(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.

2018 GEaR Inc. Radar Survey

2018 GEaR Inc. Radar Survey

 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.”

Planning for What's Possible

Things have been quiet at Global Exploration and Recovery recently, but we've been occupied behind the scenes with a wide range of preparations.  All four of us have been working steadily to advance towards the near term goal:  returning to Greenland for a survey mission in 2016.

John Bradley has continued to recruit sponsors to back our mission.  His persistence in reaching out to manufacturers, retailers, and other private sector businesses has yielded new fruitful partnerships.  He's also been honing his skills in areas that will be useful to our work:  rescue in confined spaces and both high and low angle scenarios, as well as expanding his medical certifications.  John has also been gathering input from sources in different fields whose expertise will be vital to planning our survey design and strengthening relationships with leaders in the community in Greenland.

Frank Marley has been busy with his military commitments, recently earning the gold standard in the German Armed Forces Proficiency assessment.  This is a prestigious test that U.S. Service members occasionally have the opportunity to take.  Frank has also prepared research plans to access some little-known archives that may contain valuable historical information about the Duck to inform our survey mission next year.

Jaana Gustafsson has been both on and off the radar - literally.  She's been in Nepal over the past several weeks working with a European glaciology team to conduct radar surveys on a glacier near Dhaulagiri, one of the world's fourteen 8,000m peaks.  Her summer research projects have also taken her to the northernmost reaches of Sweden and Norway.  Lessons she's learning from radar investigations in these environments will refine the techniques we use when we return to Greenland.

Nick Bratton has been in regular contact with the U.S. Coast Guard, discussing plans for a partnership in 2016.  Public-private partnerships are an area of interest for the government.  We have the capacity, skills, and resources to collaborate productively with our willing counterparts in the Coast Guard.  The recovery of the 3 missing men remains a high priority for the Coast Guard and they are thinking creatively about how to keep momentum for the mission strong.  Nick has also been leading GEaR's media strategy development.  

As the temperatures grow cooler this fall, look for things to start heating up with GEaR.  Many of the seeds we've been planting this year will bear fruit soon and we're excited to share our accomplishments with our loyal supporters.  Stay tuned!



Waiting out the Winter

At GEaR we are honest with each other, honest with our partners, and honest with our supporters. It’s in the fabric of who we are and it’s a small way we can honor the memories of the men we’re working to bring home. Let’s be honest: things aren’t looking promising for a return trip to Greenland in 2015. We need to reflect on our approach to pursuing private funding for the project and learn from the experience. We also need to focus on the future.

Like the snows that swirl across the icecap in Greenland, the course of this mission has changed direction frequently and unexpectedly. Like the crew aboard the B-17 bomber PN9E that the men on the Duck found, we have a long winter ahead of us. And like those men, we must be resourceful, persistent, and patient to achieve our goals. For them it was escaping Greenland; for us it’s getting there.                                                                                                      

What have we achieved so far in 2015? We might not have raised the cash we needed to fund the survey mission, but we have made other noteworthy progress. We gained the support of generous and enthusiastic sponsors - too many to list here - who believe in our work and want to contribute to the mission. We have the support of the U.S. Coast Guard for our work and continue to cultivate positive working relationships with our partners in the service. Most importantly, we have the support of the families of the missing men. They are grateful for our efforts and we are motivated by their enthusiasm.                                                                             

The men aboard the B-17 who faced the fierce Greenlandic winter survived because they remained positive and proactive. It’s hard to be optimistic in the face of adversity, but it’s the best way to overcome it. We’re continuing to raise money, explore new partnerships, and tell the story of our mission. There is a lot of work ahead and we can still make meaningful progress now. Nothing ever falls neatly into place in this mission, every gain comes through hard work, and with many simple acts we can achieve a complex goal.


Then and There Meets Here and Now

"You have to go out but you don't have to come back." This is the unofficial slogan of the United States Coast Guard. The remarkable men and women of this service live this creed every day and none embody it more than Lt. John Pritchard and Radioman Benjamin Bottoms. In 1942 these men died in a dramatic and audacious rescue mission in Greenland, along with U.S. Army Air Corps Corporal Loren Howarth. Their plane, a Grumman J2F-4 Duck amphibious biplane, crashed in a storm on a fateful November day near Koge Bay. For 72 years they have been missing, buried beneath the ice of Greenland's coastal glaciers.

Although their bodies remain lost, the memories of these men remain strong. Efforts to find them have met with mixed results in recent years. In 2012 an expedition identified wreckage from the plane in the vicinity of the crash and a 2013 follow-up mission was unable to discover new evidence. A 2014 effort demonstrated the effectiveness of new recovery techniques but also came home empty-handed. Despite setbacks and the near-impossible goal of finding a plane buried in a glacier, our resolve to continue the mission remains strong. These men would have come looking for us. We honor their memory by looking for them.

Now members from recent trips are regrouping, taking a fresh approach to the search. The GEaR team is planning an expedition to Greenland this summer to conduct an extensive survey of the crash vicinity with proven technology and methods. We plan to leave on July 4th, Independence Day, to recognize the sacrifice that these heroes made for their fellow Americans in World War 2.

Why us? Why now? We've been there. We know the terrain, the locals, and the institutions. We understand the science needed to find the men. We have the right tools and techniques for the job. Our unique combination of skills makes us the right team for the job. We have positive, professional relationships with the U.S. Coast Guard and Department of Defense, the governmental bodies who are deeply invested in the return of these men and with whom we are coordinating our efforts. We hope you will follow our progress and support our work. Check back for news and updates. Feel free to reach out to us - we'd love to hear from you, hear your questions and ideas.