheels down, and the remaining flight went in with wheels up, sliding a considerable distance before coming to a stop. On the fourth day they managed to make their SOS heard. Search and rescue planes located the crash site and dropped special clothing and food necessary to survive on the ice cap. The pilots and crew managed to walk seventeen miles to the coast, where they were picked up by the Coast Guard Cutter NORTHLAND on July 14, who had been on patrol looking for German radio and weather stations.

On November 9, 1942, the crash and rescue attempts of another B-17, PN9E, while looking for an unreported C-53 cargo plane, involved, Army, Navy and Coast Guard in the vicinity of Comanche Bay, and pushed the men beyond the bounds of human endurance. But the C-53 was never found.

It was in this same area that a Coast Guard Grumman J2F-5 amphibian plane, piloted by LT John Pritchard, and a radio operator from the Cutter NORTHLAND, Benjamin Bottoms, rescued two crewmen from a downed B-17. The plane crashed into a mountain peak the following day in fog attempting to rescue yet another crewmember. Though the bodies of the plane’s pilot, passenger and radio operator were never recovered, expert opinion was that they survived the crash and were able to walk away, but unable to reach help.

It took a total of five months of persistent attempts in which five men died, before final rescue was completed on the B-17 PN9E crew on April 6, 1943. The last three crewmen were rescue by a PBY landing in snow on the ice cap. Unable to take off and being overweight with it human cargo, the decision to fly out the rescued survivors the next morning with the Catalina pilot. Col. Bernt Balchen ordered the dogs and part of the supplies removed, thus permitting the plane to take off, then returned the 40 miles on foot to Comanche Bay.

Over a period of years, snowfall buried the two B-17s and four P-38s. In 1984, an attempt was made by a 16-man group, led by Russ Rajani, to locate the Lost Squadron. Radar and echo sounding equipment did locate four P-38s, but the team was too far into the season to dig to retrieve the planes. Estimates were that the planes were 60 to 70 feet under snow.

In July 1989, Harry Spencer, former co-pilot of the crashed B-17 PN9E, returned to the crash site. He had a small plaque made honoring the memory and bravery of the five men lost in the rescue attempts: LT Pritchard, the Coast Guard pilot; Benjamin Bottoms, the radio operator; Haworth, a radio operator; Wadel, the passenger picked up in Gander, Newfoundland; and LT Demorest, the Arctic expert who tried to rescue the survivors from Comanche Bay and was lost in a crevasse near the airplane with his sled.

Along with the plaque, an American flag was left behind to mark the location of their experience a half century ago.

The B-17 PN9E was never found by Spencer, who believed the plane had moved laterally, imbedded in its own icy shroud, broke off the glacier when it calved, depositing the Flying Fortress in the Bay, or it may have floated out to sea in its own iceberg.

 

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From Don Gardner's Coast Guard Stories

 

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