THE STORY OF THE “JUNEAU”
A Survivor’s Tale of Fate and of a Modern Miracle
By Robert C Fay as Narrated by Joseph P F Hartney
November 12th, 1942. In the first gray light of dawn, the transports crept in toward Guadalcanal and dropped their hooks off Henderson Field, the war ships maneuvering in a protective screen around them. The USS Juneau, light cruiser, was part of a task force running supplies and reinforcements in to the hard-pressed marines. Along with the San Francisco, Helena, Atlanta and other cruisers and destroyers, we had swept in ahead of the auxiliaries to clear the area of any lurking japs.
With broad daylight, we went in to condition 3, and those who could caught a little sleep, fitful naps disturbed by the knowledge of impending action; the japs were out of Raboul and Truk in force, determined to prevent those supplies form getting ashore. It was a certainty that we would not be unmolested.
Our hunch was correct. At 1430 the siren wailed and the boatswain’s cry went up and down the Juneau, “All hands, general quarters. Man your battle stations. Prepare to resist air attack.” Contact had been made on a flight of Jap planes, estimated at 24 in number. The transports were plumed with smoke as they weighed anchor and I could see the barges scurrying for shelter. I headed for my battle station at Bat 2 on the double to man my post at the 50-caliber machine gun there. Bat 2, is an auxiliary control station from which the ship can be conned in case the bridge and conning tower are rendered useless and besides manning the gun, my job as second class signalman was to take over visual communications in an emergency.
We didn’t have long to wait for the japs. Big twin motored torpedo planes, land based, they came roaring in over Florida Island and dipped down to almost water level to put the island behind them and to give us a bad background for our sights. We let them come, holding our fire and watched them skim over the water, growing larger, until we could distinguish their khaki color, the blaze of red on their fuselages and the mirror flashing gleams of their spinning props. We were tense enough as we waited, but confident. It was for just such moments as this that the Atlanta class of cruisers, of which the Juneau was one, had been built. Mounting 5 inch paired in triple turrets fore and aft, we were able to pour out a deadly and concentrated fire. Actually, we were only glorified destroyers and the Japs had underestimated us when we first appeared in the South Pacific. They soon learned, for this type of ship had knocked down so many planes that Zeke and Hap began to give us a wide berth. Closer those lumbering planes came. Fingers tensed on firing button and trigger. Then the signal came, “Commence firing!” A solid sheet of flame leaped out of the column. Every gun on the Juneau opened up, shocking the little ship with the tremendous force of the recoil until she bucked and shivered in her course. The 5-inch was the bass to the music we played, not the resounding roll of a battlewagon’s turret guns, but a shattering clap, like the first sharp reverberation of thunder. The 1.1 cracked in ear-splitting baritone, a violent rending staccato and filling in every split second lull, the comparative tenor of the 50 calibers blended the whole into one continuous nerve blasting cacophony. And above the roar and weaving their sound through the lower pitch, the shells whispered away into the distance. Not a single torpedo found its mark that day. We blasted those planes with a murderous wall of fire. I saw one echelon hit that wall of lead and crash without breaking formation. The rest were turned aside, smashed into the sea, crippled and torn and blazing, until the few that remained clawed madly at the air in an effort to escape destruction and those that rose were immediately pounced on by waiting Graumans that shot them down as they sought safety in flight. The only damage inflicted on our ships was done by a suicidal Jap pilot who turned his burning plane into the bridge of the San Francisco. We watched the burning comet of his plane scream down on the heavy cruiser and the crew of a 20 mm stood calmly at their gun and poured slugs into the belly until engulfed in the funeral pyre of the wreckage.
We had won the opening phase of the Battle of Guadalcanal, but our elation was tempered by the certainty of what must come.
At 1700, Admiral Callaghan himself came on the lmc, the inter ship radio, with the announcement that the main Jap force was bearing down on us. His voice was calm as he delivered the news that this was not the Tokyo express, but an armada of 48 ships and that it included battlewagons, heavy cruisers, light cruisers, destroyers and transports. He ended succinctly, “We are going out the meet them!” On the Juneau, we looked at each other in silence. There was no mistaking the odds against us. Over on the beach, the disquieting sound of gongs told us that the marines were preparing for bombardment. The too knew how slim our chances were of stopping that force. “Where in the hell is the fleet?” they were asking in that hour. We were the fleet and we were going out to show then that the navy, too, could face overwhelming odds. We were going to repay them for those weeks of courage when they lie in their foxholes and beat back the enemy. We ate our chow, forcing it down and showered and put on clean clothes. The darkness dropped swiftly on the Islands and the sea between them, another opaque tropic night with scarcely a breath of wind. A slight haze veiled the stars. The blackness was so thick, so heavy, so velvety, you felt you could take the night in your hands and ring it like a rag. Battle stations sounded. I took out my wife’s picture and looked at it for one long moment. At home, in Connecticut, she was making last preparations for the baby that was soon to come. I put her picture away and climbed through the darkness to Bat 2, feeling my way with my hands in order to find the guide rails. Whatever my feelings were in that moment, they were multiplied by the 700 others in the crew.
John Rudolph, signal striker, and my best friend, was at the gun ahead of me. This husky ex-army sergeant from Pittsburgh was usually full of jokes and laughter, but tonight he was serious. It was warm, that humid warmth of the tropics, scarcely tempered by the night and the sea. As we stood there trying to pierce the darkness with our eyes, we became conscious of a heavy, sweetish odor that blotted out the shipboard smell of steel and paint and hot oil. It is something I shall never forget as long as I live, that funeral smell of gardenias in the jungles of Guadalcanal, millions of blossoms breathing out their perfume in the still tropic night.
It was not premonition that I felt at the moment that sent a shudder across my spine. The Juneau had been through some hard-fought battles before and I had no fear that she would not go through others. My memory is biased in the light of retrospect; for I am alive and over 700 hundred of my shipmates were not, 700 men with whom I had worked and laughed and fought, my friends and my officers. The Juneau was a happy ship. There could be no better. She was commanded by Captain Lyman K. Swenson and you can judge for yourself what kind of a man he was by the remark I overheard him make to the commissary steward on the bridge one day, “If the ship ration isn’t adequate to give good chow, I’ll supplement it out of my own pocket!” Do you wonder why the Juneau’s crew swore by him? And not only for that, he brought us through many a tight place. We’d been in on the initial invasion of Guadalcanal, supporting the landing operations; we’d been with the Wasp when she went down. On Oct. 5th, we’d escorted the Hornet in for the bombing of Buin and Faisi, far north in the Solomon chain and the Juneau had been in the tick of the battle of Santa Cruz. Captain Swenson had returned the compliments of his crew and many a time at quarters, he had expressed in blunt and salty phrases his appreciation of the men who backed him up.
