81 Days Below Zero: The Incredible Survival Story of a World War II Pilot in Alaska's Frozen Wilderness
By Brian Murphy; Da Capo Press; 2015; 264 pages; $24.99
On Dec. 21, 1943, a B-24 Liberator on a cold-weather training flight departed from Ladd Field in Fairbanks and disappeared. The aircraft's last reported position was 10 miles east of Big Delta; 81 days later, the sole survivor walked out of the Bush. First Lt. Leon Crane's incredible story, along with that of a modern journey to the wreckage of the Iceberg Inez, is shared through Brian Murphy's new book, "81 Days Below Zero." As survival tales go, this one is epic, which makes it all the more surprising that it is so little known in Alaska.
Ladd Field, now known as Fort Wainwright, was home to a staggering amount of aviation activity during World War II. As Murphy explains, Fairbanks was not only a key transit point for lend-lease aircraft en route to Russia, but also a proving ground for aircraft operating in northern latitudes.
The plan for the five-member crew of the Iceberg Inez the day it crashed was to conduct feathering tests. After attaining appropriate altitude, one of the four engines would be shut down, simulating a failure, and the propeller then adjusted until they offered the least airflow resistance. This was a standard test for pilots but, as Murphy writes, "nothing in Alaska's super cold is routine."
Through ample research, as detailed in chapter notes and a selected biography and source list, Murphy was able to piece together the events that led to the crash of the Iceberg Inez and the loss of most of the crew. He also determined why the search was so difficult and why Crane, who no one thought was alive, had to find his way out of the bush. (He accomplished this largely by following the 88-mile Charley River.)
Military records and a recorded interview with Crane in 1944 filled in many of the blanks about the path he took and critical supplies he discovered in a cabin. His unlikely, nearly miraculous journey is grippingly retold here and Murphy has done an excellent job of showing how his survival was improbable, yet possible.
It is unexpected to find in the midst of Crane's saga, however, a dual narrative that visits the Iceberg Inez 50 years later. Murphy picks up the saga of the downed aircraft in 1994 when National Park Service historian Douglas Beckstead initiated his efforts to have an official military team sent to the wreck. After sighting it within the boundaries of the Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve, the B-24 became his obsession. He researched the crash and learned how Crane later flew out with a team from Ladd Field for an overflight of the site.
Beckstead visited the Iceberg Inez and became convinced that the fragmented remains of the aircraft's pilot-in-command, 2nd Lt. Harold Hoskins, had to be within the wreckage. It took years of evidence gathering and doggedly making his case to persuade the Pentagon to send out a special forensic team from Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command in 2006. Murphy makes the outcome of that investigation as thrilling as Crane's trek and Beckstead becomes an unlikely hero, a man to be admired for his steadfast dedication in seeing Hoskins home.
"81 Days Below Zero" is a traditionally crafted narrative that balances historical details with themes of adventure and unlikely survival. But there is more here than just an unexpected World War II story, which is compelling enough. With Beckstead's trips to the aircraft, Murphy shows how close the 21st century is to the events of the past and the quietly heroic actions a historian can take. Reality television has very nearly convinced us that it takes manufactured drama to get our attention. Kudos to Brian Murphy for reminding readers how far from the truth that assertion can be.
Pilot Colleen Mondor writes regularly about Alaska aviation. Contact her at email@example.com.
Alaska Dispatch Publishing