Memorial Day Tribute – part 3

Even though God had provided them with food on day six, the mental state of some of the men began to slip. Rickenbacker’s personal aide attempted to take his own life by slipping over the side of his life raft. Rickenbacker snatched the man back by the scruff of his neck and it was at that point that Rickenbacker assumed the role of morale officer. Whitaker wrote that he could not put down all the things Rickenbacker said to the men over the course of the next two weeks when he sensed that one of them was giving up. He said the foul language would “scorch the paper!” Woe to any man who was about to quit, give up, or do anything that would bring down the morale of the group.

Days seven and eight found the men miserably weak from thirst. They had not had any water since the B-17 ditched. They were no longer praying for food, but for water. By day eight, Whitaker had memorized the Lord’s Prayer, which the men recited out loud every evening at the conclusion of their devotional time. God began the process of convicting Whitaker, and he wrote that was gradually beginning to realize no human agency, acting alone, could save them. The afternoon of the eighth day, the group’s commander led them in this prayer:

“Old Master, we called on You for food, and You delivered. We ask You now for water. We’ve done the best we could. If You don’t make up your mind to help us pretty soon, I guess that’s all there’ll be to it. It looks like the next move is up to You, Old Master.”

Whitaker noted that that prayer, despite its informal wording, has just about everything in it a prayer should have. It presents a petition to God and at the same time, it expresses resignation to God’s will. Finally, it implies the belief – the faith – that the petition will be granted.

After the commander prayed, they all recited the Lord’s prayer a second time. Whitaker shared the thoughts that went through his mind afterward:

While we rolled and wallowed over the crests and into the troughs, I was thinking that this was God’s chance to make a believer of Jim Whitaker. If there was indeed a God and He could ignore a prayer like that, then He must be a pretty heartless being. My thoughts went on in this vein for some time; I don’t know how long. I do know that eventually I became aware something was tugging insistently at my consciousness. I looked over to the left. A cloud that had been fleecy and white a while ago now was darkening by the second.”

Within minutes the men were in the midst of a downpour! They tried to collect as much water as they could and managed to gather about a quart in one of the life vests. As the rain fell, the commander shouted, “Thanks Old Master”  

“Then”, Whitaker wrote, “as though the Lord wanted to remind us that He can take away as well as give, a huge wave came up out of nowhere and capsized our raft.”  They lost their remaining flares and flare guns, but they managed to hang onto to the life vest with the quart of fresh water inside it.

“Faith is a fragile thing and elusive. It is all too easily shattered or lost.”  Whitaker was a man on verge of conversion to faith in God at that point. However, there was no getting around the reality of their situation. Even with the life saving rain the night before, most of the men were of the opinion that they were all going to die in those life rafts out in the middle of the Pacific. Still, it’s plain to see that God had gotten his attention.

Whitaker had become a believer by the time he wrote his book, so all of this was written in retrospect. From this point in the book to the end, you can see his transition to faith expressed in his writing. For instance, on the ninth day, after they managed to catch a small shark, Whitaker wrote that it was the Lord who provided the food. What the reader of his book gets to see is each step of his journey to faith. At the end of the ninth day, the men held their prayer service. Whitaker wrote “I joined feelingly in the worship. I know this: I wanted to believe. Yet in all honesty, I must confess that there remained enough of my old and false pride to make me say to myself: ‘Let’s not overlook any bets.'”

 Whitaker also wrote of his conversion experience: “I had been an agnostic; an atheist, if you will. I am not sure I am using either term correctly. I imagined that I doubted the existence of such a being as God. I reasoned further, when religion was mentioned, that God had never done much for me in my life, so why worship Him? the most I could salvage from those gloomy thoughts was that I at least had never been a hypocrite. I pondered that night on an expression I had heard out in the Southwest Pacific: ‘There are no atheists in the foxholes of Guadalcanal.’ I can tell you now that there can be no atheists in rubber rafts amid whitecaps and sharks in the equatorial Pacific. I was finding my God in those watery wastes and we were meeting as strangers. I don’t deny that there was still a reluctance somewhere deep inside me After 40 years and more of indifference and selfishness, it would have been strange indeed if I hadn’t felt something of the sort. We might have remained strangers had it not been for Him. He was soon to send two divine miracles that saved my life twice more and change my life as completely as a life can be changed.”
As we all know, every Christian can tell you what life was like before coming to Jesus Christ, what brought about his or her conversion, and how their lives changed after accepting Christ. We see all of that in Whitaker’s words. He was finding God in the watery waste.

