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The Last of the Coast Guard's MIAs

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The frozen terrain in which the remains of Pritchard, his crew and the Grumman Duck have been preserved for over seventy years. (Photo by Coast Guard Master Chief John Long, ret.)

By William Thiesen 2018-09-24 17:42:05

Last week saw the annual observance of the National Prisoner of War/Missing in Action Recognition Day. Of the service’s three known MIAs, two may still be frozen in Greenland’s ice cap.

Like many selfless Coast Guardsmen, Lt. John Pritchard (left) and Petty Officer First Class Benjamin Bottoms, a radioman, went in harm’s way to save lives only to sacrifice their own. “Johnny” Pritchard graduated from the Coast Guard Academy in 1938 and earned his wings at Pensacola Naval Air Station in 1941. His initial tour of duty began in Miami before the service re-assigned him to the cutter Northland on the Greenland Patrol. Born in Georgia, Benjamin Bottoms enlisted in 1932. In a year, he received assignment to the service’s communication division and became a radio operator aboard east coast cutters. He was first assigned to the aviation branch at Salem Air Station, in Massachusetts, and joined cutter Northland as an aircraft radioman in early 1942.

During World War II, the Coast Guard ran the Greenland theatre of operations. It was one of the war’s deadliest battlegrounds, where men fought not only the enemy, but the elements as well. The Greenland patrol’s conditions included heavy seas, severe cold, gale force winds and whiteout conditions. In this dangerous environment, Pritchard and Bottoms manned the amphibian aircraft on board cutter Northland, which patrolled the east coast of Greenland.

Late in 1942, during Pritchard and Bottoms’ first deployment aboard Northland, the cutter received word that a Royal Canadian Air Force bomber had crash-landed on the Greenland ice cap. Pritchard volunteered to lead a search party to find the Canadian bomber’s three survivors. On Monday, Nov. 23, 1942, he led a party 2,000 feet up the coastal mountains to the ice cap and traversed the heavily crevassed ice at night using a flashlight to guide him. Later that night, he found the exhausted Canadian flyers and brought them back to the Northland. For leading this search and rescue effort, Pritchard received the Navy & Marine Corps Medal, the highest recognition for a wartime rescue mission.

Earlier the same month, a U.S. Army Air Corps C-53 transport aircraft had also been lost on the ice cap. On Nov. 9, a B-17 Flying Fortress took to the skies to find the missing aircraft. Weather conditions and poor visibility forced the bomber to crash land on the ice cap. Searches for the C-53 transport proved fruitless, so search efforts began to focus instead on the downed B-17 and its nine crewmembers.

On Nov. 28, within days of his successful rescue of the Canadians, Pritchard, along with Bottoms (left), departed Northland in the cutter’s J2F Grumman “Duck” to search for the B-17. In a few hours, they had located the crash site, landed on the ice near the Flying Fortress and hiked two miles back to the B-17, testing the crevassed ice with a broomstick. Pritchard and Bottoms took two of the bomber’s crew and escorted them over the dangerous ice to the Duck. Pritchard decided to evacuate the rest of the crew two at a time in a series of roundtrips back to the cutter. By the time the Duck returned to Northland that evening, the cutter had to use her searchlights to light the way home.

On the morning of Sunday, Nov. 29, Pritchard and Bottoms landed once again on the ice near the downed bomber. By coincidence, an Army rescue party using motor sleds had approached the crash site at the same time Pritchard landed. However, before the Army party arrived at the B-17, one of the motor sleds broke through a snow bridge into a crevasse dragging an Army officer into thebottomless fissure below.

After Pritchard and Bottoms made their way from the Duck to the downed bomber, fog began to surround the area and visibility worsened. Pritchard decided to return to Northland for men and equipment to help find the missing Army officer. One of the B-17 survivors joined Pritchard and Bottoms and the three walked back to the Duck. They took-off and flew into the cloud cover. As the dense fog and blowing snow closed in, Bottoms’ transmissions to Northland grew weaker, then were lost altogether. That was the last anyone heard from the Duck.

For a second time, the rescuers had become the victims. Over the next month, Northland sent out several unsuccessful parties on foot to locate Pritchard’s crash site. Four months after Pritchard’s disappearance, an Army Air Corps plane spotted the crash site of the Duck, but no recovery expeditions deployed. Meanwhile, treacherous ice and weather conditions postponed evacuation of the B-17 crew. However, in the spring of 1943, a Navy PBY “Catalina” flying boat repeated Pritchard’s daring feat of landing on the ice cap using its floats to rescue the bomber crew.

For their air rescue of B-17 crewmembers, Pritchard and Bottoms posthumously received the Distinguished Flying Cross, although some believe they deserved the Medal of Honor. In early 1943, head of the U.S. Army Air Corps, Major General George Stratemeyer, contacted the commander of the Greenland patrol commending the efforts to rescue his downed aviators writing, “The tragic loss of Lieutenant John A. Pritchard, USN, and Radioman Benjamin A. Bottoms, USN, will be remembered as part of a great act of heroism. Their sacrifice in the performance of duty comports with the highest traditions of the armed services."

In 2009, an expedition traveled to the east coast of Greenland to locate the crash site of Pritchard’s aircraft. The expedition proved unsuccessful; however, in later years, a number of follow-up expeditions were launched to locate the crash site. The burial of the aircraft under seventy years of snowfall and the movement of the ice in which it is embedded have hampered these search efforts. The story of Pritchard and Bottoms and the attempts to find them served as the focus of the 2013 bestseller book “Frozen in Time” by Mitchell Zuckoff. In 2014, the Coast Guard Academy inducted Pritchard into its Hall of Heroes while Bottoms has been honored as the namesake for a new Fast Response Cutter.

The horrendous air, sea and ice conditions experienced by Coast Guard personnel on the Greenland patrol were arguably the deadliest environment experienced in World War II. Pritchard and Bottoms battled those epic conditions while fighting to save stranded and suffering aircrews. Despite valiant efforts to locate Coast Guard heroes Pritchard and Bottoms, they remain among the service’s last MIAs. They were members of the long blue line and their story is one of the U.S. Coast Guard’s finest examples of self-sacrifice and devotion to duty.

This article appears courtesy of Coast Guard Compass and may be found in its original form here

The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.