No, I’m not superstitious enough to claim some sort of premonition. Nor can I explain those mysterious events that brought me through the ensuing days. Why they happened to me, out of all those men, I cannot say. I can only call them personal miracles, the vagaries of fate, and let it go at that. Perhaps someone more gifted than I can answer the great “why” of those miracles.
The ship swung into formation and pushed into the black curtain of uncertainty. We could see nothing, yet we knew the land was near. We had the feeling that we were being watched, that out there in the mantled sea, eyes peering at us, full of malevolence and hatred, waiting to pounce on us. Little pinpricks ran across our scalps.
The Atlanta was in the van, carrying the flag 4 Rear Admiral Scott. Destroyers flanked her. Then came the other cruisers, heavy and light, with the Juneau bringing up the rear. We took up station between Guadalcanal and Florida, setting a trip for the Japs.
Admiral Callaghan, on the San Francisco, knew what was going on and he had disposed his force accordingly. Those things the crew, unfortunately, can’t be told in the few minutes given to preparation. The seaman can only stand by his gun and wait and put his trust in the commanders. Waiting is nerve wracking. The Japs had come in past Savo Island in three columns. Whether they knew the size of our force and discounted it because of the overwhelming armor, numbers, and firepower or whether they thought we had left, will not be known until after the war, if ever. But they came at high speed and were caught flatfooted. It seems they had two battleships, at least three heavy cruisers, four light cruisers, and ten destroyers with transports and more destroyers behind the main force. (And now it was that the first of the miracles happened.) The leading Jap wagon closed on our column to within a few thousand yards before he knew of our presence. Then we got a break that my have decided the battle. The Jap battleship attempted to pull the stunt that had proved so successful during the Battle of Savo Island; to illuminate her target with searchlights. The Jap blundered. He lit his arc before the shutters were opened and the light shined out of the vents at the top and the bottom, making a perfect target for the lead ships in our column. I saw that flash of light, my first indication that the enemy was near and almost simultaneously, the San Francisco opened up with a salvo. I saw the flash of her eight-inch guns fire point blank, and then the violent thunder smashed across the sea. The battle was on and, God, what a mess. The San Francisco fired twice in quick succession and she bracketed the Jap immediately. At that range, her eight-inch guns were murderous. The Jap battlewagon burst into flames and came charging on down the line, illuminating herself and the following ships with the raging fires that streamed up into the night. The rest of our ships in column opened up and plastered the big Jap all down the gauntlet. She came abeam of the Juneau, wallowing there like a wounded monster, spouting a hell of flame, but still very much in action. Her searchlights flashed on, fingered across the 2000 yards of water and seemed to waver and then clamp down on us. COMMENCE FIRING! COMMENCE FIRING! The Juneau opened up. We couldn’t miss. Although our main battery was only five inch, at that short range, it was devastating. An eyewitness on another ship told me later that our fire was so continuous; it looked like a bridge of red-hot steel between us and the target. But we were under the short-range fire of the Jap’s big 14 inch, and pinned under her huge, white light. I was firing at the searchlights, trying with my 50 caliber, to knock them out. I felt nothing now. I was just part of the gun that was bouncing in my hand. Rudy worked like an automaton beside me, handling the ammunition. The Jap searchlights switched off of us to another ship up the column, but we were still brightly illuminated in the flames. Up the line, our destroyers raced into the transports that had pushed around Savo in two columns. The tin cans smashed right down the middle of that lane, spurting fire from both port and starboard. They couldn’t miss and as their torpedoes loosed, they found their mark with unerring accuracy. I saw a fat bellied transport erupt in one blinding flash. The rest, hit and burning turned in confusion to escape the murderous attack. We seemed to be right in the middle of everything, with ships crisscrossing the ocean, and the burst of gunfire raging on all sides. Suddenly we were caught in another blinding swirl of searchlights and I twisted my gun in a new direction. A Jap heavy cruiser had charged in from the opposite side and was smashing at us with everything she had. We were pinched between the battlewagons fire and this new danger. “Get those light, get those lights!” Rudy yelled. “We don’t stand a chance if you don’t get those lights!” I was already pouring my tracers into the cruiser. There is no feeling on earth comparable to that of standing in the glare of the searchlights with the knowledge that behind them are the muzzles of beg guns ready to thunder straight at you. You feel absolutely naked and helpless. And even as I started my gun to chattering, a great boiling red flash spouted into my face as the cruiser opened up again. With her gun muzzles right in our teeth, only a miracle could save us…. And what else could you call it? She was too close. That Salvo from the cruiser roared red hot over us and smashed squarely into the stricken Jap battlewagon on our other side. At the same time, our torpedo officer sent his charges hissing out of the tubes; I saw them explode in the belly of the Jap cruiser, lifting he out of the water. A great flower of fire and water bloomed up her side and engulfed her decks. Then she was burning; black smoke, crimson streaked, boiling up, and as she listed, I could see through the torn and twisted wreckage, the Jap crew running like ants. All this time the fire from our turrets had been sweeping the battlewagon and she turned on us now, like a maddened animal, as though suddenly finding the cause of the terrible carnage that was taking her decks. Her 14 inch bellowed and the express train rumble of her big shells passed over us. Like the Jap cruiser, she was too close on our beam and could not deflect her guns to deal a mortal wound. One salvo at the water line into our magazines and we would have been done for. But again, Jap smashed Jap. The blasts from the battlewagon’s turret found their mark in the cruiser and added to the shambles of the deck and superstructure. It seemed that nothing could live on that cruiser’s deck, in that fire and wrenched steel; but her turrets still belched flame and small caliber stuff whistled across our decks.