Whitaker gave credit to God for two life saving, life changing miracles that made the difference between life and death. But in reality, there were numerous miracles that God used to save those men, both physically and spiritually.

A couple of more days passed. Day 11 brought a torrential downpour and more life giving fresh water. The following night, Sergeant Kaczmarczyk died. As was mentioned earlier, he was the only one who did not make it. The next morning, the 13th day, they held a funeral service for him and set his body adrift. They watched him float away for a long time. As Whitaker noted, nothing bothered the sergeant’s body.

That same day, the heat became unbearable. Their skin was burned to a crisp and constantly peeling. They had rashes from rubbing against the rubber rafts. Everyone but Whitaker and Rickenbacker developed salt water ulcers on their legs that were described as being as painful as boils. They were near death. They had gone through the water they had collected two days before and their thirst raged. That morning, they saw a rain squall some distance away. They prayed aloud for it to reach them. Then the wind whipped up and blew it away from them.

“Somehow,” Whitaker wrote, “my faith did not die. For the first time, I found myself leading the others in prayer. Like the others, I didn’t know how to address God, so I talked to him like I would have to a parent or friend.”

Interesting words. In John 15, Jesus said,  “I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends.”

As the rain moved away, Whitaker prayed aloud: “God. You know what that water means to us. The wind has blown it away. It is in your power, God, to send back that rain. It’s nothing to you, but it means life to us. God, the wind is Yours. You own it. Order it to blow back that rain to us who will die without it.”

This is what he wrote next: “There are some things that cannot be explained by natural law. The wind did not change, but the curtain of rain stopped where it was. Then, ever so slowly, it started back toward us – against the wind! A meteorologist tried to explain it to me afterward; something about cross current buffeting. I tell you there was no buffeting. It was as if a great and omnipotent hand was guiding it to us across the water. And for my money, that’s exactly what happened.”

Even with that miracle, the worst part of their ordeal was ahead of them. They spent the next four days in an area Whitaker called the doldrums, a region commonly referred to by scientists as the horse latitudes. That’s a region of ocean where there is absolutely no wind or precipitation. Old time sailing vessels caught in that region would stall and cease to move for days and sometimes weeks on end.

All the men but Whitaker were covered in painful ulcers. He said it was suffering the likes of which he had never seen before. They had water, but it had to be strictly rationed. The men started becoming delirious and they began hallucinating.

It was during those four days that Rickenbacker worked hardest to keep morale up. Everyone was so mad at him, Whitaker said, that they vowed to live just to spite Rickenbacker! In those four days, he said Rickenbacker slung some mighty powerful and fancy cussing!

By day 18, Whitaker was leading most of the prayer services. They were now praying for rescue. As that day drew to a close, he said felt that rescue was coming. He prayed to God that he might live to see it. As the sun set that evening, the commander of the group suddenly sat upright. “I hear an engine.” he said. At first they thought he was hearing things, but then everyone heard it!

It turned out to be a U.S. Navy pontoon plane known as a Kingfisher. The plane passed within about five miles. And then it flew off into the distance. The pilot did not see them. As you would expect, their morale plummeted. Whitaker said that was when Rickenbacker unleashed cussing that had to be the masterpiece of his career! He was not looking to win a popularity contest. The morale of the men was all he cared about.

About the time Rickenbacker finished his barrage, the wind began to blow. And on day 19, a small rain shower blew in. It was such a light shower, they couldn’t collect any water. But the wind and the sight of the plane so encourage Whitaker that he was unable to sleep that night. He said he reviewed in his mind the things God had done for him during the ordeal. To paraphrase his words, he thought about the prayers that had been answered. But more than any of that, he thought about the most important thing – that he had learned to pray. He knew in that moment that he had found God and did turn away from Him a stranger.

