LEVENTE SZABO for Reader's Digest
It was approaching noon on December 21, 1943, in the Tanana River valley of Alaska, not far from the Arctic Circle, and the five men on the Iceberg Inez were preparing to crash. Minutes before, the crew of the B-24 bomber had been testing a modified system on the plane’s four propellers when the plane seemed to stall, sending it diving into a roller-coaster plunge. G-forces slammed pilots Leon Crane and Harold Hoskin as they lurched at the controls. Wind screamed over the cockpit glass. The airspeed gauge was redlining. The flight instruments were blinking out. Then something that sounded like a pistol shot came from the tail, followed by cracking noises.
“Open bomb bays!” Crane shouted to the crew chief.
“Bail out!” Hoskin yelled to the other crew members.
The crash alarm bells jangled like a fire drill as Crane yanked off his mittens to secure his chute. And then, before he knew what was happening, he was in a free fall. He felt for the rip cord. The chute poured out. He swayed beneath it and watched the Iceberg Inez spin off before it slammed into a mountain slope and erupted in flames. Crane himself thudded into the powdery snow near the banks of a stream, two miles away from his plane, he guessed. The gas on board would keep the wreckage burning for a while, which would be good for a rescue mission. But the fire also meant the supplies on board—sleeping bags, signal flares, a gun, and ammunition—were lost, almost certainly along with any other crew members who might have survived the crash. (Here’s how you can survive a plane crash.)
Still, Crane shouted out for Hoskin and the rest of the men. He listened for any hint of life. Nothing. He was alone.
The sky was already turning dark. Crane took a few stumbling steps and found that the snow covered a jumble of rocks that made walking nearly impossible. There was no chance to reach the crash site before nightfall, nor did he have any idea where he was. And a broken ankle would be a death sentence.
Fortunately, the 23-year-old pilot had a few provisions to keep him warm until help arrived. He had the silk parachute, which he could use as a sleeping bag. His flight suit was intact. He had on three pairs of wool socks under his heavy mukluks. He also had his flight helmet and a pack of matches, as well as a knife. But he didn’t have his mittens, which he’d left on board in the rush to prep his chute. Without them, his unprotected fingers could become frostbitten within ten minutes.
He tucked his hands in his armpits and thought back to the last radio contact with the air base at Ladd Field in Fairbanks. That had been at least an hour before the plane had fallen, which meant the search area would be huge—a radius of about 200 miles from their last known position.
Content continues below ad
It was minus-60 degrees Fahrenheit. Crane knew he needed to get a fire going or he might not last the night, so he gathered driftwood. His fingers were numb, but he managed to strike a match. The little flame wasn’t enough to catch. He tried four matches, but they did nothing except singe his fingertips. This is how your body deals with freezing cold weather.
LEVENTE SZABO for Reader's Digest
Then he remembered a letter from his father he kept in his parka. Crane fed it into the wood. The fifth match worked, and a fire rose up. He let the fire thaw his fingers before wrapping himself in the chute. He thought about what would happen if rescue never came. How long, he wondered, would it take to die?
In the morning, Crane ran through his odds of being saved. The short daylight allowed little time for search planes. And in this climate, the hunt would be measured in days, not weeks, before it was called off. What if a plane never found him? There was water gurgling up through the ice on the stream, but he had no food. And his hands were already developing a pasty white look—the first signs of frostbite.
Crane was convinced that his best chance of survival was to leave the crash area and explore downstream. The water had to eventually drain into something, he reasoned, probably the Yukon River, and there was a chance of finding a trapper riding out the winter. But first he called out for his crewmates once again. When there was no response, he gathered up his parachute and his matches and set off. It took hours to cover one mile through the waist-deep drifts and ice-coated rocks.
As the sky darkened, Crane picked a patch of level ground by the stream to build a fire. But he had already burned his only kindling, his father’s letter, so it took several matches to get flames going. At this rate, he would have only a two-week supply of matches.
By the fire’s warmth, he inspected his hands. They were numb, and the color had drained from his fingertips. It was insanity to try to walk farther, he realized. It was wiser to stay in the vicinity of the crash site for a week, after which the air base would probably call off the search. Then he’d start walking again.
Hunger gripped Crane with an angry, clawing need. He had to find something to eat. Walking in deadly cold under these harsh conditions could demand about 6,000 calories a day. A few days of that and he’d simply collapse.
He saw a few red squirrels, one of the few animals that do not migrate or hibernate during the Alaskan winter. Crane broke off a branch, took out his knife, and began to whittle down a point until he had a spear. Then he took aim and threw. The spear flew through the air, wobbly and slow, missing its target by a foot. Next, Crane tried a sneak attack, jabbing at one of the spry animals. He missed, then missed again. Enraged, Crane grabbed rocks and hurled them at the squirrels. “Go to hell!” he yelled.
Content continues below ad
Beaten, he spent the next three days wrapped in his parachute in a kind of hibernation, climbing out only to drink from the river and feed the fire.
Although Crane was alone in the wilderness, he’d not been forgotten. The first rescue flight went out of Ladd Field eight hours after the last radio contact with the Iceberg Inez. Within two days, more than 20 search missions were launched—all coming up empty. At the base, the crew’s bunks and lockers remained untouched for a while. Eventually, though, their personal items were packed up and shipped to the next of kin.
