A reporter for the Washington Post debuts with the forgotten story of a pilot whose B-24 crashed near the Charley River in some of Alaska’s most remote territory in December 1943.
At the outset, Murphy acknowledges a number of problems. The pilot, Leon Crane, who died in 2002, was never willing to talk much about his ordeal; there were no other survivors among the crew. Later, the author writes, researchers have not been able to settle on a definite cause for the crash. Much remains unknown, so Murphy supplies what is missing, inventing dialogue (exterior and interior) and other aspects of the narrative. He also writes—sometimes at unnecessary length—about other crashes, other survival stories, other players in the drama, and other events in the region (the Klondike Gold Rush). He alludes to Jack London and “Bard of the Yukon” Robert Service, and he teaches us about frostbite, hypothermia, and other dangers of the North. Crane’s story remains a compelling and astonishing one. He survived in brutal conditions, principally because he stumbled upon a remote cabin that held all sorts of supplies—food, clothing (until the cabin, he’d had no mittens), a rifle, and a stove. He survived some nearly fatal falls through the Charley River ice and managed, at last, to find a cabin inhabited by a friendly soul who was able not just to comfort him, but, later, to introduce him to the man whose cabin and cache Crane had discovered. The author does some hopping about in time and space, periodically devoting space to Douglas Beckstead (an on-the-ground Crane-crash researcher who did not live long enough to write his own account), the failed recovery efforts launched by the military in late 1943, and the horrified families.
A gripping story whose grasp sometimes loosens in explanatory passages.