After a week, I started thinking about the chocolate, especially when Mac panicked and I had to crack him again. He’d fallen apart; all he talked about was death. I tried to reason with him and reassure him, but he had lost his vision of the future and it usually took another hard slap to shut him up. Then he’d sleep.
There was good news, too: Phil had rallied.
Drifting west, beyond the air lanes, I adapted myself to my fate instead of resisting it. Rescue would be nice, but survival was most important.
TO LIVE, A man needs food, water, and a sharp mind.
We’d begun with eight half-pint tins of water in the survival kit, but we soon ran out. We were, of course, surrounded by water that never stopped moving, waves turning into new waves, rising and falling. If you’ve seen movies of men in our situation, one character, scruffy and burned by the sun, always says, “All this water and not a drop to drink!” as if facing down a great temptation. We never thought of it that way. You can’t. Drinking salt water is deadly, and we knew it. At best, I could wet my tongue occasionally. Otherwise, I pictured us adrift on a desert. No one in his right mind would drink sand. Soon, what water we had came only from afternoon squalls and single, low-hanging clouds that drifted across the sky. Sometimes the showers missed us, but when we got lucky we caught the rainwater in the canvas pump cover. It was about six inches wide and two feet long, and I’d ripped it open along one seam so it became a funnel-shaped container. Other times the cover doubled as a hood to shade us from the sun.
When it rained we’d drink first to quench our thirst. When our bellies were full we’d suck up any extra water from the hood and spit it into the empty cans. Sounds distasteful, but transferring water by mouth was the only way because who can pour water in a moving raft, on a rough sea, in a rainstorm? Even more important, this method protected the fresh water from being spoiled by the salty whitecaps that broke over the sides of the raft.
It didn’t always work. Sometimes we rode out a squall and never got more water than fell into our upturned and open mouths. At one point we went seven days without a drink. The clouds just seemed to know we were there and avoid us. Several times each day they would hover on the horizon, move toward the raft and then away and beyond us, leaving our lips to blister and swell and our throats to burn. Sometimes we’d chase clouds, rowing like mad, only to exhaust ourselves and still miss their life-giving bounty. As desperation set in, just to stay hydrated, two of us would keep the sharks away with the oars while the third hung in the water for a few minutes.
In the end, we resorted to prayer.
When I prayed, I meant it. I didn’t understand it, but I meant it. I knew from church that there was a God and that he’d made the heavens and the earth, but beyond that I wasn’t familiar with the Bible because in those days we Catholics, unlike the Protestants, weren’t encouraged to read it carefully—at least in my church we weren’t. Yet on the raft, I was like anybody else, from the native who lived thousands of years ago on a remote island to the atheist in a foxhole: when I got to the end of my rope, I looked up.
I said, “Fellows, we’ve been praying about everything else, so let’s just pray for water, and sit back and relax. Otherwise we’re going to kill ourselves.” I meditated and started speaking. My prayer sounded as if I wanted to strike a bargain with God: “Answer my prayers now, and I promise if I get home through all this and whatever is to come, I’ll serve You for the rest of my life.” What else could I say? What would anyone say? Given our miserable situation, devotion was all we had left to offer.
Before an hour had passed, I saw a squall heading our way. This time it did not veer, but slowly moved overhead. Based on our recent luck I didn’t expect a drop, but suddenly the cloud burst and it poured. I held up the hood to catch the water, drinking as it collected, sharing this gift with Phil and Mac. With the first taste I knew I was the wealthiest man in the world. I could have swallowed five gallons, but of course my shrunken stomach couldn’t hold more than a pint.
Maybe God had answered our prayers; maybe the sudden rain was a coincidence. In either case, our daily conversations with the Almighty took on a new sincerity, and we recited the Lord’s Prayer more often. Clearly, it couldn’t hurt.
EVEN AFTER WEEKS adrift on the ocean, my stomach never growled. My whole body did. Hunger is constant. Next to water, food is crucial because the alternative is deadly and inevitable: the body would eat itself.
Occasionally the waves threw tiny fish into the raft. Even though they were edible and Mac’s eyes opened as wide as his mouth, I said we weren’t going to eat them. “We’re going to invest them for bigger returns.” Using the tiny fish as bait, we caught a ten-inch pilot fish, a good reward for our risk.
