Monday, April 07, 2003


Chapter Five

They were all about us. Mostly they kept their distance, but they were there all the same. I had a good look at some of them and when a wave would break just right I could see they were greyish on top, white underneath, with greenish-yellow stripes down the front of the head. This established that some of them at least were tiger sharks which I had heard would not attack a living person.

There were others I wasn't sure about. But most all the sharks were longer than our rafts, some measuring up to 10 feet and 12 feet. Any one of these could upset us if he chose. And even if there were no man eaters nearby, there were plenty of other little playmates in those waters that could cause plenty of misery to a man overboard.

The sharks didn't choose to attack, yet at least, so for the time being I relaxed. We were to get better acquainted with these fellows later.

There was some talk now about going back to the plane for our food and water jugs, but it was decided that the sea water in her probably had ruined everything. There was danger, too, that the man who re-entered her would ride her to the bottom of the ocean.

She was still afloat after five minutes, so perfectly had Bill Cherry set her down. But she was sitting very low in the water with the wings under.

As the rafts drifted away I watched the big Fortress riding the waves in all her war plumage, the stars in circles on the wings and fuselage glistening with water. I was seized by a fit of melancholy that was almost physical as she struggled with an element for which she never had been intended. I thought the old gal deserved better than this.

Our raft plunged into a deep trough. When we came up I was busy for a minute with our line. When I looked up again our plane was gone. I am glad I didn't see her go.

Those giant swells hadn't looked so bad from high up in the air, but down among them they were mountainous. When we were down in a trough we were cut off from the world, even from the other rafts, our taut line disappearing into the heart of a wave. From up on the crest we could see the other boats, stringing deeply downhill into the next trough.

And it was good to see them. With the Fortress gone we all realized how alone we were and how empty and desolate an ocean can be. Our minds were kept from dwelling too much on this thought for the present by the spray which dashed annoyingly against our faces and bodies. And annoyance was our chief reaction just then. We wanted the planes to hurry to our rescue so we wouldn't have to spend a night in those pesky, undersized rafts.

"I'll give $100 to the first man to sight the plane or ship that rescues us," Rickenbacker yelled. The younger fellows cheered and we all began searching the sky anew. Most of us stared at the sun which was setting like a crimson ball.

"Red sun at night, sailors' delight," someone quoted. But no planes flew out of the west.

In a few minutes the sun had disappeared. It was as if an electric light had been snapped off, so quickly did the equatorial dusk descend. The three quarter moon appeared and we could see from one raft to another quite easily.

It was apparent now to all that we could not expect rescue that night. We played one long shot, however. Bill Cherry fired off a flare and we watched it rise high, a dazzling crimson that momentarily blotted out the stars and paled the moon.

When it had burned out we tried to make ourselves comfortable for the night. We hadn't looked forward to too much comfort and that is well because what actually occurred would have been an even greater trial.

In Rickenbacker's raft, Col. Adamson was given one end to himself. Rick and Bartek lay fore and aft in the other with their arms about each other to keep from falling out. This arrangement also utilized space to a good advantage and enabled the two to keep warmer than they would have otherwise.

In our boat we started out with me in the stern, leaning back against the seat; Cherry on the bottom, leaning back against me, and Jimmy Reynolds in the bow, curled around the seat.

The arrangement in the doughnut made us all laugh at first, but it became an agonizing ordeal for DeAngelis and Kaczmarczk before it was over. There was only one possibility. They had to sit facing each other, each with his legs over the other's shoulders. This was during the day as well as the night.

We found very quickly that we were not going to get much sleep. To avoid the spray, one had to lie in the bottom of the raft - in five inches of water. There always was that much, no matter how much we bailed.

We tried a different arrangement in our raft after a time. We all lay fore and aft. And that was no better. One man had to be in the middle, in the water. the chilling spray splashed down the backs of the two lying along the bulwarks and they were grabbing constantly at the middle man to keep from falling off the raft to waiting sharks. I don't know why the cold didn't affect us as much that night as it did later. Probably because we still had food in our bodies. Nevertheless, we didn't sleep.

