THERE now began a brief phase of our imminent ordeal that has left me with an admiration that will be lifelong for the clear thinking and cold courage of two men Bill Cherry and Eddie Rickenbacker. I put Bill first because it is to him we survivors owe our chief gratitude for being alive today.
Never have I seen any airman perform more masterfully than he did when the supreme moments came. And Rickenbacker's clear foresight and thorough preparations undoubtedly averted casualties.
For that matter, my admiration extends to all the other members of our crew. They behaved as a good bomber crew should. In bombing raids the men become part of the plane and, with the plane, they are a machine that is an impersonal, relentless team.
I like to think our men performed that day as expertly and as smoothly as ever any crew did while dropping a load on Tokyo or Berlin. The responsibility for the safety of us all in our plight rested upon Bill Cherry, and he met it coolly, as one of his fellow Texans might meet a charging steer.
"What do you expect to do now?" Rickenbacker asked.
"We'll try the box procedure first," Cherry replied. "There are a couple of other things that may help also."
In the box procedure a lost plane flies a course that describes a square. This enables the crew to scan a vast area flying inside and outside the box. At 5,000 feet we
were 2,000 above the overcast, which now had broken about 50 per cent, giving us a good view of the ocean below.
Cherry figured that if we should fly 45 minutes on each leg of the box, we still would have about an hour's fuel when we finished. As we went into the first leg, he ordered Reynolds to raise Island X again.
When Reynolds got them, Cherry asked that they begin firing anti-aircraft shells timed to explode at 8,000 feet. We now climbed back to 10,000 both to see farther and to be above the bursting shells.
Island X replied that the firing would begin at once and that planes would clear as quickly as possible to search for us and to lead us in. Our men were posted at all windows and ports to watch for the bursts and planes. Rickenbacker and Col. Adamson assisted in this.
In the cockpit, beside Bill Cherry, I strained my eyes for the grayish black bursts that would locate our island and for the black dots which might resolve themselves into planes.
I searched the far rims of the cloudbank, the blue vaults of sky above us, and the watery blue floor far below. Never have I seen a world so ominously empty.
We completed the first leg and the second. We drew to the end of the third. We banked into the fourth and final leg, still without seeing either shell burst or plane. Rickenbacker's countenance what I could see of it was inscrutable. The homefolks in Quail, Texas, would have been proud of Cherry's poker face.
As the last of our three hours ticked off, putting us back where we had started, Bill summoned Reynolds.
"Go on emergency frequency and start pounding out SOS" he said. "Someone will hear us and get a bearing on our course." Bill then gave Reynolds our direction and speed. Then he turned to me.
"Jim," he continued. "We will have to set her down in
about an hour. Let's talk about how we are going to do it."
So far as either of us knew then, no four-motored land plane ever had been set down at sea without casualties. In many cases no member of the crew had lived to tell about it.
When a plane is put into the ocean against the wind, it meets the waves head on. If it touches on a crest, the nose will be plunged into the next wave and cave in. Further, the ship probably will not float an instant, but will continue its dive through the water.
If the plane hits the first crest too hard, it breaks in two and the parts disappear almost immediately. It is inevitable that the crew will be stunned for a few instants by a crash landing and in such a case Davy Jones has ample time to snatch them down.
I suggested, therefore, that we come in cross wind and set the ship down in a trough the valley between two waves. Bill said this sounded like sense and added:
"I think we ought to do it while we've still got gasoline in the tanks. A power landing is always better than an uncontrolled one."
This, in turn, seemed logical to me. Rickenbacker, who had sat in on part of this talk then took over disposition of the crew and started making those arrangements I spoke of earlier; the preparations to which we owed our whole skins.
Rick led everyone except Reynolds to the compartment aft of the bomb bay and had them lie down, their heads toward the tail and their feet braced against the bulkhead. Mattresses from the cots were used as padding. Rickenbacker stationed himself at a port near the forward bomb bay.
Bill pushed the wheel forward and our big olive-drab warbird began nosing down toward her last landing. I made some preparations of my own. I took the cushions
from the two seats behind us. Bill and I put them across our stomachs and fastened the safety belts over them. I turned to Cherry and stuck out my hand.
"It's sure been swell knowing you, Bill," I said. He gripped my hand briefly.
