Three men crash in a plane on a Greenland icecap . . . An amazing account of endurance and courage and terrifying cold

C. B. WALL May 15 1943


Three men crash in a plane on a Greenland icecap . . . An amazing account of endurance and courage and terrifying cold

C. B. WALL May 15 1943

IF YOU want to know what it was like for the first seven days,” said Pilot Officer David Goodlet, “take two of your best friends, climb inside a steel cylinder about seven feet long and four feet high and set the temperature at forty below. For food, you can eat dog biscuits—half a biscuit a day. For water, you suck the ice your breath forms on the walls of the cylinder.”

From his chair at the radiator, Flight Sergeant Arthur Weaver said:

“And you shouldn’t be able to know where you are or when you’re going to get out,” he said. “That was the worst part of it.”

Two months before, while flying a bomber from Newfoundland to England, Goodlet, Weaver and a third crew member—Navigator Al Nash—had crash landed on a barren, glacier plateau on the coast of Greenland inside the Arctic Circle. For 14 days, in temperatures as low as 40 below zero, the three had kept themselves alive.

I was talking with Goodlet, who comes from Simcoe, Ont., and Weaver—a Toronto lad—after their return from Iceland, in a hotel room in Toronto. Nash was spending his leave home in Winnipeg, 1,500 miles away, but he might as well have been sitting with us in that room, for the three had been trained as a team. They had gone through this thing together and Weaver and Goodlet weren’t forgetting it.

The room in which we talked was quite warm but when they came in Weaver had «i kept on his heavy service overcoat and propped his chair against the radiator. He was politely apologetic about this.

“I can’t seem to get warm enough,” he said. “It’s been two months since they took us off that icecap but I still can’t get warm.”

“I just got over the chills about a week ago myself,” said Goodlet. “My only trouble now is that I can’t sleep.”

They were both very thin and very young. Weaver was 21, Goodlet 22. Their faces were tight and drawn and they had the too-sudden laughter of youngsters who have just come out of a dark room.

“The doctor on the Coast Guard boat told us not to talk about it for a while,” Goodlet said. “But what the hell? I think if I talk about it enough I’ll get tired of even thinking about it and then maybe I can get some sleep.”

Heavy Fog and Dead Radio

AS WE talked, Weaver stayed close to the L radiator. They said they had left their Newfoundland base at 8 a.m. in a twin-engined bomber. Two hours out of Newfoundland they ran into heavy fog. The radio, on which they depended to check their course, went dead and the heavy overcast made it impossible for Nash to take sun shots. Goodlet had tried to get above the weather but the bomber had iced up badly and refused to climb. They flew blindly for the next six hours.

“I kept her pretty steady at 15,000,” said Goodlet, “since there was a chance we might have drifted over Greenland where the mountains are pretty high. It was cold—15 below with the heater working but it was safer.

“But with half an hour’s gas left, I knew I had to start letting down. If there was any chance for a landing I wanted to have some power. We passed through heavy clouds, wondering all the time if we were going to bump into a mountain. We came out of it at 3,800. Al relieved things a little. All the way down he kept yelling into the intercom mike, ‘Fifth floor, ladies’ wear, lingerie and fancy hosiery.’ Stuff like that. He was down to the bargain basement when we came out of it.

“The sun was bright and low on the horizon and the reflection of it on the snow and ice half blinded me at first. Then I could see we were about 15 miles inside the coast line. There were snow-capped mountains, as jagged as rows of broken beer bottles, running parallel with the coast about 20 miles to our left. The area we were flying over was a snow-covered plateau sloping from these mountains to the sea.

“I went back and forth at about 500. You see it was pretty hard picking a spot because the plateau was crisscrossed every few miles with wide crevasses and I didn’t want to land in one of those. But I finally set her down on her belly, leaving the wheels up, of course.”

“He makes it sound simple,” Weaver said, taking up the story. “But landing in deep snow at 110 is something of a trick. There wasn’t a jar. Al and I were impressed. We yelled, ‘Good show, old cock !’ and pounded the hell out of Dave when he came down from the pilot’s compartment. Dave said we’d better take a look outside. He stepped out first. He sank into the snow up to his crotch. It was like stepping into water.

