In Frozen in Time, his second recounting of a largely forgotten World War II rescue mission, Mitchell Zuckoff shifts his focus from the steamy jungles of New Guinea—the locale of 2011’s Lost in Shangri-La—to the glacial wilderness of Greenland. Even before America entered the war, it began constructing military bases in Greenland, both to defend the frozen island against possible German invasion and to serve as a way station for ferrying planes from the U.S. to Britain. So much air traffic over such a hostile environment made crashes inevitable and rescue attempts perilous.
On November 5, 1942, a C-53 Skytrooper cargo plane crashed onto a glacier there. But its five-man crew survived the impact. One of the planes dispatched to locate the survivors was a B-17 bomber. It also went down in a snowstorm, leaving nine survivors stranded. Yet another rescue plane, a Grumman Duck, crashed after having transported two of the downed B-17’s crew to safety. These three crashes and their aftermaths form the core of Zuckoff’s account. Drawing on personal letters, recollections and official reports, he spins claustrophobically up-close stories of what it was like to be marooned for weeks and months in subfreezing temperatures with gravely ill comrades, insufficient supplies and dwindling hope.
Early in the book, Zuckoff introduces yet another level of drama. While amassing details for his main story, he encounters a modern-day adventurer who is intent on finding and retrieving the Grumman Duck, now buried under hundreds of feet of ice. Zuckoff joins in, helps finance the project and describes the bumpy course of this high-risk effort.
Astoundingly thorough in his research, Zuckoff not only chronicles the significant actions of dozens of “characters,” but he also probes their individual lives before they went to war, sketches in their personality traits, digs up their photographs and interviews their descendants. Thus, each character stands apart from the others.
Because so much of this narrative takes place against an unvarying backdrop of snow and ice, and because there are no real “villains” to heighten tension, Frozen in Time doesn’t have quite the same expansive, edge-of-your-seat quality that Lost in Shangri-La possesses. Even so, it is an engaging testimony to perseverance, ingenuity and monumental self-sacrifice.