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May 1943: War Department Announces the Rescue of Aviators Lost in Greenland

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In November 1942, an air transport crew ferrying a B-17 Flying Fortress to England diverted to Greenland to participate in a search for an overdue plane. During the search, the Flying Fortress crashed on the Greenland ice cap. Before the epic ordeal was over, five men died (including three rescuers), and the others spent months on the ice before being rescued the following Spring.

Left to Right: S/Sgt. Don T. Tetley, Lt. Harry E. Spencer, and Capt. Armand L. Monteverde

On November 6, 1942, pilot Lt. Armand L. Monteverde, co-pilot Harry E. Spencer, and navigator William F. O’Hara, along with their crew, were flying near Greenland when military officials asked them to divert and assist in a search for a missing aircraft. The aviators landed in Greenland. Foul weather made the search difficult and often grounded the crew. On November 9, the clouds broke, and the crew, including Sgt. Paul J. Spina, Pvt. Alexander F. Tucciarone, Corp. Loren E. Howarth, and Pvt. Clarence Wedel took off for another search. Sgt. Alfred C. Best and S/Sgt. Lloyd Puryear came along to help.

Heavy cloud cover moved in during the flight, and the line between sky and land became indiscernible. Suddenly, the plane lurched. A wingtip had brushed the ground. Before the pilot could react, the plane crashed violently and skidded, and the fuselage broke apart. Crew members were battered and bruised but survived. The most seriously injured was Spina, who broke his wrist and was thrown from the plane.

The men huddled together in the fuselage for warmth. The extreme cold and biting wind made the situation miserable. After a few days, the weather eased up, and crew members ventured out to assess the situation. After taking a few steps, Spencer fell 100 feet into a deep crevasse. Fortunately, an ice block wedged in the gap stopped his fall. Fellow crew members used a parachute harness and rope to hoist him to the surface, but the men soon realized they were surrounded by deep crevasses that threatened to swallow the plane. O’Hara also suffered from frostbite, having gotten snow in his boots while helping Spina and Spencer.

After six long days, Howarth got the smashed radio working and sent an SOS message. Back at the base, rescuers worked frantically to develop a plan. In the meantime, they dropped supplies when the weather allowed.

Over the next five months, rescuers tried repeatedly to reach the men with multiple attempts using dog teams, motor sleds (a type of snowmobile), and aircraft. Extreme weather and the dangerous crevasses made conditions treacherous. During one rescue attempt, a plane managed to land on the ice and picked up Tucciarone and Puryear. They were flown to safety, but while attempting to rescue Corp. Howarth, the plane went down, killing both crew members and Howarth. Another failed attempt took the life of a rescuer, Lt. Max Demorest, who died after he drove his sled into a deep crevasse.

About one month into the ordeal, six men remained at the crash site. A seventh man, rescuer S/Sgt. Don T. Tetley joined them after reaching the site on a sled. O’Hara’s feet were in bad shape, so Tetley, Spencer, and Wedel loaded O’Hara on a sled and decided to try to make it to the base. As they were crossing the ice, Wedel suddenly broke through and disappeared. He had fallen through a shallow ice bridge over a deep crevasse. The ice had claimed another victim.

The sled’s motor failed a short time later, leaving the men stranded. To make matters worse, O’Hara had developed gangrene in his feet. Rescuers kept both groups resupplied with airdrops when the weather allowed. The men at the sled camp built a snow fort, and the driving snow made further rescue attempts impossible until February.

Dubbed Hotel Imperial, here is where Tetley, Spencer, and O’Hara awaited rescue in a snow cave.

When the weather cleared in February, rescuers landed a pontoon plane on the snow and picked up Tetley, Spencer, and O’Hara. It had been three months, but the men were now safe. All three were hospitalized, and O’Hara had to have both feet amputated. The focus now became the men back in the wreckage.

The glacier was moving at the wreck site, and the plane was slowly slipping into a crevasse. Rescuers decided to land another aircraft at the sled camp, where they would use a dog team to make their way to the wreckage. In late March, rescuers reached the site. The men had been on the glacier for five months. They were taken back to the sled camp and loaded in a pontoon plane. On April 6, 1943, the plane successfully took off from the ice field. With most of their fuel spent, the aircraft made a safe belly landing back at the base.

Consolidated PBY after an unsuccessful take-off from the Greenland ice cap during the rescue attempt.

On May 4, 1943, newspapers across the country published the heroic story of survival. Three of the survivors, Monteverde, Spencer, and Tetley, were invited to the White House to meet President Roosevelt. If you would like to learn more about this incident and the heroic survivors, search Fold3® today.

29 Comments

  1. Shawn Murphy says:

    Jenny,

    Thank you for another great story!
    Have you been following the 100th Anniversary of the first round the world flight that started in Seattle on April 6, 1924 ending back in Seattle on I think 9/27/1924?

  2. My friend Wilke White flew air-sea rescue missions in a Catalina flying machine during the war from Greenland to the U. K. A brave man, flying many missions . He finished the war teaching in Panama where his fingers from the knuckles down were amputated by the planes propeller on one hand.

  3. Joe Lindsey says:

    I read a book about this experience called “Frozen in Time” by Mitchell Zuckoff. A harrowing experience and a good read filling in the details.

