Bringing Lost Airmen Home Again

An expedition to Greenland to recover bodies from a World War II crash site
In 1992, Lou Sapienza was the expedition photographer on a mission to recover the P-38 fighter plane Glacier Girl, which went down during World War II, from deep in the ice of Greenland. Lou Sapienza

    Lou Sapienza was a bit edgy and hot sitting in the sun last week in Montauk, the polar opposite of the six men whose bodies lay frozen under layers of ice and snow, three in Greenland and three in Antarctica, men whom Mr. Sapienza is driven to extricate and repatriate.

    The longtime Montauker, who now lives in Springs, is a photographer by trade who in 1989 became involved in the search and recovery of the plane that was part of a lost squadron that crash-landed in Greenland during World War II. He heard about the expedition while working as a commercial photographer. 

    “I was listening to CNN, heard ‘Greenland,’ and said, ‘Hold the presses.’ ” Two hundred dollars in phone calls later, he was told to submit examples of his photography and a letter explaining his qualifications. All the competing photos were good, he was told, but it was his letter that did the trick, that and the fact that he knew how to cook, a skill he learned while working at Gosman’s restaurant back in the 1970s.

    The expedition succeeded in locating the lost planes and “gave me an experience that developed a passion,” he said. “We had to dig out from under snow every morning. ‘Shovel or die’ was our motto — literally. After that I wanted to go back.”

    Go back to Greenland he did, in 1990 and in ’92, when he was the photographer of record who took the photos of a P-38 fighter plane Glacier Girl being hoisted to the surface from deep in the ice. The men of the lost squadron, two B-17s and six P-38 fighters, survived.

    Not so fortunate were the three men aboard a small amphibious plane launched from the Coast Guard cutter Northland to rescue survivors of a crashed B-17, also in Greenland during the war. The B-17 had crashed while rescuing flyers whose cargo plane had slammed into a snowy ridge two and a half weeks earlier.

    The Grumman-built J2F-4, known as a “duck,” with two Coasties and a rescued Army airman aboard, crashed en route back to the cutter. For years, the wreckage was visible on the surface of the Greenland glacier, the last sighting in 1964. Slowly the plane and its crew disappeared under snow and ice as the glacier itself migrated away from the original crash site.

    Three years ago, Mr. Sapienza got a call from the Joint Prisoners of War, Missing in Action Accounting Command, known as JPAC, headquartered in Hawaii, asking if he would help find the duck so the three servicemen could be brought home, something the Coast Guard wanted very much to happen. A breakthrough had come when a plane using a sophisticated radar device picked up a reflective target under the ice.

    In September 2010, the photographer formed the North South Polar group, and led a team — he described its members as not unlike the characters in the film “Armageddon” — to Greenland, but the promising lead did not pan out. Mr. Sapienza then pressed the Coast Guard for logbooks, diaries, and half-century-old sighting reports. A watercolor done by a survivor of the B-17 crash, when studied alongside high-altitude photos from 1947, provided what appeared to be a “treasure map” for a second try last year.

    “I wanted 20 days on the ice. The Coast Guard gave me 7, a C-130 [transport plane], and $150,000 out of the $326,000 we needed. And we would only get paid after the mission.”

    After a harrowing adventure that included another frustrating false lead, and the jury-rigging of extension ladders to make skis to pull an 800-pound radar across a crevasse-covered ice field, a probe located parts of the duck as the sun was setting on the final day and a helicopter was en route to retrieve the team.

    The stories of the “duck hunt,” and the wartime events that necessitated it are told in Mitchell Zuckoff’s “Frozen in Time,” a New York Times best seller. Mr. Sapienza is also a founding member of the Fallen American Veterans Foundation, dedicated to repatriating fallen servicemen and women. At the time of the interview for this story, he was waiting for the go-ahead from JPAC and the Coast Guard to return to Greenland and retrieve the duck and its crew. 

    It’s been a long, exciting road. Mr. Sapienza began coming out to Montauk in 1959. “I got into photography via Dan’s Papers. Debbie Tuma asked if I would take pictures for a story about a bike race. I said, ‘Why not?’ ” The two-page spread of his pictures fueled an interest in photography that began in the third grade in New Jersey. “The initial appeal was holding on to memories. As time progressed I liked the mechanicalness of it. I still shoot with Leica cameras with fixed lenses.” Mr. Sapienza’s photos have appeared in Life and Air & Space Magazine.

    “In high school I wanted to be a National Geographic photographer.” He got his wish with a portrait of the leader of the Lost Squadron expedition.

    As Mr. Sapienza waits on tenterhooks to fly to Greenland, he is also waiting to learn the outcome, this week, of United States Representative Tim Bishop’s request that Congress amend a defense appropriations bill to include money for the recovery and repatriation of Ensign Maxwell Lopez and Petty Officers Frederick Williams and Wendell Hendersin. The three servicemen died when the George I, their aircraft, crashed during a mapping mission in December 1946 led by Adm. Richard Byrd near Thurston Island in West Antarctica. Six others were rescued after surviving in the cold for 13 days. The three who died were buried in their parachutes. They are now covered by 150 feet of ice.

    “In 2004, the wreckage was found by a sub-hunter plane with radar. I drew up a plan. In 2006, the Navy told the families the men’s remains would be brought home as soon as it could be done safely.” The Navy is lobbying Senator McCain to oppose the attempt, saying that it’s too unsafe and that the men had been rendered burial honors in 1947. The Navy claims the technology does not exist to melt down to the wreckage, but Mr. Sapienza said, “We’ve punched holes twice to that depth.”

    JPAC wants the men back, and Mr. Sapienza wants to make it happen. “The Navy is saying they were ‘lost at sea,’ but they’re in the ice. We still have obligations.”