ON THE 20th morning, while we were waiting for the early patrol plane to pass over and not see us Bill Cherry spoke abruptly:
"Listen, you fellows," he said, "I think it's time we were giving Providence a little help. I'm taking the small raft and cutting loose by myself. If we all spread over a wider area we'll have a 3 to 1 better chance of being seen. When one raft is found they'll start a real search and pick up others."
This sounded like sense to me, but to our surprise, Col. Adamson forbade Cherry to go. He didn't think it wise at this juncture, he said, to separate the company. Why he took this view the Colonel did not explain.
Cherry, however, had made up his mind. He made no reply to the Colonel. Instead he brought our raft abeam of the little one and told DeAngelis to get in with Jimmy Reynolds and me. Then he entered the small boat and dropped its line.
"I'm telling you not to go!" snapped Adamson. "That is an order. I am the senior officer here."
"That's true," Cherry replied, "but you're not the commanding officer, by a good deal. I was captain and commander of the plane. I am the commanding officer of this party. I'm leaving."
Cherry was correct. Col. Adamson's status in the plane had been the same as Rickenbacker's. Both were passengers. Rickenbacker took no part in the exchange between
Cherry and the Colonel. He had no place in it, being a civilian.
Bill had drifted about 100 feet away from us when the patrol plane came over. It was so low and so near we identified it easily as a United States Navy Kingfisher. Still the pilot did not see us. As the plane disappeared I untied our line and let it drop. I looked at Rickenbacker.
"So long, Rick," I said. "I'll be seeing you."
"Good luck to you, Jim," he replied.
"Same to you, Rick, and to the rest of you."
Col. Adamson also forbade me to leave. He repeated that he was a senior officer of the party and added that he was commanding me to remain. He was still wrong. As co-pilot and second in command of the plane I had succeeded to command of the raft party with Cherry's departure. I didn't argue the point, however. Having already cast off I made no comment and the rafts began drifting apart.
Our boat took a slightly different course than Cherry's and after a few hours no raft was nearer than two or three miles to another. By late afternoon we could sight the others only by straining our eyes. The evening patrol plane roared across our stretch of sea and must have passed almost directly at least one of our fleet. Again nothing happened.
There was little sleep in our raft that night. We were lonesome for the fellows in the others boats, for one thing. But there was something else. My feeling of the night before that something big was just ahead kept me wakeful. The feeling must have transmitted itself to Johnny and Jimmy because, despite their misery, they seemed expectant and hopeful. And for once we were not to be let down.
In the last hour before light I fell into a deep sleep and slept through the most important dawn of the three weeks. I had strained my eyes in 20 dawns only
to have the rising light disclose an empty ocean, an empty sky, an empty world.
I opened my eyes to our 21st day adrift to find DeAngelis shaking me as roughly as his failing strength would permit. He was gripping my shoulder and calling my name.
"Cut that out!" I yelled. "What's the matter with you?"
"Jim," he said, "I think you'd better take a look. It may be a mirage, but I think I see something."
I rolled over in the raft and sat up. There was no need for him to point. And it was no mirage. Across the horizon stretched a line of palm trees about 10 miles long. The distance away was about 12 miles, though I couldn't see any actual land. But I felt safe in assuming there would be something substantial under those palms. There was no sign of the other rafts.
At 6:30 AM of Nov. 11 I broke out our two aluminum oars and began what was to be a 7 1/2 hour pull to put dry land under our feet. My two raft mates were in pitiable condition. DeAngelis could still move about, and that was all. He wanted to spell me on the row to the island, but a few minutes at a time were all he could manage.
Jimmy Reynolds lay prone in the raft. He was precariously near the finish. His eyes had sunk an inch and a half into his skull. His resemblance to a death's head was startling. Jimmy's normal weight is 130 pounds. He weighed 90 a few days later when Navy doctors got to him.
The poor kid exhibited the finest spirit I have ever seen. Though he could hardly lift himself, he kept saying: "I feel all right; just tired. I'll get up in a minute and help you, Jim."
During that long row to the island Jimmy lay against the gunwale behind me and with the flare shell dipped water which he poured on the back of my head and neck
after the heat began to bear down after 10 o'clock. Without it I might have collapsed.