(IT WAS THEN THAT THE THIRD MIRACLE TOOK PLACE.) Rudy was slow and my gun was empty. I didn’t stop to find out why he was slow. I stooped to pick up ammunition and heard the spatter of shells and the whine of ricocheting fragments as a small caliber cannon or machine gun raked across the spot where my head had been a moment before. I straightened up to look for Rudy. He was nowhere in sight. I loaded up and turned my gun back on the cruiser and as I moved in an arc around the pit, my foot hit something, something soft and yielding. There was a sickening moment when my stomach seemed to move up in my throat and nausea seized me. I looked down and Rudy lay against the shield, shot cleanly. This was battle and battle is cruel and continuous. There was not time to make a move as I stood there looking down at my best friend. The next second the JUNEAU SEEMED TO LEAP CLEAR OUT OF THE WATER to twist and shake herself, and then to sink back again. The force of that explosion knocked me to my knees and stunned me, but through the smoke and pounding crash of the guns I knew we had been hit and hit badly. A torpedo had found our bow and now the ship fell out of column, veered away out of control and swept in toward the Japs blazing cruiser. We closed relentlessly on that island of fire, swept forward by our momentum and powerless to stop. I could see Japs leaping over the side into the water, men struggling in the inferno; a weird, unforgettable pageantry that Dante himself could not have dreamed up. I stared in shocked incredulity as the distance closed. Vaguely through the turmoil, I heard the order, “All hands stand by for collision!” If we crashed it was gong to blow the lid off hell itself. But never did men move with such efficiency as on the Juneau that night. The exec had taken over at Bat 2 and a quartermaster was at the wheel there. He shoved the helm hard over and the Juneau answered, sluggishly, slowly, but perceptibly, pulling away from the stricken Jap cruiser. We cleared the Jap and had gotten control again. Now, however, the Jap battlewagon could bring her guns to bear; we had drifted away from her and the shells that had been passing over us now came screaming into the superstructure and found their mark in the hull. They were not mortal wounds; the shells still could not reach down far enough to open us up to the sea. We were so lightly armored that most of them were passing right through us. I could feel them hit and feel the Juneau stagger under the impact like a fighter floundering before the killing punches of a heavier opponent trying for a knockout. Rigging crashed down around my head. The stack was hit, spilling the searchlights onto the men beneath. Shells exploded down below with a crash that lifted me off the deck. They found the bridge and smashed it into wreckage, scattering fragments of steel around me. Into the gaping hole made by the torpedo, great streams of water poured and we were settling forward. But through it all, our turrets never slackened their fire as they drove their shells into the battlewagon. We cut her superstructure off from stem to stern. As we plowed through the water, a lone searchlight on the Jap tipped forward and cast a bright finger of light on the floor of the sea. I followed that beam with my eyes, and the water as far as I could see was covered with the close packed heads of Jap soldiers from the sunken transports. They bobbed, their faces turned up and glistening, thousand and thousands of them. We passed through them: we parted that mass of heads, passed through them, tossed them aside with our bow wash. They appeared to have something on their shoulders, whether they were packs or some kind of bamboo life preserver, I couldn’t tell. The hulk of the Jap battlewagon fell away from us. We gave her a couple of torpedoes as she dropped astern. One long gun kept firing, lobbing a shell into the air seemingly without aim or intent, a shell that arched over us and fell far beyond, into the sea. The ships had scattered in every direction and the battle had lost all semblance and order or purpose. The Juneau pushed on and soon we were alone in the darkness. We were hard hit, badly mauled, and during the next hour damage parties worked to trim ship and make us seaworthy again. We stuck to our guns, for any moment we might run into scattered Jap units. Thus, it was no surprise when a dark shape rose out of the murk and alert 1 sounded off again. But it was the Helena, the valiant, happy Helena, with the marks of battle on her. We joined forces and proceeded cautiously ahead the rest of that night making a course toward our base. Soon after daylight, the Frisco limped over the horizon and established communication with us. From stem to stern, she was lined with gaping holes, her bridge and superstructure battered almost beyond recognition. She flashed us a message: Need medical help… CRUELLY ENOUGH, WE WERE ABLE TO PRIVIDE IT. THERE WERE NO WOUNDED ON THE JUNEAU. A 14 INCH SHELL FROM THE JAP BATTLEWAGON HAD PIERCED THE OUTER PLATES AND HAD EXPLODED IN THE MESS HALL WHERE THE SICK BY HAD BEEN SET UP KILLING INSTANTLY ALL OUR WOUNDED AND MOST OF THE DR’S AND PHM’S MATES. We lowered a boat and sent a doctor and three PHM’s mates to the San Francisco. As soon as it was light enough to see the bridge I waited to spot one of my gang up there. None of them showed. The bridge leaned far over to one side, nearly torn off by the Jap broadsides. A junior officer stepped in to sight. I used my hands to wig wag the words and spelled out signalman. He stared down at me for a moment, haggard and worn, and then he made a weary gesture with his hands, “all gone.” That movement told me “all gone.” First Rudy, now…I turned away and stared numbly out over the sea.
Sick and bewildered, I groped my way below to get a drink. The lighting system was out but plenty of daylight streamed in through the jagged holes in the hull. I STUMBLED INTO THE SHAMBLES OF THE MESS HALL AND STOPPED DEAD IN MY TRACKS. THE PLATES OF THE DECK AND OVERHEAD WERE TWISTED OUT OF SHAPE. WHOLE SECTIONS OF THE BULKHEADS WERE SMASHED ASIDE BY THE FORCE OF THE EXPLOSION. I CLOSED MY EYES AND STUMBLED BACK OUT TO THE TOP SIDE, MY SENSES REELING.
We continued on our way, making eight knots, our bow deep in the water. The sea was calm, the water sparkling in the hot yellow sun and the birds swooped and flashed around us. The battle was like a nightmare, almost unbelievable in this pacific expanse of sea. AND OUT OF THAT CALM BLUE WATER THE TORPEDO STRUCK. We were a perfect target, barely able to keep a straight course, the crew exhausted, many of them dead. I didn’t see anything. One moment I was standing beside a searchlight there at bat 2, too sick and weary to think. The next moment a terrific explosion lifted me off the deck and hurled me through a little hatch. (Yes, the fourth of these incomprehensible miracles) That hatch was small, so small that I had never come through it on my way to battle stations without bumping my head. But here I had been blown through it cleanly. A little to the right, a few inches to the left, and I most certainly would have been mangled against the bulkhead. I picked myself up in the compartment, dazed and shaken; not yet fully realizing what had happened. It was dark; dark as night, I was blind. I ran my hand over my eyes and it came away covered with something warm and sticky. It covered my face, my ears and dripped off my nose and then I tasted it and my heart began to beat again. It was fuel oil and not blood. I rushed to the hatch, found it, slipped through. The leg of my dungarees caught on a jagged hunk of steel, pulling me up with a jerk. I leaned down to free it…. and swirling water met my hand. The ship was going down under my feet. Calmly, I tore at that clinging splinter, ripped my pants away, and took a step forward. Water surged over my knees; rushing up, engulfed me and I knew I was going down, down, down. I could hear the swish and gurgle of the suction, held powerless to kick myself up and free. The pressure from the depth began to close in upon me, to squeeze my brains like a giant vise, and to crush in my lungs. How far down I went with that ship I have no way of knowing, or how many seconds, minutes, or eternities I was gripped in that maelstrom. There was a great roaring in my brain and dots and streaks of fire seemed to seer my eyeballs. I knew that it was the end, that only a miracle could save me. Then the unbelievable happened. There came a violent explosion far beneath me. Believe me, I could think, all this time my thoughts had been racing as never before and I remembered depth charges. Now I am done for. Then I was hurtling to the surface like a shot out of a cannon and like a shot I was thrown clear out of the water before I flew back with a splash. I sucked my lungs full of air and lay there gasping. Evidently, the cold waters reaching the boilers had caused the explosion. It is the only explanation I can think of.
