On Tuesday, July 7, 1942, Franklin Delano Roosevelt declared “Europe First”, and Operation Bolero began it’s first phase in history as a massive buildup and movement of Allied aircraft into the European theatre. It was only seven months since the attack on Pearl Harbor had thrust the U.S. into the war.
Twenty-five crew members took flight from the Presque Isle Air Base in Maine and headed for the United Kingdom. Piloting six P-38s as escorts for two B-17s, the flight overseas required stops to refuel in Labrador, Greenland and Iceland on the way to England. The path from Greenland to Iceland required the squadrons to fly over mountains on the east coast of Greenland, across the Denmark Strait and over the ice cap to Reykjavik, Iceland.
As the squadrons soared over the ice cap at twelve thousand feet, a heavy blanket of clouds obscured their view. They rose above the clouds to improve visibility. Temperatures in the thin atmosphere dropped to minus ten degrees Fahrenheit. Still ninety minutes from Iceland, the planes entered a large mass of cumulus clouds and were forced to climb another two thousand feet. As one of the pilots lost feeling in his hands, he ripped the plane’s defroster from it’s mounting and used it to heat his gloves to make them warm enough to feel the controls. As the flight progressed, their feet became too numb to feel the rudder pedals.
The smaller P-38s struggled to maintain contact with the B-17s as ice formed on their wings. Radio operators tried desperately to raise the airbase in Reykjavik or the weather plane that was supposed to be flying an hour ahead of them. As the weather became worse, and lacking any outside communication, the squadron decided to return to the airbase in Greenland and wait for better conditions. An hour later, as they approached the east coast of Greenland, the weather conditions became worse.
After ninety minutes of flying in dense cloud cover, the squadron began to run low on fuel and decided to search for a place to land. Brad Çeşme Escort McManus, pilot of one of the P-38s, decided to land with wheels down. He hoped that landing on wheels would enable him to take off again after more fuel was dropped for the aircraft. Everything seemed to go well for the first several hundred yards. Then suddenly, the front landing gear crashed through the ice and the plane flipped over, pinning the cockpit in the snow. McManus managed to cut his way out of his parachute harness and his safety belt as smoke filled the cockpit.
Watching the scene from above, pilot Robert Wilson retracted his landing gear and slid to a smooth stop on the ice. He raced the half mile back to the site of the crash to check on McManus. Wilson’s breath billowed in wispy white clouds behind him as he ran toward the smoke from the crashed plane. McManus walked out from under one of the wings of the downed planes and said, “Didn’t think I’d make it, did you?” As the two pilots waved, the remaining squadron responded with slow rolls and other aerial acrobatics.