“We pulled him back into the plane and slammed the door shut. Then the three of us sat down and lit a cigarette. Al had never smoked before in his life but he had one, too. By the time we’d finished the cigarettes, the frost on the plexi-glass had started to turn sort of pink and we knew the sun was going down. Then we heard the wind outside pick up and blow the snow against the ship. I looked at the thermometer in the cockpit. It was 34 below zero.

“Dave got out a flashlight and said we might just as well eat the sandwiches and drink the coffee they’d given us when we took off. But the coffee was frozen solid, and the sandwiches—some kind of chopped meat—you couldn’t even pry apart. We tried to twist the metal off the thermos flasks so we could suck at the coffee ice but it was too tough. So we sat there sort of sucking at the sandwiches until they were melted and then chewing them.

“After we’d finished the sandwiches we pounded each other and smacked our feet hard against the sides of the ship. I couldn’t feel anything no matter how hard I kicked.

“The plane was starting to shake in the wind and when Dave climbed up into the cockpit and read the airspeed indicator it showed 62 miles an hour and you could feel it right through the steel sides and plexi-glass.

Thirty-eight Below

WE SAT in the wireless compartment, a while and smoked cigarettes, lighting one off the other because we only had Dave’s lighter and a pack of paper matches. Al smoked right along with us. About every ten minutes we’d get up and pound each other and kick our feet against the floor and sides. We did this for about two hours but the cold seemed to be getting right inside of us. Even the inside of my mouth seemed to be getting cold. I went up to the cockpit and looked at the thermometer. It was 38 below.

“I don’t believe we’d have lasted through the first 24 hours if Al hadn’t had the idea of ripping our parachutes into strips and winding them around our bodies and feet. We looked like Egyptian mummies but the silk helped a lot. We stuffed what was left over against the plexi-glass and steel and that helped cut down on the cold air seeping through.

“We stayed in the wireless compartment, smoking cigarettes and talking about everything we could think of until midnight. The thermometer had gone down to 41 below and we were shaking with cold no matter how much we moved around or pounded each other.

“Al said he thought we should all crawl into his compartment in the tail and lie on top of each other and maybe we could get warm that way. Al stretched out and I got on top of him and Dave got on top of me and we pulled some more of the parachute silk over the heap of us. The heat of our bodies close together helped a little but we all kept on shivering.

“We stayed like that all night, shuffling around like a deck of cards so we’d take turns on being middle man which was the warmest spot. About every half hour we’d all get up and slam our feet against the sides. We talked all night about everything we could think of. First of all we decided to ration the box of iron biscuits—the only food in the plane—to one biscuit apiece every 24 hours. These biscuits were about half an inch square and were supposed to be full of vitamins but they tasted like sawdust.

“Then we got talking about Gandhi and how long a man could go without food. Somehow or other talking about Gandhi made us feel better because we knew he was just a little old shrivelled-up guy and if he could go for 50 or 60 days without food we thought we could, too. None of us said anything about Gandhi having the break in temperature.

Voices Against the Cold

DAVE told us about his five-months-old baby girl. He’d seen her for the first time a couple of weeks before and he had a picture of her in his wallet. I think we must have looked at that picture a million times while we were stuck there and I think right now I could probably pick her out of all the babies in the world.

“Al talked a lot about the girl from Michigan he’d been going with. He said she was getting three weeks off from her job and was coming to Canada to see him. He kept worrying about whether he’d get back in time to keep the date. Al’s father had just died a little while ago and his mother was alone so he kept worrying about her, too. He hoped the news of his being missing wouldn’t get through until they found us.

“I’d only been married for a few weeks so I told them all about the wedding, what we’d had to eat, what my wife had worn and the kind of a house we were going to build one of these days.

“That was the way it went all night. At eight in the morning we pried open the door and looked out. It was pitch black and the wind was still driving the snow across the ground and you couldn’t see a thing. But it was warmer now and the thermometer had gone up to 28 below.

