(Kulusuk, Greenland) – Analysis of new ground penetrating radar data by scientists suggests the 76-year-old mystery of a United States Coast Guard amphibious biplane and its missing crew that vanished in a storm over Greenland in World War II is one pivotal step closer to finally being solved.
On November 29th, 1942 the Coast Guard responded to the distress call of an American B-17 bomber that had crashed on the Greenland icecap. While performing a daring rescue of that downed crew, the Coast Guard Grumman J2F-4 “Duck” disappeared in a winter storm with Lt. John Pritchard, radioman Benjamin Bottoms, and U.S. Army Air Corps Cpl. Loren Howarth aboard. The plane was observed on the ice for several years, but then disappeared below the surface as snowfall gradually buried it. Lt John Pritchard and radioman Benjamin Bottoms are the only two Coast Guard service members who remain missing in action. The events of the crash and rescue attempt were chronicled by Mitchell Zuckoff in the NY Times bestseller, Frozen in Time.
An Alaska-based nonprofit research organization, Global Exploration and Recovery (GEaR), is leading the hunt for the plane and its crew. During their 2018 expedition, the team focused its survey on an area of the glacier that is consistent with historical records of where the plane crashed and how it might have moved over time in the shifting ice. No prior missions investigated the vicinity where GEaR discovered the anomaly. Analysis of radar data suggests that the anomaly is the same size as the missing plane, is at a depth within the expected range, and is not a natural feature like an air pocket, rock, or crevasse.
“This is the most interesting evidence we found in our entire 2018 survey,” said Dr. Jaana Gustafsson, the geophysicist with the organization whose radar survey work revealed the anomaly in the ice, “But we need to drill down to it to determine exactly what it is. It’s promising given the size and depth of what we’re looking for.”
GEaR President John Bradley explained the context of the discovery.
“The metaphor of a needle in a haystack doesn’t even come close to describing the magnitude of our search. What we found in our last survey is the most exciting lead in a mission that has spanned years and been a rollercoaster of emotions for both our team and for the families of the missing men.”
Vice President Francis Marley, a search and recovery expert who also serves with the Alaska National Guard, described the next steps in the mission.
“As good as our radar data may be, we can’t say definitively that we’ve found the plane until we get our eyes under the ice. This result moves the search ahead by leaps and bounds but we need to get back out there to verify the results.”
GEaR is preparing an expedition for May 2020 to return to the ice and obtain visual evidence of the anomaly. They will use a custom ice drill, built by project partner Kovacs, to bore holes through the ice to the object and inspect it with a remote-controlled video camera. GEaR coordinates its work with the Coast Guard and maintains close relationships with the families of the missing men.
The GEaR team has been involved with the search for these missing American WWII heroes since 2010. Their approach draws on “light and fast” mountaineering techniques for their expeditions in order to work efficiently and safely in the harsh and unpredictable arctic conditions where summer temperatures can be frigid and 70mph windstorms can last for days.
Nick Bratton, Chief Operating Officer for GEaR, explains why they keep going back in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds.
“What those men risked in 1942 to save their fellow Americans embodies the true spirit of the Coast Guard. If it had been us stranded out there on the ice they would have come to our aid, no matter the danger. We owe it to those men and their families to go after them and bring them home.”