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Dramatic Rescue on Greenland's Ice Cap
November 29, 1942
By Ken Freeze, PACS, USCG (ret)

Below is just a few chapters of a story that unfolded over a 148 day period during WWII. But while it may just be a part of a much longer story, it typifies the heroics that have been played out time and time again throughout the history of the Coast Guard.

U.S. Army  B-17F Flying Fortress, PN9E (#42-5088), with a crew of nine, departed for a search mission to look for a C-53 missing over the Greenland ice cap on November 9, 1942.  At almost two hours into the mission, while passing under some overcast, the B-17F made a left turn and while in the turn the left wing struck the top of a glacier causing it to crash.  

Almost three weeks after the crash, on November 28, 1942, the Coast Guard Cutter Northland, under the command of Lieutenant Commander Francis C. Pollard, received a message that the Army had made contact with the crew of the PN9E.  The crash site was on the ice cap about 10 miles inland from the top of Kjoge Bay. The site was also about 25 miles air miles from a weather station. Fortunately, the CGC Northland had recently exchanged its obsolete SOC-4 floatplane, which wasn't much good for more that observations, for a new Grumman J2F Duck amphibian. 

The Coast Guard Cutter Northland was a 216-ft icebreaker, launched in 1927.

The CGC Northland arrived at Comanche Bay, on the east coast of Greenland. Since Kjoge Bay was iced up, ice free Comanche Bay was as close as the Northland could get and launch its J2F. In overcast, but otherwise clear weather, the J2F, piloted by LT John A. Pritchard Jr. along with radioman, ARM1c Benjamin Bottoms, took off and located the crashed B-17F. As he flew over the site he could see that the aircraft fuselage had broken in two over the wing. The crew had taken refuge in the rear portion of the fuselage in an effort to get out of 25 to 35 mph winds with temperatures near zero.

LT John A. Pritchard Jr.
ARM1c Benjamin Bottoms

While overhead, Pritchard dropped a note asking landing conditions. The pilot of PN9E, 1st Lt. Armand Monteverde signaled for him not to land because the site was surrounded by crevasses.

Although the surface around the crash site was badly crevassed, Pritchard searched and spotted a smooth field covered with snow about two miles north of the PN9E. With landing gear down, Pritchard carefully set his aircraft down on the snow.

Pritchard and Bottoms set off on foot in the direction of the crash site. Pritchard lead the way using a broom stick to test the snow and ice.  By this time the crew of the PN9E had been on the ice cap for almost three weeks. Although some supplies had been dropped to them by an Army C-54, they were practically frozen and on the verge of starvation. Needless to say upon seeing Pritchard and Bottoms they gave them an enthusiastic welcome. 

Pritchard asked Monteverde whom he wanted to be sent out first. Monteverde wanted that the two most seriously injured to be removed first, but there was no way that they could get them to the landing site. 

It was decided that PFC Tuccirone and S/Sgt. Puryear, who could both walk, would be sent out on the first trip. Since the two of them were in a weakened state, the co-pilot, 2nd Lt. Harry Spencer, accompanied them on the journey.  Lt. Pritchard's plan was to fly them back to the CGC , returning for the others the next day.

On the journey back to the J2F, they didn't get very far before both Tucciarone and Puryear dropped to the snow with exhaustion. It was decided that Pritchard and Spencer would go ahead to clear the snow away for the plane and make it ready for take off.  Meanwhile, Bottoms would stay with the other two and assist them in making the trek to the plane. 

When Bottoms, Tucciarone, and Puryear reached the J2F, the snow had been cleared and it had been turned around, ready for take-off. 

By the time Pritchard reached the coast, darkness had set in. Lcdr. Pollard ordered the CGC Northland's searchlights turned on to serve as a beacon. As the J2F landed, the cutter's crew lined the rails and cheered until the aircraft taxied alongside.

Early the next morning, Pritchard and Bottoms took off again to pick up another load of survivors from the PN9E.  Shortly afterwards, the J2F disappeared from view, the weather closed in, and Captain Pollard ordered Pritchard back to the ship. Apparently the message was never received.

While the crew of the PN9E was cooking breakfast, Pritchard flew over the crash site. From the air, Bottoms dropped two ski sleds with a note that they were to be used to pull the injured to the landing site they had used the day before.

As Pritchard and Bottoms were landing to the north of the site, from the east came an Army rescue team via a motor sled.  However, just as the sled was about 100 yards from the PN9E, the sled with one of the two rescuers fell through the ice into a deep crevasse. 

The men rushed to gather ropes and whatever other equipment was available to attempt a rescue. They soon realized that any attempt to rescue the man would require more men and equipment than they had on hand. Corporal Loren Howarth volunteered to walk to the landing site of the J2F and ask Pritchard to fly back and get more men and equipment from the CGC Northland.

Howarth had no sooner reached the landing site when heavy fog began to move in from the coast. Pritchard ordered Howarth into the plane and they took off. As the plane left, it flew over the PN9E and the crevasse where the men were engaged in their hopeless rescue attempt. A short time later the fog moved in and was so thick that even the rescue efforts at the crevasse had to be called off.

As Pritchard headed back to the CGC Northland his plane was engulfed in fog. The the entire area was fogged in. As the weather grew worse the signals from the plane grew weaker and finally faded out.

Eight days later an Army airplane spotted the wreckage of Pritchard's J2F, about 10 miles northwest of where the CGC Northland was anchored the but there were no signs of life.

Five volunteers from the CGC Northland landed ashore in an attempt of reach the J2F crash site on foot. However, it soon became evident that any over ice trek would be fruitless and very dangerous. After nearly a month of fighting the Greenland winter in an attempt to rescue the crew of PN9E, the CGC Northland and her crew could do no more and the icebreaker returned to its patrol.

Pritchard, Bottoms and Howarth were never found. Pritchard and Bottoms were awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross posthumously. The remaining survivors from the B-17F were eventually rescued by Navy and Army aircraft in April 1943. 

Both Pritchard and Bottoms are listed as 'Missing in Action' on the Tablets of the Missing at Cambridge American Cemetery in Cambridge, England.


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