Our survival gear included a can of different-size hooks and some fishing line. But almost every time we tried to fish, the sharks easily stole the hook and the bait. As a last resort, I tied hooks to my thumb, index, and little finger and hung my hand in the water. Sometimes I would leave it there for up to thirty minutes—always watching carefully for sharks—until I had to unwrap my fingers to let the blood circulate. Sharks hunt side by side with their pilot fish, and when a curious fish got close enough I’d grab it. As the pilot fish tried to escape, the hooks dug in, and soon we feasted.
I DON’T KNOW on what day, but once we slept through a calm night and rose with the sun to find the ocean glassy smooth. I knew we had entered the doldrums, which often happens near the Equator. The seamless stillness was alien and yet exotic, and so quiet that we could hear small fish break the surface 150 feet away. I took advantage of the increased visibility to scan the horizon for a ship or submarine. Nothing.
The calm did not prevent sharks from tailgating us as usual. The smooth surface simply allowed us a better look at their graceful movements as they swam around the raft. As one glided by I reached in behind its head and allowed my hand to move down its back and up over the dorsal fin. The shark didn’t flinch. I was at one with nature, as they say.
I repeated this several times while Phil slept and Mac lay back, unconcerned. As the shark made another orbit, I got on my knees for a better perspective. Suddenly, the shark shot up, shattering the surface, with its mouth agape. It looked like a demon out of hell and tried to snatch me out of the raft. I reacted instinctively and thrust both my palms against its nose, which stuck out about a foot past the mouth, and was able to shove the ravenous creature back into the sea. Then, as its companion tried the same stunt, I grabbed an aluminum oar and jabbed it in the nose. Mac, much to my surprise, hoisted the other oar, and we worked together warding off the predators until they’d had enough.
I congratulated Mac and thanked him for his help. The incident had scared us both, but because of his response to the hairy situation, Mac’s attitude took a turn for the positive. As weak as he was, he performed excellently and had for the first time done something commendable. Now I considered him a credit, not a liability. I was proud of him and told him so.
I also told him I’d never heard of sharks jumping into rafts or even boats. It seemed unbelievable, but later I learned it wasn’t uncommon.
ANY ANIMAL IS dangerous when hungry. That goes double for man because he’s got the brains and the ingenuity to get what he wants. After days without food, our utter lack of sustenance took a menacing turn. I don’t mean cannibalism. That’s sick. I could never have lived with eating another human being.
I’d been thinking about those two miserable sharks who tried to jump into the raft. They still hung around and had become a thorn in our side, trying to eat us when we weren’t even part of their food chain. But when you’re famished, you take what you can get, and they had tried to take us. I had an idea.
“Turnabout is fair play,” I said to Phil. “The sharks wanted to take us; let’s take them. From now on they’re part of our food chain.”
I had it all figured out. Phil would hold the bait, dipping it in and out of the water to get a shark’s attention. Then I’d grab the shark’s tail, haul it into the raft, and kill it.
When the bait tempted a small one, I leaned over the raft and grabbed the tail. Big mistake. Sharks are gritty like sandpaper, and I couldn’t hold on because a five-foot shark is stronger than a six-foot man. It quickly pulled me out of the raft. I forget how I got back in, but I shot out of that water like a Polaris missile. I thought it would turn around and attack me, but I guess it was just as scared as I was.
After that I said let’s forget the five-foot sharks.
A couple of days later we saw some three-and four-footers, and no larger ones. We hung the bait again. This time I decided to get lower in the raft. I grabbed a passing tail and, as quickly as I could, pulled the shark out of the water. Its mouth opened, but Phil was ready, holding an empty flare cartridge. He shoved it in. The shark instinctively closed its mouth and wouldn’t let go of the cartridge. I took the screwdriver end of the pliers, rammed it through the shark’s eye, into its brain, and killed it.
Ripping a shark open without a knife is a very tough job. I’d used the pliers to fashion sawlike teeth on one corner of our chromed-brass mirror. Though sharp enough to open a man’s arm like butter, the shark skin put up a fight. It took almost ten minutes to cut through the belly.
Because of my survival course, I knew that eating raw shark meat would make us sick. The smell, a bit like ammonia, was bad enough. The only edible part was the liver, a great source of vitamins. On two different occasions we had a luscious, gooey, bloody meal.
Meanwhile, the larger sharks remained our constant companions, often thrusting their heads up out of the water, trying to avenge their brothers by eating us.
OUR ONLY OTHER source of food came from the sky. Gooney birds—albatrosses—are beautiful and graceful creatures in flight, with six-to eight-foot wingspans. We admired the way they took advantage of the warm tropical breezes to maneuver in all directions, foraging for small fish. Their colors, going from a pure, dominant white to a gorgeous chestnut or black, made them works of art.
