Duck Hunt – The search for a missing WWII air crew

The location of the crash is on the west coast of Greenland.  Image via Google

The location of the crash is on the west coast of Greenland. Image via Google

During World War II two Coast Guard aviators died in Greenland attempting to rescue a downed B-17 crew.  Their bodies were never recovered but 67 years later the search is on and investigators are hot on the case, hopeful to bring the missing heroes home next year.

Lieutenant John Pritchard and Petty Officer First Class Benjamin Bottoms were attached to Coast Guard Cutter Northland on the East Coast of Greenland where they crewed a Grumman J2F-4 Duck who crashed while making the treacherous journey from North America to Europe. There were no shortage dangers for planes making the trip.  Sheer cliffs rising from the sea thousands of feet into the air, shifting mountains of blinding white snow, hurricane-strength winds and temperatures that average below zero made this a dangerous place for flight.

Nov. 9, 1942, a B-17 went down with nine Army Air Force crew aboard.  Pritchard and Bottoms set out to rescue them Nov. 28, returning two of the bomber crewmen that evening.  They launched again the next day to pickup a third, Corporal Loren Howarth, but crashed midway through the 40-mile flight back to the cutter.

Overflights later spotted the wreckage but search parties were never able to reach the site and Pritchard, Bottoms and Howarth were listed as missing in action.

Fast forward to 2008.  At Coast Guard Headquarters in Washington, D.C., interest in the case picked up. Commander Joe Deer and Master Chief Petty Officer John Long, Office of Aviation Forces, and others began the daunting task of sifting through the thousands of pages of historical records related to the case looking for leads.  The effort became known as “the duck hunt” in the office as case developed and possible locations of the crash narrowed significantly.

Confident in the search area they had mapped out, Deer and Long organized a C-130 overflight of the area to survey the landscape and corroborate his findings that summer.  With an area that clearly matched the historical record Deer and Long had reached the extent of the Coast Guard’s abilities to develop the case.  A Navy P-3 overflight was recruited to use some sophisticated sensing equipment to search beneath the ice cap.

An anomaly entombed in the ice showed up on their scans that matched the location they had come up with.  The next step to this promising result was to get specialists on scene but, again, this was beyond the capabilities of the service.

Click on the image to watch the video on YouTube. (U.S. Coast Guard video by Petty Officer 2nd Dan Bender)

Click on the image to watch the video on YouTube. (U.S. Coast Guard video by Petty Officer 2nd Dan Bender)

Enter Gary Larkins, a famous aircraft searcher who has traveled the globe salvaging historically significant aircraft, even in Greenland.  Larkins won the contract to survey the scene and assembled a small group to brave the treacherous ice cap and locate the anomaly.

In September 2009 Long and the surveyors combed the ice with ground penetrating radar locating an anomaly roughly 30 feet beneath the ice in the same location as the Navy scan.  The exact position of the anomaly was nailed down with advanced GPS equipment provided by a member of the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency with the group and they returned stateside with the data.

While the results were promising they weren’t conclusive.  However, they were promising enough for the Department of Defense Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command to enter the fray last week and commit to a larger expedition with the Coast Guard this summer—with the hope of launching a full recovery next year.

Note: We plan on covering this story until its completion beginning this Thursday with a more comprehensive overview of the events of the crash in 1942.  We’ll be posting regularly on all of the side stories involved including why the case was reopened, interviews with surviving family members, the amazing stories of the Coast Guard in Greenland during the war and much more.  You can follow these stories by bookmarking this tag.

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