2005-02-19

Angels - Chapter 9

WE THOUGHT WE HEARD THE ANGELS SING

Chapter Nine

- J. C. Whittaker -

Throughout the late watches of the chilling night I sat sleeplessly thinking over our condition and the state of my own soul. It was not a pleasant line of thought

I had been an agnostic; an atheist, if you will. I am not sure I am using either term correctly. I imagined that I doubted the existence of such a being as God. I reasoned further, when religion was mentioned, that God never had done much for me in my life, so why should I go through the motions of worshipping Him? The most I could salvage was that I at least had never been a hypocrite.

I pondered that night on an expression I had heard somewhere out in the Southwest Pacific: "There are no atheists in the foxholes of Guadalcanal." I can tell you now that there can be no atheists in rubber rafts amid whitecaps and sharks in the equatorial Pacific.

I was finding my God in those watery wastes and we were meeting as strangers. I don't deny that there was still a reluctance, somewhere deep within me. After 40 years and more of indifference and selfishness, it would have been strange indeed if I hadn't felt something of the sort.

We might have remained strangers, had it not been for Him. He soon was to send the two divine miracles that twice more were to save my life and change the way of it about as completely as a life can be changed.

My thoughts now shifted to the physical state of our little band. It seemed years since we had eaten Bill Cherry's baby shark. but somehow that didn't matter. I wasn't hungry anymore. The thing I felt I must have before another day had passed was water - and lots of it. I prayed. I began to believe we would have the water; He would send it.

But I had a feeling also of apprehension. In more than ten days of helpless drifting with thirst, hunger, heat, and the ever-present shadow of death as my companions, I seemed to have become strangely psychic. We had endured the first three. Now Death was ready to stike at our little band.

The sun rose behind a bank of threatening clouds on that 11th morning. As it grew brighter we could see rain squalls dotting the ocean. The clouds we drifting low in the distance would open up without warning and that deep blue curtain we had so often prayed for would descend to the sea.

While we watched, a heavy black cloud floated over us and the bottom seemed to fall out of it. The rain flooded down on our rafts.

We were wise this time and used every facility available for catching and storing water. I have spoken before of the rubber seats that we inflated by hand, separately from the raft itself. We now cut one of these out of our boat and used it as a rain catcher, storing the water in Bill Cherry's Mae West. We slaked our thirst. And again the sheets of cleansing and cooling water washed our bodies free of the caked salt. This was a grand relief for the men who were suffering from salt water ulcers.

We had put away four quarts of rain water when a squall hit our area and we were kept busy bailing the rafts and keeping them from going over. The two bigger ones weathered the blow. the wind was too much, however, for the doughnut in which DeAngelis and Alex Kaczmarczyk were riding. Just as the rain was ending, the little raft went over.

We soon saw that Alex was unable to get back in alone. DeAngelis was trying to help him. DeAngelis was weak also and it was too much for him. We all helped and after a struggle got Alex back into his place. It was obvious that he was in a bad way.

Thirst, hunger, exposure, and exhaustion had dissipated the little store of strength he had mustered after his discharge from the hospital at Honolulu. DeAngelis now told us that Alex had been drinking salt water during moments of delirium.

Alex was delirious now. He didn't recognize us. His head felt hot. Every now and then he would call out some meaningless remark. Rickenbacker spoke to him sharply, trying to snap him out of it. Then realizing the Sergeant's true condition, Rick ordered that he be put in the larger raft. Johnny Bartek was sent over to ride the doughnut boat with DeAngelis.

During the day Alex was given regular doles of water. If there had only been nourishing food to give him! All that night Rickenbacker held the boy in his arms to protect him from the spray and to keep him warm. He appeared improved at dawn of the 12th day, but it was the last dawn he ever was to see.

Alex remained rational during the morning, becoming delirious only after the sun had driven the clouds away in the early afternoon. He rallied again when it got cooler and just at dark he said he felt well enough to spend the night in his own raft. We all were greatly relieved. If he could hold out just a little longer!

