Thursday, April 10, 2003


. . . 14 hours SSW Oahu. May have overshot island. Hour's fuel."


Thousands of Americans laid aside their newspapers on Oct. 22, 1942, and abandoned hope for Capt. Eddie Rickenbacker and his seven companions after reading this last message, radioed from their Flying Fortress on the afternoon of Oct. 11.

Practically none of those who that day resigned themselves to Rickbacker's death could grasp or visualize the vastness and the empty loneliness of the ocean into which he had disappeared. They could understand only dimly the problems of distance, climate, weather, and currents which faced the rescue parties who would search for him with aircrafts and surface vessels in the days and weeks to come.

Yet Rickenbacker's fate was a foregone conclusion to the average American because he remembered clearly the epic search five years previously for Amelia Earhart and her navigator, Fred J. Noonan, who were lost near the Phoenix Islands. It was a searcyh in which the ships of four nations took part for nearly three weeks and it ended in mystery and failure. Many remembered the last message from the Earhart plant.

We are circling, but cannot see island. Fuel for 30 minutes. Must land soon. Cannot hear you."

Some recalled the disastrous Dole flight of 1927 in which eight lives were lost. They remembered the last message from the plane "Dallas Spirit" as it searched for survivors in the Pacific betwen California and Hawaii.

9:02 P.M. we went into a tailspin - S O S - relay that - we came out of it, but were scared. It was close call . . . We are in a spin . . S O S . . ."

In the Earhart search the United States, Holland, Australia, and Japan sent ships and planes into the trackless desert of water in the New Guinea area. The gallant aircraft carrier Lexington, since sunk by the Japs, combed every atoll and dot in the hope of finding the intrepid aviatrix and her "flying laboratory," in which she was circling the globe at the equator.

The search for Sir Charles Kingsford-Smith, who blazed the air trail from the Unites States to Australia, lasted many week in 1935 before it was given up. Two years later an airplane wheel and tire, found floating in the Andaman Sea off Burma, were identified as having been part of his plane, the "Lady Southern Cross." No message had come from his radio to tell the world of his last moments over a storm swept sea. He simply disappeared out there in an ocean which even now, more than four centuries since its discovery by white men, has uncharted reaches and unplumbed depths.

It is small wonder that Rickenbacker was mourned as lost. the average American's smattering knowledge of the Pacific in a micrscopic conception of the full truth, but it is pregnant with implication.

It is a large order to ask that the armchair geographer visualize a body of water as vast as the Pacific Ocean. It is a watery waste that extends 9,620.9 miles from the Bering Strait, between Alaska and Asia, to Antartica, near the South Pole. It stretches 10,879.6 miles from the Panama Canal to Mindanao, in the Philippine Islands. Near Mindanao it is almost seven miles deep and its average depth is more than two miles.

This sheet of water has a total area of 68,634,000 square miles and covers more than a third of the globe. It is half again as big as the Atlantic and more than twice the size of the Indian Ocean, the earth's third greatest body of water. The Pacific Ocean accounts for half the world's water surface and is 11 million square miles greater than the total land surface of 57,510,000 square miles.

Impressive though these figures are, they do not create a picture of this ocean's vastness, even if they are borne in mind while the Pacific is examined on a globe or a map of the world. It is possible they are too impressive.

A modern explorer has said that to truly visualize distance one must cover it first afoot, then by automobile or train, and finally by air. If this is true it is unlikely any one person ever will truly visualize the magnitude of the Pacific. Twenty-five to 50 years ago men still lived who had covered it by slow sailing vessels and fast ocean liners. But it is doubtful that anyone now lives who has covered the Pacific by windjammer, liner, and airplane.

If, as the scientists say, time is distance and distance is a variant of time, it is possible that some conception of the ocean's size may be gained by records left by mariners of the last century.

The early explorers, wandering uncertainly across the Pacific, stopping to explore, crossing and recrossing their own courses, made few clear cut voyages whose records would be helpful now in visualizing distance throughtime. Capt. James Cook, R.N., whose explorations were the greatest contribution to world knowledge of the Pacific until late in the last centurty, used up years in his meanderings.

The same was true of Marco Polo and Sir Frances Drake. Magellan, who is credited with circumnavigating the globe, was three years in his travels; that is, his ships were. Magellan himself was killed when he foolishly led one island tribe in a local war against natives of another island.

Early in the 19th century, packet ships were following regular schedules from New York to the Orient, traveling around Cape Horn and following a northwesterly course to Canton and Hong Kong. Not until the gold rush days of 1849 did San Francisco become an important port of call.

The packet ships, carrying both passengers and freight and considered fast for their day, covered the 14,300 miles from New York to Canton in from five to seven months, depending on the weather. Two thirds of this distance was traveled through the Pacific. The American clipper ships entered the race for the China trade in 1832 and from then almost until the American Civil War they set new records almost yearly.

