The Lost Squadron
Loading the player…
Download: Right-click on this link and choose "Save As" from the pop-up contextual menu.
As "Europe first" was the policy declared by then President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Operation Bolero began its phase in history as a massive buildup and movement of Allied aircraft into the European theatre. It was Tuesday, July 7, 1942, just seven months since the attack on Pearl Harbor that had thrust the U.S. into the war.
The most daring aspect of Operation Bolero was the actual flight overseas in stages, refueling in Labrador, Greenland and Iceland. Only the second of many flights to come during this operation, none of the pilots of what has now become known as "The Lost Squadron" knew their flight to England would end on the ice cap in Greenland.
By early morning on July 15, 1942, Tomcat Green and Tomcat Yellow, both squads consisting of Lockheed P-38s escorting a Boeing B-17, were airborne again, on their way to Iceland. This leg of the trip would take the squadron southeast over the ice cap and the mountains of the east coast of Greenland, then across the Denmark Strait to Reykjavik, Iceland.
As the squadron soared across the ice cap at twelve thousand feet, a heavy blanket of clouds began to form. They rose above it where the temperature dropped to minus ten degrees Fahrenheit. Ninety minutes from Iceland, the planes hit a mass of cumulus clouds, forcing them to climb another two thousand feet. The pilots resorted to various means of trying to keep warm. R.B. Wilson had impulsively torn the defroster from its mounting and was using it to heat his gloves in an effort to keep his hands warm enough to feel the controls. Brad McManus, a surviving member of the squadron interviewed for the documentary, visualized his parents sitting in bathing suits on the beach. His feet were so cold he could barely feel the rudder pedals.
Desperate to find better flight conditions, Spider Webb radioed he was taking Tomcat Green down to look for clear weather beneath the overcast. The clouds closed in above them as they dove through the murky skies. In a matter of minutes they were in what was described as clouds dense as cotton drenched in tar.
With ice forming on the wings and the P-38s struggling to maintain contact with the B-17, Wilson ordered the bomber to climb out of the mess. At sixteen thousand feet, Tomcat Green broke through the clouds and rejoined Tomcat Yellow. They didn't know which was worse, flying in the snow storm or watching your own skin turn blue at higher altitudes. They were only an hour away from Reykjavik, but another massive front lay ahead.
After flying south for another fifteen minutes trying to find a way around the front, pilot Joe Hanna of the B-17 reported his radio operator was unable to raise either Reykjavik or a weather plane supposed to be flying an hour ahead. At 7:15 a.m. it was decided the squadron should turn back and head for BW-8, the airbase on the western side of Greenland from where this leg of the flight originated.
An hour later, they saw the east coast of Greenland and weather that would prove to be as bad or worse than they flew through earlier.
About 130 miles from the base the B-17s apparently received a message from BW-8 that said "Ceiling twelve hundred feet. Visibility one-eighth mile". McManus and several other P-38 pilots decided to go down and take a look at the ice cap, in case they had to make an emergency landing. After rejoining the squadron between the layered clouds, it was reported the B17s had received a message from BW-1 at the southern tip of Greenland, that its runway was open. It was 10 a.m. Estimated time of arrival would be noon. Officials later compared Allied weather records to the coded messages and discovered the reported weather conditions at BW-8 and BW-1 had been switched. (Speculation of radio interference from Nazi U-boat or secret radio station was never proven.)
After ninety minutes of flying through dense cloud cover, the coastal mountains appeared through an opening. But where on the west coast were they in relation to BW-1? They soon discovered they were back on the east coast of Greenland, two hours away from BW-1. McManus's fuel would only last another twenty minutes.
The decision to land had been made for them. McManus decided to go in first. With R.B. Wilson and Robert H. Wilson flying along side, McManus had to decide to go in wheels up or down. He decided to go in wheels down, to enable a takeoff later, after more fuel was dropped. Things went well for the first couple of hundred yards and then the front landing gear buckled and crashed through the ice. The plane immediately flipped over and pinned the cockpit to the snow. McManus managed to cut his way out of his parachute harness and release his safety belt as smoke filled the cockpit.
He didn't think there was a serious fire threat, as his tanks were almost empty, but he wasn't sticking around to find out. McManus managed to kick and dig his way out of the cockpit onto the ice.
From the air, Robert Wilson viewed the scene and retracted his landing gear. He came down and slid to a smooth stop and raced the almost half-mile to McManus' plane to see if he was injured. When he reached it McManus came out from under the wing and said "Well, Egghead, didn't think I'd make it, did you?". They turned and waved to the pilots above, who responded by doing slow rolls and other acrobatics.