“It got dark at 5 o’clock the second day. I think we were hungrier , that night than at any time later on. So we started talking about food. Al had been a salesman around Winnipeg and he told us about how he used to bring a little stove into a retailer’s store, fry little squares of ham and hand them out on toothpicks to customers. You could almost smell that ham frying and a couple of times after he’d finished his sales patter I caught myself reaching out for one of those toothpicks.

“We talked about Christmas dinners we’d had when we were kids. We talked about stuff we’d left on our plates and that night we all raised our right hands and swore we’d never leave anything on a plate again.

“All the time we were talking we kept on smoking and shuffling around. Our feet would get numb and Dave was afraid they would freeze solid and gangrene set in. So we kept moving.

“That was the way it went for three days. Every once in a while I’d take off my gloves and monkey with the radio. But I couldn’t get it going and my fingers would get so numb after a couple of minutes that I had to put the gloves back on.

“About 11 o’clock on the third night the plane stopped shivering and it was quiet and we knew the wind had died down. Al grabbed his sextant and the three of us made for the door. It was jammed with ice but we cracked it open and jumped out into the snow. Al took his astro shots very slow and careful and I knew he didn’t want to make any mistake. Back inside he worked out our position. We were just within the Arctic Circle in Greenland about 15 miles from the Atlantic coast and 110 miles from any place marked on our map.

110 Miles To Go

I THINK, by that time, our brains were a little numb and frozen too. We weren’t particularly scared. We just started talking over how we could cover those 110 miles.

“Finally, we decided we would break out the rubber dinghy, inflate it and drag it over the snow until we hit open water. Then we’d paddle the 100 miles to the nearest settlement. But before we could do that we had to get through the deep snow to the coast and we’d need something like snowshoes. We managed to find some fairly good-sized plywood box tops in the cargo we were England. We worked all night with Dave’s pocket-knife and by morning we had five pretty good snowshoes to tie to our feet with the parachute shrouds. We made the sixth out of the cushion in the pilot’s cockpit.

“We would take the compass, the Very pistol and cartridges, three marine distress signals, the box of biscuits and as many cigarettes as we could carry. When we crashed we had about 5,000 cigarettes we were taking over to pals in England. I think we smoked something like 2,500 of them in those first six days.

“We’d just about got everything set when the wind picked up and everything was grey again with whirling snow. It made us feel like hell and we didn’t talk so much.

“I started fooling around with the radio again that afternoon and by some miracle got the damned thing working. I picked up a Canadian airport—very low and weak—and broke in on him with the SOS and our position. The third time he acknowledged me with RR which means okay. Then my batteries cut out.

“By that time both my hands were frozen so hard that toward the end I was hitting the key with my fist. Getting that message through helped pull us out of the slump and somehow we got through those next two days and nights—talking, smoking, nibbling on the biscuits which we’d cut down by this time to one-quarter biscuit a day.

“The wind didn’t stop blowing for the next 48 hours. The temperature stayed pretty steady at 38 below, and the inside of the plane was covered with a shell of ice about three inches thick on the plexi-glass. You got the feeling that the ice was closing in on you and there was nothing you could do to stop it except to stop breathing.

“The insides of our mouths were bleeding and sore from sucking snow and ice but no matter how much we sucked we couldn’t quench our thirst. None of us had slept a second since we’d left Newfoundland but we didn’t seem to be tired any longer or even hungry. The thirst was the worst part of it—the thirst and the dry burps. We started to get these dry burps on the fifth night. They were sort of a continual hiccup and came at ten-second intervals.

“On the sixth morning the weather cleared and we inflated the dinghy with the carbon-dioxide cartridge. We destroyed the bombsight and burned all papers as required in crash orders. It wasn’t much of a fire but we stuck the frozen coffee flasks into it and got about a cup melted before the papers burned up.

