HARTFORD, Connecticut – Seven decades after his plane was lost on Greenland's ice cap, the U.S. Coast Guard Academy is honoring the pilot, an alumnus who volunteered for several daring rescue missions during World War II before the one that killed him and two other U.S. service members in 1942.
The pilot, Lt. John Pritchard, was trying to save a man left stranded on the tundra by the crash of a B-17 when his own single-engine Grumman Duck plane went down in whiteout conditions.
The U.S. military has stepped up efforts to recover the plane that is now entombed in a glacier, including a mission to Greenland this summer by the Joint Personnel POW/MIA Accounting Command. The plane may hold the remains of the Coast Guard's last two MIA service members, Pritchard and his radioman, Petty Officer 1st Class Benjamin Bottoms.
Pritchard's sister, 91-year-old Nancy Pritchard Morgan, is among the relatives planning to attend the ceremony at the academy Friday in New London, where Pritchard, a 1938 graduate, is being inducted into its Hall of Heroes.
"The most wonderful thing would be to recover the little Duck off the ice cap and bring those three men home," she said in an interview from her home in Annapolis, Maryland. "The next best thing is honoring these men at the ceremony. It's very rewarding to see good deeds recognized and appreciated."
Pritchard, a California native, was assigned to a cutter conducting war-time patrols in the waters off Greenland when the U.S. Army Air Forces B-17 crashed on the ice cap during a search mission. The crew survived, but was marooned on the tundra. Pritchard launched his amphibious plane from the cutter's deck, landed on the ice cap, and returned with two of the injured survivors. It was the first successful landing on the ice cap, the Coast Guard said.
The next day, Nov. 29, 1942, Pritchard and Bottoms volunteered to return. They picked up another survivor, but crashed after takeoff. Pritchard was 28.
The pilot had led another dangerous rescue mission only six days before his crash, saving three members of the Royal Canadian Air Force who had been stranded on the ice for nearly two weeks.
The new push to recover Pritchard's plane began in 2010 with the first in a series of expeditions by a private company, North South Polar, and the Coast Guard to investigate what on radar appeared to be the plane's wreckage. Photographs taken through holes bored into the ice appeared to show plane wreckage deep in the ice, but when a U.S. military team returned last summer, there was nothing to be seen in the same spot, according to Cmdr. Brian Glander, the chief of the Office of Aviation Forces at Coast Guard headquarters.
Pritchard's sister said the outcome was frustrating.
"It was exciting. It was wonderful, and then frustrating and devastating. They had almost found it," she said, "then went back and couldn't even find it."
Glander said the wreckage may have shifted in the ice, but there was no time for an expanded search in the short period of good weather. He said nobody is giving up on the mission.
"It's safe to say the case is not closed," Glander said.