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This Day in History: A long-stranded B-17 crew, rescued (Part 2)

On this day in 1943, three members of a stranded B-17 crew finally leave their crumpled plane. It had been their home on the Greenland Ice Cap for four long months.

The nine men had crashed on a glacier on November 9, 1942, completely unprepared for the hostile climate. Their clothing was inadequate; they didn’t have enough food. The shelter they created out of the bomber’s tail section couldn’t be made weathertight. Nevertheless, they kept the plane’s wings clear of snow so the wreck would be visible from the sky. They got the radio working again. On November 24, American searchers finally found the wreck and dropped supplies. (See yesterday’s post.)

USS Northland, circa 1944

What a relief! Help was on the way.

One rescue attempt came in the form of an Army motorsled team: Lt. Max Demorest and Sgt. Don Tetley traveled miles across the ice to get to the B-17. In the meantime, the U.S. Coast Guard was preparing its own rescue.

Lt. John Pritchard planned to fly his seaplane from the Coast Guard cutter USS Northland (pictured) and land it on the glacier close to the stranded Americans. Pritchard and his radio man, Benjamin Bottoms, departed Northland on November 28.

As Pritchard flew over the plane wreck, he dropped a note for the B-17 crew. How was the ice? Should he land wheels-up or wheels-down? The crew should stand on the right wing to signal one thing and the left wing to signal the other. If it was simply too dangerous, they should gather by the tail.

Pritchard’s note concluded with a simple sentence: “If there’s a 60-40 chance, I’ll take it.”

The B-17 crew cried as they read his words. Then they made a unanimous decision: Yes, they were cold, wet, hungry, and injured. But they also did not know if Pritchard could land safely. They gathered atop the B-17’s tail to wave Pritchard off.

What a shock when he landed anyway! Pritchard had made a unilateral decision to land, wheels-down—AND he made it.

It was the first intentional landing on the Greenland Ice Cap.

Two survivors were chosen to return with Pritchard: These men were injured, but they were still capable of walking back to the seaplane. How happy they must have been when Pritchard brought them aboard USS Northland later that day. Their ordeal was over.

Two rescues down. Seven to go.

Several hours later, the motorsled team arrived at the site of the B-17 wreck. They were ready to take anyone who couldn’t make it out with Pritchard. Both rescues were set for the next morning.

But Greenland’s ice would not be so easily defeated.

The next morning, Demorest was turning his motorsled around in preparation for the return trip when he fell through a well-hidden crevasse in the ice. The plunge was fatal.

In the meantime, Pritchard and Bottoms had landed on the glacier a second time. They’d brought sleds and intended to move the more seriously injured survivors until a change in the weather prompted them to move faster. Howarth jumped aboard the seaplane at the last minute, and Pritchard took off.

It was a bad decision. A whiteout storm hit before Pritchard could clear the area, and the plane fell out of contact. Neither the plane nor its passengers were ever recovered.

The day had begun so joyfully—and yet it ended so badly. Seven men were still stranded on the ice: Six B-17 crew members plus the last member of the motorsled team.

Future rescue efforts would go better, but it would be months before anyone else would leave the Ice Cap.

The story concludes tomorrow.

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