Now and then we’d see an albatross fly by, but we never expected to catch one. The sailors’ superstition about killing an albatross was written of in Coleridge’s “Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” and it seemed a shame to think about eating one, but when the time came we knew it had to be done, superstition or not. I remembered the scene in Mutiny on the Bounty when Captain Bligh spots a bird on top of the mast and hits it with an oar. That made sense. Ocean birds will land on whatever’s available. Too bad we didn’t have a mast.
One afternoon, while Phil and Mac slept and I dozed lightly under the sun hood, I saw a shadow and felt something land on my head. I knew that gooney birds usually settle in just after they’ve fed, so if I could catch one, its stomach might still contain small fish. Some we could eat, some we could use for bait.
I lay very still and made my plan. I had to be careful. Any quick movement and the bird would take off. I must have taken two minutes to move my hand into position, though it seemed longer. Then I shot out and grabbed a leg. The gooney sliced at me repeatedly with its razor-sharp beak in an attempt to break free. An albatross beak is serrated, like a knife, and the end is comparable to an eagle’s claw. I still have the scars on my knuckles, and remember the sharp pain. To make it stop I wrung the bird’s neck.
By then, Phil and Mac were awake. We were so hungry that I immediately tore the gooney apart. I ripped off the feathers and used the mirror teeth to cut the flesh open, dismember it like a chicken, and distribute the parts.
We had only one problem: we couldn’t eat it. The smell was unbearable, gamey, like a dead horse, and the warm blood—gah!—threw our stomachs. An unexpected effect of drifting in a raft on the ocean is that we’d lost our sense of smell. We had no fresh donuts, hot coffee, sizzling steaks, potatoes, or onions to keep that sense stimulated. But it doesn’t really go away, as I discovered when I smelled the raw bird. Nauseated by the pungency, I tossed it overboard.
To remind us of more familiar smells we developed the weird habit of sticking our little fingers in our ears and sniffing the earwax. Very satisfying.
Hunger, of course, prevailed. When we caught the second albatross I said, “Hey, we’re going to have to try and eat at least the breast.”
I didn’t even let it sit in the sun to warm up, perhaps cook a bit. I just tore into the raw meat, and boy, was it hard to swallow. I was also concerned about Mac again. He didn’t look good, and I feared he had begun to fade. By the time I caught the third gooney bird, we weren’t so finicky. I tore off its head and put the bleeding neck into Mac’s mouth and allowed the blood to flow. I squeezed that gooney’s carcass until the last drop went down his throat. We were now so starved that we ate the entire bird with gusto. This time it tasted like a hot fudge sundae with nuts and whipped cream on top. I ate the eyeballs and all the rest, dipping the legs into the salty ocean to give it flavor. It was so delicious we made a humorous vow to eat raw meat the rest of our lives.
ONE MORNING I caught a dark gray tern and was so famished that while I was killing it I was simultaneously tearing off its feathers with my teeth. Later, my beard itched. At first I couldn’t figure it out, but there was only one explanation: a bird way out in the middle of the clean, beautiful ocean—with lice! I went crazy. I had to get Phil to keep the sharks away while I stuck my head in the water five or six times and tried to wash the bugs out of my beard.
TO COMPENSATE FOR not having enough real food, I cooked us make-believe meals. This required exhaustive and extensive planning. First I’d create the whole menu. We’d have salad, soup, gnocchi, chicken cacciatore, omelets, steaks, desserts—whatever I’d watched my mother make when I was young and learned to do myself. I’d include bread, wine, olive oil; if I eliminated any step or detail of the preparation, the guys would pounce. “You forgot to grease the skillet,” Phil once chided me. Or “What about the butter? Don’t you need butter in gravy?” I had to say how much salt, how much baking powder—“Just a teaspoon”—how long to bake at what temperature, how much to knead the dough, how to make the crust crispier, how to make spaghetti sauce, or turkey stuffing, how long to bake the turkey. I cooked breakfast every morning, lunch every afternoon, and dinner every evening. I drew the line when they got selfish and wanted brunch—except on Sundays. I did it by the seat of my pants, and it was great because it killed time, it acknowledged but deflected our hunger, and it exercised everyone’s mind, especially mine.
