FAIRBANKS — U.S. Army Air Corps 1st Lt. Leon Crane survived the ultimate cold weather experience when his plane crash-landed in the middle of Alaska’s subarctic wilderness near the headwaters of the Charley River. Unsure of his location, with no map, compass or GPS, Crane, the sole survivor, also had no food or water. His only warm clothes were those he wore upon bailing out.
Through some good luck and sheer determination, Crane tolerated temperatures down to 60 below Fahrenheit, hip deep snow and as little as three hours of sunlight a day as he spent 84 days walking back to civilization.
On Dec. 21, 1943, a B-24 Liberator with a five-man Army Air Corps crew took off from Ladd Army Air Field to conduct high altitude propeller feathering tests. While climbing through 23,000 feet, the crew suddenly found themselves flying in the clouds. According to Maj. Richard Ragle, officer in charge of the post-crash investigation, the crew experienced failure of their pitot-static instruments followed by mechanical failure of the number one engine. An unusual attitude, spin and high rate of descent followed. In an attempt to correct the spiraling plane, the pilots broke both elevator actuator tubes, which exacerbated their dire situation. Pilot-in-command, 2nd Lt. Harold Hoskin, ordered the crew to bail out. Only two crew members managed to secure parachutes and get out in time: co-pilot Crane and crew chief Master Sgt. Richard Pompeo.
The B-24 crashed near the headwaters of the Charley River, a tributary of the Yukon. No radio contact or distress calls were successfully accomplished during the uncontrolled descent. After aerial search and rescue efforts covered nearly 40,000 square miles over the course of six days with no positive results, all aboard were presumed dead.
Upon impact, the plane’s wreckage burst into flames. Crane had no time to assist his comrades or retrieve emergency gear. Crane was unable to link up with Pompeo. The last glimpse he saw of the crew chief was an open chute floating over a mountain ridge about a mile away. His body was never found.
Crane realized the immediate severity of his situation. He had no idea where he was within a 200-mile radius from aircraft’s last known position (southeast of Delta Junction) reported to Ladd operations center 40 minutes earlier. The wreckage was burning intensely and all of his comrades were dead or missing.
On the positive side, Crane had no broken bones despite landing on the side of a treacherous, boulder-strewn mountain. The ability to walk and keep warm would later prove essential to survival. He also had a parachute that could be used as a makeshift sleeping bag. Crane was dressed in regulation arctic flight gear: a down flight jacket, parka and overalls. On his feet he wore three pairs of wool socks inside a pair of heavy mukluks. In addition, Crane had a pocketknife and 40 matches. He could start a fire.
Since Crane couldn’t climb uphill through deep snow to reach the plane, he decided his first course of action was to build a sign visible from the air and then get warm. He must get below the tree line for signaling material, fuel and cover. Crane scanned the valley below and noticed he was about two miles above a sizable stream. If rescuers never came, perhaps he could follow it downstream and eventually reach a settlement.
The stream was frozen, hidden under four feet of ice, but spruce trees grew nearby. Crane plunged in among the pines, breaking branches to form a large “SOS” on the snow-covered river. Sunset was around 2:30 in the afternoon, so it would be dark and even colder soon. Unfortunately, Crane’s prior field experience consisted of only one night of camping during his boyhood years in Philadelphia.
Crane felt hopelessly isolated. His fingers ached from the tremendous cold. He knew nightly temperatures averaged -30 degrees Fahrenheit, but temperatures often dropped to 50 below at night. After several attempts striking a match to light the wood shavings he had scraped together, Crane could not start a fire. Was this the end? Then he remembered a letter he had stuck in the pocket of his parka a few days ago. Quickly he made one last try to light a match and hold it to the paper. It caught.
Soon a roaring fire of spruce branches and driftwood reflected against the snow. Crane stomped an area down, and breaking off more boughs, arranged them in a hatched pattern to make an insulated barrier above the snow. Then he swaddled himself in his parachute and curled up by the fire.
