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This Day in History: Rescue at the Greenland Ice Cap

On this day in 1942, Coast Guard Lt. John Pritchard prepares for a rescue mission. The young pilot would miraculously save two men from an icy death in Greenland, but then his mission would take an unfortunate turn for the worse.

Pritchard and his radioman remain the only two members of the United States Coast Guard still missing in action.

The trouble began weeks earlier when an American transport plane crashed on the Greenland Ice Cap. The aircraft had been following the so-called “Snowball Route,” a risky but necessary flight path often utilized during World War II.

Five men survived the crash landing and radioed for assistance. A B-17 was dispatched to help.

Would you believe that an unexpected whiteout storm caused that B-17 to go down, too? Its crew survived the crash and used the plane’s tail section, combined with some parachutes, to create a shelter.

From that point on, things just kept getting worse. Weather and mechanical problems plagued every attempt to rescue survivors. A motor sled team tried to go in, but was forced to turn back. In the meantime, yet another plane crash occurred! This one was a Royal Air Force plane. Its 3-man crew made some makeshift snowshoes and went looking for help.

By now, rescue attempts had been going on for weeks.

On November 23, Lt. Pritchard led a successful effort to rescue the Royal Air Force Crew. At least one crew was safe. Sadly, no one ever found the crew of the U.S. Army transport plane that had crashed on November 5.

That left only the B-17, along with its survivors.

On November 24, someone finally located that crash site. Of course, finding the men was one thing. Getting down to them on the ice below was a whole new challenge. A U.S. Coast Guard ship and Pritchard’s seaplane were dispatched to do what they could. On November 28, Pritchard finally made it to the crew.

It was amazing that he made it! In fact, the only reason he succeeded was because he decided to attempt something that had never been accomplished before: He landed his sea plane on one of the glaciers! He was able to get two of the injured B-17 survivors onto his plane and flew them to safety.

Pritchard had just completed the first intentional landing and take-off from the Greenland Ice Cap.

The next day, November 29, he was ready to try again. He and his radioman, Petty Officer First Class Benjamin Bottoms, made a second landing near the B-17 crash site. A third B-17 survivor, Army Air Force Corporal Loren Howarth, was loaded onto Pritchard’s plane. The weather was getting worse by the minute, and the three men took off, quickly, trying to outrun the storm.

They didn’t make it. A whiteout storm hit before they could clear the area, and contact with Pritchard’s plane was lost. The crash site for Pritchard’s plane was eventually sighted from the air, but not until December 7. There were no signs of life, and the crash looked like it had been a bad one.

Tragically, Pritchard, Bottoms, and Howarth’s remains have never been recovered. Although the wreckage was initially found, it was soon lost again due to glacial movements. Today, Pritchard and Bottoms are the only two U.S. Coast Guardsmen who remain unaccounted for.

You won’t be surprised to hear that efforts to recover their bodies are still ongoing, even after 75 years. “[T]hey are still trying to find my brother and his radioman, and that poor corporal that was with him when they crashed,” Pritchard’s sister told a reporter recently. “It’s just amazing. It does my heart good. I am so proud of the Coast Guard.”

P.S. Yes, most of the crew in the B-17 survived. But that is a story for another day.

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