"You're going to know me a long time yet, Jim," he answered. It's going to keep on being swell!" He looked at me an instant with those direct Texas eyes, then glued his attention to the water, which was leaping up swiftly now.
We didn't know how much fuel was left and, needing it all, we cut the two inboard motors at about 500 feet and feathered the propellers to prevent them turning in the wind. Meanwhile, Rick had got the aft deck trap open and, aided by the others, was dropping equipment and his luggage out to lighten the plane. This was for two reasons: (1) to lessen our weight, reducing the force of impact and (2) to lessen fuel consumption.
The cots went out also and I believe the mail sacks did. Most everything was gone when next I looked in that direction. Just now I was keeping my eyes on Cherry who was staring at the waves. In a rolling sea it would be his job to know just where our trough would be when we needed it. At this instant we heard the voice of DeAngelis who had come up behind us.
"Do you fellows mind," he asked, "if I pray?"
"What in the hell do you think we're doing?" Bill Cherry snapped without lifting his eyes. DeAngelis returned to the others and in a moment Rickenbacker's voice sang out, clear and calm:
"Fifty feet!" and almost immediately: "Thirty feet!"
I recall a feeling of intense irritation then at DeAngelis' suggestion of prayer. I thought what a hell of a time to talk about praying when we need all our wits to save our lives! How often and how ashamedly was I to remember those brash thoughts in the days to come.
It was strangely still in the plane. The muffled roar of the two outboard engines seemed far away. There was a faint whooshing of wind against the fuselage. The whine of Reynold's radio rose above it, sharp and insistent.
Sharp and insistent, yes; but how thin and small it sounded in that vast and empty world, stretching out ahead, above, and on all sides of our cockpit windows. We were to learn in the blazing days to come that voices infinitely weaker can be heard if directed to God in adversity.
Young Johnny Bartek raced forward from the stern and loosened the lugs holding down the escape hatch over the cockpit. The lid whipped off and was gone in an instant. Bartek paused in the bomb bay, freed the hatch there, then sped back to his station on the floor.
The wind was a roar now, howling into the open traps. We were coming in at 90 miles an hour with the landing flaps and wheels up so there would be nothing to snag in the water. You can't realize the will power it takes to put a plane into the sea with even a teacup of fuel left in the tanks.
"Five feet!" Rickenbacker shouted. "Three feet!... One foot!"
"Cut it!" yelled Bill.
I pulled the mainline switch, killing every electrical connection in the plane. Bill hauled back on the wheel, hooking the tail into the water. The fuselage went down into the trough and lunged, but did not leave the surface. The waves rolled up about us. We were in. From 90 miles an hour we came to a full stop in a little over 30 feet about 10 steps.
The shock and pressure of that landing is almost indescribable to a person who has never been through one.
Despite the cushions, the safety belt seemed to be slicing me in two. A taste of bitter vinegar filled my mouth.
My eyes seemed to spin around like already taut springs winding up to the snapping point. I couldn't see. I thought I was losing consciousness.
A final slash of the safety belt and the pressure inside my head reduced swiftly. My bursting eyes began to unwind. I don't remember leaving my seat, but next I knew I was up, yanking the rip cord that freed the forward one of two five-place rubber rafts above the fuselage. Rickenbacker was freeing the aft raft.
DeAngelis and Kaczmarczyk were shoving the tiny, three man raft up through the escape hatch over the bomb bay. Rick had assigned them together because they were the smallest and lightest of our company.
Bill Cherry was scrambling out of the pilot's seat unscathed.
Blood was streaming from a cut across Reynold's nose. He had stayed at his key, pounding at SOS until Rickenbacker called: "Three feet!" Reynolds doesn't know yet what he struck. I heard Col. Adamson calling out as though in great pain that his shoulder had been wrenched. I had a slight arm cut.
I don't know the order in which we left the ship. Uppermost in my mind was the knowledge that for probably the first time in history a four-motored land plane had been put down into the ocean without serious casualties. And I wanted to keep it that way.
We got out fast. Water already was gushing into the plane from broken windows and also, I suppose, from breaks in the fuselage. I noticed only that Bill Cherry was the last one out. And this was proper and typical of the man. You'll remember, Bill Cherry was our captain. He conducted himself accordingly.
Chapter Four || Table of Contents