BESIDES FOOD AND water, the mind is a crucial line of defense against adversity. I knew this from college. Dr. Roberts, the physiology professor at USC, had told us, “Your mind is everything. It’s like a muscle. You must exercise it or it will atrophy—just like a muscle.”
I immersed myself in routine, glad to do mental exercises like making meals for my crewmates. I also added columns of figures in my head. Then double columns. I solved equations. I hated math and may not have gotten the answers right, but I didn’t care. I also took a mental inventory every day.
In movies, the longer someone stays isolated the more they lose their minds. It’s not necessarily true in real life. In the movie Cast Away, instead of going nuts, that guy had it made! Sometimes the greatest thing in the world is to be alone; there’s no reason to go stir-crazy or buggy. It’s a beautiful life. Everything you do to survive is positive and an accomplishment. You figure out how to catch the fish, get water, build a hut. Even if a castaway isn’t the happiest guy in the world, there’s no reason for him to go insane.
Proof of that is Robinson Crusoe. When the longboat came ashore for him after four years, naturally he was a ragged mess—beard, tattered clothes. But he was perfectly competent. He was afraid they were going to miss him, so he shouted, and when his rescuers saw him, they thought, He has a demon! Turn about! and headed back toward the ship. But Crusoe was smart. He yelled, “I believe in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!” They stopped rowing and said, “Demons can’t say that.” They rowed back, rushed up, and immediately embraced him. Did four years of isolation damage his mind? More likely his mind was better than when he first got lost.
The more I did to keep my brain active, the sharper it became, despite the horrible conditions. I had no distractions or interference from the outside world. No job to go to. No girlfriends who needed attention. Instead, I tried to remember my life as far back as I could, and I asked my crewmates to do the same. To my surprise it brought up events I didn’t even realize I’d forgotten.
I also planned for the future. Every day I pushed to hear more of what we dreamed of doing when we got home. My big idea was to turn the P.E. depot in Torrance into a nice restaurant with a bar. Someone eventually did it, too.
“Well, I want to be a schoolteacher,” Phil said. “I want to live in La Porte, Indiana.” He’d tell me about the Indianapolis 500. He used to take the family, bring a lunch, spend the whole day. I’d tell him about our lifestyle in California.
Phil’s dad was a preacher, and Phil knew the words to lots of church songs. He’d lead and we’d sing with him.
Mac, on the other hand, was much weaker and quieter than usual. I tried to encourage him. “When we land in the Marshalls or Gilberts”—I didn’t say if, I said when—“we’re going to find a deserted island and live for as long as we can.” I’d flown over them often on bombing runs, and I knew from my training that we could survive there.
People always ask, “How did you keep track of the time and the days?” A lot better than with pencil and paper, where one might make a mistake writing it down. Every day was so precious we had no trouble remembering; in fact, we had all day long to think about anything we wished to—even if it was only our names. Again, it’s not like in the movies. Hollywood tries to make it more dramatic and create all kinds of emotional moments with guys moping and groaning and crying. In reality, there’s no pressure other than whatever it takes to eat, drink, and stay alive. I could lie back and meditate peacefully for hours if I desired. I could talk about the past and the future. I didn’t have to lose my mind unless I wanted to.
What moments of despair I did experience came mainly from the weather. We were adrift in the middle of the world’s biggest ocean. It could get brutal during a storm, with waves twenty-five to thirty-five feet high. Then the next day it would be perfectly calm. One day we were fighting for our lives, the next we were enjoying the clouds, the sunset, the soaring albatross, the dolphins and porpoises. Through it all I never lost my sense that life could be beautiful. I kept my zest for living, morning and night. I’d made it this far and refused to give up because all my life I had always finished the race.
WE STILL WORE the tropical khakis—long pants, short-sleeve shirt, T-shirt—we’d dressed in the day we left on the rescue mission. But soon our clothes turned yellow, the color of the raft’s rubber coating.
We also broke out with water sores—open, pussy messes the size of a quarter or half-dollar—from being wet all the time. Otherwise, we never got sick, no sniffles or colds. Why? There were no diseases to catch in the middle of nowhere.
MOSTLY, I HAD happy dreams. I slept in a muddy quagmire, a foot deep, or on a rocky hillside, or on a hard woodpile. Never water.
ON THE TWENTIETH day I removed Phil’s bandage. He’d healed nicely. He could now move easily between rafts and join the living.
