written by O.E. Toole
Earl Toole lives in Bloomington, Indiana. He was part of the rescue operation of the stranded crew of six P38F fighters and two B-17 bombers that had crash landed on the icy slopes of Greenland in the early days of WW II. Toole returned to Greenland 50 years later to take part in the effort to recover some of the lost aircraft.
One of World War II’s most fascinating sagas took place on the icy slopes of Greenland, when six P38F fighters and two B-17 bombers crash landed. The saga began on July 4, 1942, when the eight airplanes and 25 crew members took off from Presque Isle Air Base in Maine headed for England. Bad weather and false weather reports from either a German submarine or a secret radio station caused the planes to veer off course. With his P-38 running low on fuel, Brad McManus decided to make a wheels down landing on the snow. Although the plane flipped over, McManus only sustained minor injuries. Amazingly, all remaining aircraft got down without significant injuries to any of the men. O.E. Toole of Bloomington, Indiana was part of the rescue operation which cut through icy conditions to reach the stranded crew in 1942. Toole returned to Greenland in 1992 to take part in the effort to recover some of the lost aircraft, which had drifted 1.5 miles and been buried under 25 stories of ice. This is the story of Toole’s two adventures to find the Lost Squadron.
The Legend of the “Rescue of the Lost Squadron”
Officers and Enlisted Men of the Secret Task Force “Bluie East Two” in 1941-42
Forced down on the Greenland Icecap by off-course encounters with severe Arctic weather, 25 young Army Air Corps crewmen were stranded with their brand-new war birds on July 15, 1942 (during the first year of World War II ).
Meantime the Greenland Base Command (GBC), already beset with other problems, was making little progress in arranging rescue of these men from their crash-site some 10 miles back on the Icecap behind a crevassed glacial barrier, a coast-line gorged with icebergs and floes, and had no planes suitable for safe operation on the Icecap. It was then, seemingly by default, that a tiny U.S. Army Air Corps weather-reporting station located 100 miles to the North of the crash-site was remembered by High Command, and awarded the honor of solving the rescue problem.
The men of that little outpost station picked up that challenge, and played out their role in the largest successful rescue in the U.S.Airforce’s history. The twenty-five airmen of “The Lost Sqaudron”, and their five-man rescue team from Secret Task Force Bluie East Two all returned to duty by July 24, 1942 with no loss of life or even a serious injury.
Digging out the UMA TAUVA our former Chessie clam-digger’s boat. Bluie East Two
Breaking away for such an emergency trip requires preparations that leaves no time for anything else. We are no longer a little station reporting weather four times a day, taking turns at KP, doing daily maintenance chores, and groaning about no mail delivery for eight months. We have just hit the big-time….with all of nine enlisted men, our C.O., and our M.D. we have just received a mandate to organize a Search & Rescue Squadron. This calls for volunteers from our best qualified men…..you, you, and you!
Within 24 hours of our official invitation, BE-2′s rag-tag five-man rescue team was put-putting out of Tasiusak Bay on a mission that would be the subject of controversy and discussion for the next 60 years. How fortunate it was that the 25 airmen shivering on the Icecap could not see their rescuers enroute, or they might have abandoned all hope of rescue, and found a crevasse to jump into.
Threading the Ice Pack
Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead!
No problem, but just don’t try to mix it up with those big icebergs, the visible 10% of these babies loom over us like sinister giants, and the silence is broken by the sound of tons of ice crashing down. Winds rolling down off the inland ice are blowing the ice floes off-shore to the East while the East Greenland Current is moving the big stuff Southward. If we let our little wooden boat get caught between colliding ice masses we will be converted to fish-food, and if we are the only hope for rescue of the Lost Squadron, then there’s no-one left to look for us. At one point we became trapped between a closing field of floes and a large iceberg with a tunnel washed through it. We set our course for the middle of the passage and prayed that the ice foot below would not wipe us out,…. and our prayers were answered again.
On Land at Last
Four days of dodging ice has finally allowed us to reach the rocky shore at a place which promises access to the inland ice, and is also near the same latitude as the stranded planes. With the launch’s engine shut down, we are now hearing the distant rumble of other engines, and my first thought was “U-boat”! Looking East over the miles of ice floes made that seem highly improbable, but until we determine the source I’ll keep a sharp lookout. Obviously we are not alone here as much as we had imagined.
The rumble turned out be one of Greenland’s US Navy PBY’s following the coast-line in search of our party, so we fired a flare to help them find us, and we set up a schedule for the PBY to return the next morning to help our trail party find the downed planes. We carried our sled up the cliff while the sledge dogs nipped at our heels, and set up a camp on the Eastern edge of Greenland’s mammoth Icecap.
Our homemade sled to bring out the reportedly injured pilot from the Lost Squadron.
Crockett’s March to the Sea
Following the marked trail, no one was lost down a crevasse
BE-2′s Commanding Officer Major Freddie Crockett ,on skis, led the column of the 25 rescuees , the officers and men , of the “Lost Squadron”, while Corporal Don Shaw with the dog sled watched for drop-outs, and Sgt. Don Kent skied to the assistance of the stragglers.
Perhaps in a few hundred years icebergs calving off the Greenland Icecap will be spotted by the Coast Guard Ice Patrol with the litter left behind by the Lost Squadron on its march to freedom. Wading snow down the Icecap was so exhausting that personal items, as well as coats and clothing were abandoned. Items which would be needed for survival were collected by the rescuers, and graciously accepted back by the rescued in more rational moments at the edge of the Icecap.
