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Unsung heroes get their due

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 11/5/2013 (1563 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

IT'S tough to construct a story with immediacy of impact when half its events hearken back 70 years. But Mitchell Zuckoff, a professor of journalism at Boston University, and the author of three previous works of non-fiction, including Lost in Shangri-La (2011), pulls it off.

Frozen in Time is about "two true stories, one from the past and one from the present." The historic story is about three U.S. military planes that crashed in Greenland during the Second World War, and the attempts to locate and rescue survivors throughout the Arctic winter of 1942-43.

First to go down was a C-53 cargo plane with a crew of five that slammed into the icecap. Next, a B-17 bomber with nine men aboard went down while searching for the C-53.

Then a three-man Grumman Duck rescue plane vanished in a storm while searching for the B-17. It's a story he traced in newspaper archives from 1943, hidden among "too many brassiere ads to count."

Later, he collected declassified documents, maps, photographs, interviews and private journals to build a narrative.

Zuckoff has a nice touch. His prose is crisp and he's good at recreating the excruciatingly gritty details of cold, hunger and fear the downed B-17 bomber crew went through before seven of the crew (two died) were rescued.

The last three of the B-17 crew to be rescued spent a marathon 148 days on the ice cap, kept alive by military airdrops of food and supplies, until weather permitted rescuers to reach them.

The contemporary story he tags the Duck Hunt, after the missing Grumman Duck rescue plane. It recounts the planning, financing, logistics and, at long last, the on-the-icecap search for the Duck, in the ardent hope of finding the airmen's frozen bodies so they can be brought back to the U.S. for proper burial.

Zuckoff didn't confine himself to just narrating the 2012 Duck Hunt. He was a booster and backer (financially and otherwise) of the expedition, and ultimately an on-the-ground player in the Greenland hunt for the missing airmen's remains.

The Duck Hunt was a joint private and U.S. Coast Guard search and recovery mission, and the chronic tension between civilian and military expedition leaders is deftly portrayed.

Though that friction sometimes hampered the search, it enhances the narrative. Still, it's the Second World War-era quest to rescue survivors of the B-17 crash that drives the book.

The individual and collective courage displayed by the downed airmen, and latterly their rescuers, who risked, and sacrificed, their own lives to get the bomber crew home, is stirring.

It's as if average Joes were routinely called upon to act like epic heroes, and so they routinely did. Even more remarkable, from the stance of 2013, is the pervasive taken-for-granted patriotism everyone displayed.

Rescuers and rescued both were willing to sacrifice everything, their lives included, for cause and country. Zuckoff uncovered a story well worth the telling, and he's told it well.

Were it not for him, the downed airmen would have remained unsung heroes. Thanks to him, they finally get their due.

Douglas J. Johnston is a Winnipeg lawyer and writer.

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