I just finished reading a French translation of Robert Trumbull’s book The Raft.
It recounts the miraculous survival of an American aviator crew, who, during the Pacific war, lose their bearings in the sky and fail to return to their aircraft-carrier. Running out of petrol, the pilot Harold Dixon successfully ditches the plane in the Pacific just before nightfall. As he and his crew, radioman Gene Aldrich and gunner Tony Pastula, are preparing their life raft and scramble to collect the emergency necessities they can lay their hands on, the plane suddenly sinks away under them, leaving the three men in the water in the middle of the ocean with nothing but a ridiculous small, half inflated raft.
The book I read is a cheap 1953 edition with a foreword by the famous Alain Bombard, the adventurer who crossed the Atlantic on an inflatable raft in 1952.
Bombard had willingly put himself in an emergency situation in order to proof several of his survival theories. He crossed the Ocean on an inflatable raft and survived without water or food rations for at least 53 days. While the general public embraced his sympathetic odyssey and his book “The voyage of the Hérétique” became an overnight bestseller, his crude theories, notably on drinking sea-water and his media exposure had turned the professional sea-people, the very people he wanted to reach, away from him.
It does not come as a surprise then, that he accepted to scribble a foreword for a book that was attempting to cash in on his own success. Bombard needed more real stories to confirm that what he had done was possible and that his conclusions could save people.
The story of the survival of the airplane crew was written ten year earlier, in 1942, during the War in the Pacific and is understandably heavily censored. There are practically no geographic or navigational details as to where the plane ditched and how the raft drifted during the 34 days at sea. The post-war French edition however mentions in a footnote that “it is now save to say that the wrecked crew landed on the Pukapuka atoll on the South seas, approximately 10 degrees south of the equator and 166 degrees west".
The writer Robert Trumbull was a young war correspondent covering the war in the Pacific. I suppose he interviewed the three men but he wrote the story solely from Harry Dixon’s (the officer) point of view. Without doubt commissioned by the Us Army, the 200 page story offered the troops an inspiring survival story with true heroics, a respect for military hierarchy and fear of God.
Struggling in the dark in the ocean, the three men succeed after half an hour of intense efforts to inflate, righten ( it opened upside-down ) and crawl into the tiny rubber boat of 1.2 by 2.4 m. With the plane sinking so fast, no food, water, navigational tools or anything that could have helped them, could be saved and embarked on board. The three men are virtually strangers of each other. The rotation of crews have put the forty year professional military sailor in the boat with two twenty year old boys.
Together, during 34 days they survive strong winds and heavy seas, they fight of sharks with their bare hands, they starve and are dehydrated, they are burned alive by the tropical sun, scorched by the salt and blinded by the piercing light.
Still they survive and are finally washed upon the shore of a tropical island. The story ends with a warship collecting the three men a few weeks later.
There is no reason to doubt the details described in the story and it is concern of how much these heroic men can take that keeps you reading about their ordeal.
Still, it is a pity that the story is censored. One can’t help wondering about the debriefing of the crew once they were back at their base. How did they lose their way ? Whose fault was it ? Did they discuss it in the raft ? Did they agree on a common story. Fact is that despite the loss of the plane, the three men were decorated and mentioned for their bravery.
The survival lessons from the ordeal were quick to be implemented.
The navigational issues, that is to say how to estimate your position with nothing but your senses was addressed already the next year with Harold Gatty’s groundbreaking work The Raft Book ( 1943 ), a collection of Polynesian techniques of non-instrument navigation. Gatty was an experienced Tasmanian mariner who had written down and used all kind’s of techniques still used by wayfarers in Polynesia. The Raft Book would turn out to be the kernel out of which the Polynesian cultural revival as masters of navigation would sprout.
I don’t know how fast improvements to the raft were made but inflatable rafts nowadays are fully equipped to avoid most of the issues described in The Raft : An inflatable canopy for protection against the weather elements, with an outside light for easy detection at night. There is a boarding ramp and grab handle for easy embarking, There are water and food canisters on board, flares, a knife, fishing kit, rain catching systems, first aid kit, signaling mirrors and even a torch.
Despite the book’s spare information, it remains an interesting read and a poignant story. It was recently retold in a motion picture under the apt title “Against The Sun”.
The truth however is that the three men survive by sheer luck. This is not to belittle their exploit, but without the regular shower of rain and the clemency of the weather they would not have made it. The fact that they are not ripped apart on the coral reef when finally reaching land and that they do so a few days before a cyclone batters the area where they drifted for so long time, are miracles on their own right.
The men's true heroism lies in their perseverance.
Maybe the sea is not that cruel after all…