Tuesday, April 01, 2003


- J. C. Whittaker -

Chapter Fifteen

As our long grey ship steamed out to sea I stood at the rail and looked back on the island where God had seen fit to let me start a new life. I watched until the land had sunk from view and only that long line of palms remained. In the late vening light it was just as I had first seen it four mornings before.

I thought of the natives' their kindliness and their childlike friendliness. They had been instruments in god's hands. And it seemed then that these children of the South Pacific probably were much nearer God than many a race lighter than they and many times wiser, in the ways of the world.

My thoughts were interrupted by a voice at my shoulder. It was Lieut. Garrity, who had completed his ministrations to Reynolds and DeAngelis. He had been looking for me, it seemed.

"trying to be an iron man, eh? It's to bed with you, my friend. Come along with you."

It was no use protesting. That Irishman was a good doctor and he meant what he said.

That must have been the start of the nickname that has fastened itself to me. "The iron man of the army" they called me on two of the islands we visited later. It is true that I spent little time in bed on the first island and didn't want to go to bed on the ship. But I simply hadn't felt like bed. Anyway, the beds rolled and pitched so that I couldn't sleep when I did turn in.

There were many times during those 21 days adrift in the Pacific that I was anything but an iron man. It was only that I happened to be in better physical condition than the rest that I happened to recuperate faster.

I obeyed Lieut. Garrity and when he had finished with me he told me that he thought Reynolds would recover, but that it had been touch and go with him. The glucose, which Jimmy was still getting, had fixed him up.

We reached our destination, an island known as X-2, during the night and stood off it until morning. DeAngelis was carried ashore to an emergency field hospital, but I insisted on walking. Still the iron man, I suppose. Or maybe I wanted to show off my whiskers. Marines, who manned the place, walked all the way beside me, ready to catch me if I should topple.

An official photographer, about 10 feet ahead of me, walked backward most of the way to the hospital, snapping photos every few steps. And speaking of steps, they all were sure I would have to be helped up the two or three at the hospital. Helping hands were extended, but I got up all right and was on my feet when I saw my former fellow travelers.

Just a few words about that hospital. It hand't existed four days perviously. When news was received that Bill Cherry's raft had been sighted, Col. Lloyd Leech, veteran marine commandant ofX-2, summoned the naval Sea Bees (CBs - construction battalion) and put them to work.

In 24 hours they had erected this fine little building with concrete decks, screens all around, and a corrugated iron roof overhead. These things usually are built after airfields and gun emplacements are in. but when they are needed, bang! they're there. That's the way our people do things in the Pacific.

In the outer room of the hospital I found Jimmy Bartek, still looking pretty wan. I guess the sea water he drank was a little too much - coming on top of his other troubles.

In the next room lay Eddie Rickenbacker. He looked much weaker and much sicker than when I had seen him last. He no longer was called on to serve as our morale officer and had allowed himself to relax. The same indomitable spirit showed in his eyes, however. I walked over and looked down at him.

"What's the matter, Rick?" I asked. "Been sick?"

He grinned and held out his arms. I marveled again at this man. The world knows him as a daredevil automobile racer who turned aviator and became the nation's greatest ace of the first World War. He is known as a genius at business organization and he is the head of a great air line. He is one of the greatest authorities on aviation.

Out on the trackless Pacific our little band met the Rickenbacker the world doesn't know; the human man, the undoubting leader. I, for one, hope that if ever I have to go through hell like that again, Eddie Rickenbacker or someone like him will be along.

During that afternoon I lounged around while the others rested in bed. Reynolds had been kept on the ship, Lieut. Garrity sent word that he was doing better than had been expected, but that he would have to stay aboard for several days.

Bill Cherry and Col. Adamson were transferred from their temporary quaters to the hospital a litle later. The Colonel still was in misery because of salt water ulcers.

Bartek insisted he felt chipper and insisted on being photographed with Rickenbacker. The doctors tole him he was not nearly as well as he imagined. The lad continued to ask, however. At length Rick, whom Bartek couldn't see, winked at us and turned loose one of those bellows we all knew so well:

"You stay right where you are pipe down! Do you want to get me on on of my mads again? Well, do you?"