AFTER THREE WEEKS I realized we’d been adrift longer than Rickenbacker, and had set a record about which, despite my relentless optimism, no one might ever know. People have survived longer, on a raft as big as a room with a shelter and a stove. That’s different. I pitied flyers who had crashed in the Aleutians. How long could they live? Hypothermia killed them overnight, if not sooner. It just depends on the luck of location and facilities. On a sturdy raft, with lines and fishhooks and nets and knives, anyone could live indefinitely. Men have survived 130 days or more on a big navy raft, and when rescued they were just as fat as the day they crashed. Not us. We were slowly wasting away.
The drastic change in diet caused a line to appear across our fingernails and toenails, darker in front, lighter behind, marking the moment like a personal calendar. After a few days we even stopped going to the bathroom. At first we weren’t sure why, but eventually we just accepted it—and occasionally made a joke or two.
“Hey, Phil,” I said one afternoon. “Do you remember the time I pulled that laxative trick on you for stealing my gum?”
“I sure do,” he laughed. “Let me hear it again.”
We both knew the story, but it helped to pass the time.
“Yeah. Well, I always chew gum when I fly because it makes my ears pop. I like Wrigley’s Juicy Fruit; it has kind of a mellow flavor. But every time we’d get ready to take off you guys would go, ‘Oh, hi, Zamp,’ and, flashing big smiles, pull the gum out of my pocket for yourselves. After a while I thought you ought to buy your own. But you and Cup wouldn’t do it. Next thing I knew you were taking two sticks each, leaving me with one. I switched to P-K gum, figuring you wouldn’t like it, but you did.
“Finally I thought, Those son of a guns. I’m not only going to get even and stop this nonsense, but teach them a lesson in morals.
“In college we used to chew Feenamint gum as a laxative. On the package it gave the potency—three pieces was listed as harsh. Of course, I couldn’t just put a pack of that in my shirt pocket or you’d get suspicious. So I got some Feenamint and put it in the P-K wrappers. Feenamint was a little larger than P-K, so it wouldn’t go in flat; I had to put each piece in at an angle. Then I put it in my pocket and waited. When you helped yourself to my gum I just acted angry and walked away.”
“I thought you were,” said Phil.
“About four hours later, we were on a mission that took us eight hundred miles out. Usually, when we had to relieve ourselves on the plane we used a little portable toilet contraption into which we inserted a waterproof bag. Then we tied the top and tossed it out the window. I remember you went back and did your business. Then Cup…”
“And Mitchell said, ‘What did you guys eat for lunch?’” Phil added.
“Right. And then the gum hit and you rushed back again.”
“And I used the last bag,” said Phil.
“Then it hit Cupernell again.”
“And there were no bags.”
We both laughed so hard we could hardly talk. When I caught my breath I said, “It hit Cup so hard he had no time to waste. He got the four gunners and screamed, ‘Hold me! Hold me!’ Then he hung his butt through the waist window and let go, creating an abstract mural along the fuselage!”
“When we got back we still didn’t know what had happened,” said Phil.
“The ground crew chief said, ‘What the hell is that?’ I said it was an emergency camouflage job. Later, I admitted my prank but said I had no regrets except that we weren’t flying over enemy territory when it happened.”
“But then Cup said, ‘After all those juicy steaks at P.Y. Chong’s, I needed a good cleaning out!’” said Phil.
“And I said, ‘In that case you owe me twenty cents for the Feenamint.’”
I AWOKE TO find the sun in my eyes. Phil was already up, Mac stirring.
“What time is it?” I asked. “There’s the sun,” said Phil, pointing to it hovering not far above the horizon.
“Looks like eight o’clock.”
“What’s for breakfast?” Phil asked.
“How about bacon and eggs?” I replied. “Or ham? Toast, jam. Orange juice.”
“Didn’t we just have that?” Mac mumbled.
“Probably,” I said. I tried to vary the menu, but it was hard to keep track. “We could have pancakes instead. My mother had a great recipe. Biscuits and fresh fruit, too.”
“Not for me,” said Phil. “I’m still full from dinner. The risotto and gnocchi really filled me up. I don’t think my stomach can take it.”
“That’s the wine,” said Mac. “You drank a bottle by yourself.”
“Who can say no to Chianti?” I said.
“Or dessert,” said Mac.
“Biscotti, gelati,…” said Phil.
“Tiramisu,” we all added at the same time.
ON THE TWENTY-SEVENTH day I heard a noise overhead.
I looked up and saw a plane almost too distant to do us any good. Desperate, we took a quick vote and decided to use two parachute flares plus one packet of dye in the ocean to attract the plane’s attention. I also used the mirror to flicker at them, but the plane disappeared.
