JOHNNY continued to lie across the bow, pulling at the coral with his hands. Our boat had grounded several yards from the sandy beach, out of danger from slipping back into deep water. I shipped the oars.
"All ashore that's going ashore," I called. My voice was husky and cracked, I noticed.
Jimmy Reynolds crawled out and slumped down. He couldn't stand. Johnny got up, stepped out, and fell flat.
"What's the matter with you fellows?" I asked.
"Try it yourself!" Johnny said, trying to stand. I stood up in the raft and sprawled immediately. I didn't think it was weakness. It was simply this: The instant I rose, the island and sea tipped up like a dinner plate standing on edge. In trying to counter this phenomenon I leaned too far and lost my balance.
I struggled up and went down again. I stood up and fell eight times before it occurred to me that the oars might serve to steady me. I unshipped them and hobbled out of the raft. I found that when the landscape showed signs of tipping up toward the right, I could hold it down by putting all my weight on the left oar. If I pressed too hard, however, the world would start rising up to the left. Then I had to bear down on the right oar. I wondered if Johnny and Jimmy knew how hard I was working to keep the landscape on an even keel so that the three of us wouldn't fall off it.
After several minutes of this I had acquired sufficient
skill to keep the situation under control with light deft touches of the oars. Occasionally the island would give an unexpected heave, but I usually caught it in time and shoved it back down to where it belonged. This was important, because I had observed that several pockets in the coral hummocks were full of clear water.
I believed this was rain water, uncontaminated by salt. Too much tipping and rolling would spill it out. When I thought I had our situation in hand I knelt down and tasted the water in one of the pockets. It was fresh. I called to the others. For the next few minutes we drank, caught our breaths, and drank again. Until you have been through an ordeal like ours you will never know how good that clear, cold water tasted. We buried our faces in it.
When we could hold no more I staggered up and looked around. We were 30 or 40 feet from the sand and I thought we had better move the boat up to the beach. Johnny and I dragged it along while Jimmy crawled on all fours.
We were without shoes and had to pick our way carefully over the coral, which lay just beneath the surface. It was as sharp in places as broken glass. When we had hauled the raft out of reach of the tide we all gave thanks to God for our landfall and for our safe passage among the sharks, through the storm, and across the reef. Even as we prayed I could see an occasional gray hulk slicking around out beyond the reef. But those sharks would eat no men today.
The next thing was to find food and shelter. It was now that I began to realize that my own condition was not so good; it was not the island that was pitching and rolling. It was me. I could not walk without at least one oar. And my mind functioned only with the greatest difficulty, even after I had tried every device I knew to get a grip on my thoughts. This is illustrated best by the incident of Jimmy's pants.
The buttons had come off and the zippers had been put out of commission by salt water and salt air. The poor kid kept losing them as he crawled along. I thought deeply and laboriously on what I might do for him. Earlier I had tied on my own trousers with a cord, but it didn't occur to me to fix Jimmy up the same way.
Johnny sat and thought also, his chin resting on his hands, but he couldn't think of a remedy. Meanwhile, the sun was burning me through the rents in my shirt. I stumbled over to a tree and cut off a piece of vine which I used to lace up the torn places. I regarded this as a pretty ingenious piece of work. All the time I was
fixing myself up, something like an idea seemed trying to break into my consciousness. It didn't succeed.
So, instead of tying Jimmy's pants on with lengths of vine, we gave it up. They continued to fall off him as he crawled along and Johnny and I kept putting them back on him. I think the Whittaker mentality was at its lowest ebb that afternoon.
The part of the island where we now stood was only a few hundred feet wide. We were very near the foot. If the Lord hadn't taken us by the hand when He did we would have missed it entirely and have been out there in the distance somewhere, bound for almost certain death.
The island ran north and south and we were in need of reaching the lee side for shelter from sun and rain. On the way, Johnny found some cocoanuts, which he rolled along with his feet. He had six by the time we found a suitable place. I set about opening them with the sheath knife.
They had been there a long time and the hulls were iron hard. In my condition it took 40 minutes to cut around the hull and into the eyes of the nut. When I miscalculated and missed the eyes, more long minutes of cutting were necessary.
