Four aircraft, 12 airmen, 25 days, 40 below zero, in the middle of nowhere.

When seven men got stuck in a grim patch of Greenland in 1948, the Air Force sent a B-17 to rescue them, but it got mired in soft snow (top of montage), only worsening the predicament. (USAF)
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IN HIS ACCOUNT, Murl criticizes a number of aspects of the rescue mission: “Col. Bernt Balchen, our 10th Air Rescue commander, was very, very late arriving in the area. By some of his statements it appeared that he did not want to take charge. He might have been afraid of losing his reputation, or maybe the Pentagon would not release full control to him. Therefore, we lacked leadership to control all factions of the rescue mission, at the scene of operations.

“We had our prima donnas among our own in the Air Force. Troop Carrier acting up and then taking the initiative to land a glider at the crash [site]. It appeared that did not come from any higher level than within the Troop Carrier personnel involved in the mission. No coordination at all with anybody. If someone had studied the photos of the downed aircraft, especially the B-17 [which had sunk in snow], the glider that first attempted the rescue might have fared better. The photo indicated soft snow, where­by, if the landing gear had been removed, their attempt might have been successful. Also ski gear from the States could have been ordered and been ready when the gliders arrived at BW1…. All these ingredients were building into one big mess, but by some miracle, we had a happy ending.”

Though he never made it to the crash site, his participation in the Greenland mission made Murl the Air Force’s highest-time glider pilot. He went on to have a substantial career in aviation. He continued to fly rescue, mostly in helicopters, through the Korean War, and then B-47s. He concluded his flying career teaching Army pilots to fly helicopters in the Vietnam War. A humble man, he didn’t want his experiences published before his death. In the last month of his life he told me that while he’d had a rewarding career, he’d never been awarded anything more than “a few air medals.” I pointed out that he’d taught me years before that only in the movies does a hero get to save the world. In the military, all we get is an opportunity to do our job, and if we all do our jobs better than the opposition, we all prevail, together.

Murl Chamberlain died on January 10, 2009, at the age of 87. The four aircraft remain in Greenland.

Edward J. Farmer is an engineer and businessman with 40 years of general aviation flying, including gliders.

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