I am a good swimmer. I helped myself at that moment, although my head was throbbing as though it were being beaten with a hammer and every muscle in my body ached. I wiped the oil away from my eyes and dimly before my face I saw a box or a crate. I paddled to it and threw my arms across it, panting with the slight exertion. I looked around for something more substantial. A few yards across the oily water, I saw a raft of some kind and men clinging to it. Still clutching the crate, I started paddling. An object thumped against me, blocking my path. I pushed it aside. The wavelets washed it back. I wiped more oil from my eyes and peered at it; it was the naked torso of a man, a large man, moved by the water hitting against me, falling back, hitting me again. I shoved it. It came back. Panic gripped me so that I wanted to yell. I fought it off… it might be someone I knew…. I couldn’t get around it. I couldn’t get away from it. For a terrible instant, I thought it was trying to pull me from my support. All the horror of the past hours seemed concentrated in that one lifeless piece of flesh. Finally, I got by it and watched it float away. I got a grip on me and started toward the raft, made it, and dragged myself wearily onto it. I was unhurt, although my head still pounded and throbbed and fires seemed to rage there. I rested there and then I looked about me. There was no sign of the ship, nothing but empty sea strewn with debris and black oil. A mattress floated by, a few boxes, clothing, other oil covered unrecognizable gear. The explosion, either from the torpedo or underwater blast, had blown my shoes and shirt off and had ripped my dog tag from my neck, yet there wasn’t a mark on my body. There were ten or fifteen others on the raft that had been blown free of its lashings and had floated to the surface. They were all covered with oil so that it was impossible to identify them unless they spoke. Some were very badly wounded and sat there, shocked beyond pain, just staring across the water and unable to comprehend what had happened.
There were no other rafts in sight, nor anything else that could have supported a man for more than a few minutes. There were a few beside me that were unhurt and we made a systematic search for any other survivors. We found several men in the next few minutes and got them aboard. In all, there were about thirty of us.
Then sharks made their appearance, cutting through the water with their evil dorsals protruding, sweeping in on the raft, and circling it, diving under it. Once or twice they made a dive for us and one of them crunched his jaws across a man’s hand, scraping the skin off it. There is very little chance that any man could have survived in that water for long after the sharks came.
As morning wore on, some of those on the raft who were suffering from shock began to get out of hand. We tried to watch them, take care of them, but we could not move around. One man got up suddenly and said he must go down to the evaporators. Before we could move to stop him, he had stepped off the raft. The next moment, we saw the streak of black shadows in the water. We saw his body thrown out of the water, as it was hit by a shark; saw it tumbled and finally dragged under. A minute later, another said he was going below and get an egg sandwich. He was gone before we could lift a finger and was seen for only a few seconds, struggling in the oily sea. There were others; they wanted water, they said they had to go on watch, they saw cool green grass and trees just a few feet away and marched off to lay down in the shade.
Along in the afternoon, we heard the drone of a plane and saw a DC3 heading toward us. It came on over us, circled, dropped a bundle that fell into the sea about 200 yards away then it winged back into the direction from which it had come. We were heartened. Surely now help could not be very far off. The thing the plane had dropped was a rubber raft, the kind you inflate by releasing CO2 from a bottle. I thought there might be food and water with it and I sat there trying to figure some way to get it. Lt. Wang, his leg badly mangled by shrapnel, lay across my lap, unconscious and for him and others on the raft, water was an absolute necessity. Lt. Blodgett, machine gun officer from my station at bat 2, was also on the raft, but at the opposite end. He was injured, but apparently internally, so that he did not seem in as much pain as some of the others. He had taken charge of the men on the raft, and had done his best to keep them together and to prevent the shocked victims from jumping over the sides. I watched that raft so close and yet so far away. For even as I made up my mind to swim for it, a long black fin cleaved the water and came down on us. For a moment, I could see the ugly eyes as it went under us. Then Lt. Wang moaned. I made up my mind. There surely would be water on that boat and I had to get it. I slid quietly over the side, I wasn’t thinking about fancy strokes as I set out and I kept my eyes searching the waters around me. The sharks rose swiftly to the bait, I saw the gray shadows close in from three sides and they looked as big as submarines to me. I was a good swimmer and although I had been without food since the night before and without a square meal for over 48 hours, I was confident that I could make it. That is, if I could get through the sharks. I swam as quietly as I could, but the sharks rose swiftly out of the depths and before I had gone ten yards, I saw them close around me. Yes, I was scared, but I had planned what I would do if they came for me and I began to splash the water with my hands and churn it with powerful kicks of my feet. They flirted away, scattering like a bunch of minnows, frightened by a stone tossed into the pool. I lit out for the raft again and again those gray forms came swooping in on me. I was already getting awfully tired, but a look convinced me that I was half way to the raft. I began to beat the water again, splashing and kicking and I had the satisfaction of seeing the sharks veer off with powerful flips of their tails. This could not go on for long. I had to reach that raft and soon. I made another dash, longer this time and the brutes were so close that my heart went up in my throat. Frantically, I churned the water. I felt it churn around me as a killer passed inches under my pumping legs, so close that I could have touched him as he passed me. Finally, I reached the raft and I pulled the plunger with one hand and heard the wonderful sound of the hiss as the boat inflated itself and took shape. I tumbled into it and even as I slid over the edge, I felt the jolt of a heavy body as a shark streaked by the spot where I was a minute before and his rough scales scraped under the light canvas bottom. I lay there a long time without moving a muscle, completely exhausted, letting the sledge hammer in my chest quiet to the normal beating of my heart. Finally, I raised myself on one elbow and looked around. There was nothing in the boat but the collapsible aluminum oars, the CJO2 bottle, patching kit and bailing bag. No food and no water. My heart was sick. God how I’d hoped for water. Nothing was to be gained by sitting there crying about my luck, so I began to paddle back to the big raft. I thought about our situation and a new idea came to my mind. Lt. Wang was badly in need of medical attention. We didn’t know how long we would be out here before help arrived, maybe for only a few hours, maybe for days. It looked as though the Lt. wouldn’t last very long unless something was done for him. Others had died on the raft, already a flimsy affair, damaged by the explosion and clumsily patched with inadequate equipment. San Cristobal was the nearest land, I figured, and should be about 55 miles away. I knew enough navigation as a signalman to make the trip and I figured I could make it in two or three days if I had any luck. If the help came to the men on the raft after I left they would inform them about us and we would soon be picked up anyway. If something prevented aid from being dispatched to us (and we could not know at that time that another great battle was forming off Savo Island that prevented any ship or plane from being released to search for survivors) I could reach the Island and send help back for the others. At least, I could find water and on dry land, I could do something to assist Lt. Wang.
