Stranded at Sea
Blazing sun, a pitching sea, and hungry sharks—and that was just the start of their troubles.
- By Alvin Townley
- AirSpaceMag.com, April 26, 2011
Courtesy National Naval Aviation Museum
(Page 2 of 4)
On January 17, 1942, the sun rose quickly, lighting the sky and surrounding sea. From their vantage point low in the waves, the castaways could spy no ships or planes on the horizon. Their spirits lifted around 8:30 a.m. when they saw a plane, so distant they first mistook it for a bird. The plane came toward the raft and the men began frantically waving their arms and shirts; their other signaling devices were beneath 16,500 feet of ocean. The plane closed to within half a mile, but its pilots never saw the three castaways. As the plane disappeared from sight, the castaways sat in silence, painfully alone once again. Dixon broke the quiet, saying, “Boys, there goes our one and only chance.”
Their thoughts turned to their options and tools. Upon inventorying the boat and their pockets, they found they had no flashlight, pump, oars, food, or water. They did have a strong raft, a police whistle, pliers, a pocketknife, a can of rubber cement, patching material, a pistol and three clips of ammunition, two life jackets, the damp clothes that presently clung to their bodies, their training, their wits, and their will.
The sun bore down and the crew cut up a jacket to protect their heads. They wet these rags often to fend off the heat. The raft became nearly too hot to touch under the blazing sun.
Sunset on their first full day afloat left the crew grateful for the cool and dark of night. Their relief quickly dissipated as a maddening new set of problems replaced the old ones: their wet garments now became sticky and clammy; they huddled together for warmth; incessant pounding still deprived them of sleep; and they’d had neither food nor water since lunch aboard the Enterprise the day before.
By the third day, the crew realized the fleet had surely moved on, having neither the time nor resources to search any further for the three missing aviators. Once they accepted their situation and mourned their circumstance, the threesome resolved to remain positive and control their fate as best they could.
“I had studied the charts,” Dixon continued, referring to countless hours of flight briefings aboard the Enterprise, “and had a mental picture of where every island was. So I knew from the beginning just where I wanted to go.”
“To the west and north of our position were Japanese islands,” he explained. “I wanted to avoid them at all costs because the Japs, I knew, were in no mood to take prisoners. To the east were uninhabited islands. Our only hope seemed to be in maneuvering our boat some 500 miles to the south and west where there were inhabited friendly islands. Also along such a route I thought we might be able to pick up an American convoy or perhaps even a naval task force.”
“I had no intention of letting that raft drift aimlessly, guided only by the shifting winds. We were without rudder, oars, or canvas, but still I was determined to sail that raft if I could. And I maintain that I did sail it. I worked like the devil to sail it, and I resent anyone’s saying we ‘drifted.’”