Then suddenly it reappeared, descending. They had seen us.
That was probably the most emotional moment of our lives, three grown men, tears running down our faces because we knew we’d be rescued. Man, it was great. The plane—it looked like a B-25—circled. We waved our shirts and screamed.
In return we got machine gun fire.
“Those idiots!” I yelled. They thought we were Japanese. Then I saw the red circles, the rising sun, on their wing tips. The plane was a Japanese Sally bomber, which looks similar to our B-25. They were Japanese!
I slid into the water and hung below the rafts to avoid the bullets. Phil and Mac did the same. My Boy Scout leader had told me that water would stop bullets after about three feet. He was right. The bomber’s aim was true, and I could see the bullets pierce the raft only to slow and sink harmlessly. We weren’t hit.
When it was safe, Phil and Mac tried to get back in the raft. They were so weak I had to boost them both, then climb in myself. When the bomber came around again Phil and Mac couldn’t get back in the ocean. They’d have drowned. However, I slipped overboard, preferring to socialize with two seven-foot sharks than be an easy target for the enemy. My survival instructor had told me to show a shark my teeth and the whites of my eyes, to scare it. That didn’t seem to work, but a good straight-arm to the snout did.
Each time the bomber strafed the raft, I pushed myself deeper, holding on to the parachute cord so the current wouldn’t whisk me away. Yet the current was so strong that it was tough to remain vertical, which made it easier to scare sharks and avoid bullets. How I got through those twin terrors, I hardly remember because I worried more about what was happening to my friends in the raft. I could see the bullets pierce the canvas and rubber raft and plunge into the water. I was afraid Phil and Mac had been hit. But were they dead? When the plane circled for another pass I pulled myself into the raft to discover a miracle: they’d missed Phil and Mac by a couple inches.
The strafing continued for nearly thirty minutes. Each time I told them to lay out, dangle their arms, attract no attention, pretend they were dead. Otherwise they had no chance.
Then the Japanese made a pass without firing, and I assumed they thought Phil and Mac were gone. Or they’d had their fun shooting at what they thought were dead men, anyway. Maybe it was over.
But moments later the plane returned, this time directly on course. I went over the side, my head between the two rafts, and looked up to see the bomb-bay doors open. I thought, Oh, no! Sure enough, a black object emerged: a depth charge. It was the ultimate in barbarism, a little extra target practice. I stopped breathing, waiting for the terrible blow to shatter the sea. It landed thirty to fifty feet away—but didn’t explode. Evidently, the bombardier didn’t arm the charge properly, and it sank to the bottom. Had it exploded, it would have finished us. Then the Japanese disappeared, leaving two wrinkled rafts, riddled with bullets, rapidly deflating, and three desperate men not certain if they’d survive another day.
PUT AN INNER tube in a swimming pool and shoot it full of holes with a .22. It won’t sink. Some air remains, plus rubber floats. One of the rafts—Phil’s former hospital bed—had the bottom shot out and was beyond repair. The other, us on top of it, lay nearly flat in the water and in some spots, inches below the surface.
Now we really had to fight for our lives. I grabbed a pump, screwed it to a valve, and started pushing like mad. The bullets were 7.7s, larger than a .22 shell but not as big as a .25. I could count a total of forty-eight holes. Fortunately, a hole in rubber semiseals automatically, and when the air pressure outside and inside is virtually the same, no air escapes. Bubbles emerged as I pumped, and we floated slightly higher, but this was a long, long way from okay. The holes needed patching, and thus began the eight most miserable days of our lives. We had to pump around the clock; it nearly killed us.
To get to the rubber itself, I had to cut a cross in the canvas cover with the mirror edge. (No knife, remember?) I’d peel back the canvas to reveal the hole, then rough up the rubber around the puncture. The sandpaper didn’t work; water in the kit had long ago melted off the grit. Emery cloth, waterproof, is a better choice. The idiot who made the raft should have thought of that. I had to use the mirror teeth to scrape the rubber before I applied glue and a patch. Sometimes a whitecap spoiled the glue and I’d have to start over, but when it worked the patch held, even though the rubber bulged through the canvas.
If patching was all we needed, it might have been easy, but everyone had to pump to keep the raft afloat. During my turn I grew so tired that I put the handle on my chest and pulled the pump toward me. We’d take five-minute shifts, going around in a circle; for the first few days we pumped around the clock. It was brutal. Mac could only do it maybe five times; Phil a bit more. I had to do fifty or a hundred pumps to make up for them.
