Stranded at Sea

Blazing sun, a pitching sea, and hungry sharks—and that was just the start of their troubles.

Bombardier Tony Pastula, pilot Harold Dixon, and radioman Gene Aldrich (left to right), survived 34 days afloat on a tiny raft. (Courtesy National Naval Aviation Museum)

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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.’”

With no real means of steering, the craft would sail in the direction of the wind, its eighteen-inch sides acting as satisfactory sails. Two decades in the navy had taught Dixon about navigation and he divined a method for tracking their speed and position. He used bits of floating cloth to gauge the raft’s relative speed and how the wind affected it. Then he used a small pencil and a small aerial navigator’s scale to sketch a rough map on the back of a lifejacket. Each evening, the crew dutifully and ceremoniously updated the map and charted their progress.

For the first days, the wind cooperated with their plan, blowing them south and somewhat west toward the Phoenix Islands, the Samoa Islands, and Fiji. When winds shifted and blew them northward, the crew improvised a sea anchor out of a lifejacket and the cord strung around the raft. When they deployed it, the lifejacket sank several feet below the surface and its drag reduced their rate of drift to almost zero. Dixon also took great care to keep the raft’s bow, not its beam, pointed toward the unfriendly wind.

As days wore on, food and water began to outrank navigation in their immediate concerns. Their mouths were cotton dry by the fifth day; it hurt to swallow. They each knew their systems would soon stop working without fresh water.  Gene, the most religious of the three, suggested that they pray. And that night, for the first time since they ditched, it rained.

 They used their lifejackets to collect the water, and Dixon drank greedily. They felt renewed with their mouths wet and the salty grime washed from their clothes and bodies. Another prayer session occurred the following night, but providence was not as kind. No rain fell for the next several days. In the interim, their hunger became almost unbearable.

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