The Long Blue Line: Lt. John Pritchard and his World War II rescues

This blog is part of a series honoring the long blue line of Coast Guard men and women who served before us. Stay tuned as we highlight the customs, traditions, history and heritage of the Coast Guard.

Written by William H. Thiesen, Atlantic Area historian

Lt. John Pritchard’s Grumman Duck in the icy waters of Greenland before taking flight on his final rescue mission. U.S. Coast Guard photo.

Lt. John Pritchard’s Grumman Duck in the icy waters of Greenland before taking flight on his final rescue mission. U.S. Coast Guard photo.

There are so many Coast Guard men and women whose devotion to duty has put them in harm’s way that it would take a lifetime to write-up each and every story. Like many of these selfless Coast Guardsmen, Lt. John A. Pritchard went in harm’s way to save the lives of others only to sacrifice his own.

Pritchard graduated from the U.S. Coast Guard Academy in 1938 and earned his wings at Pensacola Naval Air Station in 1941. His initial tour of duty began in Miami before the Service re-assigned him to the Greenland Patrol. In this World War II theatre of operations overseen by the Coast Guard, men fought the elements as well as the enemy. The Greenland Patrol’s conditions included heavy seas, severe cold, gale force winds and near whiteout conditions. In this deadly environment, Pritchard piloted the amphibian aircraft on board the Arctic cutter Northland, which patrolled the eastern coast of Greenland.

Service portrait of Lt. John Pritchard. U.S. Coast Guard photo.

Service portrait of Lt. John Pritchard. U.S. Coast Guard photo.

Not long after joining the Northland, the cutter received word that a Royal Canadian Air Force bomber had crash-landed on the Greenland ice cap. Pritchard volunteered to lead a search party to find the Canadian bomber’s three survivors. On Nov. 23, 1942, Pritchard led his party 2,000 feet up the coastal mountains to the ice cap and traversed the heavily crevassed ice at night using only a flashlight to guide him. Later that night, he found the exhausted Canadian flyers and brought them back alive to the Northland. For leading this search and rescue effort, Pritchard received the Navy & Marine Corps Medal, the highest recognition for a wartime rescue mission.

In the medal citation, Navy Secretary James Forrestal wrote “Lieutenant Pritchard’s intelligent planning, fearless leadership and great personal valor aided materially in the gallant rescue of the stranded men.”

Earlier that same month, a U.S. Army Air Corps C-53 transport aircraft had been lost on the ice cap, likely due to poor flying conditions. On Nov. 9, 1942, a B-17 Flying Fortress took to the skies in an effort to find the missing aircraft and crew. Weather conditions and poor visibility forced the bomber to also crash on the ice cap. Searches for the C-53 transport proved fruitless, so search efforts began to focus instead on the B-17 and its nine crewmembers.

Just a few weeks later on Nov. 28, within days of his successful rescue of the Canadians, Pritchard and Radioman 1/c Benjamin Bottoms departed Northland in the cutter’s J2F Grumman “Duck” to search for the downed B-17. Within a few hours, Pritchard and Bottoms had located the crash site and landed on the ice cap near the Flying Fortress. While Bottoms stayed with the J2F to man the radio, Pritchard hiked two miles back to the B-17 testing the heavily crevassed ice with a broomstick. Pritchard retrieved two survivors and escorted them over the ice to the Grumman Duck. Pritchard planned to evacuate the rest of the crew two at a time in a series of roundtrips back to the cutter. By the time he returned to Northland that evening, the cutter had to use her searchlights to light the way home.

The 2009 Pritchard search team on the ground in Kulusuk, on the east coast of Greenland, not far from the crash site of Pritchard’s aircraft. U.S. Coast Guard photo.

The 2009 Pritchard search team on the ground in Kulusuk, on the east coast of Greenland, not far from the crash site of Pritchard’s aircraft. U.S. Coast Guard photo.

On the morning of Nov. 29, Pritchard and Bottoms completed another successful ice landing near the downed bomber using the aircraft’s floats as makeshift skis. By coincidence, an Army rescue party using motor sleds had approached the crash site at the same time Pritchard had landed. But, before the Army party arrived at the B-17, one of the motor sleds broke through a snow bridge over a crevasse dragging an Army officer to certain death in the bottomless fissure below.

After Pritchard made his way from his aircraft to the downed bomber, fog began to surround the area and visibility grew worse. Pritchard decided to return to Northland for men and equipment to help find the missing Army officer. One of the B-17 survivors returned to the Grumman J2F with Pritchard and, with Bottoms, the three men flew up into the cloud cover. That was the last anyone saw of Pritchard and his crew. As the dense fog and blowing snow closed in, Bottoms’ transmissions grew weaker and then were lost altogether.

For a second time, the rescuers became the focus of a rescue effort. Over the next month, Northland sent out several unsuccessful search parties on foot to locate Pritchard’s crash site. Treacherous ice and weather conditions postponed evacuation of the B-17 crew. However, in the spring of 1943, a Navy PBY “Catalina” flying boat repeated Pritchard’s daring feat of landing on the ice cap using its floats to rescue the bomber crew. Meanwhile, four months after Pritchard’s disappearance, an Army Air Corps plane spotted the crash site of the J2F Duck, but no crew remains were recovered.

For his air rescue of the B-17 crewmembers, Pritchard posthumously received the Distinguished Flying Cross.

In the medal citation, Navy Secretary Frank Knox wrote “By his courage, skill and fearless devotion to duty, Lieutenant Pritchard upheld the highest traditions of the United States Naval Service.”

The frozen terrain in which the remains of Pritchard, his crew and the Grumman Duck have been preserved for over seventy years. U.S. Coast Guard photo.

The frozen terrain in which the remains of Pritchard, his crew and the Grumman Duck have been preserved for over seventy years. U.S. Coast Guard photo.

In early 1943, head of the U.S. Army Air Corps, Major Gen. George Stratemeyer, contacted the commander of the Greenland Patrol commending the efforts of the Coast Guard to rescue his downed airmen and wrote that “The tragic loss of Lieutenant John A. Pritchard, USN, and Radioman Benjamin A. Bottoms, USN, will be remembered as part of a great act of heroism. Their sacrifice in the performance of duty comports with the highest traditions of the Armed Services.”

In 2009, an expedition traveled to the east coast of Greenland to locate the crash site of Pritchard’s Grumman Duck. The expedition proved unsuccessful; however, in later years, a number of follow-up expeditions were launched to locate the crash site. The burial of the aircraft under seventy years of snowfall and the movement of the ice in which it is embedded have hampered these search efforts, but the site was located in 2013. Pritchard’s story and these attempts to find him served as the focus of the 2013 bestseller Frozen in Time, by Mitchell Zuckoff. In addition, in 2014, the Coast Guard Academy inducted Pritchard into its prestigious Hall of Heroes.

The horrendous air, sea and ice conditions experienced by Coast Guard personnel in the Greenland Patrol were arguably the deadliest environment experienced in a World War II theater of operations. Pritchard battled those epic conditions while fighting for the lives of stranded and suffering aircrews. He was a member of the long blue line and his story is one of the U.S. Coast Guard’s finest examples of sacrifice and devotion to duty.

Editor’s Note: With the recent discovery of the crash site, there are plans for an attempt to remove the remains of both Pritchard and Bottoms. To learn more, please view this recent news posting.

Comments

comments

Tags: , , , ,


2 Responses

  1. Jim F says:

    Awesome! I just purchased the book!

  2. Roger Weston says:

    Sounds like a true hero.