Sunday, April 06, 2003


- J.C. Whittaker -

Chapter Six

We welcomed the rising siun of October 23 - our third day afloat - even though we knew it soon would be roasting us alive. Our shark escorts seemed to welcome it, too. They were out in force. During the entire three weeks there wasn't a time when at least one dorsal fin wasn't cutting the water about the rafts.

They were good-humored beasts in their uncouth way and as playful as a pasture full of calves. We thought then it was their anticipation of a food meal that made them so frisky. We didn't mind the little ones, but the big 12 foot fellows had a disturbing habit of scraping the barnacles off their backs on the bottoms of our boats. They would start at the end raft and make all three.

After a dash to gain momentum they scooted under us, rubbing their backs and giving a flip of the tail as they left each boat. The man sitting on the canvas floor got a wallop that jarred him to the teeth.

We thought once of killing a few with our sharp oars. Then we speculated that quantities of blood in the water might excite the survivors and provoke them to attack and upset us.

It was a passing and fairly listless discussion. Our thoughts of water and food had a way of blotting out everything else at quickly recurring intervals. Col. Adamson dealt out our ration that day with fingers that trembled. Poor Alex Kaczmarczyk appeared to be drooping. I had the thought he might have left the hospital too soon.

None of us felt any too well, however. We were red and were sunburning despite our efforts to protect our skins. The reflected glare from the water was partially responsible. Windburn had a share in it too, I suppose. And the salt depositied upon us by spray was beginning to sting us.

In our weakening condition we felt the sun's heat that day more than on the day previous. We sat with lowered eyelids and baked from 10:30 A.M. until 4 in the afternoon, then we sagged in a stuporish state until sundown.

I remember the sunset of that evening because the sweep of colors was so fantastic no one would have believed it on canvas. But sunsets are not edible nor drinkable, no matter how magnificent. I remembered the expression:

"He drank in the sunset."

I wondered how it had tasted. The red could be strawberry, the yellow would be lemon - or grapefruit. I decided I would take lemon. The orange, of course, was obvious. The purple could be either grape or raspberry. I decided that if ever I should drink a sunset I would have plenty of ice in it. And on second thought if anyone would hand me a few cubes of ice he could have the sunset.

That night we got some sleep, in snatches. I say sleep; it could have been mere stupor. Such was our exhaustion.

The fourth day found our hunger agonizing. The fish hooks Johnny DeAngelis had brought along were useless because we had no bait. The fish could not be tempted with bare hooks.

Those hooks were all that remained of the jungle packs we should have had. All bombers in that region carry these packs, zippered into the cushions of parachutes. Each is supposed to contain a flashlight, jungle knife, fish hooks and lines, hard biscuit, and chocolate. Mechanics and others around airfields are always pilfering them, however. I remember hoping that whoever had taken our hardtack and chocolate might someday be as hungry as we were then.

When we had stretched ourselves, Col. Adamson produced our next to last orange. We got no physical benefit from our tiny segments, but they moistened the mouth and we had come to look forward to the daily dole.

As I considered that tomorrow we would have our last one, I began to weigh the possibility that our situation might be desparate. We had seen no sign of ship or plane. This indicated to me that we must be literally hundreds of miles from any America military installations, because patrol planes cover vast areas, alert for Japanese submarines and surface craft. The younger fellow still watched for them daily, their hopes high each morning.

Rickenbacker and Cherry were noncommittal. I definitely was uneasy. Col. Adamson appeared to have lost hope, but kept his own counsel. Alex by this time was sick beyond caring. There had been some speculation about whether Cherry's undershirt sail would take us to an island. I thought not; not soon, anyway. Our progress was obviously very slow. And we had seen during our box flight that there was no land in the area covered. I estimated this as being about 165 miles square, based on our speed and the distance we could see on either side of our line of flight on each of the four legs of the box course.

These thoughts were interrupted by the start of a discussion as amazing as any I ever had sat in. Bill Cherry had baited a hook with a bit of orange peel, but the fish still were not interested.

"Do you suppose," he asked, "that we could use fingernail parings or something like that for bait?" Johnny Bartek overheard and replied:

"Naw. The only thing we've got for bait is our own hides." This presented a startling possibility.

"What part would you use?" I asked.

"The lobe of the ear," he said promptly. "You don't need it and you wouldn't miss it."

"How about the ball of the little finger?" I suggested. "A quick slice wouldn't cause much pain and there would be very little chance of infection."

"I think a piece of toe would do it," Jimmy Reynolds cut in. "That way nobody would ever know you'd been disfigured."

Remember, we were deadly serious, grotesque as this talk may seem now. We were growing weaker and all realized there would have to be food soon. Someone asked Rickenbacker's opinion.

"Flesh would serve as bait if it should become necessary," he said, but would make no suggestion as to the form the butchery should take. Just when and whether we would have begun carving ourselves up for bait I don't know and never will. Because just then there came a startling interruption.

A moment before, the air above us had been empty. Now there was a loud flapping of wings. Without warning and as natural as anything, a sea swallow alighted on Rickenbacker's head.

We held our breath.