One by one the other P-38 pilots brought down their planes, as the two B-17s remained aloft for another half hour, expending their remaining fuel.
Having made successful landings, the job at hand was survival and rescue. Rations were gathered and divided to last two weeks. Warnings were issued not to eat excessive amounts of snow (to prevent sore throats) and to wear sunglasses at all times to prevent snow blindness. Space heaters were made from empty oxygen bottles with holes hacksawed in both ends and linked to an engine manifold pipe. Oil drained from the engines wicked through the device by means of parachute straps.
After three days on the ice, a Morse code message received by one of the radio operator confirmed their condition and position. Later that day two C-47 transport planes dropped supplies by parachute only to see them carried out of sight by strong winds after they hit the ground. The stranded airmen fanned out as the planes made additional drops and managed to smother the parachutes before the wind again took their supplies to the far horizon.
Supplies had arrived and everyone breathed a sigh of relief. They passed the time listening to music and news picked up on the radio from Iceland and England. They even had an impromptu square dance on the wing of one of the B-17s.
Another favorite pastime was to ride the wind using parachutes to pull them along while sitting on burlap sacks. More supplies were dropped in the following days as rescue efforts had begun in earnest.
A 30-foot wooden launch, the Uma Tauva, was dispatched from BE-2 to get the airmen off the ice. (Among those onboard was Donald Kent, son of famed American painter Rockwell Kent, acting as an "arctic adviser"). After landing ashore and with assistance from aircraft flying overhead, the ski and dogsled team were guided through seventeen miles of zigzagging crevasses to reach the stranded airmen.
At the crash site, preparations were being made to move out. The P-38 pilots returned to their planes to retrieve personal effects. Some fired .45 slugs into electronic equipment in case Nazi scavangers descended on the site. McManus removed the clock from his instrument panel as a keepsake. After all necessary gear was packed and ready for transport, the rescue team appeared and prepared the men for what would prove to be an exhausting hike out.
Loaded down with equipment and personal effects, members of the squadron struggled through knee deep snow and ice for hours before reaching the edge of the cliff at the ocean's edge. After reaching the beach, most of the exhausted men found a suitable spot to curl up and get some well deserved sleep.
Several hours passed before the Coast Guard cutter Northland arrived. After boarding, they were treated to showers, dry clothes and an extravagant navy meal. They were finally returned to BW-1 where they were debriefed and later sent back to the U.S. to new assignments.
On the way to BW-1, the Catalinas flew directly over the crash site on the ice cap. Looking down at the site, McManus stared in awe at what would become known as The Lost Squadron, the largest forced landing and rescue in U.S. aviation history. As they headed toward BW-1 and the planes below disappeared from sight, he thought the mission was at an end.
July 15, 1992, fifty years to the day later, 74-year-old Brad McManus stood on the ice cap surrounded by the recovered pieces of his late friend Harry Smith's P-38, as chronicled in the documentary, and was flooded with memories of his wartime experience and the lifetime friendships that he held dear to his heart. A new mission was about to begin.
Out to Find Buried Treasure
How do you get a P-38 out of the ice? Simple...melt the ice!
Well, maybe not as simple as that, seeing how it was 268 feet of ice. Basically, you start with a six-digit budget, followed by transporting tons of equipment that include arctic survival gear and heavy construction machinery, and top it all off with adventure minded individuals willing to take the hardships and risks associated with one-of-a-kind expeditions to a hostile environment. That's what it took to recover a P-38 from The Lost Squadron.
The contraption designed to burrow through the ice looks like a technologically advanced spinning top. It's called the Super Gopher-a thermal meltdown generator-and melts the ice by circulating hot water from a collector and pumping it through copper tubing coiled around the outside. The four-foot-wide device is suspended over the area to be tunneled through by a hoist and chain, being lowered at a rate of about two feet per hour. The water created is pumped out through a hose coupled to a submersible pump.
Gopher photoWhen the Gopher completed melting its 268-foot-deep shaft it was winched out of the hole and set aside. The hole took the better part of a month to complete. The descent to the bottom of the ice hole took twenty-five minutes. Men equipped with steam hoses were lowered in to carve out a cave surrounding the aircraft. Water created from this was constantly pumped out, as workers had to slog through ice water to keep the project moving along.
Salvaging the P-38 from the glacier took long hours of hard work, all of which had to be performed in cramped surroundings in a rain of melting water and chunks of ice that periodically fell from the cavern roof. There were several tense moments when the striking of a chisel sent cracks like bolts of lightning running through the roof of the ice cavern .