DeAngelis now moved into Rickenbacker's boat and Bartek remained in the little raft with Alex, who was able to whisper his part in the saying of the Lord's prayer at our service. The rafts strung out again in line and for a time all was quiet except for the slap and slosh of the ocean.

Alex's delirium returned late in the night. The things he said and talked about I haven't the heart to repeat. They concerned his mother and a girl. Sometime after midnight his voice dropped to a mumble. At 2 A.M. Bartek called to us:

"Hey, you fellows; I'm afraid Alex is dead."

We hauled the small raft up so that it lay between the two larger ones. Rickenbacker examined him and asked that Cherry and I do the same. It was true. Rickenbacker said we could do nothing until daylight. The rafts were allowed to string out again.

When our 13th dawn came up, I saw that Johnny Bartek had been holding his little Testament in his hands, although it was too dark to read. The east flamed up in spectacular shafts of red, purple, and gold. the sun seemed to leap out of the sea into the sky.

With the fleet reassembled we said the Lord's prayer. Then Lieut. DeAngelis recited as much as he could remember of the moving Roman Catholic burial service. Both he and Alex were of that faith. I remember a little here and there:

"O God, great and omnipotent Judge of the living and dead! Before Whom we are all to appear after this short life: Let our hearts be moved at this sight of death, and as we consign the body to the seea, let us be mindful of our own fraily and mortality . . .Eternal rest grant to him, O Lord, and may eternal light shine upon him."

Johnny Bartek fastened the zippers of Alex's flying suite. We said the Lord's prayer again and put him into the water. I could see him there for a long time. Nothing bothered him.

We held our usual morning prayer service, then we were quiet for a long time. Alex had been a good boy. It was maddening to think we lacked the food and medicines that would have saved him. We had done all we could.

The burial service took our minds off ourselves for a time. The blazing heat was not long, however, in bringing back our thirst and intesifying the agonies of the six afflicted with salt water ulcers. I think I was more depressed than at any other time. It was hard to keep from seeing in Alex's fate the precursor of my own.

I couldn't know, of course, that the first of the two miracles was almost upon us. The thing that happened was miraculous then and it grows in proportion as I think of it now.

This 13th day adrift had burst upon us as a scorcher. Just after 10 o'clock a rain squall blotted out the sun. Our hopes rose. the familiar blue curtain of rain moved toward us across the sea. We prayed aloud for it to reach us. It wal less than a quarter of a mile off when a perverse wind shunted it away.

Somehow, my faith did not die. For the first time I found myself leading the rest in prayer. Like many of the others, I didn't know how to address God properly. I talked to him, therefore, as I would have to a parent or a friend.

"God," I prayed, "You know what that water means to us. The wind has blown it away. It is in Your power, God, to send back that rain. It's nothing to You, but it means life to us."

Some of the others had given up. Someone said in disgust that the bloody wind would blow in that direction for another 40 years. I took my cue from this and continued:

"God, the wind is Yours. You own it. Order it blow back that rain to us who will die without it."

There are some things that can't be explained by natural law. The wind did not change, but the receding curtain of rain stopped where it was. Then, ever so slowly, it started back toward us - against the wind!

Maybe a meteorologist can explain that to your satisfaction. One tried it with me; something about cross currents buffeting the squall back. I tell you that there was no buffeting. It moved back with majestic deliberation. It was as if a great and omnipotent hand was guiding it to us across the water. And for my money, that's exactly what happened.

We caught a great store of water and luxuriated as the cool deluge flooded down our bodies. Many of the men had shed skin three or four times by now. There were raw spots where they had chafed against the walls of the narrow rafts. In addition, the ulcers were growing worse hourly.

Those men will know until the end of their days what it means to have salt in a wound. the cool rain that came from the skies was their only relief.

The rain that came that day was a Godsend. I use the capital G intentionally. Without this relief I don't know how we would have goth through the four days of doldrums that were just ahead and which were to be the most terrible part of our ordeal.

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