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This Day in History: A long-stranded B-17 crew is finally rescued (Part 3)

On this day in 1943, the last surviving members of a B-17 crew prepare to leave the Greenland Ice Cap. They’d been stranded on an icy glacier for months.

The entire crew had survived the crash on November 9, but early rescue efforts had been a mixed bag of successes and failures. (See yesterday’s post.) By December, seven men were still trapped on the glacier: Six of the original B-17 survivors, plus one man, Don Tetley, who’d been attempting a motorsled rescue when his partner was killed.

The situation was grim. The worst of winter was coming, and further rescue attempts would be difficult. The stranded men would have to save themselves! Tetley and three others would take the one remaining motorsled to Ice Cap Station, about 30 miles away. They’d send a new motorsled back for the others.

Tetley’s group departed, carefully treading across a field of ice crevasses that surrounded the B-17 wreckage. Just when they thought they’d cleared the field, one man stepped on a hidden crevasse. The move was fatal.

In a sad twist, Private Clarence Wedel was a newlywed. His wife would soon give birth to a little girl who would never know her Daddy.

Tetley’s group tried to continue, but its motorsled broke down. They’d traveled only 6 miles from the B-17 wreckage. Fortunately, a resupply plane flying overhead happened to see the new “Motorsled Camp” that Tetley’s men created. They would start getting supply drops, just like the men at the B-17 wreck.

The weeks that followed were grueling. The worst of winter had hit. Dogsled teams were sent on rescue missions, but the dogs suffered in the weather. Motorsleds kept breaking down. Rescuers had to turn back because their feet were frozen.

Fortunately, Army Colonel Bernt Balchen was hatching a plan. Why couldn’t a PBY Catalina land on the ice next to Motorsled Camp?

Balchen’s plan went into motion on February 5—and it worked! (See picture.) Within 15 minutes, the Motorsled Camp survivors were loaded onto the PBY, and then . . . nothing. The plane was frozen to the ice. A few men jumped up and down on the PBY’s wings, rocking the plane until it became unstuck. The PBY finally took off, safely delivering three survivors to Ice Cap Station.

Three down. Three to go.

Things were going badly at the original wreck site. One man was having delusions. Another was dealing with an unhealed injury from the November 9 crash. All were despondent and had considered suicide. These men sorely needed the surprise that came in early March: A routine supply drop brought letters from home.

Things began to look more promising.

By mid-March, the PBY crew was ready to try again. It was too treacherous to land near the wrecked B-17, but they could land at Motorsled Camp and drop off a dogsled team. That team would retrieve the 3 remaining B-17 survivors, then return to Motorsled Camp. The PBY would come back for them there.

The dogsled team arrived at the B-17 wreckage on March 18. The survivors were oddly stoic. “After 129 days of fighting everything the Arctic could throw at us,” one wrote, “I guess nothing could excite us.”

The next day, they left the B-17 wreckage for good. Motorsled Camp would be their home for a few more weeks while they waited for a break in the weather. That break finally came on April 5, when the PBY returned for its last load.

The story of that last flight off Greenland’s ice could probably fill its own post! Suffice it to say that everything went wrong: The plane was too heavy. An engine failed. The PBY was running out of fuel. The front wheel wouldn’t go down. When the plane finally skidded to a stop, it nearly crashed into another plane.

Nevertheless, they’d made it. After 5 grueling months on the Greenland Ice Cap, the last B-17 survivors were finally headed home.

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