WE THOUGHT WE HEARD THE ANGELS SING
- J. C. Whittaker -
As the coppery sun shot into the sky on our sixth day adrift we all began to realize the gravity of our situation. It had been almost 120 hours since our Flying Fortress had disappeared beneath the waves.
During that time each of us had had three minnows, one morsel of raw fish, and a fragment of sea swallow in the way of solid food. We also had moistened our mouths with three segments of orange. If you ever have to try it you find there is mightly little nourishment in such a diet. We had drunk no water since we left the plane.
As we pulled the rafts together for a morning Scripture reading I scrutinized my companions. They all were haggard. I suppose I must have been, too. I felt haggard, certainly. Alex looked a little better I thought. Col. Adamson looked like a man who has resigned himself to the inevitable.
I didn't know it until afterward, but the Colonel's ordeal was far greater than ours. He was suffering from an ailment that required daily injections of a medicine he did not have with him.
At the end of our service and while the rafts still were drawn together, Col. Adamson divided the last of our four oranges. We had gone without the day before because of the minnow catch. Again we moistened our throats and again the tangy juice accentuated our thirst.
My own reaction to lack of water, however, was not so much thirst as dryness. It seemed as though all the water in me had been baked out. The wet trunks about my head and neck helped some, but salt water, after the first day or two, stings and burns the body. I didn't want merely to drink water. I wanted to wallow in it. It seemed that I could soak it up by the gallons through my pores.
Everyone knew by now we were out of the way of either ships or planes; in one of those culs de sac of the Pacific that may go years without a visit from ship or plane. The hopes stirred within me by last night's prayer service had vanished in the face of what I was fond of calling "hard reality."
The rafts were back in line by this time and we were waiting for our daily beating from the sun. Those days of merciless and heat and nights of chilling cold; those days of thirst and hunger and sharks would only be a blur in my mind now I suppose if it hadn't been for my diary. I wrote in it every day except six on that cruise.
Almost every night the dashing spray would soak it through and the next day I would dry its pages in the blazing sun. It puts me back out on those to read some of those entries. Our sixth day was much like the others had been, except that it was the worst - up to that time.
When the cool of evening finally came it was quite a while before we could summon the energy to assemble the rafts and open our prayer service. As Col. Adamson began to read from Bartek's Testament it appeared ridiculous to me that men as practical as we and as hardboiled - and some of us were pretty hardboiled - could expect a mumbling voice out on that waste of water to summon help for us.
However, I joined passively in the prayers. I found I was learning the Lord's prayer. I could start with the rest and finish the first two lines. And, of course, I could join in on the "Amen." There was a general prayer for food in which I joined, still passively.
Cherry repeated his favorite passage about food and drink on the morrow.
"Always tomorrow," I thought bitterly. "What is this; a come-on game?" But we were approaching an experience that was to make me wonder greatly.
Cherry finished his verse from Matthew. His voice went on. I realized with a start that Cherry was praying. He was addressing the Lord as "Old Master." He was saying it with deference and reverence; simply and directly. It was obvious he was deeply in earnest:
"Old Master, we know this isn't a guarantee we'll eat in the morning. But we're in an awful fix, as You know. We sure are counting on a little something by day after tomorrow, as least. See what You can do for us, Old Master."
This is the way we all came to talk to God; just as we would talk to anyone we respected and from whom we craved a boon. We made it simple. There were no "thee's" and "thou's." There was nothing irreverent or kidding about it. Men don't kid when the chips are down.
Cherry finished his talk to God. Then he fired off our evening flare in the hope that something might happen. And it did! Though it was nothing any of us could have forecase.
The flare's propulsion charge was faulty and the flaming ball rose 50 feet or so into the air, then fell back among the rafts. It hissed and zigzagged around the water, blazing a brilliant red. One contact with a raft airchamber would have meant the finish of somebody. The dazzling red light illuminated the ocean for hundreds of yards and in the depths we could see barracuda playing havoc with a school of fish attracted by the glare.
Two fair-sized specimens, pursued by the barracuda, broke water and plumped into our raft. We had just time to grab them when the flare sputtered and died. The moon came out and shed a ghostly light on the ocean. Fish were for breakfast, but I was too puzzled to sleep.
It was Rickenbacker, as I recall it, who carved up our fish tidbits on the seventh morning. They were moist and dampened our parched mouths, but even in normal times fish makes one thirsty enough to drink a quart of water. And we didn't have a drop.
Our mental state grew lower. Col. Adamson seemed worse off in this respect than anyone, even including Alex. I saw Rickenbacker looking sharply about him, especially at the Colonel. I thought once he was about to speak. He changed his mind, apparently.
Col. Adamson sat, head bowed, in a sort of sorrowful daze. Then, in midafternoon, when the heat was at its worst, he suddenly raised himself over the side of the raft and slid into the water.
Quick as a flash, Rick had him. We hurriedly pulled the rafts in close and helped push the Colonel
back into his boat. Looked at broadly, it was a brave thing he tried to do. He thought that if he were out of the way there would be more of everything and a better chance for the others. But it made us all pretty mad at the time.