  4. Carl says:

    Very interesting and unfortunate.
    That is an amazing Army Air Corp story.
    Have you done the Army Air Corp story on July 1942?
    When six P-38 fighters of 94th Fighter Squadron/1st FG and two B-17 bombers of a bombardment squadron were forced to return to Greenland?

  5. Katherine Soulliere says:

    Excellent article!

  6. Harold Sanders says:

    Good book is Cold Sun: the search for WWII Airmen lost in a Tibettan glacier; Texas A&M Press
    Another cold weather/Himalayas story; check out the reviews on Amazon or Goodreads

  7. Marianne Hudar says:

    Jenny I love reading your stories!
    I’m hooked on them now! Can’t wait for your next feature!
    This one was truly superb.
    I have a history degree, and pride myself on knowing WWII history, but you never cease to amaze me, with tidbits of WWII history that I’ve never heard before.
    Keep up the good work.

  8. Gerry Shoaf says:

    Like Marianne, I too am a history buff, especially WWII. My dad served in the US Navy during the war and was part of the crew that repaired the flight deck of the USS Saratoga in record time to return it to service. Really enjoy your articles and look forward to each coming issue

  9. Karen McEachern says:

    Incredible true story!
    Thank you

  10. John N Moe says:

    My father, Captain John G Moe Jr was involved in the search but along with Jimmy Wade, a Canadian bush pilot was forced to land in a fiord and spent 10 dayus in a raft before they were able to make solid ground. They were discovered and rescued by local folks but had to stay six in their village brefore they could be flown out. Their story is covered in the Book Frozen in Time by Mitchell Zuckoff

  11. Jessica Blaloc says:

    Thank you for this awesome story!!!

  12. Dario J Fadiga says:

    Thank you for the story, these men deserved better than being stranded in the ice. Question, you mentioned Capt. Armand L. Monteverde in the photo and then mentioned Lt. Armand L. Monteverde in the story, was he a Capt or a Lt?

  13. Philip H. Branagan says:

    WOW. what an exciting report.
    I wonder, did Hollywood ever make a movie about that Rescue?
    Starring Tom Hanks, of course.

  14. Mike says:

    Does anyone know what happened with the original ‘overdue plane’?

  15. Jim Dwson says:

    The Consolidated PBY was and is an amazing aircraft that has been used to save countless lives by brave SAR teams.

  16. Frank Coorey says:

    Wow, what an amazing story! Maybe real life stories of heroism like this should be taught in our schools over “Wokeism”

  17. Billy Galt says:

    Another interesting story: On July 15, 1942, two B-17 bomber planes and six P-38 fighters left Greenland in route to Great Britain. They had to turn back and landed on a glacier on Greenland. It appears they had better luck than this crew because they were rescued and all survived. The survival was because it happened in July and not February. Temperatures average in the 50’s in July. Whereas in February the temperatures average between 15 and 24 degrees. Between 1986-2010 the Greenland Expedition Society searched and found them. They were able to bring up one of the P-38’s from 250 feet of ice and bring it back home. It now flies around to airshows in nearly perfect condition.

  18. James Smith says:

    Great story about overcoming challenges and not giving up. Thank you.

    For future reference: use Cpl or CPL as an abbreviation for the US Army Corporal rank.

    James

  19. Greg Devlin says:

    Wow, what a stunning story! All of these men are heroes, who displayed sheer courage, guts, determination, and a will to survive even when it may have looked like there was no hope.

    Here’s another stunning (true) WWII story.

    On December 13, 1944, my great uncle, i.e. my father’s uncle, (SSGT William James “Billy” Devlin) was in a B 24 Liberator Bomber named “The Bull” that went down in the pacific ocean off the coast of Palau, where 5 of the 11 people on board were killed from the impact. They were coming back from a successful bombing mission over Philippines, and were flying low (400’) when they lost two engines on one wing and soon after

    The plane broke into two pieces, and as it was going under, 5 of the remaining crew members were able to get into an inflatable raft, but when “Billy Devlin” pulled the cord to inflate the 2nd raft, it wouldn’t inflate and he thought he would soon drown because the seas were 8-10’ and the other raft full of guys couldn’t get back to him because they were being pulled away from him.

    Just when he thought all was lost he saw a floating “Gibson Girl” Radio going by and he latched onto it with all of his might. Over the next 18 hours he was stung by jellyfish, bumped by sharks and saw two separate “Dumbo” planes and Navy Rescue Ships come looking for him, and then go away because they couldn’t see him. Finally a 3rd rescue team found him but before they could pull him from the water multiple Navy crewman had to pull their 45 caliber guns out and start blasting the water around him because he was being circled by sharks. The “Gibson Girl” radio story was published around the world.

  20. Sherly Hoglen says:

    I love listening to the stories this is history and I love history all the stories documentary of history. I love listening to my family stories my father in law was a marine and he would tell us stories about things that happened he worked for the FBI and them stories

  21. Lena Taylor says:

    I remember a John Wayne movie about this.
    I also have a story to share about my step-father, James Lovett Piland. He earned a Purple Heart , WW2 but was buried in an unmarked grave. This is being remedied & a celebration with Honor Guard is being planned. He had combat badge with 5 bronze stars, wounded in the battle for Rome. All are invited to this event in Gonzales co., TX

  22. Marianne Hudar says:

    To Greg Devlin,
    I loved your Gibson Girl story!
    That sound truly amazing!

  23. Karla Lang says:

    Very informative! Thanks

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