“We started moving about one o’clock. It was tough going even with the snowshoes. The dinghy pulled harder than the devil and we couldn’t go more than 50 yards without getting winded. In two hours we covered about a quarter of a mile and then the snow started again. We knew we couldn’t last long in that stuff so we started back for the plane and holed in again and smoked cigarettes and talked and pounded each other all night.

“The next afternoon the weather took a funny turn. The temperature shot up 54 degrees and rain started falling. When we stepped out of the bomber it was like stepping into the tropics. The snow was mushy and it was harder going than the day before but we kept on until dark.

“As soon as the sun went down, the wind came up and it got cold again. Our flying suits and boots froze to us like armor. We propped the dinghy up with its aluminum oars and crouched on the lee side for the next 17 hours of darkness.

“We prayed a lot that night. I’d never gone to church very much but that night I promised God that I would go to church every Sunday with my wife if I ever got back to where there was a church.

“As soon as it got light we started out toward the coast. We could see these crevasses crisscrossing the plateau ahead of us. We had to walk off course for about a mile before we could get around the first one.

Sound of an Engine

WE WERE doing this when we heard the sound of an aircraft engine. We all heard it at the same time and made a dive for the marine signals in the dinghy. Only one of the signals worked. I guess frost had broken the Very pistol’s spring and the others were duds. But that one was enough. The aircraft circled low above us and dropped small parachutes with food, clothing, sleeping bags, a bottle of Scotch, snowshoes, 100 feet of rope and a note of instructions.

“Al was the first one to reach the stuff and he went for the Scotch. He’d never taken a drink of liquor in his life but he got the cork out and downed eight ounces. It wasn’t because it was liquor—it was just because it was liquid. As soon as we got the bottle away from him, he sat down on the snow and his eyes began to roll around in his head like a couple of marbles in a milk bottle. Then he sort of flopped over on his side and put his head down in his arms and went to sleep.

“It was the first sleep he’d had in nine days and nine nights and we couldn’t wake him up. But we finally got his wet clothes off and dressed him in the clothes and parka they’d dropped from the plane. Then we rolled him into a sleeping bag and let him sleep because we knew he couldn’t freeze right away in that sleeping bag.

“Then Dave and I stripped to the skin and put on dry clothes and opened up the U.S. Army ‘K’ rations they’d dropped. These rations were in cans and divided into separate meals. We started with breakfast and worked our way through dinner. Then we read the note which told us to rope ourselves together and keep on toward the coast in as straight a line as possible. A U.S. Coast Guard patrol boat was smashing its way through the ice fields toward us.

“After that we got into the sleeping bags and went to sleep for the first time in nine days. We woke up an hour later and began retching all over the snow. Al woke up, too, and started wolfing some of the food and joined us in a couple of minutes.

“When we felt steadier we got going again. We could make better time with the new snowshoes. That night rain and sleet soaked and then froze our new clothes and sleeping bags. It was colder than hell laying in the slushy snow so we stood up for the next 17 hours holding the sleeping bags over our heads to keep the rain off. We didn’t want to take a step in the darkness because of those crevasses. There seemed to be more of them the closer we got to the coast.

“The next morning a heavy fog covered everything and there wasn’t much difference between day and night so we had to stay put. We spent the day massaging our feet. We couldn’t tell how many times they’d been frostbitten and frozen in those ten days but they were swollen and sore now and it hurt like hell to walk with those snowshoes on. We rubbed them with a little of the Scotch and I think the alcohol probably helped.

“The fog lifted about 2.30 the next afternoon and we plowed across the snow until dark. We were getting sort of weak now so we discarded the sleeping bags because they were heavy with ice and took turns carrying the Scotch. That bottle was heavy.

“The temperature went away down that night and we huddled close together with our arms around each other. That was a mistake because after about an hour we were all frozen together in a solid mass and it took a lot of our strength to pry ourselves apart.

“Toward morning I dozed off and by the time Dave roused me my right foot was numb. When we got the hoot off and put the searchlight on it the foot was white and hard and the light sort of glistened on it. Dave and Al worked on it for an hour before the feeling came back.

“Will We Make It?”

