If you crash in a frigid world . . .
This would be a great read at the beach on a hot summer day: A young airman survives a crash in the Alaskan wilderness in the dead of winter and somehow, through pluck and luck, survives in sub-zero temperatures for 81 days before being rescued. Of course, the reader knows going in that the hero survives, so that compromises the drama. But it is a riveting story nonetheless.
First Lt. Leon Crane was co-pilot of a B-24 flying out of Ladd Field in December 1943 when the plane went down in bad weather. The B-24 was a reliable warhorse, but like many other wartime weapons, it had been rushed into service before all the bugs were worked out. Crane and his crew were gathering data on how the aircraft handled severe weather when it crashed. Crane was the only survivor, apparently not hurt at all. He found himself in a remote world of ice, snow and bitterly cold temperatures. By chance he had some matches and a letter he had just received from his father, with which he started a fire to ward off the cold that first night.
Crane had no idea where he was, and the Air Force had no idea where the plane crashed. After a few days of futile searches, the plane and crew were written off, their relatives notified. Crane trudged through mounds of snow for mile after mile with stoic determination. He finally found a cabin left behind by a gold miner who had thoughtfully stashed some food. After 20 days there, Crane sallied forth, having a variety of misadventures before he stumbled upon another cabin, this one with people in it.
He survived the war and lived a long life, dying in 2002, but said little about his Alaskan adventure, which was more a tale of fortitude than one of heroism. The author fills in the gaps with assumptions about what Crane must have been thinking at various times, as well as with extraneous observations. For example, we are told of a letter written by young Cpl. Dashiell Hammett to Lillian Hellman about Olivia De Havilland’s morale-boosting visit to troops in Adak, Alaska, a long way from where Crane’s plane went down. On the other hand, the author provides a good dose of frontier lore about how locals survive in the brutal Alaskan wilderness, which is both interesting and pertinent to Crane’s experience.
Overall, this is an interesting saga of survival against formidable odds.
81 DAYS BELOW ZERO The Incredible Survival Story of aWorldWar II Pilot in Alaska’s Frozen Wilderness By Brian Murphy with Toula Vlahou Da Capo. 238 pp. $24.99