It was then that Rick took over. I will not put down all the things he said. They would scorch this paper. But from then on, woe betide the man who appeared about to turn quitter or who did anything to lower the morale of the others. That man Rickbacker has got a rough tongue in his head. And he's not bashful!
The afternoon seemed longer that seventh day than ever before. The swells heaved our rafts around and the broiling sun glinted on the blue water - so cool looking and inviting. The sharks about us looked sleek, cool, and happy. Sharks could drink salt water; why couldn't man?
It was unavoidable that now and then a dash of spray would catch someone with his mouth open and the few drops of sea water that passed our lips were bitter as well as salty. the spray had left crystals of salt on our faces so that they prickled and burned as irritatingly as did our bodies.
So it was that on this night we prayed for water rather than for food. Except in the verses from Matthew, I don't think food was mentioned. We were so nearly done that we didn't even fire a flare before starting on our wet, miserable night.
There is little to tell about the eighth morning and afternoon. My diary for the first part of that day, Oct. 28, contains chiefly my own thoughts and they must have been pretty rambling. I note that the day was a smooth scorcher. And that means it was the old routine.
A great ball of a sun, rising briskly to get about the business of putting a nice, crisp crust on us. (We were already browned to a turn.) Wan, whiskered faces lifted to the sky in the vain hope of seeing a plane. Watery, bleary eyes trying to study the horizon in the equally vain hope of a ship.
Ten o'clock. The heat increasing to oven intensity. Noon to five - blessed stupor. Then, a gradual return of our sensibilities and our consciousness of misery, pain and thirst.
But the events of that day from late afternoon can never can be driven from my memory. The time came for the prayer service and it was a chore to haul the rafts alongside one another.
I joined more wholeheartedly than ever before in the prayers. It may have been because of my terrible need or it may have been a growing conviction that no human agency, acting alone could save us. I don't know.
I found now that I could say half the Lord's prayer without stumbling along behind the others.
"Our Father, Who art in Heaven,
Hallowed be thy name . . ."
Johnny Bartek's voice rose youthful and clear above the Colonel's muttered words and Bill Cherry's Southwestern drawl.
"Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done,
On earth, as it is in Heaven. . ."
I could hear my own voice, mumbling along sometimes past the places where the rest paused.
"Give us this day our daily bread
And forgive us our trespasses
As we forgive those who trespass against us."
Here I was forced to drop out while the other voices went on. From the little raft came DeAngelis's voice clear enough, but Alex's was a mere whisper. Jimmy Reynolds sat beside me, his head bowed, speaking distinctly but very low. Rickenbacker's words, though uttered reverently, were forceful and audible throughout the prayer.
"Lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from evil,
for Thine is the kingdom, the power
And the glory, forever . . ."
I came in on the "Amen" as usual. When the group prayer had been completed, Cherry addressed the Lord in his forthright fashion:
"Old Master, we called on You for food and You delivered. We ask You now for water. We've done the best we could. If you don't make up Your mind to help us pretty soon, I guess that's all there'll be to it. It looks like the next move is up to You, Old Master."
I think now that that prayer, despite its informal wording, has just about everything in it a prayer should have. It presents a petition to God and at the same time expresses resignation to God's will. Finally, it implies the belief - the faith - that the petition will be granted.
We said the Lord's prayer again. Cherry hoisted his undershirt sail and the rafts strung themselves out into a line.
While we rolled and wallowed over the crests and into the troughs I was thinking that this was God's chance to make a believer of Jim Whittaker. If there was indeed a God and He could ignore a prayer like that, then he must be a pretty heartless being.
My thoughts went on in this vein for some time; I don't know how long. I do know that eventually I became aware something was tugging insistently at my consciousness. I looked over to the left. A cloud that had been fleecy and white a while ago was darkening by the second.
While I watched a bluish curtain unrolled from the cloud to sea. It was rain - and moving toward us! Now everyone saw the downpour, sweeping across the ocean and speckling the waves with giant drops.
"Here she is!" Cherry shouted. "Thanks, Old Master!" Another minute and we were being deluged by sheets of cold water that splashed into our parched mouths and sluiced the caked salt off our burned and stinging bodies. We cupped our hands to guide the life-giving rivulets down our throats.
For a time we could think only of the blessed relief of the moment. Then the more practical minds began turning toward the days ahead, which might hold as much privation as had those just ended. We looked about for storage facilities.
The only reservoirs immediately available were our Mae Wests. As the valve openings into them were very small, we hit upon this plan: We soaked and wrung out our shirts until ass the salt was washed out of them. Then we saturated them again and wrung the water into our mouths. It was easy in this way to deposit it into the life jackets, closing the valve afterward.
Not as sanitary as it might be? In our predicament you don't think of those things; I didn't until weeks afterward.
The rain lashed down nearly an hour, soothing our bodies and quenching our thirst. Then, as though the Lord wanted to remind us that He can take away as well as give, a giant wave swept up from nowhere and capsized our raft. We lost our four remaining flares and all three Very pistols.
The only articles saved were one empty flare shell and Cherry's Mae West, which fortunately took in no salt water. Our hoard of more than a quart of fresh water was safe.