2005-02-19

Angels - Chapter 4

WE THOUGHT WE HEARD THE ANGELS SING


Chapter Four


When I had hoisted myself into the brilliant sunlight I saw that Rick and Bartek were on one wing and Col. Adamson was on the other. The Colonel's face was twisted in pain and I wondered if he had been injured internally.


One or two others were on the fuselage when I emerged from the escape hatch over the cockpit. My first thoughts were of the rafts - and for good reason.


This ocean, which from 5 and 10 thousand feet had looked as smooth as a ballroom floor, actually was a heaving waste of rolling blue hummocks, 8 to 12 feet high. And they were giving our plane hell. She was rolling from side to side, skidding into and off crests, and being washed by deluges of blue water. I wondered how long she could last.


Everyone was having difficulty keeping his footing, Adamson most of all, because he was handicapped by pain. The two larger rafts were inflated and floating. As I glanced around, DeAngelis and Kaczmarczyk blew theirs up.


And now, since those rafts from here on are to be as much a part of the story as ourselves, I will tell you something about them, their good point and their bad ones. To dispose of the good point first: I will say they were serviceable and rugged. They held up well; better than the men riding them. And now for the rest.


When the ripcords are pulled inside the plane, the two rafts carried beneath the fuselage hatches are ejected and fall usually on the wings, uninflated. They are kept from floating away by stout cords that moor them into the compartment from which they came.


The men emerging to the top of the plane break these lines, then give a sharp jerk.


The jerk opens a valve in the neck of a metal flask containing compressed carbon dioxide gas, which inflates the raft. The cord is retained in the hand, keeping the raft near the plane until the men are aboard.


The smaller raft, carried inside the ship, is inflated when the carbon dioxide flask valve is turned by hand. The small craft must also be launched by hand from the top of the fuselage.


Bulwarks or gunwales of all the rafts are of rubberized canvas and when inflated are about 1 1/2 feet thick. Inside these are two rubber innertubes. The decking - flooring - is three ply rubberized canvas, one-eighth inch thick. In the larger ones there are two pneumatic seats of rubberized canvas, containing innertubes. These do not inflate with the gunwales of the rafts, but must be inflated by hand. Pumps are part of the equipment and must be used daily as the air seeps slowly out of the gunwale innertubes.


It's like a slow leak in a tire except it is faster. In the days that followed, incidentally, those pumps grew stronger and stronger, it seemed. At first, one man could do the job in 15 minutes. Then it took 30 or 40. Finally, it was all two men could do to master those things in two hours. There is other equipment that will be listed in its proper order.


The rafts' undersides are painted blue to blend with the sea and not startle the larger fish, which might attack and puncture them. The gunwales, inside and out, and the floor surfae are painted a brilliant yellow so that as seen from the air they are conspicuous against the sea.


The characteristic which contributed most to our misery during our stay in these rubber boats was size - or lack of it. Outside measurements are 4 by 7 feet; inside 2 1/2 by 5 1/2 feet. The smaller rafts are INFINITELY smaller.


The designer was evidently thinking of pygmies when he specified that the larger boats were for five men. I am not regarded as a big man. I stand 5 feet 9 inches and weigh 185 pounds. Cherry is practically the same height and build. We can wear each other's clothing. Jimmy Reynolds is much lighter and an inch shorter than either of us. Yet only by wrapping ourselves around one another could we get into our boat.


The little raft, which we called "The Doughnut," was too small for one man. Yet it was designed for two.


As I have said, DeAngelis and Kaczmarczyk blew up their doughnut almost immediately after I emerged from the plane. One of them got in and the other upset it trying to get aboard. That put them both in the water.


Rickenbacker and Bartek were having their troubles, also. Col. Adamson was to ride with them, but he could be of no assistance because of pain and difficulty staying on the wing. They got in at last, however, and picked up the Colonel.


DeAngelis and Alex Kaczmarczyk still were in the water as Cherry, Reynolds and I boarded our tub without mishap and started to their assistance. Alex looked weak and almost helpless as he clutched at the raft amid the rolling swells. I was thankful that our own had not upset. I was the only member of the party who could not swim a stroke. I had removed my shoes because I had heard somewhere that it was the thing to do. This I had cause to regret more than once, later on.


It had been just 4:30 P.M., Honolulu time, when Bill Cherry had set the big bomber down. As we all shoved away from the derelict plane my watch showed it was 4:32. It had been good, fast going from the moment we hit until the moment we got free.


My watch, incidentally, was the only one still running at the end of our three weeks' ordeal. This and one other survived the landing. Two of those that stopped had broken mainsprings. Rick's watch stopped in a day or two.


When we were clear of the plane, we unshipped our aluminum oars and got the rafts together. Rick had some line, which we used to fasten them together, it being the consensus it would be wise to stay together, for the time being at least.


As we lined them up, our raft was put in the lead, because Bill as captain of the plane was still in command. As co-pilot I was second in command. Jimmy Reynolds helped make fast the line to our boat.


In those seas, however, the arrangement worked both ways. The little raft at the far end might as well have been the lead one. When this was pointed out, someone said:


"Well, Captain Eddie, one thing's certain; you're in the middle."


"I think we're all in the middle, for the moment," Rick replied.


Having strung our craft together, we took stock of ourselves. We were eight men in three rafts. Our equipment included airpumps for the rafts, two sheath knives, three Very pistols with 18 flares - half of which were duds - two .45 caliber pistols belonging to Adamson and Cherry, the sets of aluminum oars, and some fish hooks and lines. These last were brought off the plane by Johnny DeAngelis who had salvaged them from the cushion kit of a parachute.


We also had our Mae Wests, those bulbous life jackets. There were personal possessions also. Besides my watch I had my diary and pencils. Our cigarettes had been ruined by the water. There was money of course and this later caused a number of sourly humorous remarks.


The things we lacked, however, were food and water. One of our party had been assigned to bring our some provisions that had been assembles, but in the excitement he had forgotten them. And he can't be blamed for that.


The only food was four anemic oranges which someone had brought off the plane in his pockets and which we found floating in the water. There was nothing else. After taking stock of our other worldly goods, we handed these over to Col. Adamson after deciding on a ration of one-eighth of an orange a day per man.


Then, suddenly, all of us were violently ill. I often have wondered about that. It could hardly have been seasickness because no one was sick again during the entire cruise. I have come to the conclusion that the shock of our crash landing must have done it.


Rick maintained with a perfectly straight face that he was not in the least upset. I am under the distinct impression, however, that I saw three heads bent over the gunwale of the raft occupied by Rick, Col. Adamson, and Bartek.


I had no time to think it over just then, as it turned out. A swift movement beside our raft caught my eye and I turned for a better look. I saw something that had so far escaped the notice of us all and the shock I got was almost as severe as the one during our crash landing.


The water about the raft fleet was alive with the triangular, dorsal fins of sharks.

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