I repaired holes on the top first, and we pumped a little less. Then I patched the bottom. The dilemma was figuring out how to do it with three men still in the raft. I decided to let the air out of one raft tube while we sat precariously on the other half. Then I’d pull the bottom of the flat half face-up to patch it. Phil would hold up that section, and Mac’s job was to ward off the sharks with the oars to keep them from biting us on the butt.
I also cannibalized the second raft. With pliers, I tore the canvas from the galvanized rubber and used it for protection against the sun during the day and and as a blanket at night.
My kingdom for a knife.
THE SALLY BOMBER attack had one good result. For twenty-seven days I’d hoped we’d be saved. Hope is incomplete and ongoing. Faith is the substance of things hoped for and is complete. Now I had evidence of land nearby. My hope turned to faith that, if we lived, we’d see this through.
Their bomber, a copy of our B-25, was our reference. It probably had the same airspeed and the same range. The Japanese probably took off for their missions the same time in the morning as we did. Using that knowledge, and the time they’d spent shooting at us, Phil and I did some calculations to figure out how far we were from the Marshall or Gilbert Islands. I knew that unlike some currents that will drive rafts around in a circle, ours was steady and headed west. I could tell by the position of the sun and stars. Allowing that we might drift between the scattered islands at night—a heartbreaking thought—we bet a full-course meal on who could correctly predict landfall.
“We’ll probably land on the forty-sixth day,” said Phil.
I picked the forty-seventh.
A COUPLE OF mornings later I awoke to dead calm. The water looked like a sheet of glass, slightly iridescent, mesmerizing. Nothing moved. We’d hit the doldrums again. At times it’s probably the most still water in the world. I imagined stepping out of the raft and walking on it.
In the distance, I saw a black line on the horizon. Unlike the water, it moved, growing, undulating, rolling toward us. I thought, My God, it’s a gigantic wave, the roaming hundred-foot wave I’d heard stories about. I couldn’t tear my eyes away.
Suddenly I knew it was not a wave but hundreds of porpoises, swimming together, diving in and out of the water, coming right at us. Would we be capsized and torn apart? We lay low and waited. But instead of disaster, the porpoises swam gracefully under us and came up on the other side. When I looked in the water I discovered their purpose: millions of minnows. Food. I wished for a net. I used my hands. No luck.
ONE NIGHT THE moon was bright and full and huge, and its light sparkled and made the calm sea glow. The sharks, our daily companions, departed, leaving us with a quiet evening “at home.” We bailed in the usual water—our blanket—to warm our bodies as we huddled tightly together.
A few hours later our tranquillity was rudely shattered by a thump on the bottom of the raft so powerful that our bodies winced with pain and we were lifted a few inches off the ocean surface. Stunned and frightened, I looked over the side and followed a huge fin as it circled the raft. When it came alongside again, the monster’s tail flipped sideways, sending a wave of cold water over us. Then I got a good look at our visitor: a huge bluish gray shark maybe twenty feet long. A great white.
I put my hands on Mac and Phil and whispered, “Lay low and don’t move or make a sound.” Again, we were hit from below. Again, his tail inundated us with water. Hardly an accident, the shark’s purpose was to stir whatever he suspected might be alive in the raft and find out if it was edible.
We were petrified but managed to stay quiet and still as the great white repeated his routine for maybe an hour, though it seemed like half the night. Then, as mysteriously as he had appeared, the shark gave up, dove underneath us, and disappeared, never to be seen again. Mac, Phil, and I took deep breaths, and the air in our lungs never felt better. But the next morning Mac acted strangely different. Quieter. No, resigned. The great white had scared him good, and I think that was the turning point for him. Mac began to fade.
I REMEMBER SPEAKING to a men’s club in San Diego after the war and telling the story of the great white. A marine biologist criticized me. He said great whites were cold-water sharks and would not leave their natural northern feeding waters full of seals and sea lions for the warm southern Pacific. I couldn’t argue with him and from then on referred to the shark simply as a “huge denizen of the deep.” But as of February 2002, almost sixty years later, new research confirmed that great whites are, in fact, world travelers. Tagged, they have been tracked to the ocean off Baja California, Hawaii, and other tropical waters. They spend as much as five months a year in the open ocean and dive as deep as two thousand feet. Warm-blooded, like humans, they enjoy basking in the temperate waters of the Pacific, and I know I was right when I say one visited us on the raft that night long ago.