As soon as I reached the raft I asked Lt. Blodgett what he thought of the idea. If he considered it too risky and refused permission, I naturally would remain with the rest. “Go to it”, he said. “You can’t lose anything and at least you will be doing something.” But I needed another man. I knew that my strength and endurance wasn’t sufficient to handle the little two-man rubber boat for those 55 miles across the sea. I asked for a volunteer to go with me, explaining the necessity of action to the oil caked men on the raft. Only one of them was enthusiastic. Most of the others were not in condition to face the exertion that would be imposed by the trip and many of them were beyond comprehending anything except the basic instinct of maintaining life. But Jimmy Fitzgerald, seaman first class, was more than willing to take the chance. I had known Jimmy only slightly aboard ship and I could not have recognized him now. Like all of us, fuel oil covered his body from head to foot; a half-inch thick and his eyes peered out of the incrusted sockets in the mask of his face. But he was unhurt and in full control of his faculties and he was ready for anything. Together and with great difficulty, we got Lt. Wang into the little boat, placing him carefully in the stern with his leg resting on the inflated tube. It was hard to leave the raft and the men on it. Just 24 hours before there had been over 700 of us. Now there was only this pitiful handful. I knew that chances were that I would never see some of them alive again and my throat was tight as I pulled away. There were no farewells. I doubt that more than two or three realized what was happening. We started paddling, Jimmy and I, talking little, resting frequently. The sun gave us our initial bearings and all we had to do was keep it on the proper side and keep going. The boat was divided into three compartments, oval shaped and blunt nosed. In the rear compartment, we had placed Lt. Wang. Jimmy and I took our place in the large middle compartment, one on each side. With one knee on the inflated ledge and the other on the canvas bottom of the boat, we were able to maneuver the skidding little tub. The sun beat down in unmitigated fury and soon we were tortured with thirst. The oil that coated our bodies seemed to catch and hold the heat. We felt like we were encased in red-hot armor. We paused once when we found several rolls of tissue that had floated up from the Juneau and by tearing away the outer layers of oil soaked paper, we got clean sheets with which we carefully wiped our eyes, noses, and mouths. Jimmy, like me, had lost his shirt and shoes in the explosion and wore only a pair of dungarees. Lt. Wang had kept his shirt, by some freak of that holocaust, and his shoes were still on his feet. Through the afternoon, we kept at the tedious job of paddling and already our oil soaked lips were beginning to swell and crack. We were grateful when the sun dipped low on the horizon and a cool little breeze ruffled the water. Darkness came suddenly, as it does at sea, and with it a chill that bit to the bone. Where the oil had fried us in the sun, it seemed to work the opposite now, acting like a sheath of ice. Violent shivers rattled our teeth, shivers that we were powerless to suppress. The current was setting toward San Cristobal and I rigged a sea anchor out of the bailing bag, weighted down with the CO2 bottle and tossed it over the side on the end of the bow painter. It would hold us into the tide and add a few miles to our progress during the night when we would have to try to catch a little sleep.
Now a new worry came to haunt me. Jimmy suddenly pointed into the darkness and said, “There’s land over there, Joe lets tie the raft up to the barn”. It was a shock to me. One moment Jimmy had appeared as rational as I was and now… His teeth were chattering like castanets and spasms of shivering twitched across his body. “Jimmy,” I argued with him, “there’s no barn here. We’re at sea!” I was scared. I couldn’t possibly handle the boat without Jimmy. “Aw, come on and lets tie the raft to the barn,” he pleaded. I pulled him down into the bottom of the boat out of the wind that cut across the sea and put my arm around him to try to make a little warmth. I tried persuasion, “Jimmy, I need your help. Don’t you understand, we’re at sea?” Parched by thirst and chilled, we huddled there in the bottom. Jimmy continued to rant for a while, sometimes unintelligibly, but always docile and despair added to my physical discomforts. But finally Jimmy began to breath easily and I saw that he was asleep.
The moon came up and spread a soft glow over the sea. It was at the three quarter stage with a big hunk out of it. I marked it against two stars for reference and thanked God that it was not full. If it had been, I would have been unable to tell when it had reached its zenith, unable to get my bearings during that part of the night when it was high in the sky and shifting down the arc. But sighting it against these stars, I could keep it either before or behind me and I could tell if a shift of tide or current were setting in the opposite direction, away from San Cristobal. Lt. Wang was resting easily now and Jimmy’s deep, even breathing gave me courage again. Toward morning a rainsquall bore down on us, blotting out the moon and suddenly, pure, cool water was streaming down from the heavens. Jimmy woke. He opened his mouth and tipped back his head and let the rain splash over his face. I followed suit and as the water spilled through my lips, I felt my swollen tongue soften, absorbing water like a sponge. I could feel it ease into its normal shape and size. I quickly pulled in the bailing bag and caught a cupful of that precious rain for Lt. Wang. But better than the rain, Jimmy was rational again. The sleep and the drink had entirely dissipated his hallucinations. I wanted to shout and sing for joy. Morning came and we welcomed the warmth of the sun that knocked the shivers out of our bones. We bent to the paddling with a will, hoping to make good time before the sun weakened us. Of that day and those to follow, I can only say that those were days of hell. As the sun climbed into the sky and beat more perpendicularly upon us, we literally fried in that skillet of canvas. Our tongues would swell until speech was just a matter of croaking sounds and all the time hunger stabbed at us, a relentless, gnawing ache that never left. But for all that Jimmy and I suffered; Lt. Wang suffered a hundred fold. We tried to shield him from the sun and we tried to shift his weight to give him a little relief, but always that pinched oil-caked face only groaned and muttered words that seldom were intelligible. When the chill of night set in, we poured salt water over him, for the sea was warmer than the air. At times, he lived through whole scenes of some happy life that waited for him at shore. He was getting married; he spoke a girl’s name, and answered the questions of the wedding ceremony. At other times as his mind struggled out of the world of the subconscious, he was aware of the agony of his world and the groans that escaped his lips wrenched our hearts. Jimmy and I were not loquacious, but at times, as all men do in such predicaments, we talked of food. Even as we talked, I hated myself for dwelling on something beyond reach. Jimmy wanted a malted milk, chocolate malt. I cursed the vision it brought; a tall frosted glass, brimming with the thick, cool liquid. We tried to fish. We took Lt. Wang’s collar pins and bent them into hooks, which we tied on the ends of shoestrings, but the fish weren’t biting on that kind of lure. Once a seagull floated over us and Jimmy hit at him with an oar and missed. He was fat and no turkey could have looked any better, but Jimmy just missed his wing and he flew away. We were beyond tears in our disappointment.
