Each month, an interesting aspect of the world’s oldest continuous maritime service will be highlighted. The men and women of the United States Coast Guard follow in the fine tradition of the brave mariners who have served before them. As sentinels and saviors of the seas, the United States Coast Guard proudly continues its commitment to honor, respect & devotion to duty to maintain their vigil - Semper Paratus.
The Wounded Duck
Somewhere beneath the snow and ice there was something metallic. The search had led the team to the location. Now, as they bored holes thirty-eight feet into the frozen tundra, they would finally be able to see what was hidden after seventy-plus years. The camera clicked on and the team’s camera operator maneuvered the small lens to capture what was buried. It was not conclusive but it was certainly something that required further investigation – cables and material that were consistent with the aircraft they were searching for. To the team members, they felt that they had finally found her. An aircraft that had gone down after a harrowing and heroic rescue mission that had started on the decks of the cutter Northland on November 29, 1942. Finally, the team members agreed, they were one step closer to providing closure to the families of the men aboard the Grumman J2F-4 aircraft or Duck.
The Grumman J2-F or Duck was designed to meet the new requirements for the U.S. Navy as a general utility aircraft that would complete utility flights aboard aircraft carriers. Initial designs began in 1932 and the first flight of a prototype was completed in 1933. Able to serve as a both an amphibian and land-based aircraft, the aircraft was ideal for not only the U.S. Navy but also the U.S. Marine Corps and the United States Coast Guard. Powered by a Wright Cyclone R-1820-102 engine, the nimble amphibian aircraft had a wingspan of thirty-nine feet, a total length of thirty-four feet, and a height of twelve feet. She could attain a top speed of one hundred and seventy-six miles per hour and had a range of seven hundred and fifty-nine miles at seven thousand feet. Deployable by crane, the aircraft was perfect for placement on cutters.
On November 28, 1942, United States Coast Guard Lieutenant John Pritchard Jr. and his radioman, Petty Officer 1st Class Benjamin Bottoms stood along the aft rail of the USCGC Northland. A few days earlier, the crew of the cutter had been instrumental in the rescue of the pilots and crew of a Royal Air Force Douglas A-20 Havoc aircraft that had been forced down after running out of gas. Lt. Pritchard and a landing party trudged ashore from the fjord and were successful in finding the three men from the flight. The men, on the verge of physical exhaustion and near frozen, were carried back across the icy terrain and brought aboard the cutter. The men, thanks to the efforts of Lt. Pritchard and his search party of fellow Coastguardsmen, had been saved from the clutches of near certain death.
Now, as their J2F-4 eased out of her deck cradle and was swung out over the icy waters of the Comanche Bay, it was their duty to once again save others. Lt. Pritchard and Bottoms were going to try and assist the downed crew from a B-17 that had crash landed while they were assisting in the search of a downed C-53. Lt. Pritchard and Bottoms, laden in their heavy leather flying gear, readied their aircraft. With her engine at full speed, the J2F-4 alighted into the crisp and clear sky.
Upon reaching the crash site, Bottoms made radio contact with the downed crew. When Bottoms asked for landing recommendations, Corporal Howarth, the radio operator from the B-17, advised against any attempt. Lt. Pritchard had other plans. Locating a smooth spot, he informed Bottoms to ready for landing. With the landing gear extended, Lt. Pritchard orchestrated a perfect landing on the icecap. Roughly a mile away from the crash site, Lt. Pritchard and Bottoms hiked across the tundra to the B-17 and her crew. Lieutenant Armand Monteverde, the commanding officer of the B-17, thanked Pritchard and Bottoms for their assistance and recommended that two of the crew, who were wounded but who could walk, be taken clear first. Pritchard, Bottoms and the two Army Air crewmen, Assistant Engineer Al Tucciarone and Staff Sergeant Lloyd Puryear, trudged back to the J2F-4 and after digging clear a trench, alighted back into the air toward the Northland. The rescue had taken the bulk of the day and night was falling. The aircraft was slung back aboard the cutter with plans to set out to the crash site the following day.
That evening, Lt. Pritchard, Bottoms and others learned of the crash and what had led up to it. On November 5, 1942, several weeks earlier, a Douglas C-53 Skytrooper, was heading from Scotland to the United States when it was forced to land on Greenland. Aboard were five men. Though they had provided an approximate position via radio signal and flares had been spotted at a nearby weather station, the plane and her crew and passengers were never found. Reluctant to give them up as lost, a host of other aircraft traveling eastward were diverted to try and locate the downed C-53. One of the aircraft diverted to search was an outbound B-17F Flying Fortress that had just finished fueling up at Bluie West One and had been bound for England. A total of nine men were aboard.