ON THE THIRTY-SECOND day I was still patching the raft, stopping to pump only about once every fifteen minutes, when Mac quit moving and sank into a daze. Was he just despondent? Or starved? Or both? He’d had as much food as Phil or I, sometimes more; but now his will to live and perhaps his body’s ability to use nourishment had failed. Each of us probably weighed no more than seventy-five pounds—too light even to make a satisfying snack for the sharks that had relentlessly stalked our raft. Our flesh was almost transparent, our bones plainly visible. But unlike Phil or me, Mac had finally all but shut down.
He asked Phil, “Can I have a drink of your water?”
Phil said no, which is what he should have said. We had about a mouthful apiece. The guy was almost dead, why give him water? Then he asked me, and like an idiot, I gave him a drink. It was a dying man’s request and I did not deny it.
The next afternoon Mac stirred a bit and asked questions about death, questions for which I had no good answers. Then he asked the only one that really mattered: “Am I going to die?” That was it: ‘ “Am I going to die?”
“Yeah,” I said, thinking it would be unkind to promise him further agony. “I believe you’ll die tonight.”
“Yes, sir,” he agreed. “I think you’re right.”
Finally, a few hours after midnight on the thirty-third day, Mac groaned, stiffened, sighed, and died. After a quiet moment I said, “Phil, Mac is gone.” Honestly, I’d expected it sooner. We lay there all tangled up and didn’t move until morning, when I said a brief eulogy.
Francis McNamara had once been an average-looking guy, five-feet-ten, light hair. Now he looked like a overstretched rubber band dried in the sun, a skeleton with skin. We slipped him overboard, a burial at sea, just like in the movies, and as he sank out of sight Phil and I were all the more determined to survive our ordeal.
THE DAYS DRAGGED by, but I’d wake up each morning almost energetic, thinking, “Oh boy, another day closer to the islands!” I knew we’d get there. I knew my charts. I knew the trade winds and the currents.
But our trials were not over.
We’d braved hunger, thirst, sharks, bullets, and death. Now came a storm. We’d been through others, but none with waves that seemed to tower almost forty-five feet high. One moment the raft rested on a “mountaintop,” the next it was at the bottom of a “canyon.” The ride was more frightening than the sharks or the machine guns. It took all we had just to stay alive. Again.
This much I knew: we had to stay low, our feet tucked securely under the seats. Under no circumstances could we lash ourselves in with the parachute cord. I remembered a rescue mission in Hawaii, after a storm. We found a colonel and two men in their raft, upside down, blue bottom up, tied in. Dead.
I scooped about four inches of water into the raft for extra stability. Then I tied the cord under the seats and looped it around each of us only once, without a knot. If a raft turns over, you can’t untie a knot in the water. A wet rope is brutal. We held the rope, hands aching. The night passed, filled with terror and rain.
The next morning, the forty-sixth day, the rain was intermittent but the waves still fierce. As one roller lifted us high, I spotted land. At first I wasn’t sure, but when we rose again, I saw more green.
“Phil,” I said. “I’ve just seen an island.”
He popped up and said, “I see it, too.”
The date was July 12, 1943, and I assumed that as we’d hoped and prayed, we had finally reached the Marshall or Gilbert Islands. We were still too far away to be sure, and another stormy night would pass before we could accurately assess the situation. We covered ourselves with the canvas to ward off the cold and tried to get some sleep. Our only fear was drifting between and past the islands in the dark.
The next morning the big blow was gone and we found ourselves in an atoll lagoon. I counted sixteen tiny islands, all apparently deserted. I could see old huts, bananas, breadfruit, and coconuts—but no people. I couldn’t wait to get ashore. One island was as big as a bedroom, with a single tree on it like you see in a comic strip. We broke out the oars and rowed. It seemed almost too good to be true.
It was. I heard airplane engines and looked up to see two Zeroes, probably at ten thousand feet, in combat practice. I knew they couldn’t see us.
I kept rowing, pitifully weak after forty-seven days adrift, trying to make land before anyone discovered us. Then I saw a new island. I said, “Hey, there was no island there.”
“Whaddaya mean?” said Phil.
“There’s an island right over there, with one tree on it.”
Phil looked and said, “Yeah, I see it—but there’re two trees.”
“You’re crazy. There’s only one tree.” I looked again, and this time there were two trees. “What’s happening here?”
It wasn’t an island at all but a boat with two masts, and it was heading straight for us.