The “Duck” memorial: Remembering WWII heroes

An expedition team of U.S. Coast Guard service members and North South Polar, Inc. scientists and explorers transport an ice melting machine over a crevasse near Koge Bay, Greenland, Aug. 29, 2012. The team used the machine to melt through the ice to locate the possible crash site of a WW II Coast Guard Grumman Duck rescue aircraft missing for 70 years with three men aboard, beneath the surface of a glacier. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Lou Sapienza.

Written by Shelley Kimball

They were bound by grief, by remembrance, by honor.

They were bound by a shared calling to commemorate the loss of a Coast Guard flight crew during World War II near Koge Bay, Greenland, almost 75 years ago.

Members of the Coast Guard, volunteers, and surviving family members attended a memorial ceremony in Greenland in August to commemorate the lives of Lt. John Pritchard, Petty Officer 1st Class Benjamin Bottoms, and U.S. Army Air Corps Cpl. Loren Howarth. A plaque was permanently installed outside the Kulusuk Airport.

“That experience was so memorable, so touching, so beautifully done,” said Nancy Pritchard Morgan. “It was really so special and meant so much.”

Morgan, 94, is Pritchard’s sister. Her brother’s plane crashed when she was 19. It was such a deep loss that she has spent these seven decades encouraging continued searches for the wreckage. She traveled to Greenland with her son, John Morgan, who is her brother’s namesake.

Morgan said the memorial is a symbol of the unwillingness to forget service members who have been lost.

“It’s important because they are still trying to find my brother and his radioman, and that poor corporal that was with him when they crashed,” Morgan said. “It’s just amazing. It does my heart good. I am so proud of the Coast Guard.”

Pritchard, a pilot, and Bottoms, a radioman, volunteered to fly out to rescue survivors of an Army Air Corps B-17 that had crashed on an icecap.  They found the crash and landed their Grumman J2F-4 “Duck” on the ice. They brought two of the survivors back to the Coast Guard Cutter Northland. As night fell, they knew their work was not done.

Feeling compelled to complete the rescue, Pritchard and Bottoms went back to the site the next morning. They were able to extract Howarth, but the weather on the return got even worse. The three never returned.

In the intervening years, crews have traveled out to the ice to find the missing men, but the location had never been officially memorialized.

Jim Salazar, of Arctic Hotpoint Solutions, a nonprofit that works to repatriate lost crews like the JF-2 Duck, got involved in assisting the Coast Guard in its search because it was in the same area looking for another aircraft. Because the group understood the process and the terrain, it volunteered to help.

Jim Salazar, left, announces Artic Hotpoint Solutions’ memorial to the lost crew as Nancy Pritchard Morgan and her son John Morgan look on. Photo courtesy of U.S. Coast Guard Capt. Joe Kimball.

“We got to the point where we looked at it and thought, we could help. We should do the right thing,” Salazar said. “We are all Americans, and we feel deeply about this.”

Although the JF-2 Duck has not yet been retrieved, Salazar and Arctic Hot Point Solutions decided to fund a memorial.

“We always knew if we were not able to repatriate those right away, at least we can warm the hearts of the families,” Salazar said.

But it was easier to come up with the idea than to carry it out in a location as remote as Kulusuk, where even making a phone call can be difficult. Volunteers came to help with the ceremony – a bagpiper and a singer flew in. Members of the Coast Guard flew in to escort the families and to attend the ceremony. With so many logistics so far away, there were challenges both big and small.

A small challenge:  They had to figure out if there were lemons in Greenland to be placed on the Missing Man table at the ceremony. Salazar said they looked into trying to mail a lemon, or even a fake lemon. (They did get a lemon for the table.)

A big challenge: the memorial plaque got lost. The plaque itself weighed more than 100 pounds. They wanted to pick it up from the manufacturer and bring it into Greenland themselves, but the manufacturer wouldn’t allow it.  So it was mailed. And lost.

“There was a good week of sleepless nights,” Salazar said.

Thirteen to be exact. For 13 days, the plaque traveled to Germany, then Denmark, then the western side of Greenland. It made it four days before the ceremony.

But all of that was worth it for a permanent memorial, Salazar said.

“It was important to the families, as a place where they can lay their remembrance,” Salazar said.

The experience couldn’t have been better for Ed Richardson, 83, Benjamin Bottoms’ stepson. He said he is overwhelmed with gratitude for everyone who participated in making it possible to memorialize his stepfather, whose loss was a great blow to their family.

There were so many emotions swirling, so many meaningful moments during the trip that it was difficult for both Morgan and Richardson to draw together the words to express their gratitude.

“I wish I was a poet who could fit these things in because it was really something,” he said.

The ceremony brought some closure to his family’s loss of Bottoms, whom Richardson described as the love of his mother’s life.

“I was thinking of my mother,” he said, his voice breaking with emotion. “She should have been there.”

Kevin Wilson, a retired Coast Guard commander and former aviator, can relate to some of Richardson’s feelings.  Wilson’s father was shot down in a B-17, and he spent 22 months as a prisoner of war. It makes a project like this one that much more important.

Wilson got involved before he retired from the Coast Guard, working on the subcontracts with the teams who were searching for the Duck. He stayed involved, and he helped organize the logistics and travel arrangements for the ceremony. The participants, including Wilson, stayed in Iceland and traveled to Greenland for the event.

The location of the memorial outside the Kulusuk Airport, though it is about 150 miles from the crash site, is a reminder to those who live or travel there of the often overlooked history of Greenland’s place in World War II, he said.

The memorial to the lost crew, whose aircraft crashed 75 years ago, sits outside the Kulusuk, Greenland, airport. Photo courtesy of John Morgan.

It also reminds those who are currently serving that they will be remembered.

“I think it sets an example for the ones who are doing hurricane relief and standing duty that they won’t be forgotten if they are lost,” Wilson said.

As for the future of the lost Duck, the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency is working with universities to study localized glacier movement, Wilson said. The active glacier in the area in which the plane was lost can move the location of the site, especially over 75 years. If the glacier moved the site out to deeper water, it will be nearly impossible to retrieve it. If the glacier moved it toward the rocks between the glacier and open water, it might be possible to find it.

“They are coalescing all of that research to try to decide where that thing ended up,” Wilson said.

Placing the memorial and honoring Pritchard, Bottoms, and Howarth in Kulusuk means that the families’ losses will not be forgotten.

“What it doesn’t mean?” Wilson said. “What it doesn’t mean is that the effort to bring them home is over with.”

(From left) Ed Richardson, stepson of Petty Officer 1st Class Benjamin Bottoms, Nancy Pritchard Morgan, sister of Lt. John Pritchard, and Jim Salazar, who organized the event, stand at the memorial site. Photo courtesy of John Morgan.

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