World War II history frozen in time in Greenland

Gordon Hamilton and his colleagues focused their efforts to locate a downed WWII plane in southeast Greenland. The landscape of Koge Bugt, Greenland, the study area, is pictured here. Photo: Gordon Hamilton The vast ice sheet of Greenland has long served as a teacher, time capsule, and research station for everything from early cultures to climate change to World War II history.

Yep, you read that right. World War II. As surprising as it may sound, there are a number of lost U.S. World War II planes encased in Greenland’s ice sheet.

University of Maine professor of glaciology Gordon Hamilton normally travels to Greenland to study the glaciers, their outflow patterns, how they interact with climate and how they may impact sea-level change in the future. But over the past several years, he’s joined a unique partnership to locate the wreckage of a plane and repatriate the remains of its lost service men.

This month Hamilton talks to Field Notes about how he’s bringing his knowledge of glaciers and their flow patterns to support efforts by the U.S. government to uncover plane wreckage in southeast Greenland.

Field Notes (FN): Where did the idea to search for lost World War II planes in Greenland come from?

Gordon Hamilton (GH): I became involved in 2008. I got a call from one of the various offices in Washington D.C. that go back through old records and try to repatriate as many of the remains as they can find. I guess most are in Southeast Asia, but one in particular, which was a U.S. Coast Guard aircraft, bubbled up to the top of the list.

FN: What types of plane were you looking for?

GH: It’s called a Grumman J2F4 Duck and it was an amphibious type of aircraft that would be able to land on water or regular runways. This particular aircraft crashed toward the end of the war [in 1942]. It was actually a rescue aircraft. Another aircraft had crash-landed on the ice sheet and everybody survived. So they sent in this Duck aircraft to pick the survivors up. In doing so, it probably became the first aircraft to successfully land and take-off from the ice sheet. It had picked up most of the survivors and had gone back for one more group. And as it was picking up that last group it crash-landed and everybody on board was killed.

A scientist conducts a radar survey from a helicopter in search of the downed Grumman J2F4 Duck buried in ice. Photo: Gordon Hamilton

FN: Why were U.S. pilots flying aircraft over Greenland during the war?

GH: There’s a lot of aircraft in Greenland. These aircraft didn’t have very long-range capabilities. They were manufactured in the Unites States and were flown across the U.S. to Labrador (Canada) where they would refuel. They would hop across the Labrador Sea to west Greenland and refuel there. Then they would fly across the ice sheet and, weather permitting, they would try and land in Iceland or Scotland and then fly down to wherever the battles were being fought on continental Europe.

The long journey involved lots of stops for fuel, but always the most challenging part was crossing the ice cap. You have to gain a lot of elevation—you have to go up to about 12,000 feet to clear the ice cap—and it’s very cold. You also have this flat, white feature on the surface, which to a lot of pilots looks like clouds—you can’t easily tell the horizon. So a lot of planes simply flew into the ice sheet without realizing it, and there are a lot of instances when the weather was bad.

FN: What parts of Greenland are included in the study area?

GH: It’s in southeast Greenland in a place called Koge Bugt.

FN: How did you search for the Duck and what types of technology were used?

GH: Well it started off super low tech. When the Coast Guard first got in touch with me they wanted to know basic things, like how much snow falls in that part of Greenland, would it bury the aircraft, and if I was given an approximate location of where the wreckage was last seen in the late 1940s, could I predict where it would be now based on my understanding of ice flow and so on. A lot of the early work was just done through interpretation of maps and satellite images.

The same group that contacted me also contacted the NASA IceBridge airborne survey team. They asked what part of Greenland they were flying over and if they would deviate slightly from their course and run their radars over the potential wreckage location. They did that a few times but nothing really showed up in the radar record to say, OK this is a big chunk of buried metal wreckage.

So there were a lot of these ad hoc investigations for a few years. But nothing really conclusively said, OK here’s the wreckage. This sort of thing went on for a while and then we said the one way to figure it out would be to go there and measure the flow speed and carry out a dense grid of radar survey lines. Then it would be very straightforward to say if the wreckage was here, after 60 years it would most likely be at this given location. We went up there for the survey last August.

FN: Was the Duck wreckage successfully located?

GH: We did find this one! We turned over the location to the U.S. Coast Guard. My understanding is that they are going to go back this summer and start excavating the wreckage and hopefully repatriate the remains.

FN: What other organizations took part in this effort?

The helicopter and hanging radar antenna cast a shadow on the icy study area below. Photo: Gordon Hamilton

GH: For the ground survey I managed to get some of my colleagues at the U.S. Army Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratory involved. These people have done a lot of radar work in Antarctica, so I knew they had the expertise to pick out a buried, sub-surface target. [The project also included the Coast Guard and NASA IceBridge Project.]

Although this repatriation effort does not have a web site, you can learn more about World War II aircraft by visiting the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force’s World War II Gallery. For more information about Gordon Hamilton and his research, visit his University of Maine web page. –Alicia Clarke