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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They noticed a gathering crowd of fish around the boat and Gene spent much of the seventh day trying to snare one. Finally, with a quick stab of the pocketknife, he speared a fish and flipped it onto a sleeping Tony, who quickly woke and held down the catch. The men scaled their victim and divided every ounce of edible flesh among them.

On the same day, Gene used the .45 to shoot an albatross that alighted on the raft’s bow. The small morsels aroused their hunger in full, however, and hunger pangs gripped them with sharper claws than ever.

On the morning of their eighth day afloat, a school of sharks gathered around them. Gene went to work with the pocketknife. A shark closed toward the raft’s side. Gene struck swiftly, the crew heard a sound like a punch or puncture, and Gene turned pale. The men looked at each other, fearing the blade struck the boat, not the shark. Then Gene’s arm thrashed along with the speared shark and he hauled the big creature in, the knife blade still in its gills. The four-foot shark struggled for some time, but eventually succumbed. They ate the liver first, then several sardines from the shark’s stomach before attacking the rest of the creature. Soon, for the first time in eight long, hot, thirsty, hungry days, their stomachs were full. They wouldn’t be full again for two weeks.

On the fifteenth night, a slight noise attracted the chief’s attention and he discovered a tern had alighted on the raft, just above his resting head. Quietly, he slipped his arm toward the bird then grabbed for it. Raw food no longer fazed them and the tern became breakfast the next morning. Five days later, they devoured a waterlogged coconut and snared another on day twenty-eight as it floated by. They would have no other food. 

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.

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