The Greenland Beach Party
It was with great relief that we shuttled our bonanza of 25 trained airmen to the Coast Guard Cutter for the first leg of their journey back to new assignments, and no one even mentioned the two new B-17′s. and those six new P-38′s left behind on the Greenland Icecap. These airmen of the “Lost Squadron”, after a debriefing , carried on with all the glory reserved for our fliers of that day. Meantime the five rescuers received scattered assignments upon leaving Greenland, and were later individually sought out and quietly decorated by the War Department for heroism.
Had anyone mentioned back then that I would return to these scenes one day, I would have seriously questioned his sanity. However, some fifty years later in 1992 , I was invited by the Greenland Expedition Society to return there to mark the Golden Anniversary and to witness the salvage of one of the P-38′s from 25 stories deep in the Greenland Icecap….I was extremely honored to accept! All present, accounted for, and waiting for the USCG Cutter NORTHLAND.
Now, Back to World War Two
Delivering our Icecap prisoners to fly again.
Drained dry by the Exodus from the planes to the sea, the G.I. coffee and C rations prepared by Sgt. Bob Beale and I were consumed by all hands, and many found a nice big boulder to stretch out on for a refreshing nap. Meantime we are scanning the icy sea for some sign that the U.S.Coast Guard is going to keep their promise to give us a hand at transporting our overflow crowd.
After what seemed a long wait, I can now see what appears to be a ship several miles off-shore drifting South with in the ice floes. Well, lets hope that this ship is the one we are looking for. We will soon know, and we fire off a rocket flare to help him locate our beach party. It was a relief when he answered our signal, not with a 5″ gun on his deck, but with couple of quick toots on his most melodious fog horn.
Part II. The Recovery and Restoration of the Lost Squadron
Locating the Lost Squadron
Ten years, and a number of fund raising’s were required to locate the site of ! the “Lost Squadron’s” 1942 ditching on the mammoth Greenland Inl and Ice (Ice Cap). First of all, the planes had moved over a mile closer to the sea than the Latitude and Longitude of their WW2 location due to cold flow of that enormous glacier. Secondly the depth that the planes were now buried came as a surprise, and required outside help from radio sounding experts to penetrate the depth of a 25 story building.
A system of using a steam probe with 300 feet of hose was developed to verify the locations by probing until contact with a plane was made,and a “Gopher” device was developed to melt a man-hole four feet in diameter at the rate of about two feet per hour to the plane some 268 feet below the surface.
Recovering the P-38
1942 In August, following the July rescue of all theairmen, an unofficial visit was made to the planes of the “Lost Squadron” while they were still on the surface of the Icecap. A Capt. N. D. Vaughan, led to the site by veteran explorer Lt. Demorest, removed a “tommy-gun”and other items from the abandoned planes and carried them back to the “Icecap Station” that they came from some 40 miles to the South. When word got out that the sub-machine gun had been used as a personal gift, a flurry of “investigative correspondence” followed, but it was soon crowded outof the records it seems, by the everyday pressures of waging World War II.
1990 The Greenland Expedition Society demonstrated a feasible method of locating the planes, and were able to reach down to one of the two B-17 bomber planes over 200 feet below the surface of the Icecap. Unfortunately, the condition of that plane was such that restoration was considered impractical, and the cost of these operations was bankrupting the GES as well.
1992 The solution to the GES’s problems turned out to be a retired military officer, wealthy industrialist, and a successful enterpriser, J. Roy Shoffner. Utilizing the considerably experienced and talented, but somewhat recalcitrant individuals that Epps and Taylorhad collected in GES. Along with an another retired military officer and born leader, Bob Cardin, as his strong right arm, Roy took charge. Shoffner, Cardin, and company did the impossible and brought the unwieldy center section of the P-38 fighter plane dubbed “GlacierGirl” up from 25 stories deep under the surface of the Greenland Icecap.
Restoring the Aircraft
1992-98 Painstaking restoration is still underway at Middlesboro, KY. It has been variously estimated that the WWII P-38 fighter plane which was removed piece-by-piece from 25 stories deep in the Greenland Icecap in 1992 is now 75% rebuilt. Because the pressures of first heavy snows, then summer melt water, and eventual encapsulation in solid ice, many parts had to be straightened, rebuilt, or replaced to restore them to flyable condition.
Future of the Squadron
It is planned by owner J. Roy Shoffner, Restoration Manager Bob Cardin, and staff that “Glacier Girl” will be the most perfect P-38 ever,and that she will tour the country. Plans call for display at the leading air shows, as well as retracing her WWII flight path through the Northeastern Arctic to complete the flight from West Greenland to Iceland, and from Iceland to Scotland as was ordered by the Bolero Command in July 1942.
Between trips, Glacier Girl will continue to be the focus of interest at the museum located in a hanger at the Bell County Airport in Middlesboro, KY. Middlesboro is on US 25 E. at point where Kentucky, Tennessee, and Virginia all touch, and where the historic Cumberland Gap National Park is located.
Probing the Greenland Icecap in the early 1990s for the warbirds of the Lost Squadron, the would-be savagers were confounded by the 25 stories of ice burying the eight planes. By 1992 the over burden of ice had reached 268 feet.
In a day and age when we are told that the World’s ice fields are supposed to be receding because of “Global Warming”, how can this part of the Greenland Inland Ice (the Icecap) be increasing in depth by more than 5 feet per year average? Obviously the depth of snowfall exceeds the volume of melt-off.
In my opinion the reason is due to a natural phenomenon called the Gulf Stream. The Gulf Stream’s proximity to the South Eastern coastline of Greenland must account for the high volume of snowfall, and the cloud conditions that limit sunlight and melting.
For the true history of the Lost Squadron of WWII check out David Haye’s book: THE LOST SQUADRON published by the Hyperion/ MadisonPress Books of Toronto, Canada. See also a synopsis of the book in the July 1994 issue of The Readers Digest magazine.