Mitchell Zuckoff has a nose for the classic adventure story. In his 2011 bestseller, “Lost in Shangri-La,’’ the Boston University journalism professor brought a seasoned reporter’s skills — he worked at the Globe for a decade — and a real flair to his account of a World II-era plane crash AND RESCUE in the jungles of New Guinea.
“Frozen in Time,’’ Zuckoff’s new book, delivers a similar payoff. Again, he has spun an edge-of-the-seat yarn involving a World War II-era plane crash — actually, several crashes — and endurance against the odds. But the locale could not be more different: Instead of the tropics, this time it’s Greenland, one of the world’s coldest, most inhospitable climes. It is vast — “Greenland could swallow Texas and California and still have room for a dessert of New Mexico, Arizona, Florida, Pennsylvania, and all of New England,” Zuckoff writes — sparsely inhabited, and deadly cold.
During the war, Greenland, a Danish possession, became a strategic asset. The Allies built air bases to serve as way stations for planes headed from the United States to the European theater. Yet the real enemy was the climate: Weather in Greenland was an unpredictable, almost demonic force that wreaked havoc with aviators and claimed many planes and lives.
Rooting around in a newspaper archive, Zuckoff came across items about a B-17 bomber that crashed onto the Greenland ice cap in 1942 during a search-and-rescue mission. The crew survived the impact, but the November crash turned out to be the least of their hardships: With no Arctic survival gear aboard and only meager food supplies, they were forced to brave a harsh Greenland winter.
The nine-man group battled blizzards and frostbite, boredom and terror, exhaustion and hunger as they sheltered in the tail section of the plane. Unwilling participants in a harrowing arctic adventure, their exploits recalled the feats of explorers like Shackleton and Amundsen. What they lacked in gear, they made up for in fortitude and a jury-rigging, whatever-works tenacity that carried them through perilous circumstances.
As he DETAILS the bomber crew’s odyssey, Zuckoff INTERSPERSES CHAPTERS RECOUNTING a second story, this one set in the present day. Here, he details a contemporary endeavor to find the wreck of another craft, a US Coast Guard seaplane affectionately known as a Duck, which went down during a flight to rescue the crew of the B-17, dubbed PN9E after its radio call sign. An acquaintance tells Zuckoff about Lou Sapienza, the scrappy CEO of North South Polar Inc., which specializes in “the most difficult recovery missions located in the most challenging environments on earth.”
Sapienza’s passion is finding lost military aircraft and recovering, when possible, the remains of US servicemen. Stubborn and quixotic in equal measure, he does not take no for an answer. Determined to find the Duck, he contends with government bureaucracy, tight budgets, equipment mix-ups, and weather as he works with the Coast Guard in Greenland, where he hopes to UNCOVER the plane, thought to be immured in a glacier. (Zuckoff likens the effort to “searching for a diamond chip buried deep beneath a frozen football field.”)
Zuckoff is not merely an observer of this initiative; he partially finances it — using a portion of his advance to subsidize Sapienza — and tags along. The author is a good-natured participant, ever modest about his own skills: “[M]y experience in extreme cold consists of shoveling snow from my driveway,” he tells us. Still, he wants “to walk the glacier in my own boots, to see the area where the men of the PN9E holed up and where the Duck went down.” But these sections, which read like a long National Geographic article, feel more dutiful and by-the-numbers than inspired. They don’t compare to the main event — how the downed B-17 airmen survived.
Though Zuckoff lays it on a bit thick at times (“In the sky, the men on a B-17 were warriors. On the ground, they were frozen sardines in a busted-open can.”), he skillfully keeps the reader in his grip. What played out on the ice boggles the mind. The crew fashioned blankets from parachute cloth and subsisted on K rations. They had no cold weather training, but Lieutenant Armand Monteverde, a Californian, ran a tight operation: His leadership would prove crucial. The exploits of radioman Loren “Lolly” Howarth were also decisive. Battling freezing fingers, Howarth worked diligently to fix radio equipment that allowed the survivors to communicate with rescuers.
The crew of the PN9E were spotted in a few weeks and resupplied by airdrops, which eased some of their misery; still, extricating them would prove maddeningly complex. The icy terrain around the wreck was riven with menacing crevices that would hamper any rescue attempt, whether by air, sled, or snowshoe. It was a prison.
Enter famed arctic aviator Bernt Balchen, a Norwegian-born Army pilot who devised a daring plan to land amphibious Catalina flying boats belly down on the ice. No one thought it possible, but Balchen, like Sapienza, refused to take no for an answer: “If I’m to crawl in on my hands and knees, I’ll get the boys off the Ice Cap,” he avowed. Needless to say, very little goes according to plan — the US Army and Navy sent men, dogs, sleds, and planes to bring Monteverde and his men home. Weeks stretch into months, but the pages fly by as you eagerly read on. Will they ever get home safely? Zuckoff’s mastery keeps readers wondering all the way to the end.
Matthew Price is a regular contributor to the Globe. He can be reached at email@example.com.