Deep silence from the next room. On the night Rick and Bartek were being carried ashore from the rescue boat, Rick had said to him:

"Better thank God for that Testament of yours, son. You see now what faith can do for a man."

I don't think there was a man of us who didn't thank God for that little khaki covered book. It led us to prayer and prayer led us to safety.

I since have heard that Johnny Bartek intends to become a minister after the war. No matter how many souls he saves from the pulpit, no matter how many lives he changes for the better, he can always remember his first pulpit; an elongated rubber doughnut, painted a bright yellow and tossing in the trackless Pacific.

I hope Johnny has large congregations after he enters the ministry. But I sincerely hope his future churches are not as crowded as his first one!

The next morning, which was the 26th day since we were set adrift and the fifth since DeAngelis, Reynolds and I landed on the palm-covered island, we were told that our carriages were waiting. The carriages were three navy PBY flying boats. Rickenbacker, Cherry, DeAngelis, Col. Adamson, and I went aboard.

Bartek, too weak to be moved, was left behind. Reynolds remained on the ship and I did not see him again in the Pacific. He returned to the mainland later with Rickenbacker, after teh latter had again tackled - and this time completed - his mission for the war department.

The PBYs roared into the air and we learned we were on our way to a base hospital in Samoa. During that flight I looked down at the Pacific- - smooth and blue; cool and inviting. But Mrs. Whittaker's son James was not fooled. I knew exactly what it was like down there: Mountainous swells, stinging spray, murderous heat, and sharks.

In Samoa I found the medical authorities considerably more strict than those on the naval vessel or at X-2. In Samoa they put iron men to bed just as they do anyone else who seems to require bed rest. They kept me there two days before I could begin wandering off. And I had to go back a couple of times after that when they caught me - which usually was at meal time. We were getting steaks three times a day now.

We stayed in Samoa until we were completely recovered. We were royally entertained the while. They PBYs set us down near Hickam Field, Honolulu, on Dec. 3 and we set out to gratify a desire that had burned within us for many weeks. We wanted strawberry malted milks!

So keen had been our craving out there in the glaring heat that our thirst for strawberry malteds had been unblunted by the steaks and plenitude of other food and drink we had ha dsince that day Cherry had played waiter. We headed for the officers' club. The soda fountain attendant had heard about us, however; and he made the mixture so rich that although I had intended drinking ten I could get way with only three.

I ahd only one mor thing to do in Hawaii - replace the silk Hawaiian dress I had bought for my wife six weeks before. It went to the bottom of the Pacific with our Flying Fortress.

The Pan-American clipper landed us at Treasure Island in San Francisco Bay a few days later. In addition to high army officers, my wife, Ann, and daughter, Shirley, 16, were at the pier to greet us. We picked up my son, Thomas, who thus far had escaped Davy Jones, in spite of my hallucinations. We all drove home to Burlingame.

Capt. Bill Cherry was ordered to Washington to assist in redesigning the life rats that will be carried by our bombers in the future. It ahs been announced that from now on the rafts will be known as "rickenbackers." I am sure they will have many improvements, but I hope and pray that I never have to try them out on a 21 day cruise.

When my 30 day sick leave had expired I reported back for duty and found I had been detached for 60 days longer to tell the story of our raft cruise before was production workers on the Pacific coast. During the weeks that followed I addressed hundreds of thousands of them. And my story was not about us so much as about our boys in the Pacific who are manning those tiny dots out in the Pacific.

Before this last rip I used to wonder what sort of people we had out there face to face with the Japs. They are the kind the Japs can never beat. They are doing a tremendous job in record time.

The navy scouting squadrons are operating under conditions they never were meant to face. The hard working Sea Bees are carving roads and airports on atolls that don't even have fresh water. And everywhere are the United States marines, doing a magnificent job, much of it under fire. These men are building and manning a string of bases that points straight towards Tokyo.

How man men will be expended before tha bridge is completed depends upon how well they are supplied and equipped. And that depends upon the people back home.

These are the things I told daily for weeks before armies of airplane workers, steel workers, and ship builders. And I told them the story of the rafts; how during those blazing days out there I found my God. I was having an audience such as I may never have again. And I told that story as often as I could.

I will tell it again and again, so long as I live. It was the greatest adventure a man can fave. It is the greatest story a man can tell.


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