We paddled on resting, tormented by our hunger and thirst and almost prostrated from the sun. Rain finally came again and eased our thirst. We set the bailing bucket in Lt. Wang’s hands; he understood he was to hold it and why. We caught a cup full of water that way. Men have been much worse off than we were in those days and now I know what torture they must have undergone. Thirsty we were, but never to the point of desperation. We never doubted our ability to reach land and knew that our ordeal was definitely limited in time. Many men cast adrift have had no such assurances to bolster their courage. The third day was eventful. Lt. Wang woke rational. He had shaken of the shock of his terrible wound. It was another lift to our spirits to hear his voice, to be given his quiet words of encouragement. We told him all that happened, for he could remember nothing after the crash of the torpedoes into the Juneau’s side. We sang songs, now Irish songs. Weren’t we, Fitzgerald and Hartney, as good sons of Erin as ever wore the green? We sang, “When Irish Eyes Are smiling,” “I’ll Take You Home Again, Kathleen,” “Sidewalks of New York,” “The Bowery,” “My Wild Irish Rose,” “Mother Machree,” and “It’s A Long Way To Tipperary.” “Keep it up boys,” Mr. Wang would laugh, “it’s not good but it’s loud.” With all the pain in his leg, he could laugh. And then as we paddled and sang, we saw the island. Just the vaguest suggestion at first, a gray haze on the horizon that could either be peaks or a low-lying cloud. We gained on it and it did not disappear, as we feared it might. It was the island all right. The current was holding true and we cast the sea anchor that night feeling wonderfully elated. Morning brought even greater joy for there was the whole extent of the island, definite peaks of a great mountain range and the long length of the land. It was still far off but it was still in reach. Another day and surely we would be on dry land. Even the heat could not batten down our waning energies as we pressed ahead.
Then, as Jimmy paused to take our bearings, he let out a shout, “PLANES, look over there!” We were afraid to believe our eyes. But there they were, three of them, headed toward us and flying not a thousand feet above the water. We stood up and waved our paddles. They have just gotta see us. Suddenly, Jimmy froze, “Good God, they’re Japs, Japs!” We knew what mercy could be expected from them. We stared for a moment to make sure. There was no mistaking that silhouette on which we’d been drilled for months, the planes that had screamed down on us in half a dozen battles to drop their bombs. The raft was a bright orange color purposely made gaudy so that it would stand out against the sea. But it had been covered with oil when it had been dropped into the water and only patches of the orange showed now. Jimmy and I threw ourselves across the patches to cover them. If we hadn’t been spotted, we didn’t want anything to give us away now. Closer and closer the planes came, until we could hear that loud roar of the motors. We held our breath. They passed on; the hum of their props soon lost itself in the distance. We sat up. Boy, that was a close one. Jimmy breathed; silently we took up the paddles. At any rate, we’d soon be ashore. All that day, we pushed on, encouraged by a constant, though slow gain on the island. Again, night came. Morning found us no closer and then I noticed something that filled me with dismay. We had been at the northern end of the island when I had seen it last, taking a bearing on a high peak. Now, we were down at the other end and no closer for all our efforts. A heavy current was setting off shore and at right angles to the island, sweeping us relentlessly down the shore and toward the open sea beyond. If it did not change, we would be carried beyond the island and into the limitless expanse of water that stretched clear to Australia. There was nothing we could do about that drift. All that day we fought it and got no closer. We slept that night, for in the darkness, we couldn’t see the island anyway. With the first rays of light, we were in the same spot. At least, we were not further away. We again bent to our weary labor.
The wind began to freshen and sharp little wavelets slapped at the boat. We looked anxiously at the sky, fearful for what a storm would do to this fragile canvas craft. And while we looked, we spotted another plane. We set up a shout. There was no mistaking that silhouette, once seen it is unforgettable. A PBY! God bless ‘em! This one came steadily toward us until it was only a half-mile off; but even as we leaped to our feet to wave it down, it banked and sailed off at right angles, turned again and grew small and disappeared in the distance. We didn’t even look at each other as we slumped down in the boat again. We didn’t try to find words to cheer ourselves. We’d been fighting disappointment too long now. But as we sat there with sagging shoulders and spirits that drooped even worse, we heard again the hum of powerful motors. “By God, it’s coming back,” Jimmy yelled. We stared through sun-tortured eyes. It was coming back. This time, we just sat there wordless, not daring to give vent to hope until we were sure. Again, he veered off, again grew small and disappeared. Suddenly, I sat up, “I know. He’s just making regular patrol. Quick, where’s my paddle? This time I’ll flash him down.” I got out my knife and scraped the oil off the aluminum oar. It began to gleam under the knife and soon I had it shining like a mirror. I dipped the blade in the water to give it an added luster and waited. We sat there staring into the distance, waiting for the sound of the engines. We heard them. The plane came winging toward us, growing larger. I tipped the paddle into the sun and caught the rays. I flashed it there with quick turns of my wrist. He was approaching the end of his run, the spot where he had turned back before. This time he did not turn back, he came on. He was over us and he circled us losing altitude. He dropped a smoke bomb to get the wind drift then started his approach for a landing. We laughed and cried all at once. Our troubles were over. Five more minutes and he would be down and we would be aboard. The raft gave a violent jerk and a splash of cold water slapped us, almost swamping the raft. At the same time, we felt a puff of wind that shoved the flat craft in a half-circle. We had been so full of the plans we had thought of nothing else and now we saw that a black squall was bearing down on us. We grabbed the paddles and turned the boat head on and not a moment too soon. With a wild screech and a wall of smothering white water, the squall caught us. Rain poured out of the sky in torrents, reducing visibility to the length of the raft and the wind screeched and howled through the air. I bailed like mad. The raft pitched and tossed, every second threatening to turn us over and spill us into the sea. Jimmy was wielding his paddle like mad, trying to keep us headed into the waves that growled and foamed around us as the sea whipped us. We forgot the plane, we forgot our hopes of rescue, and we only thought of keeping that bubble of air right side up. We laid out the sea anchor, but even that wasn’t enough to keep us headed into the swells. We formed a team, Jimmy and I, battling the sea. The cross waves were most dangerous and we had to bring the boat into them instantly or be swamped. We worked out a system of orders; I’d watch the waves as they came roaring in on us. I’d yell to Jimmy, “Backwater, pull, backwater, pull!” so that we would complement each other’s efforts and force the boat most swiftly into each new danger. So we struggled. Now Jimmy was back watering and I was paddling. Now it was reverse. Where we found the strength, God alone only knows. For nine hours we fought. The rain stopped finally and the air grew lighter. We thought the wind was dying down, though we could see little abatement of the waves. As we lifted on one of the interminable seas and paused for that split second of suspense before the rush down, Lt. Wang gave a cry, “LAND, LAND, we’re being carried toward the shore!” I glanced over my shoulder. There was the island and the trees could easily be seen. The storm that had come so near to ending us had proved our greatest benefactor in the end. The wind and rushing waves had defeated the diabolical tides that had toyed with us for the past two days. Even the elements seemed destined to play a part in the strange fate that was conspiring to save us from the end that had come so suddenly to our shipmates. And now the waves began to subside, noticeably. The weariness that had numbed our arms during the past hours, gave way to the power of new born hope. “We’ve got to turn around,” I yelled to Jimmy. “We’ve got to get into that lagoon there before the tide has a chance to shove us out again.” But how to do it? The waves were still dangerous and one false move and all our good fortune would be converted into disaster. Yet, while those waves were still high, we had to utilize them. “Wait for along smooth one, then pull like hell,” I yelled. We sat there watching the ridges of the moving peaks of water. I tried to remember stuff I had heard about the seventh one being the largest, but gave it up. I picked one out at random, one that seemed smoother and longer. As we slid swiftly down the slope and hit the bottom, I yelled, “Pull, pull!” Jimmy put every ounce of strength into his strokes and I backwatered like mad. The raft swung around. It seemed to land there broadside, interminably, and then we got the end around and the next wave came hissing down on us, lifting us under the surge of water. We were working with the waves now and we made good progress. The shore loomed closer and closer. Night came with diminishing waves and we had made it into the sheltered waters between two points of land with a bay running back in a deep crescent. There was no danger now of the tide sweeping us on a parallel course and into the offshore currents that had caused us so much misery.
