NGA participates in mission to recover WWII service members
The National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency worked in 2014 as part of a historic U.S. Coast Guard mission to recover three World War II-era U.S. service members entombed in 40 feet of Greenland ice.
The search for Coast Guardsmen Lt. John Pritchard and Petty Officer First Class Benjamin Bottoms, and Army Cpl. Loren Howarth, who have been missing since their plane crashed in November 1942, falls under the auspices of the Joint Prisoner of War/Missing in Action Accounting Command, and includes NGA, NASA and the Naval Research Laboratory. Pritchard and Bottoms are the only remaining MIAs in the Coast Guard according to the service.
The men’s disappearance involves three downed aircraft, according to USCG historical reports. First, a U.S. Army cargo plane made an emergency landing Nov. 5, 1942, on an ice cap in Southeast Greenland. Its crew survived and needed to be rescued. A second plane, a modified B-17 bomber, crashed during the search and rescue mission. Several of its crew members were injured, but all survived.
Then, on Nov. 28, a Grumman Duck amphibious biplane, piloted by Pritchard, left USCG Cutter Northland to rescue men from the B-17, according to records. Pritchard and his radio operator, Bottoms, evacuated two men from the site and returned to the crash the next day and retrieved Howarth. Despite weather warnings from Northland, the three took off in the Duck toward the ship.
They didn’t make it. The last radio communication from them came nine minutes after takeoff, requesting directions back to the ship.
Several days later, another plane located the Duck and reported it badly wrecked with no signs of life. Since there had been no communication from the first plane’s crew for 30 days, the Coast Guard decided to focus its efforts on the B-17 crew. The remaining survivors were rescued in March 1943.
The Coast Guard could not recover the Duck or its crew, but the 1942 report was detailed enough to allow researchers, including NGA, to begin recovery operations again — nearly seven decades later.
NGA’s support allowed researchers to get closer to the crash site.
NGA’s involvement included its Department of Homeland Security NGA Support Team, the 3D model shop, and elements of Analysis and Source directorates, said Wayne Stephenson, the agency’s former Coast Guard liaison. The NST coordinated NGA’s efforts, introducing airborne ground penetrating radar imagery surveys from NASA and the Naval Research Laboratory, and providing analytic support from the Army Corps of Engineers cold weather lab.
The model shop produced 3D models of the crash site and the aircraft, said Stephenson. The Analysis directorate analyzed historic imagery and current data, conducted surveys and deployed an imagery scientist for the 2012 mission. Source provided imagery and foundation data and collection support, and deployed geodetic surveyor Ben Fuchs on the
“Surveying on the ice cap is like nothing I have ever experienced in my 18 years as a field surveyor,” said Fuchs, who works for NGA in St. Louis. “The hardest issue to overcome is the lack of landmarks. Basic orientation is nearly impossible without today’s surveying technologies.”
Fuchs marked the location of the crash with a 50-by-50 meter grid and oriented the excavation site to use the natural slope of the landscape, minimizing the time and effort used during excavation, he said.
The team used the grid to do radar surveys of the site, said Fuchs, who used the survey data to produce a current topographic map of the proposed evacuation site. He and other team members created an excavation plan indicating the snow and ice to be removed.
“The team assembled to recover the Duck in 2013 was like a modern day ‘A-Team,’” said Fuchs. “What a pleasure it was to be a part of such a meaningful mission.”