The next morning, Crane awoke cold and hungry. Trudging downstream all day, he found an excellent camping spot in a thick grove of spruce trees along a high cutbank. To his surprise, a small overflow escaped the ice nearby allowing cold water to bubble to the surface. Carefully crawling along a skin of ice, Crane touched his mouth to the cold rivulet and sipped the sweetest water he had ever tasted.
Crane chose to remain at his campsite for several more days, hoping that a search party would find him. While Crane waited, he grew increasingly hungry. Huddled at the base of a tree, red squirrels chattered a tirade above him. He tried repeatedly to kill one: first with a driftwood club, then with a fire-sharpened spear, and finally with a bow and arrow made from small branches feathered with spruce needles and parachute line for a string. He made one last effort to build a slingshot using the rubberized rebound cord from his chute. But this proved as ineffective a tool as the bow and arrow.
Final effort to survive
On the ninth day, Crane — starving but alive — decided to make a final effort to survive. At dawn he started to walk. He grew light-headed and stumbled frequently, finding it necessary to stop and catch his breath every few paces. Crane told himself that around each bend he would find what he was searching for — some sign of life or civilization. Just before dusk, he noticed the small silhouette of a cabin ahead.
Crane rushed to the cabin and pushed open the door. Inside this 9x10-foot log structure he found a bunk, a wood stove and food! Sacks of sugar and raisins, with cans of cocoa, dried milk and baking powder rested on the table. After shoving handfuls of raisins into his mouth, Crane lit the stove and combined the dried milk, sugar and cocoa in a pan and started sipping hot cocoa.
Outside he discovered a cache nearby elevated on stilts for protection from grizzly bears. Crane found a collection of tools, two canvas tents, some rope, and two cans of tallow. Returning to the cabin, Crane made a bed on the wooden bunk using the tents for warmth in addition to his parachute.
The next morning he awoke with renewed vigor. “Would someone build a cabin and cache far away from a town? Surely there must be a settlement nearby,” he thought. With this in mind, Crane shoved some raisins in his pocket and set out downstream. He walked all day before conceding he was in the heart of wilderness. Discouraged, he returned to the cabin and took stake of his surroundings. In his haste, he had overlooked a second tarp in the cache that covered two large boxes. In one box he found four 30-pound bags of food filled with rice, flour, sugar, dried beef and beans. The other contained clothing and supplies: winter underwear, wool socks, mukluks, moose-hide mittens, a wool blanket and a bearskin, overalls, a lantern, two large washtubs, several dozen candles, and a .22 rifle with ammunition.
Now he was equipped! He had protection from the severe cold and enough food to last at least a month. His physical condition was deteriorating, but he had a chance for survival if he could regain his strength. Crane gorged himself, unable to drive the hunger pains away. But soon he wisely rationed himself to two modest meals daily. He utilized all clothes available to keep warm while sleeping including burlap bags, tent canvas and the bearskin. Candle wax served as a salve to care for his badly cut hands. He kept a protective coat of wax applied for a week and started to notice gradual improvement. Most importantly, he discovered a 1938 calendar while cleaning the cabin and started keeping track of time, figuring back to December 30th, the day he reached the cabin.
To combat depression, Crane structured his days with a routine, which included gathering food, firewood and water. Since melting large amounts of snow produced very little water, he used a miner’s pick to chip a hole through four feet of river ice. This became a daily job since the hole froze solid each night. Crane used the .22 to supplement his diet, with red squirrel and ptarmigan quickly becoming his favorite. He saw very few big game animals, and was always on his guard for wolves, though he only saw their tracks.
Crane utilized the next few weeks for recuperation and conducted scouting trips downriver. In early February, the river started cracking and popping and the ice started to break up near cutbanks where the current was swift. He realized his rations would not last until spring thaw and he needed the frozen river to escape. Crane methodically packed the crude sled he had fashioned with items that would guarantee his survival.
On the move
At first light on Feb. 12, Crane pointed his sled downstream. He would not be returning to this life-saving shelter. Pulling the sled was awkward at best, and he strained against the tank-like toboggan through waist-deep snowdrifts. To his dismay, he had not left a day too soon, for at times the ice was nothing less than treacherous.