I THINK that night, for the first time, we began to wonder if we were going to make it. The icecap was heaving—it was like sitting on an elephant’s belly—and every hour or so there’d be a hell of a thundering noise and we could hear it echoing between the mountain ranges.

“Al said we should sing a hymn of some kind but none of us had ever been very religious and we didn’t know the words or music of anything that was like a hymn except ‘God Save the King’ and ‘Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition.’ So we sang those. It made our lips and mouths bleed like the devil but we felt better.

“When the sun came up next morning the sky was clear and there was a hard crust on the snow that shimmered red in the sunrise. We found we could make swell time on that crust. We could almost skate over it with the snowshoes. We covered a lot of ground that day and stopped for a few minutes only when we were very tired.

“About 3.30 we spotted what looked like a rowboat out in the ice field along the coast. It was probably about 10 miles out and it seemed to be standing still. We forgot everything then—our sore feet, our thirst, how tired we were—and put everything we had into the last couple of miles between us and the coast.

“We reached the edge of the glacier just before it got dark and found we were on a sheer cliff of ice about 250 feet above the coastline. With Dave’s lighter, which he’d refilled with alcohol from the plane’s radiator, we tried to set our parkas on fire. But they were too damp.

“There was a moon that night. The air was cold and clear and you could see eight million miles of stars and snow and ice. About seven, the ship started shooting off flares and playing its powerful searchlights all along the coast. It was like the Queen’s birthday and the three of us jigged and yelled our heads off every time the searchlights swept across us.

“But the lights never settled on us and we knew they hadn’t seen us. They kept it up most of the night and then when it got light we saw a plane take off near the ship and head toward the shore. We yelled and jumped around and waved our parkas but the pilot never saw us.

“Then we saw the plane head out toward the boat. About dark the boat turned around and started out to sea. We didn’t say anything. We just stood there and watched it until darkness blotted it out.

“We thought we were gone then. Our food was gone. We knew we didn’t have enough strength left to make it back to the plane and we knew we couldn’t stand even one of those 40-below nights in the open.

“About an hour after dark Dave said he thought the parkas might burn all right now because the day had been clear and the wind had dried them out. We tore part of them into strips so they’d catch fire easier. Dave spun his lighter but it was getting very low on fuel and it took a lot of sparking to get it going. But when it did, the parkas caught fire nicely and we had a good, bright blaze.

“We Feel Wonderful”

AS SOON as the flames went up - there was a burst of flares from out in the ice field and the ship’s signal lamp started blinking. I read the Morse: ‘Move hack from edge of glacier and bear south to meet landing party.’

“Then the three of us started yelling and pounding each other. We felt wonderful. There was a bright moon that night and we backtracked over the crevassed area, then followed the glacier slope to the south.

“A landing party picked us up six hours later and took us to the ship. It was a U.S. Coast Guard patrol vessel and the skipper and crew treated us like newborn babies. The skipper told us he’d given us up for lost the night before and was just heading out to sea when he spotted our burning parkas.

“I thought we’d been more or less normal all the time but the ship’s doctor, Dr. E. B. Gall, told us later that we were in sort of a twilight between sanity and insanity and that we’d probably have cracked in another day and night.

“I think that probably explained why we weren’t afraid toward the end. Even when we came to the edge of one of those crevasses, which were about a thousand feet deep, we didn’t feel any fear. We’d just methodically back away and walk around it.

“Dr. Gall said our feet were in pretty bad shape because of freezing and frost-bite burn. But the thing that seemed to interest him more than anything was the fact that we’d had only about two hours sleep in those 14 days. He couldn’t get over that and said he was going to prepare some kind of a report on it for a medical journal.

“He gave us stuff to make us sleep but even in the sick bay I couldn’t sleep more than an hour at a time for the next two weeks. I’d wake up to find Al and Dave awake, too, smoking cigarettes and talking the same as they did back in the plane.

“It’s been like that ever since. Neither Dave nor I can sleep more than an hour at a time. I don’t know how it is with Nash, but I’ll bet he’s waking up in the middle of the night, too, shivering with cold and scared to death he’s back on that glacier.”