When the B-17 reached the search area, the aircraft was blanketed with low clouds. As Lt. Monteverde attempted to find clear sky, he flew into a violent whiteout. Suddenly, the wing of the B-17 clipped the icy terrain. The B-17 slammed into the frozen ground and slid violently across the ice cap. The aluminum fuselage ripped apart aft of the wings. The men aboard braced themselves as best they could as the heavy bomber careened further and faster along the rocks and ice. Finally, the bomber came to a halt resting precariously amidst several crevasses. Lt. Monteverde checked on his crew. Four of the men were unscathed. One of the men aboard had suffered a broken arm and the rest had suffered cuts and bruises. The men addressed first aid needs and then assessed their rations. They had no more than four days’ worth of rations aboard the crumpled bomber. Corporal Loren Howarth, the radio operator aboard the B-17, had to get the radio working if the men were going to survive.
Within a week of the crash, Howarth had been successful in jury-rigging the radio equipment. Their crackled message was soon received by a nearby weather station and then was transmitted to two Bluie stations. Aircraft were immediately sent aloft to search for the downed bomber and her crew. After five days, a DC-4, piloted by Colonel Bernt Blachen, located the B-17. Blachen dropped supplies and radioed the position to a team of motor sled rescuers who had originally set out to find and assist the C-53 crew. It was only a matter of time, the two survivors who had been plucked off the ice cap remarked to Lt. Pritchard and Bottoms that the rest of their crew would be brought home to safety.
The following morning, November 29th, 1942, Lt. Pritchard and Bottoms again readied for a second mission to the crash site. The plan was to make two flights so that they could get the remaining men clear of the ice cap. Any extra gear aboard the J2F-4 had been left aboard the cutter. As the J2F-4 alighted into the sky, weather conditions began to wane. Aboard the cutter Northland, a decision was made to recall Lt. Pritchard and Bottoms. The Duck continued on its flight never replying to the order to abort the mission.
Upon the arrival of the J2F-4, a team from the motor sleds had arrived on site. A thick fog had now began to blanket the crash site and landing spot. Corporal Howarth was given his orders. As he raced down to the Coastguardsmen, he informed them that Lt. Monteverde wanted them to take off as soon as possible. The weather was getting worse and he did not want them placing themselves in any undue circumstances. Lt. Pritchard scanned the looming weather and knew that Lt. Monteverde, also a pilot, was right. With an extra seat, Lt. Pritchard offered it to Corporal Howarth. The J2F-4 alighted back into the darkening sky and began its flight back to the cutter. Radio traffic between the Duck and the cutter waned after a short while. Lt. Pritchard, Petty Officer Bottoms and Corporal Howarth never returned. The Duck’s radio transmissions ceased. Somewhere on her return flight, the aircraft had crash landed in a horrific snowstorm.
On December 4, five volunteers from the cutter Northland, under the command of Lt. Richard L. Fuller, put ashore to try and locate the downed J2F-4 aircraft and her missing crew and passenger. Despite nearly a week on the icecap braving sub-zero temperatures, howling winds and snowstorms, the men were unsuccessful in locating the downed aircraft or her crew. Four months later, Colonel Bernt Balchen, spotted the Duck and reported her position. The bodies of Lt. Pritchard, Petty Officer Bottoms and Corporal Howarth were never found.
The plight of the B-17 crewmen would last for over five and a half months. A total of seven aircraft were lost or destroyed in the rescue missions that started after the forced landing of the C-53 on November 5, 1942. Thanks to the diligence of both aerial and ground search teams, the remaining crewmen were finally rescued. Five men, including two Coastguardsmen, one of the B-17’s original crewmen, Corporal Loren Howarth, and two men from the motor sled teams who had disappeared after falling into crevasses, had perished in the search and rescue mission.
The selfish acts of Lt. Pritchard and Petty Officer Bottoms to risk their own safety in an attempt to save others is a hallmark of the tenets of the men and women of the United States Coast Guard. In November of 1943, both Lt. Pritchard and Petty Officer Bottoms were awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for their heroic actions. Despite the worsening weather conditions, the pilot and his radioman could have easily returned to the safety of their cutter but instead, they trudged forward knowing that men relied on them for their survival. Lt. Pritchard and Petty Officer Bottoms died in an attempt to save those men who had been trying to help find their fellow airmen. It is that resolve to fly in the face of danger when others need assistance that remains a cornerstone of the efforts of those who don their flying gear, go aboard Coast Guard fixed and rotary wing aircraft, and alight into the sky on their way to danger as true sentinels and saviors of the seas.