Crane cautiously inched forward, the horrible condition of the river always pressing. Then, without warning, his fear became reality. He felt the ice give way beneath his feet and in a second was wet to his waist. Quickly he floundered out to a firm crust but the sub-zero air took his breath away and caused him to shake uncontrollably. His mukluks became blocks of ice instantly as he struggled up the bank and searched near the base of a large spruce tree for dry branches. He worked deliberately, pushing aside panic. He knew he must not fail in his first attempt to make a fire — for death lurked just beyond the promised warmth of a flame.
He kicked a rude hole in the granular snow with the side of his foot and dumped a handful of kindling in the center of the crater to serve as a base. Then he arranged a ball of tiny dry twigs and gingerly prepared the mass to receive the flame of a match. Luckily, the matches in his pack were dry. Crouching in the snow, he struck one and held it to a strip of birch bark. Crane’s life depended on the success of this burgeoning flame. As it spread, he snapped twigs from a dead spruce bow and cautiously fed the precious fire. When it burned with strength, he tied a rope between two trees, and draped his canvas tent over the top. Peeling off his frozen clothes, Crane dried each article over the fire and made camp for the night.
Crane revised his plan. The river was tricky to traverse now and it snowed regularly. He constructed a shoulder pack to carry no more than 50 pounds, and a long stick for testing the ice. To facilitate fast travel, the only additional supplies would be his .22 rifle and two frying pans.
Civilization at last
On March 10, after two more weeks of travel, Crane came across a strange sight: the tops of spruce trees were broken off and stuck into the snow down the middle of the river, forming two parallel lines about 50 feet apart. The trees ran the length of a straight section of river and appeared to outline a suitable landing area for bush pilots. Crane noted the green spruce tops would provide contrast and depth perception against the flat white river during a landing. Excited, Crane slid down the bank to investigate. He noticed what seemed to be a dim dogsled trail weaving through the trees and heading downstream! Crane jumped on the trail. Two hours passed quickly. Rounding a bend, he saw a neatly built cabin on the far side of the river. A chorus of barking rose from behind the cabin.
“Hey! Hey, there!” Crane yelled. A sturdy man in stocking feet poked his head out the door. “I’m Lieutenant Crane of the U.S. Army…” he blurted. “I’ve been in a little trouble.”
Crane was welcomed into the home of the trapper Albert Ames and his family, not far from where the mouth of the Charley flows into the Yukon River. According to Ames, Crane had walked approximately 120 miles, including turns — covering almost the entire length of the Charley River. Crane later learned that by traveling downstream he had selected the only feasible route of escape. If he had traveled any other direction, he would have been blocked by mountain ranges and perished from lack of food and shelter.
After three days of rest and moose stew, Crane was transported back to Ladd Army Air Field by a bush pilot, and proclaimed a hero. With very little field, wilderness or cold weather experience, Crane survived almost three months in isolation during the heart of Alaska’s formidable winter. Unsure of his location, Crane managed to walk until he made human contact, long after he was presumed dead. He emerged from the country healthier and perhaps happier than before, despite the extreme cold weather and harsh subarctic environment.
Crane’s experience serves as an example of survival for all Alaskans — of the courage required to make sound decisions while in distress, and an undaunted will to survive.
Editor’s note: 1-52 Aviation Regiment, 16 Combat Aviation Brigade, participated in a joint remains recovery mission to the Charley River B-24 crash site during the summer of 2006, which resulted in the discovery and positive identification of 2nd Lt. Harold Hoskin at the crash site. Hoskin was buried in Arlington Cemetery in 2007. Leon Crane passed away in 2002, and is survived by his six children. He was 83 years old.
Information for this article was obtained from accounts given by Leon Crane following his return to civilization and Missing Air Crew Report #1505.
Maj. Vander Lugt is active duty aviation officer and participated in the aerial recovery of Lt. Hoskin in 2006.