Dawn of the second day broke clear. We stretched as best we could in our cramped positions to work off our grogginess. We soon found that, in addition, we had been working up terrific appetites. And there was no food. The entire party began scanning the sky, the younger fellows hopeful of winning Rick's $100. Cherry fired a flare in the hope it might be seen by a plane on dawn patrol.

"We'll be picked up today, I'm sure," Rick told us. "They couldn't have missed hearing our S O S. And if they heard it they got a cross bearing on our course. It's just a matter of time. The planes probably are taking off right now and that $100 is still up.

As the sun rose higher, Rick gave some good advice to us all. The first thing was to protect our heads from the direct rays. This we did with undergarments - those of us who had no hats or caps. Rick advised us to move around as little as possible, thus conserving energy. We talked as little as possible to avoid drying our mouths.

It now was time for breakfast. Col. Adamson served both as chef and waiter. He took out one of the four little oranges and peeled it. Each man got a segment. Except for the pleasant taste, we might as well have not had anything.

The value of Rick's advice became obvious about 11 A.M. when the sun neared the zenith. We were in equatorial waters and the rays beat almost straight down. They felt like molten metal.

We had been using our undershirts and shorts as sunbonnets. Now we wet them in the salt sea water and draped them over our heads. This made us sweat and Rick warned that we were losing valuable body salt through perspiration. After that we held the garments up like sunshades. The salt water felt good at the time and we continued to wet our heads and necks with it, not knowing how we were to suffer later for this brief respite.

While the heat was at its worst, between 11 A.M. and 4 P.M. the wind began banging the rafts together, bringing out the first displays of temper. They may have been justified, because those sharp aluminum oars could easily have punctured a raft air chamber.

After the snapping had gone on a while, Cherry said:

"Oh, pipe down, you fellows. Let me see if I can't fix it."

He ripped his undershirt down the back and rigged a sail, using the two oars as masts. He sat with his back to the bow, so that his body held the oars upright. There was enough wind to send our raft out ahead, stringing the others behind us in a line.

"That's fine, Bill," I said. "Now see what you can do about the heat."

I shall not quote his reply.

When the terrible heat had passed, we sat about in a sort of daze. So great was the relief that we almost forgot our hunger. Our craving for water, however, was becoming more and more insistent.

The sun now was slipping rapidly down the slope of the western sky. During those weeks I often thought of the sun as the car on a roller coaster. In the mornings it started into the sky at a great rate, reaching the 11 o'clock heat wave mark almost before we knew it - just as the coaster car is pulled rapidly up the incline by a power cable.

Nearing the zenith, the great copper ball would move ever more slowly, almost stopping at the top. Its descent toward 4 o'clock and relief was not much faster. It seemed it never would gain speed. But when it did it plunged toward the horizon. You could almost see it drop. And when it disappeared, our relief was at an end; the chilling night was upon us.

As I sat there that evening of our second day adrift, I noticed that Johnny Bartek was reading his Testament. Something - I didn't know what it was then - kept me from heckling him.

It was almost like a premonition. Too, it was strangely comforting. We all saw Johnny reading his Bible that night, his freckled face solemn as an owl's and the sun glinting on his red hair. No one kidded him. Maybe we all had a prescience of how much that little book was to mean to us.

It was pocket sized, khaki bound, and had a zipper arrangement that made it waterproof. That last feature saved the little book for us through many a watery day and night to come. I think it would be a great thing if every soldier and sailor boy could be provided with one of those indestructible little volumes. Thousands of our youngsters have pocket Testaments, but war conditions make it difficult to keep them readable. And there are times in this war - in any war - when those kids need something more than just themselves to hang on to.

Whatever consolation Johnny got that evening he was to need it when night came on. At dusk the wind blew hard, roughening the sea and drenching us all. And it was cold.

This amazed us. In daylight the wind, the sea, and the spray were too warm. Now we were chilled. We huddled together with teeth chattering. The gale grew so strong there was real danger of upsetting among the sharks, which seemed to mind neither heat nor cold and were much too fond of our company.

Sleep was out of the question. Jimmy Reynolds shot off the night's flare. It was a dud. This angered, then depressed us and we settled down to make the best of a miserable night. None of us as yet, however, felt any apprehension.

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