In Frozen In Time: An Epic Story of Survival and a Modern Quest for Lost Heroes of World War II, Mitchell Zuckoff recounts the ordeal of a B-17 bomber crew stranded on the Greenland ice cap in 1942.
There were no major injuries in the crash-landing that starts your saga—so what made the predicament so awful?
The crew landed in literally the worst place on Earth—a glacier surrounded by crevasses, with the plane broken in half and hanging over an open one. These crevasses are hundreds of feet deep, and you may not know one’s there; you could be walking along and suddenly fall through to your death. They were trapped in Greenland’s version of a minefield, with little food and no cold-weather gear. So there was frostbite, which led to gangrene for one airman whose feet froze when he stayed with a comrade who fell into a crevasse.
The B-17 was searching for another downed plane, and other planes came looking for it in turn. What perils did the aviators face?
They constantly had to cope with blizzards and heavy overcast. They called it “flying in milk”: when they couldn’t distinguish the gray-white ice cap from the clouds they wouldn’t know which way was up or down. Even more death-defying, the crew of a Coast Guard amphibious biplane managed to land on the ice cap amid all the crevasses and take off again with some of the survivors.
You went on an expedition to find the wreckage of that rescue plane. What sort of dangers did you encounter?
We faced many of the same dangers; there were crevasses, and we brought guns in case of polar bears. The plane was entombed 50 feet deep in the ice and we had to use radar just to locate it. I invested my advance to help finance the expedition, because I had to see it through—to see if we could possibly bring these bodies home.
Your previous book, Lost in Shangri-la, is also a wartime survival epic about an air crew, including a WAC, who crashed in New Guinea. Which doomed mission would you rather have avoided?
Greenland! What those men went through, for as long as five months, was excruciating. There was never a day when they weren’t gripped by cold, fear, hunger; some of them descended into madness.
Just about everyone in Frozen in Time risks, and sometimes loses, his life to rescue others. Yet despite extreme dangers they never abandon the rescue and say “we have to cut our losses.” What accounts for that devotion?
I think they all knew they were part of something larger than themselves—the war effort, and then this private, isolated attempt to survive. They hoped someone would come for them if they were lost, and then when they were lost, someone did come for them! That chain of selflessness is, for me, the heart and soul of this book.