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 4 of 4)
Not long after they caught the tern, Dixon had grown displeased with their ability to control the raft’s course. They needed propulsion, but their hands and feet were insufficient. A long, flared coconut stem floated by in a clump of flotsam, and the men surmised it had been used as a paddle by an islander. The sea had long since sapped its resiliency, however, and it broke quickly when put to use. But it did give Dixon an idea. He began cutting the leather uppers off his useless shoes. Soon, he had two soles, with just enough leather to reinforce them and make a cup. He bored a hole in each heel, through which he ran a shoelace that would tether his improvised paddle if a rower should drop it.
Fifteen minutes after the men began digging the soles into the water, a wake stretched out behind the boat and the spirits of the three oarsmen lifted immeasurably. Two would row while one would rest.
They rowed throughout the night with the wind at their backs. Dixon gauged their mileage by stars and his drift calculations; he found it quite satisfactory. The next day, unfavorable winds erased all of their progress.
Their thirty-third and thirty-fourth days at sea brought the high winds that run before a hurricane, and the gusts roiled the seas around them. Gallons and gallons of water poured into the raft yet somehow the men found the will to bail. They were dehydrated, starving, weak, cramped, and sunburned, with little energy or hope of salvation remaining. Waves had flipped their raft three times, gradually ridding them of most of their tools, resources, and clothes. They were naked and badly burnt, almost helpless beneath the unrelenting tropical sun, which shone down from the sky and glared up from the water. Gene had been enduring the sunlight for about an hour on his watch—the trio still dutifully stood watch for land, coconuts, or rescue—when the raft crested a wave and momentarily expanded their typically sea-bound horizon.
“Chief,” Gene said calmly in his Missouri accent, “I see a beautiful field of corn.” Nobody reacted; their minds seemed as adrift as they themselves. If the others had heard him, they discounted Gene’s words as pure babble. The raft slid down into a trough and nobody said anything more. Several minutes later, the raft crested another wave and Gene exclaimed, “Sure enough, Chief—I see something green in the distance!” That roused the others from their daze. The rows of corn were in fact rows of palm trees lining a distant beach.
After 34 days at sea, the men, having traveled 1,000 miles, washed up on Puka Puka atoll. The locals, American allies, brought them to the resident commissioner. Seven days later, the seaplane tender USS Swan carried the three sailors back to the fleet. To read their entire story, see Alvin Townley’s new book Fly Navy: Discovering the Extraordinary People and the Enduring Spirit of Naval Aviation (Thomas Dunne Books, 2011). Excerpt reprinted with permission.