Most people on earth know very little about its frozen regions, and that includes Greenland, the scene of this remarkable book and the harrowing stories that prompted it. Mitchell Zuckoff is the author of six books, including the bestselling LOST IN SHANGRI-LA, and a professor of journalism at Boston University where he teaches narrative writing and investigative reporting. For this latest book, he took an active role, creating an adventure within an adventure.
At the outset of World War II, Greenland, a hunk of ice in the northern Atlantic that should have been named Whiteland, population of about 50, became a strategic location for the Allies after Hitler invaded its mother country, Denmark. The US used Greenland to mine cryolite, needed for manufacturing aluminum crucial to the war effort, so having an enemy presence potentially so close was unacceptable. Another concern was that Germany could use the gigantic iceberg as a weather station to aid in its conquest of Europe.
"This is surely a testament to the bravery, camaraderie and discipline that played such a vital role in keeping them all alive for 148 days in a terrain that Zuckoff aptly describes as 'an immense bowl filled with ice.'"
Against this dramatic backdrop, an American B-17 warplane on a delivery mission in 1942 crashed somewhere in the trackless expanse of ice, stranding nine airmen who were forced into very basic survival mode. Supplies were dropped to them, and they worked out a routine of chores and schedules that helped keep them alert, not realizing it would be months before their rescue could be effected. In fact, two planes were lost in the attempt. It is the search for the bodies of the rescuers 70 years later, with Zuckoff assisting in that initiative, that comprises the second part of this amazing saga.
Zuckoff calls Greenland "the world's loneliest place." In his book --- titled, apparently with intent, after an earlier work about the search for the Franklin Expedition in the Canadian wild --- the reader will learn a great deal about life at sub-zero temperatures, with nothing but an unbroken vista of milky white to distract the senses. There are also lessons about human fortitude and courage, because those who survived in this maddening, constantly threatening environment had guts. They holed up in the tail section of the wrecked aircraft, spent much of their time in sleeping bags, played word games, and gave each other geography quizzes to keep their sanity, shared their rations to the last crumb, and used large containers of sled-dog food for pillows. One man had gangrene after both feet froze, and another went into a trance-like psychosis that made him self-destructive.
To venture out from the wreckage could mean sudden death as huge crevasses were all around, constantly shifting and opening. And if bad weather settled in, all hope might finally be lost. Intrepid Norwegian explorer Bernt Balchen, who was enlisted in the supply and rescue mission, put it this way: “The Arctic is an unscrupulous enemy…it strikes without warning.”
Some readers will feel stress at going back and forth from one story (the plight of the stranded airmen) to the other (the search for the bodies of those who attempted a rescue). But it’s hard to see how Zuckoff could have written either portion better or maintained the suspense of both so well. He tirelessly researched this highly detailed story, using interviews with the families of both groups to bring the current and past adventures to life. It is remarkable that all nine men survived to their ultimate rescue, and most lived long and productive lives. This is surely a testament to the bravery, camaraderie and discipline that played such a vital role in keeping them all alive for 148 days in a terrain that Zuckoff aptly describes as “an immense bowl filled with ice.”
Reviewed by Barbara Bamberger Scott on May 10, 2013