The cocoanuts had little milk in them, but the pulp was fairly soft and it was nourishing. As we ate I noticed that some small, rodent-like animals (the size of large rats) had come up to feed at the discarded shells. I crept up and killed a couple with the knife. The survivors scampered away. Apparently, however, they laughed it off among themselves because they soon returned and I killed again.
It was our first fresh meat since the night of Oct. 20 at Hickam Field. This and the cocoanut pulp made me feel just well enough to realize I was violently hungry. Thirst returned.
I recrossed the island and collected a couple of quarts
of water from the coral depressions, storing it in a Mae West. I made one last trip and hauled the raft across.
As it grew dark we bedded down, turning the raft over us for shelter. Then the rain came down again, flooding our bedroom. We got no sleep. I think we rested pretty well, however, despite the rolling and pitching of the island. It seemed to me, as I dug my fingers into the sand to hold on, that even in the roughest weather our tiny raft never had behaved as badly as that 10 mile island.
On the morning of Nov. 12 Johnny found more cocoanuts and we ate again. As a matter of fact we ate at intervals all day. Whittaker, the mighty hunter, killed more animals. The flesh wasn't the most appetizing in the world, but it was strengthening. Johnny and I felt much better. Poor Jimmy seemed to grow steadily worse. I had recovered sufficiently to be genuinely worried about him.
We decided against trying to move on that day. We told Jimmy it wouldn't hurt any of us to recuperate for a day. He nodded vaguely and lay down again.
He at least was in less pain now. The drenching from the skies had washed the salt out of his ulcers. They looked less angry and seemed about to start healing. Johnny was much happier, too, though his sufferings in this respect never had been as bad as Reynold's. I had escaped the scourge; probably because my hide is too tough to be affected by such things as salt water.
I was beginning to lose some of it, though. Some of the men shed and grew new skin six and eight times in the rafts and now I was starting. My most peculiar after effect has been the growth of an entire new set of fingernails, halfmoons and all.
During the morning our friend the Kingfisher scout plane roared over. We waved, as usual, consoling ourselves afterward that the exercise probably had done us
good. At 3 PM we saw five planes out at sea, flying in formation. We assumed they were looking for submarines.
On the contrary, they were looking for Rickenbacker, Adamson, Bartek, and us. Cherry's raft had been sighted the previous afternoon just about the time we were crossing the reef. He had been picked up shortly afterward and the search from other duties were flying low over the ocean, looking for two rafts.
The five-plane formation moved closer in, but did not pass over the island. We were not seen.
As the sun sank, we rustled up more cocoanuts. It wasn't so difficult opening them now. I wished, however, we could get some fresher ones. There were plenty growing about 20 feet above our heads, but tree climbing still was considerably beyond either Johnny or me. The trees were too sturdy to be shaken and our aim was not strong enough to make possible knocking any of them down.
We thankfully ate those available and turned in. This night we abandoned our rubber bedroom, sleeping on the sand about 30 feet away. Again it rained intermittently and we had a cold, miserable night. The island pitched less and that was a help.
At sunrise we thanked God again for our landfall and drank the last of the water. When I went for more I found that the depressions had been polluted by salt. High waves, whipped up by the wind, must have caused this. At least we now had a definite task; that of finding fresh water to drink. Fortunately there were no weighty decisions to be made. We were so near the north of the island there was only one direction in which to go.
A scout plane crossed about two miles to the south. We took to the raft and started in that direction. When we had rowed about half a mile I saw a native hut on the beach. Feeling sure we had struck a village of the outpost of one, we put in.
It was a single thatched hut and deserted at that, but it looked like lower Manhattan to me. There was nothing inside it except an unfinished boat.
We drank heartily of water that had collected in cavities hollowed out of the bases of cocoanut palms. It was full of wigglers, but they tasted fine. At that writing I would have drunk anything smaller than me.
At 12:30 PM on this 23rd day our wanderings, a plane passed directly over our heads, only 200 feet up. It roared across at such an angle it would have been impossible for the pilot to have seen us. We didn't care too much. We had found shelter. We were sure of restful sleep, which we needed now almost as much as we had needed water before. The chief reason I still was praying for quick rescue was that of medical assistance for Reynolds.