That same day another Navy plane passed by them. They knew they were close to a base. It was just a matter of living long enough until they were spotted. On day 20, same thing. A patrol plane few over them  them without seeing them. That was when the commander made a crucial decision: They would cut the ropes holding the rafts together and drift off, hopefully, in separate directions and hope one of the three rafts would be spotted. Whitaker’s raft was the larger of the three, so two men went with him. The other two rafts held two men each. By late afternoon of the 20th day, they could no longer see each other.

Day 21: Whitaker and his two companions spotted land! Actually, they saw the tops of palm trees about 12 miles away. That was around 6:30 in the morning, shortly after sunrise. It took 7 and half hours for them to reach the island. And it took another miracle. Whitaker was the only one of the three men with enough strength to row with the aluminum oars that were in the life raft. One of his companions tried to spell him, but a few minutes was all he could manage.

In a cruel twist, they were about 250 yards from shore when the ocean currents began pulling them back out to sea. Whitaker thought then that only a miracle could set their feet on that island. Then he recalled the miracle of the rain on the 13th day. He remembered other answers to prayer. He said he remembered his God! He began crying out to God for strength. The other two men were startled! He cried out louder. Within a half hour, he was rowing and began making progress. A sudden rain squall blotted out the island and produced wind that pushed against the raft. Whitaker cried out his final prayer: “God! Don’t quit me now!”

Whitaker said his prayer was born of desperation. But it came from the depths of his soul, he said. Any mental reservations were now gone. “I was calling to my God.” he wrote, and the answer was immediate and miraculous. He testified to how strength surged back into his shoulders and arms. He said it was if the oars were working automatically and his hands merely followed their motion.“As steadily as though drawn by a cable attached to a winch on shore, we moved through treacherous surf, amid sharks, and in the face of a buffeting rain squall. It was the second miracle, and I recognized it for what it was.”  The bow of the life raft grounded on the beach at 2:00 p.m. of the 21st day.

They landed on a small unnamed island with coconuts and enough rain water captured in coral pockets to sustain them until friendly Pacific island natives found them a few days later. A Navy Kingfisher spotted one of the other life rafts, the one that held the group’s commander and his companion, right around the time Whitaker’s raft made landfall. The natives had been asked by the Navy to go out looking for the other survivors. Whitaker called them, “instruments in God’s hands.” Rickenbacker and his aide were spotted and rescued the following day.

On day 24, six of the seven survivors were reunited at a makeshift hospital on another island identified only as X-2. The seventh man was too weak to be moved and remained in the sick bay of the transport ship that carried them to X-2. He eventually recovered. They recuperated at the makeshift hospital for a few days before being transferred by PBY flying boats to a proper hospital on American Samoa. As they were being transferred out, Rickenbacker said to John Bartek, the private with the khaki covered New Testament Bible, “Better thank God for that Testament of yours son. You see now what faith can do for a man.”  Whitaker commented, “There wasn’t a man among us who didn’t thank God for that little khaki covered Bible. It led us to prayer and prayer led us to safety.” 

A few weeks later, the men landed back at Hickam Field in Hawaii, fully recovered. The rest of the book is a tribute to the men who, at that time, were still fighting the war in the Pacific.

Millions of men and women have served in America’s armed forces. As bad as the ordeal that Whitaker and Rickenbacker and the men with them endured, there is an uncountable number of soldiers and sailors who endured far worse. The men who suffered through the Bataan Death March after the fall of Philippines at the outset of World War II come to mind. There were POW’s camps in Germany and Japan who were horribly abused for years. Some lived to tell about it. Many did not. We owe them all a great debt. This Memorial Day, we honor those who paid the ultimate price to defend the freedoms we all too often take for granted. We give thanks to God for the men and women who gave their lives for freedom. And we give thanks for our savior Jesus Christ whose sacrifice on the cross secured our freedom for all eternity, for anyone who calls on His name!