History of Glacier
As "Europe first" was
the policy declared by then President Franklin D.
Roosevelt, Operation Bolero began its phase in history
as a massive buildup and movement of Allied aircraft
into the European theatre. It was Tuesday, July 7,
1942, just seven months since the attack on Pearl
Harbor that had thrust the U.S. into the war.
The most daring aspect of Operation Bolero was the
actual flight overseas in stages, refueling in
Labrador, Greenland and Iceland. Only the second of
many flights to come during this operation, none of
the pilots of what has now become known as "The Lost
Squadron" knew their flight to England would end on
the ice cap in Greenland.
By early morning on July 15, 1942, Tomcat Green and
Tomcat Yellow, both squads consisting of Lockheed
P-38s escorting a Boeing B-17, were airborne again, on
their way to Iceland. This leg of the trip would take
the squadron southeast over the ice cap and the
mountains of the east coast of Greenland, then across
the Denmark Strait to Reykjavik, Iceland.
As the squadron soared across the ice cap at twelve
thousand feet, a heavy blanket of clouds began to
form. They rose above it where the temperature dropped
to minus ten degrees Fahrenheit. Ninety minutes from
Iceland, the planes hit a mass of cumulus clouds,
forcing them to climb another two thousand feet. The
pilots resorted to various means of trying to keep
warm. R.B. Wilson had impulsively torn the defroster
from its mounting and was using it to heat his gloves
in an effort to keep his hands warm enough to feel the
controls. Brad McManus, a then surviving member of the
squadron (McManus passed away on March 21 2011) interviewed for
the documentary, visualized
his parents sitting in bathing suits on the beach. His
feet were so cold he could barely feel the rudder
Desperate to find better flight conditions, Spider
Webb radioed he was taking Tomcat Green down to look
for clear weather beneath the overcast. The clouds
closed in above them as they dove through the murky
skies. In a matter of minutes they were in what was
described as clouds dense as cotton drenched in tar.
With ice forming on the wings and the P-38s struggling
to maintain contact with the B-17, Wilson ordered the
bomber to climb out of the mess. At sixteen thousand
feet, Tomcat Green broke through the clouds and
rejoined Tomcat Yellow. They didn't know which was
worse, flying in the snow storm or watching your own
skin turn blue at higher altitudes. They were only an
hour away from Reykjavik, but another massive front
After flying south for another fifteen minutes trying
to find a way around the front, pilot Joe Hanna of the
B-17 reported his radio operator was unable to raise
either Reykjavik or a weather plane supposed to be
flying an hour ahead. At 7:15 a.m. it was decided the
squadron should turn back and head for BW-8, the
airbase on the western side of Greenland from where
this leg of the flight originated.
An hour later, they saw the east coast of Greenland
and weather that would prove to be as bad or worse
than they flew through earlier.
About 130 miles from the base the B-17s apparently
received a message from BW-8 that said "Ceiling twelve
hundred feet. Visibility one-eighth mile". McManus and
several other P-38 pilots decided to go down and take
a look at the ice cap, in case they had to make an
emergency landing. After rejoining the squadron
between the layered clouds, it was reported the B17s
had received a message from BW-1 at the southern tip
of Greenland, that its runway was open. It was 10 a.m.
Estimated time of arrival would be noon. Officials
later compared Allied weather records to the coded
messages and discovered the reported weather
conditions at BW-8 and BW-1 had been switched.
(Speculation of radio interference from Nazi U-boat or
secret radio station was never proven.)
After ninety minutes of flying through dense cloud
cover, the coastal mountains appeared through an
opening. But where on the west coast were they in
relation to BW-1? They soon discovered they were back
on the east coast of Greenland, two hours away from
BW-1. McManus's fuel would only last another twenty
The decision to land had been made for them. McManus
decided to go in first. With R.B. Wilson and Robert H.
Wilson flying along side, McManus had to decide to go
in wheels up or down. He decided to go in wheels down,
to enable a takeoff later, after more fuel was
dropped. Things went well for the first couple of
hundred yards and then the front landing gear buckled
and crashed through the ice. The plane immediately
flipped over and pinned the cockpit to the snow.
McManus managed to cut his way out of his parachute
harness and release his safety belt as smoke filled
He didn't think there was a serious fire threat, as
his tanks were almost empty, but he wasn't sticking
around to find out. McManus managed to kick and dig
his way out of the cockpit onto the ice.
From the air, Robert Wilson viewed the scene and
retracted his landing gear. He came down and slid to a
smooth stop and raced the almost half-mile to McManus'
plane to see if he was injured. When he reached it
McManus came out from under the wing and said "Well,
Egghead, didn't think I'd make it, did you?". They
turned and waved to the pilots above, who responded by
doing slow rolls and other acrobatics.
One by one the other P-38 pilots brought down their
planes, as the two B-17s remained aloft for another
half hour, expending their remaining fuel. It
was the largest forced landing in Air Force history,
even today. This is an aerial shot of the six P‑38s
on the glacier.
Having made successful landings, the job at hand was
survival and rescue. Rations were gathered and divided
to last two weeks. Warnings were issued not to eat
excessive amounts of snow (to prevent sore throats)
and to wear sunglasses at all times to prevent snow
blindness. Space heaters were made from empty oxygen
bottles with holes hack sawed in both ends and linked
to an engine manifold pipe. Oil drained from the
engines wicked through the device by means of
After three days on the ice, a Morse code message
received by one of the radio operators confirmed their
condition and position. Later that day two C-47
transport planes dropped supplies by parachute only to
see them carried out of sight by strong winds after
they hit the ground. The stranded airmen fanned out as
the planes made additional drops and managed to
smother the parachutes before the wind again took
their supplies to the far horizon.
Supplies had arrived and everyone breathed a sigh of
relief. They passed the time listening to music and
news picked up on the radio from Iceland and England.
They even had an impromptu square dance on the wing of
one of the B-17s.
Another favorite pastime was to ride the wind using
parachutes to pull them along while sitting on burlap
sacks. More supplies were dropped in the following
days as rescue efforts had begun in earnest.
A 30-foot wooden launch, the Uma Tauva, was dispatched
from BE-2 to get the airmen off the ice. (Among those
onboard was Donald Kent, son of famed American painter
Rockwell Kent, acting as an "arctic adviser"). After
landing ashore and with assistance from aircraft
flying overhead, the ski and dogsled team were guided
through 17 miles of zigzagging crevasses to
reach the stranded airmen.
At the crash site, preparations were being made to
move out. The P-38 pilots returned to their planes to
retrieve personal effects. Some fired .45 slugs into
electronic equipment in case Nazi scavengers descended
on the site. McManus removed the clock from his
instrument panel as a keepsake. After all necessary
gear was packed and ready for transport, the rescue
team appeared and prepared the men for what would
prove to be an exhausting hike out.
Loaded down with equipment and personal effects,
members of the squadron struggled through knee deep
snow and ice for hours before reaching the edge of the
cliff at the ocean's edge. After reaching the beach,
most of the exhausted men found a suitable spot to
curl up and get some well deserved sleep.
Harry Smith was the pilot of "Glacier Girl" and Brad
McManus was, as mentioned above, the first pilot who
landed on the glacier, wheels down.
Several hours passed before the Coast Guard cutter
Northland arrived. After boarding, they were treated
to showers, dry clothes and an extravagant navy meal.
They were finally returned to BW-1 where they were
debriefed and later sent back to the U.S. to new
RECOVERY OF GLACIER GIRL