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"Frozen in Time" chronicles harrowing WWII rescue attempts

Many readers can’t resist a true-life adventure story, especially those that shine a spotlight on people who exhibit supreme courage in the face of adversity and end up surviving – or not – against the odds.

Mitchell Zuckoff’s “Frozen in Time: An Epic Story of Survival and a Modern Quest for Lost Heroes of World War II” (Harper, 2013) is one of those books.

Zuckoff’s latest chronicles the fascinating tale of a U.S. cargo plane that crashed in Greenland in 1942 and the subsequent attempts to rescue the five men aboard.

Greenland lies between the Arctic and Atlantic oceans in the Western Hemisphere but has been ruled by Denmark for centuries. Largely ignored by developed nations before World War II, Greenland assumed military importance in the 1940s as the world’s only reliable source of cryolite, a mineral key to the production of aluminum. Its proximity to Europe also proved useful – Greenland served as a refueling station for U.S. planes. Before the U.S. entered the war, President Franklin D. Roosevelt negotiated an agreement with Norway to build and maintain air bases in Greenland.

Greenland’s brutal and unpredictable weather presented problems for U.S. fliers – treacherous air currents between steep mountains, rough ice and numerous glaciers contributed to frequent crashes as pilots attempted to land at the Bluie West One airfield.

In November 1942, a C-53 cargo plane crashed near the southeast coast of Greenland for unknown reasons. A B-17 with a crew of nine men embarked on a rescue mission. That plane also crashed because of bad weather. Other rescue missions were attempted, the most notable by a small aircraft nicknamed the “Grumman Duck,” which was only partially successful. Even then, the military did not give up. One team attempted a rescue by bobsled, another by ship and still others by air. Ultimately, Col. Bernt Balchen and his crew piloted the U.S. Navy PBY-5A Catalina flying boat, nicknamed “Dumbo,” and successfully rescued the survivors in 1943, an astonishing 129 days after the B-17 crashed.

“Frozen in Time” documents the suspenseful and often excruciating story of the rescuers’ endeavors and the extreme courage of the men who made the difficult and dangerous attempts. Zuckoff includes details about the difficulties each rescue effort met and background information about the crews involved. Readers will feel the frustration and helplessness of both the men on the ground waiting and praying for help and the men who attempted to rescue them.

The weather and topography of Greenland loom large in the book, casting an ominous shadow.

“The Artic is an unscrupulous enemy,” Balchen wrote. “It fights with any weapon that comes to hand, it strikes without warning and it hits hardest just when you think the fight is won.”

The book features a large cast of people, listed in an index, which may make it difficult for readers to track the dozens involved in the 1942-1943 period and the 2012 mission. The story is complicated and complex, and a list of the crews of each of the three main crashes would have been invaluable.

Zuckoff devotes too much space and detail to a 2012 mission, which he joined, to rescue the Grumman Duck and recover the bodies of the two men who died in its crash. The story of their efforts, which resulted in pinpointing the location of the downed aircraft, is interesting, but primarily to people planning an Artic expedition of their own.

“Frozen in Time” is an exciting book that, like a good mystery, takes its time to reveal who survived and how those men lived out the rest of their lives. Book clubs that enjoy good nonfiction adventure stories should enjoy the book.

Leslie Ashmore is a longtime Mountain View resident who belongs to two book clubs.

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