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Coast Guard to retrieve WWII remains buried in ice

Jul. 26, 2013 - 06:00AM   |  
Searching for Coast Guard J2F-4 Grumman Duck
An expedition team transports an ice-melting machine near Koge Bay, Greenland, in 2012. They used it to locate the crash site of a World War II-era aircraft. (Coast Guard)
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Radioman 1st Class Benjamin Bottoms (Coast Guard)
Lt. John Pritchard (Coast Guard)

When an Army Air Forces B-17 crashed on the Greenland ice cap during World War II, two Coast Guardsmen volunteered for the rescue mission to retrieve the lost crew.

On the first day, Lt. John Pritchard and Radioman 1st Class Benjamin Bottoms, serving with the cutter Northland, rescued some of the soldiers. On the second day, after picking up Cpl. Loren Howarth, their own plane would crash in a snowstorm while en route to the ship. The three went missing — for more than seven decades.

But last year the Coast Guard found their plane’s crash site, and now the service is hoping to bring the Coast Guardsmen and soldier home.

A team of Coasties, contractors and other officials is expected to be on the ice by July 30 to start retrieving the remains from the plane.

There is no guarantee that the men are inside the plane, which would have been exposed to the elements for several years. But Cmdr. James Blow, Chief of the Resource Management Division at the Office of Aviation Forces for the Coast Guard, said officials “highly suspect they are there.”

An overflight of the area after the crash identified the plane and what appeared to be a pilot and the radioman inside the cockpit, Blow said.

The Coast Guardsmen represent the last two recoverable MIAs for the service, Blow said.

Pritchard was piloting the Coast Guard J2F-4 Grumman Duck that went down Nov. 29, 1942. The day before, Pritchard and Bottoms had used their amphibious plane to rescue two other Army airmen from the crashed B-17. After their Coast Guard rescuers were lost when they hit a snowstorm, the remaining B-17 airmen who were awaiting rescue spent several months on the ice, living on airdropped supplies, until they were saved.

Pritchard and Bottoms, for their actions, each posthumously received the Distinguished Flying Cross.

“When they say ‘the greatest generation,’ they definitely lived up to that saying,” Blow said.

'Should be brought back'

Nancy Pritchard Morgan was 17 years old the last time she saw her brother, John.

She was attending college in California when she found out her brother was missing. For a year, the family held out hope that he would be found, but then the Coast Guard notified them that he was dead.

“The whole year they said he was missing in action, when they really knew he was killed.” Morgan said. She said the loss was very hard on her parents and family. In the 1970s, when the Coast Guard told her they were attempting to recover the remains, she thought at first they should just leave her brother there at rest. But over the years, she has come to realize that her brother’s remains should be brought back to the U.S.

“This is very important to me, that we have closure. That these three men that gave their lives should be brought back to their home country and be recognized,” Morgan said.

The team heading to Greenland includes four Coast Guardsmen, a National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency rep, five members of theJoint Prisoners of War, Missing in Action Accounting Command, and eight contractors with North South Polar, Inc., which specializes in extreme recovery missions. Because of the harsh weather conditions, they will have until about the first week of September to complete the recovery before they must leave, Blow said.

“We are very excited, not only as a team member; the service as a whole is excited to be able to do this and recover our service members,” Blow said.

Finding the remains

The service tried and failed in 1975 to locate the wreckage site. It turned out later the Coast Guard had searched the wrong location, Blow said.

The latest effort by the service to locate the remains of the Coasties started in 2008. The Coast Guard was worried that global warming would expose the crash site to salvagers, said Blow, who joined the mission in 2009.

“This was of great concern because remains of the fallen service members had never been recovered,” he said.

A team in 2010 could not locate the crash site. They tried again in 2012 and had “sort of lost hope,” Blow said. But on the last day, the team actually found a part of the plane, about 38 feet below the ice.

“That was the spark that we needed to go forward with our (current) recovery mission,” he said. “To find it on the last day was very elating.”

Recovery

Until about a few weeks ago, Blow wasn’t sure that they would be able to recover the remains this year. The service is under the time constraints of Mother Nature. The weather in the area of the crash site is harsh during the Arctic winter, and Blow estimated they had a window between July and early September this year to attempt a recovery.

The team will be flown to Kulusuk, Greenland, by a C-130 from Air Station Elizabeth City, N.J.

When the team arrives at the site, they will have to do another survey of the area with ground penetrating radar. Once they mark the excavation site they will start removing the ice off the wreckage. The team will use tracked and studded trenching devices and loaders, chainsaws, hot water devices and other specialized tools to dig through the ice, Blow said.

Their first priority is to recover the remains of the three service members, but they are also looking for personal effects and any government property. Blow said the Army Air Forces member had 8mm film with messages from the survivors of the B17 crash that they hope to recover.

The remains will be returned to the U.S. They will need to be identified at a JPAC lab.

“Within a couple of months, they will be ready for transfer to their final resting place,” Blow said. The families will determine where the Coasties will be buried.

There is only one place that Morgan wants to see her brother buried: the Coast Guard Academy.

“He just loved every minute of [his time there]. He treasured his wings,” Morgan said. “I hope the Coast Guard Academy has a place for him.”

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