Book review: ‘Frozen in Time,’ by Mitchell Zuckoff
Special to the Daily
Nearly everyone who has sat through a high school history course is familiar with the main events of World War II that took place in the European and Pacific theaters of war. Fewer, though, have heard about the adventures of the valiant airmen who set out above the vast and unforgiving ice shelf of Greenland to search for two downed aircrafts.
Thanks to author Mitchell Zuckoff’s recent book, “Frozen in Time,” the gripping story of these men is now available to history buffs and armchair adventurers alike. Through careful research and boots-on-the-ground immersion, Zuckoff has assembled a fascinating account of the months of bitter cold and hardship the brave airmen experienced as they endeavored to rescue three of their own, holding to the mantra of “leave no man behind.” Transitioning smoothly between the tale of the men’s trials on the ice and the modern day expedition that strove to find the lost Grumman Duck plane, the book is intense and difficult to put down.
Following Germany’s invasion of Denmark in 1940, the United States grew concerned that Hitler’s reach might creep progressively westward, which made the landmass of Greenland strategic for many reasons. It quickly became vital to the war effort, not the least for its natural resources, namely cryolite, which was used in the manufacturing of aluminum, a necessary component in the construction of the countless aircraft being used to fly critical missions on all the war’s fronts. Also important was Greenland’s convenient location as a fueling stop for flights across the Atlantic, and its rocky shores were the home base for patrol ships scanning the frigid waters for deadly icebergs and Germany’s feared U-boats.
As Greenland’s importance became more evident, so, too, did the hazards intrinsic to its extreme arctic environment. Navigating an aircraft in the turbulent and wind-swept regions required great aviation skills and an excess of bravery.
The unlucky sequence of events crucial to Zuckoff’s story began in the waning days of November 1942, when a cargo plane returning from ferrying supplies to Iceland crashed into the ice of Greenland’s eastern edge. Since crashes were fairly common, there was no real immediate concern for the men, for it was known that all five survived, and rescues had been successful in the past. But in spite of radio contact with the downed craft, the plane could not be found, and concern for the ill-equipped men grew, for the winter months on Greenland are very unforgiving. Joining the search was a shiny new B-17 on route to join the war effort against Germany.
Greenland’s weather can turn on a dime, and the rescuers soon found themselves stranded, as well, as a sudden whiteout forced a hasty crash landing. They were far from any base or from their intended target, the initial downed plane. To make their situation worse, their plane was snapped in half and teetered on the edge of one of the numerous deep crevasses that riddle the coastal lands of Greenland. Several were injured and all were in shock, adding nine men to the count of those missing. Their radio was damaged, so their main goals quickly became survival and holding on to the slim hope that they would be found.
If this scenario is not gripping enough for a story, Zuckoff reveals the final scenes of the drama. One involves a third doomed search plane and the other the modern day expedition with its goal of bringing that third craft’s missing heroes home. Very quickly, “Frozen in Time” becomes riveting, as the World War II fight for survival converges with the fascinating account of the struggle to find and retrieve the Grumman Duck from beneath the ice and 70 years of history.
With photographs and maps, the lives of the bold airmen become large and personable and their efforts to survive are unforgettable. Though hidden from the public because of its strategic importance, the tales of Greenland and the roles of the men who served there are important. Bravery during wartime can come in many guises, and Zuckoff deftly highlights a neglected part of history.
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