We sprawled out on the floor of the native hut and fell asleep at once. What awakened me I don't know. At 1:10, however, I sat up fully aroused. Looking out across the shimmering water I saw what I thought might be a task force. I thought I saw destroyers close in and other craft farther out. It was very bright and hard to distinguish the outlines of the boats.
I shook Johnny. He raised up and had a look, but apparently the sight didn't register. He lay back down.
"They're just barges," he said.
"Just barges!" I yelled as loudly as my voice would permit. "Just barges! What do you want? The Queen Mary?"
I stumbled out to the raft and launched it. I was beginning to see better. I concluded these were new model destroyers. I never had seen anything like them before. About a quarter of a mile out I saw what they were outrigger canoes. The natives had seen me head out and now were coming in my direction. My senses
were so slowed that it seemed to me they were making about 50 knots an hour.
When the boat drew near I observed that the features of the head man in the lead boat were strikingly Japanese in cast. This was no time for ceremony, so I called out:
"You Japanese?" All the men in the canoe shook their heads in unison. I relaxed. They cruised up, had a swift, appraising look at me, then flung over a line. I made it fast to the bow of the raft. I made them understand there were two more men on the island. We headed shoreward.
The outrigger had four little paddlemen who certainly could make speed. For the first time I now saw a foamy bow wave under a rubber life raft. I was somewhat apprehensive at first. It seemed to me we were going too fast for safety.
I spoke to a man in their stern about our long fast and our present hunger and thirst. He spoke rapidly to the others. As the boat touched shore a young fellow sprang out, carrying a length of rope and a chopper made of a wooden stick and a metal blade. Assisting himself with the rope, he ran up a palm tree and knocked some ripe cocoanuts.
By the time we had reached the hut he was there, lopping the tops off the nuts with the chopper. He fashioned them into rude drinking cups. We downed the milk about a pint from each cocoanut and ate the rich, white meat. These were about a thousand per cent better than the ones we had had during the previous 48 hours.
I now took a good look at the native's chopper and my hopes soared. The metal blade had been the tongue of a white man's wood plane. We were getting close to civilization.
Our new friends appeared to be in a great hurry to get somewhere. They were assisting DeAngelis and carrying
Jimmy out to the canoe. They made me understand that we were to go with them to their village. Johnny and Jimmy were stretched out on mats across the connecting supports between the canoe and the outrigger float. I got back into the raft and we were on our way again at what seemed reckless speed.
We left the open sea, passing into a long, curving lagoon. Then the village came into view. It was a sizable one. Smoke curled up among the thatched, peaked huts. And what was that strange smell? I pondered. Ah, yes. Cooking!
We were greeted by what happened to be the entire population. The women were clad only in lava lavas and smiles, but even with all that pulchritude before me I could think only of the savory aromas that filled the air.
The smiles quickly changed to tears I mean tears when the women saw our condition. We were emaciated. Our hair and beards were long and straggly. Jimmy Reynolds looked like a dying man.
We unloaded. On the way to the guest hut I was informed that the island is owned by a friendly power which maintains a radio station there. Shortly before, a United States Navy plane had dropped a note, asking that the small garrison be on the lookout for us. That was why the natives happened to be out in force during the heat of the day. A runner even then was on his way to their headquarters, I was informed.
Two officers arrived shortly afterward. We were given our fill of fruit juices, then DeAngelis and Reynolds were put to bed on fragrant mats. I was asked what I would like to eat.
And this was no game, such as we had played in the raft that terrible day. These people were ready to deliver. I spotted some chickens taking their ease under a palm tree. It was their last siesta. I suggested boiling them down
to make a rich broth. This was done, under supervision of a man from the garrison.
I had my first bath with soap in more than three weeks, then I sat down to wait for dinner. And it was torture. The aroma of chicken permeated the entire area. It filled the air. It was all I could do to keep from grabbing one of the birds from the pot and rending it.
My thoughts soon returned to Jimmy Reynolds. In the shadows of the hut he looked even more lifeless than he had in the raft. He needed the best medical attention and quickly. But even as I worried, radio signals were crackling through the air. Our friends of the garrison were on the job.
Chapter Fourteen || Table of Contents