Every schoolkid should know that, contrary to all logic, Greenland is not in fact green: that honor is reserved for Iceland, while over 80% of Greenland is covered in ice. I blame Erik the Red for this conundrum, since “Greenland” sounds a lot better to any prospective resident than “frozen, barren wasteland of DEATH“. His sales pitch worked, at least in the short term, but his nice, inviting name has created a mass of contradictory mental images about the place. Despite the name, it’s really not an ideal location to spend 148 days in the dead of winter while huddled in makeshift shelters ranging from handmade ice caves to the fuselage of a B-17 bomber, crash-landed on a crevasse-riddled glacier. Yes, Greenland is one of those places where Mother Nature is in fact, trying to kill you, and she will do it coldly and impersonally.
Throughout much of human history, the planet’s largest island has been an afterthought, having little impact on the rest of the world. It’s been periodically colonized, but it still occupied little more than a footnote in any textbook. It simply didn’t matter … or at least it didn’t until World War II, when Germany invaded Denmark (of which Greenland was a part) and set off massive panic attacks among the Allies, stemming from justified fears of Nazi invasions and aluminum shortages.
In response, the US basically occupied the place, at least, for all intents and purposes, and among other things, used Greenland as a refueling point while ferrying aircraft to Britain as part of Operation Bolero, along the so-called “Snowball Route”. Unfortunately, once pilots began flying across Greenland, they also began crashing there – which brings us to the review!
With Frozen in Time, Mitchell Zuckoff tells two nearly unbelievable stories in one volume. The subtitle of the book really sums it up nicely, and neatly encapsulates both plotlines: An Epic Story of Survival and a Modern Quest for Lost Heroes of World War II. In the first, it is the tale of three particular plane crashes in Greenland and all of the subsequent rescue attempts to get the stranded men off the ice, an utterly pitiless account of survival (or not) in the Arctic, of 148 nerve-wracking and tear-jerking days on a glacier. The second narrative, interwoven neatly with the first, is the story of the 2012 Duck Hunt, the search for the remains of one of those crashes. Both narratives showcase an almost unbelievable faith in the national commitment to leave no man behind, with both the World War II rescues and the later search. It’s really part of a much larger quest, part of the mission of the Department of Defense Prisoner of War/Missing Person Office – to bring every serviceman and woman home, if at all possible.
There’s a lot I could say about this harrowing, tear-jerking, heart-warming book, and a lot I want to say. Unfortunately, most of the really incredible bits would require a spoiler alert, and I do try to avoid that on this blog. It reads like a novel, bringing an amazing cast of characters (all real) vividly to life, and painting a portrait of a harsh, deadly, yet weirdly beautiful world. Zuckoff draws out the suspense and the heart-break beautifully, if I can even apply that adjective to a book of this nature. The outcome is pre-determined, and you know that not everyone in the plane will survive, but it’s truly gut-wrenching to read, as you get to know the men involved in both the crashes and their rescues. I was quite literally reading with my heart in my throat, even holding my breath at times. The sheer level of detail (both funny and sad) he slips in is astounding, and really lifts the two stories off the page – from men in a crashed B-17 bomber resorting to money as toilet paper to the problems of cookery at sub-zero temperatures to the last-minute purchases that become absolutely crucial to the Duck Hunt.
There is absolutely no journalistic distance here, as Zuckoff was part of the Duck Hunt at the most intimate level possible, even funding a lot of the expedition himself – to the point that he was receiving antifraud calls from American Express, and was willing to take out a loan with his house as collateral if other funding failed to come through. Luckily, the latter wasn’t necessary, but really, there’s Bill Buford Among the Thugs level of involvement with his material, living the story and becoming its heart. There is unmistakable, enviable passion, and a determination to lay to rest the heroes of war, no matter the effort, cost and difficulty involved.
One member of the expedition, Robert Smith, better known as “WeeGee”, develops a routine with Zuckoff throughout their journey, after they discuss Mitch’s goal in writing this book and accompanying the Duck Hunt team to Greenland:
“So, Mitch, how does it end?”
“No idea, WeeGee. You tell me.”
This unanswerable question gets asked many times during the course of the expedition, sometimes several times a day, and even silently. It’s a constant theme, especially when Murphy’s Law rears its ugly head, as it invariable does in the Arctic – making it all the more thrilling at the culmination of their quest, when WeeGee can turn to Zuckoff with a grin, and ask him one final time.
“Hey, Mitch, how does it end?”
“Like this, WeeGee. Like this.”
And so ends 2013. Happy New Year, everyone, and see you in 2014!