The bird, about half the size of a seagull, looked curiously at each of us in turn - as well it might. Rick's hand moved up slowly. He rubbed his chin. He caressed his nose. He smoothed an eyebrow. Then, with a swift snatch, he made the bird prisoner.

Rick carved him up. I got a leg. And let me say here and now that I will have to be starving before I ever taste sea swallow again. Not only is the flesh rank, but the muscles are like iron wires. I will say, however, sea swallow plumbing makes excellent bait.

We dropped the hooks over the side, I using my ring as a sinker. In another minute I had hauled in a fish about the size of my hand. While I was getting him off the hook, someone else hauled in another about the same size.

We pulled the rafts together and handed our catch over to the Colonel. Never was a man watched so closely as Adamson while he carved with one of the sheath knives. Each of us received a fish steak about an inch square and just a little over half an inch thick.

This is about the size they are in some of our better restaurants. We, however, didn't have to pay $1.75 for ours. There was no strengthening effect in our meal that I could detect and afterward I was even thirstier. Perhaps I should blame that on the sea swallow leg.

My thirst increased as the sun drove higher toward the zenith. During midafternoon my craving for water seemed to grow unbearable. I was able to forget it for a while after the heat had passed; that is, until the sun's nightly show. Then I got to thinking about strawberry, raspberry, lemon and grape again - with plenty of ice. Just as I had driven these things out of my mind, Cherry fired the evening flare. Its red glare made me think of strawberry once more.

The night was cold and miserable. We had to do some bailing because of choppy, sloshing waves. And, as usual, I found myself welcoming the morning sun, although I knew I would be swearing at it before many hours had passed. At half light Cherry sent up the flare, a dud. I was half pleased; the red glare ould have brought back my cravings, I thought. The damage was done, however, by the sight of the thing and I soon was thinking of strawberry sodas again.

While we were sitting there miserable and depressed, an ill-advised school of minnows swept past; I should say some of them got past. We scooped up enough to allow each of us about three 2 1/2 inch, semi-translucent fish. It was the first time I ever had eaten live hors d'oeuvres. All I needed to follow them was a good meal.

The others may have been thinking along the same lines, because the talk turned to food and nearly drove us all crazy. Bill Cherry said that when we were rescued he would take us to eat at a famous restaurant atop a San Francisco hotel.

Then he played waiter. Pretending to have a pad and pencil, he started taking our orders. Most everyone started out with about a dozen kinds of chilled fruit juices; pineapple, orange, grapefruit, apple, tomato, and others. For some inexplicable reason, everyone wanted strawberry.

Then came the steaks, roasts, chops, turkey, and heaping platters of cold meats with jellied consomme' - ice cold - and plenty of lemons. No one wanted fish. Finally I yelled that I would brain the next man who mentioned food. There was silence for a while.

I think it was Johnny Bartek who started talking about the luscious hamburgers you can get back in New Jersey. We were off again. We decided that our previous menus had been too elaborate and agreed to settle for malted milk - strawberry malteds, of all flavors! This is genuinely odd, because few ofus ever had drunk anything except chocolate malteds. But the craving for that particular drink - and flavor - stayed with me torturingly for many a day to come.

At last Bill Cherry remarked in his Texas drawl that he guesed he'd gather all the food we'd dreamed up and trade if for a big frosted pitcher of water with ice cubes floating in it. We all bellowed at him to shut up.

While this was going on, the rafts had been strung out in a line, pulled along by Cherry's undershirt sail. Everyone now felt pretty blue. At length Bartek got out his Testament and by common consent we pulled the rafts together for a prayer meeting. We said the Lord's prayer. I should make it clear that the others said the Lord's prayer. I only knew a word here and there.

I was exposed to religtion and Bible teaching in my two boyhood homes, Cape Girardeau, Mo., and Pueblo, Colo., but I lost it all knocking around in the years after. My feeling that day on the raft was a considerable modification of my impatience when DeAngelis had asked to pray as the plane was heading down into the sea.

I didn't have the least notion that this open-air hallelujah meeting was going to do any good; neither did I resent it. I simply felt it couldn't do any harm. In addition, it probably would be good for morale. I observed that Rick seemed to encourage the suggestion and appeared inclined to take part.

Col. Adamson was reading from the Testament. Suddenly Cherry stopped him.

"What was that last, Colonel?" he demanded. "Where is that from?"

"It is from the Gospel According to Matthew," Col. Adamson replied. "Do you like it?"

"It's the best thing I've heard yet. Read it again, Colonel."

Col. Adamson then read from the 31st through the 34th verses of the sixth chapter of Matthew:

" 'Therefore, take ye no thought, saying: What shall we eat? or What shall we drink? or, Wherewithal shall we be clothed? For these are things the heathen seeketh. For your Heavenly Father knoweth that ye have need of all these things. But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and His righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you. Take therefore no thought for the morrow; for the morrow shall take thought for the things of itself. Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.' "

I was somewhat impressed and said so. Then I was a little surprised at myself and added that the evil certainly had been sufficient unto the the last two or three days.

Cherry explained that these verses did not mean tomorrow literally, perhaps. They meant soon. I thought of these words during the wet, dreary night that followed. I dismissed them finally with the decision I would believe when I saw the food and rink. I was destined to see something startlingly like proof the following night.

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