With no food and fading hopes, Crane felt the need to do something. He decided the river was too much of an unknown, so on December 29, eight days after the crash of the Iceberg Inez, he began hiking overland in search of civilization. With each step, he had to plow aside snow. Numbness began to spread downward from his knees. Not a single stride landed easily. He stumbled several times, which forced him to pull his hands from the warmth and safety of his pockets to avoid toppling over. At midday, Crane stopped. In two hours, he had gone all of roughly 300 feet. I’m simply marching to my death, he thought. Crane turned around and followed his tracks back to his campsite on the river. The fire was nearly out, but some wood still glowed. He coaxed flames from the spruce and cloaked himself in the parachute for another night.
He left again the next morning, this time trying to walk atop the frozen river. Crane followed the pathway through white hills, telling himself, Around the next bend, there will be a cabin with a fire and a family who will feed me supper with steaming coffee. But bend after bend, it was just more river, more hills. And there was something else concerning him. It had started with a few moments of disjointed, meandering thoughts, and a few times over the past few days, he’d found himself in a daze. Crane felt himself slipping, his judgment fraying because of cold, hunger, fatigue, and loneliness. Make sure to read up on these life-saving survival skills you might need one day.
Dusk gave way to darkness, and as he blindly trundled on, a log cabin came into view, half covered with snow. He stumbled over rocks, running and yelling, not caring that his hands were exposed. He cleared away a drift and opened the door.
The place was about ten feet wide, with a dirt floor and a low ceiling. A wooden bunk stood in the corner. There was a table with burlap sacks on it, tied with twine. His frigid fingers couldn’t loosen the knots, so he cut a bag with his knife. Sugar! There was a tin of cocoa, one of dried milk, and a box of raisins. Crane stuffed the raisins into his mouth. He lit a fire and filled a frying pan with snow, and soon he was holding a tin cup of hot cocoa in both hands. Then he fell asleep in the bunk.
When he awoke, he made more cocoa. Sated, he filled his pockets with raisins and set off downriver, certain that there must be a village nearby. The river bent to the west, and the valley narrowed. He hiked on, hour after hour. All he saw was more wilderness. Darkness fell, and a half-moon rose in the cloudless sky. The temperature had tumbled down to 40 below, he figured. It was decision time. His hands were too numb to light a match, and he knew he could not ride out the night without a fire. He made the painful choice. There was no village. He had to return to the cabin.
Content continues below ad
He stumbled back along the river. Icicles hung from his nose. It hurt too much to brush them off. To stop was to perish. He just kept his legs moving. One step. One breath. Dawn came, and still there was no sign of the cabin. The landscape was not familiar—he had paid no attention when he’d headed out the previous morning. It was close to noon—after 30 hours of walking—before Crane saw the cabin again. He staggered through the door and made a fire. Then he wrapped himself inside the silk folds of his parachute and collapsed into the bunk.
Crane spent 48 hours in bed before hunger forced him to his feet. He stepped outside to explore a small shelter he’d noticed earlier. As luck would have it, it held food, clothes, a rifle, ammunition, and, most important, a pair of moose-hide mittens. Crane used the next three weeks to regain his strength. But if he was going to make it, he’d need to carry more supplies. So he took two old boards for runners, pulled a window frame from the cabin, and nailed a washtub to the frame to make a sled. He packed it with food and gear.
At dawn on February 12, 1944, 53 days since the crash, he said goodbye to the cabin that had saved his life. He looped a rope harness around his chest and hauled the sled over the riverbank and onto the ice.
The going was tough. The harness dug into his chest, and he managed only one mile in the first hour. For four days he hiked on, his world whittled down to the act of a single step, then the next step. At one point, as Crane leaned forward to push through a drift, the ice folded under his feet. He gulped a breath as the surface gave way. The sled halted his fall long enough for him to twist around, grab the rope, and haul himself back. He could feel the water leaking through the tops of his mukluks and soaking his body below his waist.
He had to act fast. Crane lumbered toward the bank with the sled in tow. He surged onto the rocky shore and, with trembling hands that could barely strike a match, made a fire. If you find yourself in an emergency situation, you’ll want to know these six proven skills to survive.
Crane strung a rope between two trees and draped his tent over it, forming a crude shelter. He pulled off his flight suit, long underwear, mukluks, and socks. He was naked and losing body heat. He wrung out his clothes as best he could and laid them near the fire. Then he cowered naked and let the warmth of the fire slow his shivering.
The next day, his clothes dry, Crane was back on the move. A week had passed since he’d left the safety of the cabin. His legs just kept moving, making maybe four miles a day. He came upon another deserted cabin. Then more days of walking. March 7, March 8, March 9 …
LEVENTE SZABO for Reader's Digest
On March 10, at first light, Crane stumbled upon a trail and followed it. It led away from the river, then back toward the ice. There, on the other side of the river, was a cabin. Then came barking. The sound of a dog.
“Ho!” Crane yelled. “Anyone there?”
And for the first time in 81 days, someone answered.
A trapper took Crane in, gave him food and clothes, and took him by dogsled to Woodchopper, Alaska, where a mail plane flew him back to Ladd Field. He was the lone survivor of the crash of the Iceberg Inez.
Crane met a nurse at Ladd Field. After the war, they got married and had six children. They made their home in the Philadelphia area, where Crane had a career first as an aeronautical engineer and later as a home builder. Leon Crane, who died in 2002 at age 83, rarely spoke of his time in Alaska. Other people had faced far worse in the war, he’d explain. What he experienced was, by comparison, simply a breeze.
via amazon.comBuy your own copy of 81 Days Below Zero: The Incredible Survival Story of a World War II Pilot in Alaska’s Frozen Wilderness by Brian Murphy