Saturday, April 05, 2003


Chapter Eight

- J. C. Whittaker -

Faith is a fragile thing and elusive. It is all too easily shattered or lost.

As the sun rose on our ninth day adrift the opinion was fairly general among our band that we all would die in our rafts out there on the Pacific. This was in the face of the life-saving rain of the evening before and which I had regarded as a pretty convincing answer to prayer.

I was stronger and much more encouraged that morning. I am sure Rickenbacker did not share the general gloom. Rick and I were the oldest of the crowd and we both had been in some tight places in our knockings around. I think a man can tell whether it's his turn or not. I didn't think it was mine. I was glad, too, that Eddie Rickenbacker was along, because he is "the man who always comes back." I figured that if he could come out of it, so could I.

We started the day with sips of water, rationed by Bill Cherry. Each of us got 1 1/2 inches in the bottom of the flare shell - about 1 1/2 jiggers. And during the morning, the Lord provided something more in the way of food.

Among our shark excort was a little fellow about two feet long. He kep wheeling around our boat while the big sharks scraped off their barnacles by scooting under.

Cherry got to teasing the little guy with an unbaited fish hook. He must have been young and curious because to our surprise he swallowed the barb and hooked himself. Cherry hauled him over, speared him with a sheath knife, and yanked him into the raft.

The fight was on and it was a rouser. That little devil jumped and slashed and whipped about with his tail. This was at uncomfortably close quarters.

When there are three men in one of those emergency rafts there is little room for a wounded and enraged two foot shark. Our boat careened, took water, and once almost capsized.

At length Cherry got one leg over the shark and drove his knife through its head. The battle was over, but the blade had passed through the fish and pierced the canvas bottom of the raft. now a geyser of water shot up.

Cherry kept it plugged with a finger until it occurred to us that we could use a cartridge from one of the .45 caliber pistols which thus far had been useless to us. It was an exact fit and for several days served the purpose admirably.

Meanwhile, we passed over the shark's carcass to Col. Adamson for butchering and rationing. The steaks that resulted were raw and rank, of course, but we imagined we felt better. As I have said, we were beyond craving food now. As usual, our thirst was intesified by the fish and we were glad to get our next ration of water in the flare shell; glad also to rid ourselves of the taste.

Few people realize how much the human body can take and still come through. Fortunately, not many have to find out the hard way. Physicians have told me since that just a few bites of food and a little water can prolong for days the life of a starving man. It may be that the oranges, fish, minnows and shark provided just those bites we needed, though all the good we had in that period could be put into an ordinary teacup, with room to spare.

At prayers after our scalding ninth day, I joined feelingly in the worship. I know this: I wanted to believe. Yet, in all honesty, I must confess that there remained enough of my old and false pride to make me say to myself: "Let's not overlook any bets."

During the night it seemed that the fellows were more restless and slept less than usual. It was true. A new trouble had come upon us.

The rising sun of our tenth day disclosed that all the men except me had fallen victims to the scourge deep-water men dread - salt water ulcers. Salt from the spray first had dehydrated, then chapped thier skins. Two or three days before the ulcers developed rashes had appeared.

Eruptions and ulcers followed in rapid order. There was constant danger of infection, but it was the pain that held attention just now. To touch one of them was like touching a boil - which is about what they were.

There was much beefing as the fellows inadvertently rubbed against one another. As the hot day wore on tempers flared. There were some near physical clashes. Because I had escaped the scourge I acted as peacemaker and I had to be a heavy handed peacemaker at times.

Cherry handed out the last of the water that morning. We doubled and twisted the life jacket to get the last drop out of it and looked longingly at the dampness that remained inside the flare shell. There was an extra dole for Alex, who now was much weaker than rest of us. Even Col. Adamson appeared robust in comparision - and he was far from well.

The waterless afternoon in the equatorial heat seemed to take something out of us, physically and mentally. That evening Bill Cherry led the Lord's prayer, which I knew pretty well by now. Then each fellow prayed individually.

I could tell more about those prayers; the promises made to God to lead new lives if He should spare them. But it wouldn't be right to identify the men with their supplications. I guess we who were in those rafts know more about one another now than our mothers ever did. And I think is just as well that the mothers didn't.

One of us pledged to be a better husband and father if he were spared. Another promised to provide for those dependent upon him. There were open confessions of past sins. I don't mind acknowledging that out there on that empty ocean I made resolutions. And I am keeping them.

For example, since the rescue I made up with a brother to whom I hadn't spoken in 15 years. Four months ago I couldn't be with anyone 15 minutes without having an argument or a fight. I could see little good in anyone and believed chiefly in Jim Whittaker.

Now, I am willing to accept anyone as being decent and good until he proves himself otherwise. A few of my friends still treat me as though I might be a time bomb, likely to go off at any second. But my new outlook is going to be part of me to the end of my days.

On the tenth evening, Bill Cherry again spoke to the Lord, in behalf of us all, addressing him as usual as "Old Master." After acknowledging that Providence had saved us more than once, Cherry put it this way:

"You wouldn't have let us live this long if You didn't intend to save us after a while, would You, Old Master? We need some more of that rain in the worst way. How's about it, Old Master?"

One man, when his turn came, prayed that God would kill him and end his sufferings. Rickenbacker jumped right down his throat.

"Cut that out!" he yelled. "If you want to pray, pray that the help that's coming will hurry and get here. Don't bother Him with that whining. He answers MEN'S prayers, but not that stuff!"

When Rick prayed, he always addressed the Lord as "Our Father." He asked oftenest that those who had herd our signals be guided to our rafts while we all still lived. He asked also that we be led to a landfill where we might find the food and drink that would strengthen us sufficiently to help us help ourselves. Once he added:

"You, Our Father, know we are not asking You to do it all. We will help ourselves, if You will give us a chance."

Rickenbacker never has professed to be a religious man, as such. But out there in those rafts I think we all learned that he has the kind of practical religion that makes this world better to live in. Here are his own words, spoken after he was rescued:

"No," he said in answer to a question, "I am not a religious man in any formal way. But I did have enough faith to hold me in this experience. I can say truthfully that I never doubted that we would be saved."

"I do have a sort of religion of my own; I hold to the Golden Rule and I believe most firmly that if a man just follows what he knows and feels is in his heart then he can't go far wrong and is possessed of religion enough to get by in any man's land."

After that evening's service we felt somewhat refreshed spiritually. I had a feeling that something good would happen soon.

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