We could smell the land now and our spirits were high. The farther we worked into the lagoon, the calmer the water grew. But it was not until nearly midnight that we reached the coral reef that protruded into jagged outcroppings, a scant thousand yards from the beach. We had to proceed carefully now, fending the raft from the sharp pinnacles that would tear a hole in the bottom. We eased in and around these, thankful for the moon that shed a soft light on the water. We left the last of the breakers behind and saw the smooth expanse of the lagoon ahead of us. The tide was at its ebb and we grated to a dead stop on the surface of a broad ledge of coral. We dared not attempt to pole our way across it. “Look,” Jimmy said. “It seems to run in close to the beach over there. Maybe we can get out and walk it along if we get close to the shore.” We gingerly piled over the side, so weak and cramped that we could hardly stand up. Immediately, we knew that there was no chance of carrying that idea out, for the coral was sharp as jagged steel. We hastily got back into the raft. There was nothing to do but wait until the tide carried us off the coral. I took the painter and wound it around the coral, in and out, in a crude half hitch to keep us from being carried out to sea again. Then, with the boat almost still in the water for the first time since we had embarked on this strange voyage, we lie down and fell asleep. Toward morning, the moving of the raft woke us. The tide had come in and we were floating. We shook the stiffness out of our joints and began to push our way in toward shore. The sun came up, spreading the hot, yellow light over the sea and bringing out the green of the trees so near at hand now. The sand gleamed white with the grateful promise of shade under the trees behind. We reached the beach. Solid ground was under us at last. Jimmy and I climbed out laboriously, heaved the raft a few inches at a time, up out of the way of the rising tide. Then we collapsed on the sand and fell instantly into the sleep of the utterly exhausted. It was noon when we woke again. The sun beat down on the sand and we felt cooked. We staggered up and looked around us. “We’ve got to find water,” I croaked. Lt. Wang was still asleep. His leg had been swelling during the long days on the raft and from the toe to the hip, it was bloated and black and smelled terrible. Many times on the raft, he had begged us to cut it off. That was an impossibility, of course, and we’d ease him by telling him we would try to do it when we got on the beach. Lying there in the bottom of the boat, in a huddled heap, he looked so haggard and sick that we knew we had to find help before many more hours passed. The courage that man showed during those days was something marvelous to behold.
Water… that was our first need. We lacked the strength to go far for it. We had to find it quickly or we might never find it. Jimmy and I set off down the sand, hardly able to pull one foot after the other. We went a few feet, then sat down and rested. We pulled ourselves up and plodded on another step or two. A half hour we kept on. I doubt if we went 50 yards from the boat and then, there it was. (The next miracle in the long and incomprehensible chain of them.) Flowing out of the jungle and splashing merrily across the white sand was a stream of clear, cold water. I thought Jimmy was going to make a swan dive into it. I knew that I just staggered up to it and fell face forward into it and let that wonderful, unbelievable water flow over my body. We drank, we rolled in it, and we drank some more and rolled our heads in it. Then I thought of Lt. Wang and I went back out to the raft, now in my refreshed condition, just a few quick steps away. I took the patching kit, a six-inch rubber tube with a cork in each end and using it as a cup, I brought back about a cup for the Lt.
He gulped it down as greedily as we had and soon he felt a hundred percent better. That one drink did marvels for all of us. “Now, we have got to find food,” I said. Maybe there would be some coconuts around. Jimmy and I set out again, across the stream and headed down the beach. We had proceeded not more than a hundred yards, when we turned a little point and came face to face with a group of savages. We stopped dead in our tracks. So did the savages. Come to think of it, we probably had them beat in hideousness. We had heard that there were still cannibals on some of these islands and we were sure that we had run into them. They were short, but broad and powerful. They watched us with shifty eyes and jabbered to one another. The only encouraging aspect about them was the absence of any weapons and the fact they made no hostile gestures. “Hell, they are as much afraid of us as we are of them,” Jimmy said. He stepped forward, holding out his hand and grinning. They eyed him uncertainly. We noticed that they were all chewing something that filled their mouths with a blood red saliva. After spitting out a crimson cud, they would reach into little wicker baskets that hung from their necks and toss a prepared lump into their mouths; a square folded leaf with some kind of filling. We talked to them, trying every sort of pantomime to indicate our predicament; our hunger and weariness, but nothing fazed them. We were half desperate when a little old man, wrinkled like a piece of leather, with skinny stick like arms, pushed through the crowd and peered at us with rheumy eyes. He was dressed in a white cotton sack affair, hung over his head with holes for his arms. Again, fortune smiled on us. Jimmy yelped, “Look at that medal around his neck, it’s a St. Christopher’s medal.” “There’s been a missionary here.” By chance, all three of us were Catholics. Jimmy walked up to the old man and evinced the greatest admiration for the medal. I joined him. The old man was immediately pleased and his toothless gums showed in a grin. He said something that sounded like “missionary” and pointed to the medal. Now the rest of the crew began to show signs of friendliness and crowded around us. We drew a star on the sand, made noise like a plane and motions with our hands to indicate the flight of aircraft. A dozen heads bobbed in understanding. Then we drew a round circle and repeated the process, pointing into the jungles, questioningly. We wanted to know if there were Japs around. The results were startling. They drew back from us muttering and hostile. “God,” Jimmy said, “they think we are Japs!” It was evident and we learned later that it was the truth, that they had had some dealings with our little slant-eyed enemy and didn’t take to them.