We had calculated to get in about noon and I was encouraged by the good time I made. Just before 12 o'clock we had reached a point less than 250 yards from the shore. I had opened my mouth to tell Johnny and Jimmy to start ordering their dinners. Then something happened.
The boat careened and went out of control. Another second or two and we were racing back out to sea. Nothing I could do with the oars was any help. The wild current held us until we were far out; a mile or so, at least.
The long narrow island was moving slowly across our bows like a giant ocean liner, crawling out to sea through the Golden Gate. I realized, of course, that the island was stationary. We were drifting, though it seemed the island was leaving us, instead. We had started for the head of the island and now were more than half way down it.
If ever I have cried out in anguish it was then. I was done, finished, washed up. I called Heaven to witness that I was whipped. I could hardly hold on to the light oars. Yet there within reach was the land and life. And while I watched, that line of majestic palms continued to move away, with terrible deliberation. If we were to reach land at all it would have to be now.
I looked at Jimmy, lying flat again. I looked at Johnny DeAngelis. He was sick and exhausted; bewildered by the thing that had happened to me. Before very long he would be as badly off as Jimmy. I tried to move my numbed fingers and aching arms.
It was no use. Only a miracle could set our feet on that island, I thought; only a miracle. A miracle! I remembered the miracle of the rain on the 13th day. I remembered other answers to prayer. I remembered my God!
I cried out to Him to give me strength. I shouted it above the rising wind in the fear He might not hear. I caught a glimpse of DeAngelis's startled face. Still shouting, I lifted the oars. I rowed.
Half an hour later I was still rowing and making progress. When the treacherous current had shot us out to sea I had been powerless to hold the boat against it. Now I was overcoming that current.
I was overcoming it in the face of obstacles and hazards that hadn't beset me before. I have spoken of the rising wind. It brought a deluge of rain that all but blotted out the island. I turned about in the raft and adopted the
fisherman's stroke that I might see ahead and better direct our course.
An oar jerked and turned in my hand. I glanced that way in time to see a dirty gray form, 12 feet long, disappearing beneath the waves. As I watched, another shark surfaced, slashed at the oar, and slid under. These sharks were not the droll dullards that had plagued us earlier. There were man eaters. If they should attack the raft, we were gone.
The rain slackened and I could see the island, still moving away in the mist. I cried out my final prayer:
"God! Don't quit me now!"
I have described the miracle of the rain. I have told of the flare that went faulty and became the means of providing fish for us to eat after our desperate prayer for food.
The prayer I uttered that afternoon was more than
desperate. It was an anguished supplication, shouted above the wind and the rain. It came from the depths of my soul. And there were no mental reservations this time. I was calling to my God, who alone could save us. The answer was immediate and miraculous; it was the second of the two divine miracles.
Strength surged back into my shoulders and arms. I slashed at the man-eating sharks with the oars. They wheeled as though about to attack. But I didn't care. I was rowing again. I was rowing and bending those aluminum oars against the white caps. I say it was I who was bending them. That isn't true. Of himself, Jim Whittaker couldn't have bent a pin.
As the raft rolled steadily through the foam I was not conscious of exerting any strength. Indeed, it was as though the oars were working automatically and my hands merely followed their motions. There were other hands than mine on those oars.
I am considered a good boatman and I am naturally strong. Yet today, fully recovered in strength, I would hesitate to tackle that stretch of water. Then, I was thoroughly exhausted and there were three weeks of thirst, hunger, and suffering behind me.
The rain was coming down in torrents. The sharks had doubled in number and appeared to be massing for the attack, whizzing past us and slashing at the oars.
Yet as steadily as though drawn by a cable attached to a steam winch on shore we moved through the treacherous surface, amid the sharks, and in the face of a buffeting rain squall. It was the second miracle and I recognized it for what it was.
As we neared the foam that marked the reef we faced a new danger. The ebb was not quite over yet and with the rollers coming in the sharp coral might easily puncture the raft air chambers.
Johnny DeAngelis lay across the bow, pulling and
guiding with his hands. Using the lift given us by the swells, we inched the vulnerable rubber boat across the reef and into the calmer water beyond.
The miraculous strength that had come to me out there in the storm sustained me until our bow grounded soundlessly. It was our first solid land in three weeks. The time was 2 PM of November 11th, 1942.
Chapter Thirteen || Table of Contents