The limits of humanity

A forgotten story from World War II that took place amid the harrowing landscape and grueling climate of Greenland.

MITCHELL ZUCKOFF 521 (photo credit: courtesy)
(photo credit: courtesy)
Mitchell Zuckoff has an incredible thirst for larger-than-life stories about adventurous men who flirt recklessly with risk and attempt daredevil stunts that most of us would consider pure folly. His compelling narrative is laced with contagious adoration for men who continually test their boundaries.
Zuckoff has uncovered a forgotten story from World War II that took place amid the harrowing landscape and grueling climate of Greenland. On November 5, 1942, a US cargo plane on a routine flight crashed into the Greenland Ice Cap. Four days later, a B-17 assigned to find the plane became lost in a blinding storm and crashed. Miraculously, all nine men on the B-17 survived and immediately took shelter in the broken-off tail section of their aircraft.
They would remain there for 148 days of a brutal Arctic winter, ingeniously figuring out ways to survive as they awaited rescue. This was nearly impossible due to the severity of the winter weather and their precarious location. The US military attempted to pick up the nine men by sending a Grumman Duck amphibious plane, which managed to land and rescue one of the passengers who was critically ill, with plans to return to pick up the others.
After picking up the sick man, they took off and were never seen again.
Zuckoff reconstructs for us the lives of the eight men who were saved and able to return home and recount the harrowing ordeals they had endured together.
He explains that the United States’s ability to control Greenland during the war was crucial for the Allied Forces, since Greenland’s weather stations were able to accurately predict the weather in Europe the following day. This allowed American armed forces to plan air raids and other military maneuvers with better precision and success.
Zuckoff writes movingly about the brave soldiers involved in the war effort.
We learn about how the men stranded on a glacier in the middle of nowhere struggled to hold on to their humanity and sanity with little food and freezing temperatures. And we hear about the men who risked their lives trying to rescue the ones who were stranded. Zuckoff describes one of the rescue pilots as 27-year-old, California-born Armand Monteverde, who was “short, stout and broad-shouldered, he had sad greengray eyes, a full lower lip, a narrow face and a Roman nose. Instead of typical pilot bravado, he had a mild manner and a gentle voice that gave him an air of quiet competence.”
Zuckoff also tells us about Monteverde’s co-pilot, who was a “22-year-old lieutenant from Dallas. Six-foot-one, blond, hazeleyed, lean and cowboy handsome, Spencer had a cleft chin and dimpled cheeks. He looked as though he’d been born to wear a white silk pilot’s scarf. But he was no arrogant golden boy. Spencer’s humble, evenkeeled nature made him more suited to service as a ferry pilot than a fighter jock.
Smart, well-read and sensitive to the feeling of others, Spencer was an Eagle Scout who possessed a leader’s natural understanding of how to build a team…” Zuckoff’s story alternates between past and present time. A good portion of his well-researched book is devoted to the work of Lou Sapienza, the president of an exploration company devoted to recovering lost military aircraft and fallen servicemen. Sapienza is determined to travel to Greenland with a crew of professionals to search for the missing aircraft, with the hope of being able to bring home some of the men lost and give them a proper burial.
The author accompanies him to the Department of Defense’s Prisoner of War/Missing Personnel Office, which devotes itself to bringing home those who are captured or killed while serving in America’s fighting forces. (There are currently 88,000 soldiers that remain unaccounted for, 78,000 of them are from World War II.) Zuckoff watches the hard-driven, 59-year-old Sapienza lobby the government for money to help him accomplish his mission. He is relentless in his quest.
Zuckoff’s admiration for all of the men is well-intentioned and sincere, but it sometimes feels as if his bloated prose blinds him to the delicate nuances of individual personalities. It seems as if he is afraid to confront head-on the real emotional and psychological freight that overtakes all men who are forced to confront an early death, or the psychological makeup of men like Sapienza, who feel compelled to spend decades of their lives trying to find them.
Even when Zuckoff’s own evidence uncovers horribly sad stories about some of the men, who were so traumatized awaiting rescue in sub-freezing conditions that they became psychotic, he glides quickly over this material and switches his focus to those who were able to remain intact. The author seems to need these men to live up to an idealized image that ironically hampers their humanity and denies the fierce truth of their lives and deaths.
Writer Tim O’Brien, whose masterful books have centered on his traumatic experiences serving in Vietnam, wrote about the wounds that still threaten to smother him, saying: “I try to plug up the leaks and carry through on some personal resolutions. For too many years I’ve lived in paralysis-guilt, depression, terror, shame – and now it’s either move or die.”
Zuckoff steers clear of such insights and it hinders his narrative. Instead, he loses himself in a blurry of buzz words that all seem overly enthralled with grand heroic gestures, with eyes closed to the surrounding carnage.
Yet, he is a wonderful rhythmic storyteller and is often a vital presence in his own books. In his latest work, he accompanies Sapienza to Greenland with a team of scientists and takes part in the expedition to locate one of the missing planes. It is evident that in addition to his writing skills he is an engaging presence and is often able to inject himself right in the middle of the stories he is writing, which gives them a refreshing vibrancy.
Still, his interesting book is missing something vital. Zuckoff doesn’t force himself to confront the harder questions his own story demands. What really happens to men forced to suffer agonies most of us cannot imagine? What happens to loved ones waiting for men who never come home? What happens to the ones who make it home haunted by what they have experienced? Zucker’s riveting narrative could have soared to even greater heights if he hadn’t shied away from examining more closely the long-term psychological and physical tolls exacted upon these brave young men who were part of the Allied war effort.