In 1846, the Sea Witch hung up the sailing vessel record that still stands - 52 days for the New York - Hong Kong run. Her best 24 hours' sailing was 358 miles, much faster than the steamships which eventually drove the clippers from the seas. The Sea Witch made the eastern crossing from Canton and the round the Horn return to New York in 77 days.

Another clipper, the Golden City, set a record of 36 days from San Francisco to Woosung, China, in 1854. This was whittled down rapidly by competing steamships until, at the start of World War II, the time ranged from 18 to 22 days from the Pacific coast to the Orient, distances ranging from 7,000 to 9,000 miles between the principal ports.

Meanwhile, in 1936 regular air passenger service was inaugurated and the crossing time was lopped to 3 1/2 days, heightening the modern tendency to sneer at distance. So it is that, less than 10 years later, the inexpert and the uninformed are likely to tell you that distance no longer means anything. And this is true if you are in a multimotored airplane with plenty of fuel.

If, on the other hand, you are in a rubber life raft, or even a ship's boat equipped with sails, you will find that the Pacific Ocean is vase beyond conception. Lieut. (later Admiral) William bligh learned this in the weeks that followed the mutiny of April 28, 1789 aboard H.M.S. Bounty, which he commanded. Bligh and 18 loyal members of the ship's company were set adrift in an open boat near Tahiti. Propelled by oars and sail, they covered 4,000 miles before touching at Batavia in the East Indies.

This voyage, a third again the distance across the continental United States, has amazed historians. It seems incredible that Bligh and his men could have sailed such a distance without encountering any of the thousands of islands, islets, and atolls that dots the Pacific.

Yet Magellan's blundering voyage is even more amazing. From the strait near the southern tip of South America - which bears his name - Magellan sailed almost 12,000 miles to the Philippines without seeing island, islet or atoll. His course took him through Polynesia which contains, in addition to the Society, Cook, Tokelay, Manahiki, and Tubai groups, many hundreds of atolls.

From there he passed through the fringes of Melanesia, whose many islands and islets include the Phoenix group, where Earhart was lost, and mountainous Samoa, where the Rickenbacker party was to be given medical attention after the rescue.

With his crew dying of starvation, Magellan pounded on through most of Micronesia before he finally blundered into the Philippines group, which he is given credit for discovering.

In light of these events it becomes understandable that there are great reaches of the Pacific and doubtless hundreds of land specks within it that never have seen a white man or a white man's ship. There are other cul-de-sacs in this mighty ocean that may go years without seeing a ship or a plane/

It will be recalled that the mutineers from the Bounty settled on Pitcairn Island and lived there from 1789 to 1808 without seeing a sail.

And every school boy since the middle 18th century has read and reread the story of Alexander Selkirk, the unruly mate of a privateer commanded by William Dampier. After Selkirk had done something particularly vicious, Dampier marooned him on the island of Juan Fernandez, about 400 miles off the southwestern coast of South America. It was not until five years later that another ship touched there. And this was chiefly because Dampier was one of the navigators and was curious about the castaway.

Selkirk was picked up and taken back to England, where his experiences were chronicled by Daniel Defoe under the fanciful titles: "The Life and Strange Surpizing Adventures of Robinson Crusoe." There is no record of any other ship calling at Juan Fernandez, except by accident, until the Crusoe epic put the island on the map.

Many modern historians believe the pall of mystery is just beginning to lift from the Pacific and that another century may pass before it takes its rightful place in the life of the civilized world. Since Pearl Harbor, there has been more discovery and exploration in out of the way corners of the bast ocean than there had been since the turn of the century, they assert. American forces occupying nameless islets and atolls have supplied the deficiency with letters and numbers. There is no doubt that when the conflict ends, many of these will have a permanent place in the new Pacific scheme of things.

Nor is there any doubt that the coming of the airplane has started a new era of Pacific expansion, comparable only to that which followed perfection of the steamship, in the middle nineteenth century.

Vasco Nunez de Balboa, whose name is among the most prominent of those associated with the Pacific, probably did the least toward popularizing the ocean he had discovered. He stood on the heights at Darien and thought beautiful thoughts. An ungrateful government deprived Balboa of his head before he so much as learned what it was he had found. It is doubtful that in his most florid musings there at Darien he imagined the "Peaceful Sea" as one which stretched almost from pole to pole; an ocean so fantastically hute that its waters washed continents in two hemispheres.

Capt. Cook was impressed by the stirring beauty of the Pacific. The he was clubbed to death by the gentle Sandwich (Hawaiian) islanders. Magellan, an early enthusiast of the Pacific, met a fate already touched on here. Countless others, lured by the mystery and beauty of the great ocean, scattered their bones along its floor or ended in the cooking pots of tribesmen whose islands still perhaps are uncharted.

It is an entrancing ocean, whose beauties and vast distance are best - and most discreetly - viewed from the decks of a luxury liner or from the heights of Darien Those who would preserve their illusions of its gentleness and amiable charm should take care that they never have to view it 21 days at a stretch from a 7 foot, emergency life raft,

Charles Leavelle.

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