We pointed to the star again, pointing to ourselves. “American, American,” we told them. Finally, they got the idea and grins spread over their faces. We tried to make them realize our hunger and the old man finally caught on. He motioned us to follow and led us up through a well-worn path in the bush and out in the clearing where a number of grass shacks stood. He led us into a hut and motioned toward a couple of crude plank beds in a corner. There was still Lt. Wang, however, and we went through all our signs again and the idea finally caught. Half a dozen men dashed off down toward the beach. Lt. Wang told us later that he had been lying in the boat waiting for us to get back, when he was suddenly surrounded by a bunch of ugly cannibals. “I thought I was headed for the cooking pot and did I give them a smile.” But even if they had been hungry and still given to their natural cuisine, they wouldn’t have touched Lt. Wang. The stench from his leg held them back and if anything can smell worse than those natives, it’s bad. They wouldn’t touch him. He got out everything he had of any value and offered it to them, but it was not until he had made them understand they could have the boat and oars that they came forward to help. Then they picked the raft up between them and carried it to our hut.
They soon brought us food, half coconut shells filled with some kind of soup. Bits of solid matter floated in the bright purple liquid. We didn’t waste time investigating we ate it. We ate everything they brought us, papayas, coconut meat, baked yams. Then we fell asleep again. We slept all that day and night, fitfully, because the solid plank seemed strange after the nights on the bobbing boat. When I would wake to turn myself, I could see the natives squatting in the darkness, quiet, just staring at us. One old fellow, smoking a vicious pipe that smelled like a country backhouse, squatted the whole night through. He had come into the world stark naked and in fifty or sixty years, he hadn’t advanced a step. He was ready to go out in the same suit that he had make his first appearance.
Morning came and we woke from our peaceful sleep to see a good-looking native walking through the door. He was a clean handsome specimen, light copper in color, taller than those in this village and with as fine a physique as I’d ever seen. He was dressed in shorts. He came up to us smiling and held out his hand, “Good morning gentlemen, how do you feel?” Perfect English! We nearly rolled off our planks. “I’m from a neighboring island,” he said. “One of the boys crossed the mountain and paddled over to us during the night to tell us you were here. My father is a trader Copra. We’ll get you out of here at once.” He ordered the natives about as if his word was law. He looked at the Lieutenant’s leg and his face became grave. “That’s bad. You’ve got to get to a hospital.” “Fortunately, I’ve got some sulfanilamide tablets. The boy said that one of you were badly injured.” I think that saved Lt. Wang’s life. While he applied a splint to the Lt.’s leg, he told us about his father. “He’s a big man in these parts. He sent me off immediately to give you what aid I could and to get you back over to the plantation so we can really help you.” Soon natives appeared at the door with litters and we were stored into them. With the young half-caste leading the way, we set out through the jungle. The last that I saw of the village the natives were digging in the soft earth with the paddles we had given them. For several hours, we swung along the mountain trails, climbing higher and higher, treading dangerous paths along the brinks of yawning valleys. On the other side of the range, we were shifted into a couple of great war canoes that lay on the black, sluggish surface of the jungle river and were paddled swiftly down stream to the coast. There in a bay lay a neat little sailboat, Bermuda rigged with clean white sails already set. A three-mile trip across the open sea brought us to the inland on which the trader had set up his plantation. He was waiting for us, a never to be forgotten figure in white linen suit, surrounded by his family and the natives of the island. He spoke with a distinct German accent and because we were certain to notice, he hastily explained. He had left Germany thirty years before to escape military service and because he did not agree with the militaristic government that was planning a war of aggression exactly like the one the Germans are fighting today. “I am in no sympathy with the Nazis,” he said. He was a gentleman living here in an island paradise and perfectly content to let the mad world go its way. He introduced us to his native wife and his five half-caste children, two little daughters and three husky sons. When the natives crowded, too close in their curiosity, he waved them imperiously aside.
We were called to his house and benzine was called for to help get the oil off our skins. Then he ordered drinks; tall, cool lime drinks such as we had dreamed of out there under the beaming sun. He asked us about our trip and the days at sea and at our story, his face clouded with genuine sympathy. “I have been of service to your government once before,” he said. “Some flyers made a crash landing near here and I helped them to get back to their base. I hope I can do the same for you.” He gave us silk pajamas, “from Japan,” he told us with a twinkle in his eye and put us to bed between clean, white sheets.
He gave the Lt. more tablets and cared for him in every way possible with what facilities and knowledge at his disposal. After I’d slept and waked again and been fed, he came to me, “I understand your are a signalman. Sometimes U.S. planes fly close to the island on patrol, not often, but let us hope that they will come soon. Your Lt. must get to a hospital soon.” He showed me a metal mirror, “If the planes come, you must try to flash them a message and get them to land. It is a long chance, but we’ve got to hope for it.” He posted natives to watch for the planes with instructions that sleeping or waking, I should be called immediately if one was spotted. Again, that strange chain of fortune continued. The second morning, a blue-eyed native rushed up to the house reporting that two planes were coming. I leaped to my feet, grabbed the mirror and dashed out to the open ground by the beach. I searched the skies and my heart leaped. PBY’s again, and flying low, that peculiar up tilted tail recognizable as far as they could see. They MUST see my signal. I got into a favorable position and began to tip the mirror in the sun, beaming it toward the planes. LAND..LAND..LAND.. I signaled over and over again. Jimmy and I stood by ourselves, the natives kept back from us by our host in order that we could be plainly seen. We waited with tense nerves and our hearts fairly hanging fire. They came on slowly, that deliberate and sure flight of the big patrol boat. They came abreast of our position and I could see the sun gleaming on the blisters. They swung around in a wide arc and came drifting in over the lagoon, swooping lower and lower. The natives stared in amazement as the outlines grew in size. They had seen planes at a distance, but never these roaring birds so close up. And now we could see the heads and shoulders of men in the blisters. With thundering motors, they cut down low over us and a hand waved. There was no doubt about it now, they had seen us! Jimmy and I grinned and waved our arms like maniacs. The planes rose over the trees and circled out to sea again. We watched them apprehensively as they gained altitude and wondered if, after all, they were not going to land. We couldn’t wait for them to get back to their base and send a ship for us, and then we knew what they were doing. We saw the black specks fall out of their bellies as they jettisoned their bomb load, saw those specks fall and then an immense geyser of water bloom up from the sea. When the roar of the bombs reached us the natives broke for the hills. They had stood fast when the planes roared over their heads, but this was the last straw.
The two big planes came in now, circled in the wind and began their long approach. We watched them come low, over the water, hover there, then slither onto the surface and taxi off shore to a stop. Already, the Lieutenant had been bustled into a litter and the host’s sons had manned a boat. Five minutes later, we were safely stored in bunks aboard the cats and swinging our way back toward base. Almost the first thing we asked when we got aboard was, “How about the other raft? Was it found?” The radioman didn’t know for sure, but he thought it had. We were not long in doubt. As soon as we had reached the base hospital, we learned that the big raft had finally been picked up, with only seven men on it. We can imagine what those men went through, how the rest of them succumbed to the exposure under the burning sun and the chill of the night, how one by one, they gave in. Lt. Blodgett was not one of the survivors.
TEN MEN OUT OF 700.
As for me, my story is finished.