With any luck, we may never run out of World War II stories. Seventy years after Hollywood started assembling its bomber crews — John Garfield, William Bendix and somebody called “Tex”— World War II remains the mother lode of war adventure stories. Korea, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan have come and (mostly) gone, but it’s World War II that keeps delivering our Saturday serial heroics. Why? A combination, perhaps, of black-and-white moral clarity (we were right, the Nazis were wrong), the high stakes, the sheer scale of the war, touching everybody. Or perhaps it simply went on long enough, in enough places, to produce a varied stream of great stories. Mitchell Zuckoff has found another one, and what a story it is.
Zuckoff brought the World War II adventure story to the “Survivor” era in his last book, the best-selling “Lost in Shangri-La,” about a downed plane in New Guinea. Now he takes us to an even more inhospitable environment: the Greenland winter ice cap of subzero temperatures, blinding snow and 150-mph winds. Survival here can be decided in a matter of hours. On Nov. 5, 1942, a C-53 Skytrooper cargo plane with a crew of five crashed on the ice cap, inland from Koge Bay. What were thought to be signal flares were seen. Rescue flights went out immediately, with no success. Four days later, a B-17 bomber en route to Britain that had joined the search parties encountered a blizzard so intense that the horizon became invisible. It flew into the glacier with nine men on board, all of whom miraculously survived the crash, huddled in the broken-off tail section of the plane, teetering toward a gaping crevasse (later they carved out caves in the ice). “Frozen in Time” is the story of how they managed to stay alive (or not) for an astonishing 148 days. Eventually spotted and supplied by air drop, they could not be reached by dog sled or plane — a Coast Guard rescue attempt in a Grumman Duck ended on Nov. 29, 1942, when it, too, crashed on the ice cap.
Everything that could happen, did happen: Blizzards raged for days on end, eyelids froze together in the cold, fingernails fell off, frostbite turned to gangrene, snow bridges collapsed into unseen crevasses, rescue sled dogs ran off, hypothermia caused delusions. This is the stuff of great survivalist drama, and Zuckoff, a good storyteller, makes the most of it. He is alert to the arbitrary twists of fate that keep one man alive but not another and has a good eye for detail that suggests the daily suffering (even squalor — privies dug into the ice) behind the larger-than-life heroics. This is not a genre known for literary style, but Zuckoff’s clear-eyed prose does just what it needs to do — keep up the suspense and make the pages turn. He even manages to add a contemporary story — the 2012 search for the downed Grumman Duck and its crew, now buried in the ice — and stitch it into the historical narrative so deftly that one feeds the other.
But what gives the book its weight is his genuine interest in, and respect for, the men themselves. We learn how they got through the days, what they talked about, what they did for each other. (He is equally adept at sketching the members of the 2012 expedition.) This is unabashedly a guy’s book, the kind that people give (rightly, in this case) on Father’s Day. The period flavor is strong and appealing. Everyone seems to have a nickname — “Tick” Morgan, “Dutch” Dolleman, “Pappy” Turner and Coast Guard Rear Adm. Edward “Iceberg” Smith — and thoughts of home have a kind of Norman Rockwell naivete, but this is presented without a hint of condescension. These are selfless and modest heroes, their simple faith in God and country perhaps in the end their secret strength. In an often moving coda, we learn what the survivors did after their adventure on the ice: They become ordinary Americans. It’s a chapter of small businesses, Rotarian awards, city council meetings, the Boy Scouts — just what Rockwell liked to paint. Zuckoff makes us feel lucky to have had such men. They are lucky to have him to tell their remarkable story.
FROZEN IN TIME
An Epic Story of Survival and a Modern Quest for Lost Heroes of World War II
By Mitchell Zuckoff
Harper. 391 pp. $28.99