Once the cavern was completed, the task of disassembling the plane lay ahead. Technicians began to take the P-38 apart piece by piece. Propellers had to be removed, the wings had to be disconnected, the fuselage disassembled; every part of the plane was scrutinized, logged and recorded and then hoisted to the surface. The last section of the aircraft, the center section, was seventeen feet by twenty-one feet and weighed seven-thousand pounds. It too had to travel the 268 feet to the surface. Attached to the plane were cables that ran up to several winches. The bulk of the lifting was done by one very powerful manually operated hoist. Using it required applying great pressure uniformly, and it turned out that only one member of the team had the necessary strength for the job. The crank required four turns for every quarter-inch rise. Several people on the surface were needed to monitor the various other winches, and someone had to ride on the plane section to make sure it came up evenly and avoid any obstacles in the shaft. The raising of this section took almost two full days. After reaching the surface, the crew had to be extremely careful removing the section from the hoist, as a mishap at this point would send the huge section plunging down the shaft. Due to the limited height of the hoisting frame, the crew had to dig away a ramp on one side of the shaft onto which the plane could be pulled and released. Once done and out of the hole, a bottle of champagne was opened and signed by the remaining team members and dropped down the shaft. The recovery took four months to complete.
Arrangements were made with a shipping firm to take their cargo back to the states. A Sikorsky S-51, a heavy-duty cargo copter, was employed to carry the center section to a sea port where two weeks later the section was loaded onto a Danish ship that carried it to Denmark, and eventually to the docks at Savannah, Georgia. From there it was delivered to project funder Roy Shoffner's hangar in Middlesboro, Kentucky, where it is now in the restoration phase of the project.
The Restoration of the "Glacier Girl"
Restoration of Glacier Girl began in January of 1993, after all shipments of aircraft parts from the dig were finally gathered together. The restoration is being done in project financier Roy Shoffner's hangar in Middlesboro, Kentucky. Under supervision of Bob Cardin, project coordinator for the 1992 expedition, warbird specialists began their task by disassembling the massive center section. After initial de-construction of the plane began, it was evident that damage was more extensive than what appeared on the surface. The more they took apart, the more damage they found. The plane had to be taken apart down to the smallest manageable pieces, making sure each piece was marked for later identification. Parts were then cleaned and checked for functionality to determine if it could be used again, repaired for use, or replaced entirely. Damaged parts served as templates for construction of replacements.
Aiding in the process of restoration, an extensive research library was compiled. For research and copy fees of $1,200, the Smithsonian Institution supplied eight reels of microfilm and stacks of photocopies of era aviation maintenance handbooks, parts and repair manuals. Cardin's team, using the acquired documents, managed to more or less duplicate the original construction process carried out in the 1940s.
Spring of 1993 saw the beginning of actually rebuilding the plane, the main spar being the starting point. Clicos-temporary fasteners resembling bullets-were used so parts could be attached and removed to ensure proper fit and to be certain no pieces were overlooked.
Parts were much cheaper to acquire than creating molds to fabricate new ones. Finding them proved to be another adventure in itself. Cardin said he and Shoffner had visited people who claimed to have P-38s, only to discover unrecognizable piles of aluminum that wouldn't pass as airplane parts. They felt like they spent more hours playing detective than actually acquiring parts. Even when parts were located, owners were reluctant to part with them. In one case, Cardin found a needed set of engine cowling replacements, only to be told he would trade them for a Wright 1820, a rare model of aircraft engine. Cardin found one, traded for that engine and then traded for the cowlings. Another part needed was a control yoke. After several months search Cardin found one, but the owner was unwilling to part with it. Cardin's persistence, along with a little luck, finally led him to a warehouse where he found two-hundred of them. The owner of the warehouse didn't realize what they were!
Interested parties have also donated their expertise in goods and services to the project. Companies such as B.F. Goodrich Aerospace in England rebuilt the landing gear and brakes, and a Pennsylvania company fabricated a new canopy. An aviation mechanic volunteered to rebuild the Allison engines for the cost of parts. The electrical system is being replaced in the same manner.
When this project is completed, Glacier Girl will be one of the most perfect warbird restorations ever. "This is going to be the finest P-38 in the world, and it may be the finest restoration of any warbird ever done," said Cardin.
Work continues as thousands of people, from veteran aviators and aviation buffs to curious onlookers, come to a hangar in Middlesboro, Kentucky, to see a not-so-forgotten piece of history in the making.