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)

On January 16, 1942, Chief Petty Officer Harold Dixon and his crew took off in a Douglas Devastator bomber for an anti-submarine mission over the Pacific Ocean, canvassing an area patrolled by the Japanese navy. Once the crew left their aircraft carrier, the USS Enterprise, they kept radio silence to protect the carrier’s location from the enemy. By the time they realized they had drifted off course, it was too late to locate the Enterprise. With their airplane nearly out of fuel, they had to ditch in the ocean, beginning a month-long ordeal recounted in this excerpt from Fly Navy: Discovering the Extraordinary People and the Enduring Spirit of Naval Aviation, by Alvin Townley, Thomas Dunne Books, 2011.

Dixon stood up on his seat and checked his crew, 22-year-old radioman Gene Aldrich, and 24-year-old bombardier Tony Pastula: no injuries. The pilot stepped onto the left wing and Tony Pastula passed him the inflatable life raft.  Dixon began to inflate the raft, but the CO2 canister failed.

Then suddenly, the wing began sinking rapidly and within seconds, he was immersed in the ocean, hanging by his lifejacket with saltwater assaulting his mouth and nostrils. He gasped at the chill of the ocean and desperately held onto the raft.  The plane sunk with astounding speed, dragging all the crew’s carefully-assembled survival gear toward the deep ocean floor, more than three miles below the waves.

“The sinking of the plane was like a magician’s trick,” Dixon later recalled. “It was there, and then it was gone, and there was nothing left in our big, wet, darkening world but the three of us and a piece of rubber that was not yet a raft.”

Finally, Dixon triggered the stubborn CO2 canister and the rubber quickly became a raft, although it floated upside down. Twenty minutes of trying to right the cumbersome raft while being dashed about by the sea found the three airmen still in the water and now in the pitch dark. Finally, Tony suggested they make a rope from their shirts and tie one end to the thin cord that ran along the gunwales of the raft.  Once they had assembled and anchored their improvised rope, they threw it across the raft’s beam. Struggling against the sea, they groped their way to the other side of the raft, found their rope of shirts, and pulled. By bracing the near side of the raft, they created enough leverage to flip up the far side. With a loud slap, the rubber raft landed on the water, ready for its crew. The three men struggled over the sides and flopped onto the floor, exhausted. They were safe for the moment, ready to sleep and worry about their predicament when the sun rose the next day. 

Their first harsh lesson came quickly: the raft and sea would offer them little rest. “We soon learned that we could not sleep,” explained Dixon. “The raft was only four feet long by eight feet wide…. The dimensions inside were eighty inches by forty inches. We discovered almost at once that it was impossible for three men to dispose this space so that any one of us would be comfortable.”

“Imagine doubling up on a tiny mattress,” he expounded, “with the strongest man you know striking the underside as hard as he could with a baseball bat, twice every three seconds, while someone else hurls buckets of cold salt water in your face.  That’s what it was like.”

No one slept that night, or on many nights to follow.

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.

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