May 19, 2016
81 Days Below Zero: The Incredible Survival Story of a World War II Pilot in Alaska’s Frozen Wilderness. By Brian Murphy with Toula Vlahou. Da Capo. $15.99.
This is a fascinating 120-page book that lasts 240 pages. At its heart is one of those remarkable survival-against-all-odds stories, that of First Lieutenant Leon Crane, who bailed out of his crashing B-24 Liberator bomber over eastern Alaska on the first day of winter, 1943. The flight’s intended objective was to learn how to handle propellers when an engine malfunctions or even catches fire. But the reason for the flight is irrelevant to the story of how Crane, a young Philadelphia man with no wilderness experience, survived nearly 12 weeks of Alaskan winter and eventually returned to base, not much the worse for wear.
Not surprisingly, training, resourcefulness and luck were the ingredients that kept Crane going through the snow, ice, wind and temperatures as low as 50 below zero. Crane comes across as a vessel of survival qualities – there is little sense of him as a person – but that would be all right in a story carefully focused on one man’s ordeal. The focus of 81 Days Below Zero, however, is by no means careful. Again and again, Brian Murphy goes off in somewhat relevant or largely irrelevant directions, pausing the basic story to spend time on something marginally related – sometimes something interesting, sometimes not. A little delving into Crane’s personality and psychology would have been welcome, for example, in explaining why, after stumbling on a cabin, he wanders away from it with only some raisins because he is so sure a town is nearby – even though he knows virtually nothing about Alaska. By the time Crane realizes he has made a bad mistake, it takes him 30 hours to find the cabin again – circumstances that make it hard to identify with him, since (in the absence of a feeling for him as a person) he simply seems to have been ridiculously overconfident if not unconscionably dumb. The chances are that neither of those possibilities is quite right, but 81 Days Below Zero has a curious absence about Crane: he himself has talked little about what he went through, possibly from survivor’s guilt or perhaps from some other psychological manifestation that Murphy does not explore. Murphy never spoke with Crane: the book is based on newspaper and magazine articles about what Crane went through, and as a result reads somewhat like a newspaper or magazine article itself.
What Murphy does look into here is a lot of ancillary material, some about people other than Crane (including members of Crane’s family and the B-24 crewmen who did not survive), some about Alaskan history and the people of its interior, some about historical events, some about the search for the downed plane and the organization that spearheaded it. This discursive approach, which may have been necessary to create a story long enough for a book, does not serve the central tale of survival very well. Readers who find some of the tangents interesting will be pleased; ones who do not can easily skip many of the chapters here to return to the core survival story. There are elements of that story that really are fascinating, such as the way Crane – who had no gloves – used the silk from the parachute that brought him down safely to protect his hands against the cold. The role of luck in Crane’s survival, as in that of many others who made it through events that could easily have killed them, is intriguing as well. For instance, Crane was able to make a fire on his first night in the Alaskan wilderness because he had matches with him – which he picked up before the flight because he knew the pilot liked to smoke cigars, and part of his own job as copilot was to keep the pilot comfortable.
Ultimately, reader enjoyment of 81 Days Below Zero will turn on how each person tackles the book. In addition to the basic survival tale, it has two primary subplots. One involves attempts to figure out what caused the plane to go out of control and what happened to the pilot who went down with it. The other is about a historian whose trip to the crash site led to the eventual burial with full military honors of remains identified as those of the pilot. Those who are captivated by these subplots and Murphy’s numerous shorter excursions into history and geography will enjoy the entire book. Those who want the focus to be on Crane and his survival will find they lose little by bypassing the non-Crane elements of the story. But Crane himself remains a virtual cipher here, and that is a core failing of the story – one that Murphy may have had no way to overcome, but nevertheless one that prevents the book from generating a level of empathy to go with the amazement inherent in any recounting of events as harrowing as the ones through which Crane lived.