"The cold woke me up almost every two hours. I’d unwrap myself, fetch more wood, build up the fire, rewrap myself like a silkworm in a cocoon, and doze off again."
—Lt. Leon Crane, 1944
On December 21, 1943 a high-altitude flight over the Alaskan interior ended in a fiery crash atop a mountain overlooking the Charley River inside what is today Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve. The airplane was a B-24 Liberator, a popular heavy bomber for Allied and American forces during World War II, and it carried a crew of five. Only one of them survived the disaster. Although co-pilot Lt. Leon Crane managed to save his own life by parachuting to earth, his narrow escape from death landed him in an equally perilous situation—for the next 84 days he was alone in the wilderness in the middle of an Alaska winter. Lt. Crane’s ordeal began as a routine test flight, but at 25,000 feet one of the plane’s four engines malfunctioned and the aircraft suddenly began to spiral out of control. Although Crane and pilot Lt. Harold Hoskins struggled with the controls, they could not right the aircraft. Buffeted by high winds and crushing centrifugal forces, they sounded the alarm to abandon ship. In the chaos, Lt. Crane managed to don a parachute before leaping through the open bomb bay doors. He later recalled the blast of biting cold that struck his hands and face as he floated toward the ground and the “huge blob of red flame” when his plane struck the mountainside.
Survival at 40 Below
When Crane landed hip-deep in snow, he was suddenly very alone. He repeatedly called “Ho!” at the top of his lungs but the only response was silence. Realizing that he had no idea where he was and no food or sleeping bag, he quickly decided that he must move or freeze to death—the temperature was 40 below zero and would only drop as night fell. So, after wrapping himself in his silk parachute, he began descending to the river below. The explosion and fire at the crash site had destroyed any supplies he might use, so Crane took stock of his only survival tools: two packs of matches, a Boy Scout knife, and his parachute that served as a sleeping bag. For nine days he huddled in an improvised campsite under a spruce tree where he dreamed of steak, mashed potatoes, and milkshakes and battled feelings of despair. The squirrels he tried to kill skipped away from his makeshift spear, bow and arrow and slingshot, and after nine days of living on nothing but water, he knew his strength would not last.
Once Crane decided a rescue party was unlikely, be began following the river north, and after a difficult day of struggling through deep snow, he discovered something wonderful, a small snow-covered cabin and an elevated cache which contained a larder of sugar, powdered milk and canned food, a rifle, a frying pan, canvas tents, and a pair of moose-hide mittens. Within minutes he had a fire in the cook-stove and was sipping a steaming cup of hot cocoa.
A tough old trapper and miner named Phil Berail had built the cabin. And, what Crane would later learn was that the Charley River was a popular trapping area for local residents who constructed a string of small cabins along their traplines, some of which were stocked with survival rations. However, Crane’s ordeal was far from over. He was still lost and had to regain his strength and tend to his frostbitten hands and feet.
To Reach Civilization
In early February, Crane decided that waiting for warmer temperatures was not an option. After building a sled to carry food and supplies and then abandoning it as too heavy and clumsy, Crane pushed on through snowstorms and high winds, occasionally pausing to shoot a ptarmigan or to dry his clothes after an unexpected plunge through thin ice. His progress was halting, but he finally found a sled trail that led him to yet another cabin—but this one was occupied by the trapper Albert Ames and his family.
In his published account, Crane described the moment he looked in a mirror at the Ames homestead:
"I had a two-inch beard, black as coal; my hair was long and matted, covering my ears and coming down over my forehead almost to my eyes, so that I looked like some strange species of prehistoric man. I was dirty and sunburned and wind-burned, and my eyes stared back at me from the centers of two deep black circles."
In October 1944, Crane led a recovery team to retrieve the remains of two of his crewmen, Lt. James Sibert and Sgt. Ralph Wenz. No evidence of Master Sgt. Richard Pompeo (thought to have parachuted free of the plane) nor pilot Lt. Hoskins was found. In 2006 a team from the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command traveled to the site at the request of the National Park Service and found bone fragments believed to be those of Lt. Hoskins. The remains were returned to his family and then buried with full military honors at Arlington National Cemetery. Today the tangled wreckage of the B-24 Liberator exists as a poignant reminder of lives lost and of a survival story that will endure for the ages.
A postscript to the survival story of Lt. Leon Crane from the journal of Lt. Arthur Jordan, U.S. Army Air Corps, stationed at Ladd Field in Fairbanks, Alaska:
March 14, 1944:
Another day I will always remember — tonight, at about 6:30 PM, I happened to be out in the hall when Major Kane came rushing over from Operations with some amazing news. A pilot of Wein Alaska Airlines had radioed that he was bringing in a Lt. Crane — we contacted him and asked whether Crane was alive or dead. The reply "Very much alive!!!" came back over the air. The plane was coming from a place called Woodchopper, which is up on the Yukon River some distance southeast of Circle. About five of us hopped into a car and drove over to Weeks Field in Fairbanks — at seven o'clock, the plane landed and out hopped old Crane.
What a thrill that was — we grabbed him and rushed out to the field, en route he told us the beginning of an unbelievable struggle for survival... his own experience since December 21, 1943 when Hoskins B-24 disappeared. Col. Keillor had him brought directly to his quarters, and a long distance call to his family in the States was put through... he had a hard job convincing his people that it was really their boy talking. In about an hour, after he had told Col. Keillor his story, he came out and we all went over to the cafeteria, where he started putting away food. Half the officers on the post swarmed over there — the news was traveling like wildfire.
When the plane left here, it went down over Big Delta, up through the overcast, developed engine trouble, lost the instruments, and went into a series of spins — Crane bailed out and saw Pompeo (the crew chief) go also. He never saw Sgt. Pompeo's chute in the air. He left Hoskins in the plane, trying to get into his chute — the other two were in the back of the plane and he doesn't know whether they bailed out or not. He pushed the alarm bell and heard that ringing as he left the ship. He saw the ship crash in flames and explode some distance from where he landed.
He walked for nine days without food, finally coming upon a trapper's cabin that was stocked with provisions. He left the cabin twice - each time he returned to it after nearly expiring. He stayed until the middle of February, finally starting downstream on the Big Charlie (Charley) River, and he reached the Yukon about a week ago... a trapper took him to Woodchopper, and he took the first plane through there back to Fairbanks. He does not look unhealthy... the cabin had only beans, rice, and flour in it, yet he does not appear to have lost any weight. He was still clad in the clothes he had on when he left here in December — they were quite black and torn in many places. No one believes he is back until they see him — he does not seem to have been affected mentally, either... a credit to the Air Corps; Lt. Crane is that and more!!!