81 Days Below Zero by Brian Murphy

I occasionally read non-fiction, particularly travel and survival stories, so this book was a given for me. As the cover says, it’s “the incredible survival story of a World War II pilot in Alaska’s frozen wilderness.”

Leon Crane and a full flight crew are at Ladd Field, Alaska testing a retrofitted B-24 before it is shipped to Russia for use in the war. The mission ends in a crash and Crane’s parachute lands him miles away. He has no way of knowing if any of the others survive. He must try to find some way out of the unknown wilderness in which he finds himself. With only his parachute and a Boy Scout knife and with no wilderness experience, Crane sets off in the subzero temperatures. He makes mistakes along the way but also has some incredible luck in finding shelter and supplies. After twelve long weeks in the Yukon, Crane ultimately walks out intact and unhurt. This is tale of courage and loneliness.

Crane offered only a couple of interviews right after his ordeal and refused to talk about it after that. Not even his children knew the details. To some extent, he probably suffered from survival guilt. As one historian puts it, “He left some part of himself back in Alaska. It’s something he does not want to disturb or share. The wilderness can do that to people who face it along. It becomes a private thing, an almost sacred thing.”

The actual story of Crane is quite short and the author fleshes out the book with background on a couple of other crewmembers; in particular, pilot Harold Hoskins. It was not until 2007 that there was a final answer as to what happened to Hoskins. The fate of one of the crew is still unknown.

This is a quick book to read and I recommend it to readers that like both war histories and survival stories.

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