I was flying across the Gulf of Mexico a few years ago and I recall looking out the window of the airplane and experiencing a brief feeling of loneliness as I stared out at the vast emptiness of the water below. I remember thinking that I would not want to be stranded down there in a small boat.
As vast as the Gulf of Mexico is, it pales in comparison to the Pacific ocean. If you wouldn’t want to be stranded in the middle of the Gulf of Mexico, you certainly never want to find yourself in the middle of Pacific on a small life raft. But that was exactly where Lieutenant James Whitaker, World War I hero Eddie Rickenbacker, and five other men found themselves in the fall of 1942.
To honor God and to pay tribute to those who served in light of the upcoming Memorial Day holiday, I’d like to share a condensed account of their story recorded in the book “We thought We Heard The Angels Sing” written by Lieutenant Whitaker. It’s an amazing testimony to the power of God to deliver us and provide for us in times of peril, and it’s also a very compelling testimony of Whitaker’s conversion to Christianity.
In the first chapter, Whitaker introduces the rest of the crew. He gives their names and a description of their duties. One of the men, a 20 year old private who was their primary flight engineer, carried a little khaki covered New Testament Bible that, according to Whitaker, the young private always found time to read. Whitaker said he would always chuckle when he saw the private reading that Bible. He also recalled how the other men would sometimes heckle the young private when they saw him reading his Bible.
Whitaker was the co-pilot of the B-17 that was assigned to carry Rickenbacker and his aide to a forward combat unit somewhere in the south Pacific for one of their inspection tours. The plane they were on was in fact, a spare. They were originally on board a different B-17 that suffered a ground mishap during an aborted take off attempt at Hickam Field in Hawaii and suffered damage that required extensive repairs. It’s believed that a key piece of navigation equipment was damaged during that mishap. That particular piece of equipment was not affixed to the aircraft. It was a portable unit and when it was transferred to the second B-17, the damage went undetected.
As a result of the damaged navigation equipment, the plane strayed hundreds of miles off course. Eventually, it ran out fuel and the pilots were forced to ditch in the ocean. For 24 days the men were adrift in the Pacific ocean and by all accounts, should have died from exposure and/or starvation and dehydration. In fact, one man did lose his life during the ordeal. His name was Alex Kaczmarczyk an Army Air Corps sergeant. He was not actually a regular member of this particular Transport Command aircrew. He had had been hospitalized in Hawaii for over a month for jaundice and was hitching a ride back to his unit somewhere in the southwest Pacific. Because he was rated as a flight engineer, he signed on for this flight as a second flight engineer. It was believed that this young sergeant died because he had not sufficiently recovered from his illness.
The rest of the men did survive, barely, and Whitaker described two life saving miracles that helped sustain them until their rescue. But there were other miracles to be sure. They managed to ditch a large aircraft in an ocean without loss of life or major injury. And they managed to avoid capture by the Japanese.
Their situation quickly became dire. The men had been unable to retrieve the survival supplies from the B-17 before it sank. All they managed to salvage was some fishing line and four small oranges. They had nothing else other than a few personal possessions, including the Bible that belonged to the flight engineer. They were going to have to depend on God.
They had been adrift for only two days and they were already miserable. By day it was the heat. At night it was freezing cold. Toward evening of the second day, Whitaker noticed the flight engineer reading his New Testament. This is a quote from the book “As I sat there that evening of our second day adrift, I noticed that Johnny Bartak (the flight engineer) was reading his Testament. Something – I didn’t know what it was at the time – kept me from heckling him.” That New Testament pocket Bible would become their source of hope and strength as their situation worsened.
On the fourth day they were already feeling the effects of thirst and hunger. They had fishing line, but no bait. They were seriously discussing whether an ear lobe or part of a finger or a toe would better serve as bait when out of the blue, a seagull landed on Eddie Rickenbacker’s head! He slowly worked his hand up toward the bird and finally snatched it. They quickly carved it up and distributed portions of the bird to one another. Whitaker wrote that the meat was like iron wire, but the intestines made good bait. They were able to catch a few hand sized fish.
On day five they began drawing all the life rafts together for a prayer meeting (the men were in three separate life rafts that were tied together). Whitaker noted, “I didn’t have the least notion that this open-air hallelujah meeting was going to do any good; neither did I resent it. I simply felt it couldn’t do any harm.” Rickenbacker’s assistant read from the New Testament that day. There was one particular passage that got everyone’s attention and they had him read it a second time. It was from Matthew chapter 6, verses 31 through 34:
Therefore take no thought, saying, What shall we eat? or, What shall we drink? or, Wherewithal shall we be clothed?
(For after all these things do the Gentiles seek:) for your heavenly Father knoweth that ye have need of all these things.
But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you.
Take therefore no thought for the morrow: for the morrow shall take thought for the things of itself. Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.
Whitaker had this to say about that passage: “I thought of these words during the wet, dreary night that followed. I dismissed them finally with the decision I would believe when I saw the food and drink. I was destined to see something startlingly like proof the following night.”
That proof was the first of the two miracles that Whitaker alluded to at the beginning of his book. The prayer meeting that began on day five would become a daily event. Day six had been brutal and as Rickenbacker’s assistant began to read from the New Testament, Whitaker shared how ridiculous it seemed to him, “that men as practical and hardboiled as they were – could expect a mumbling voice out on that waste of water to summon help for us.” However, he did join in the prayers, albeit passively.
After reciting the passage from Matthew 6, the pilot and commander of the group (remember, Whitaker was the co-pilot) led the men in this prayer, one which Whitaker recorded in his diary:
“Old Master, we know this isn’t a guarantee we’ll eat in the morning. But we’re sure in an awful fix, as You know. We sure are counting on something by day after tomorrow, at least. See what you can do for us, Old Master.” As Whitaker recalled, the commander was reverent, and deeply earnest. Their prayers were simple and straightforward. No thee’s and thou’s.
The commander finished his prayer and then fired off a single flare as he had done every night since their ordeal began. They all hoped something would happen, and it did! But it wasn’t quite what they anticipated. The flare malfunctioned. The flaming ball rose just a few feet in the air and then it landed on the surface of the water just a few feet from the rafts. It illuminated the the ocean for hundreds of yards, so much so that the could see barracuda chasing a school of fish. Two very large fish, pursued by the barracuda, jumped into one of the rafts. The men had enough food to sustain them for the next couple of days. Whitaker was so puzzled by what he had seen, he was unable to sleep that night. Clearly, God had gotten his attention.
Still to come, part 3 – the conclusion to this story.