Stranded at Sea
Blazing sun, a pitching sea, and hungry sharks—and that was just the start of their troubles.
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.
The sun bore down and the crew cut up a jacket to protect their heads. They wet these rags often to fend off the heat. The raft became nearly too hot to touch under the blazing sun.
Sunset on their first full day afloat left the crew grateful for the cool and dark of night. Their relief quickly dissipated as a maddening new set of problems replaced the old ones: their wet garments now became sticky and clammy; they huddled together for warmth; incessant pounding still deprived them of sleep; and they’d had neither food nor water since lunch aboard the Enterprise the day before.
By the third day, the crew realized the fleet had surely moved on, having neither the time nor resources to search any further for the three missing aviators. Once they accepted their situation and mourned their circumstance, the threesome resolved to remain positive and control their fate as best they could.
“I had studied the charts,” Dixon continued, referring to countless hours of flight briefings aboard the Enterprise, “and had a mental picture of where every island was. So I knew from the beginning just where I wanted to go.”
“To the west and north of our position were Japanese islands,” he explained. “I wanted to avoid them at all costs because the Japs, I knew, were in no mood to take prisoners. To the east were uninhabited islands. Our only hope seemed to be in maneuvering our boat some 500 miles to the south and west where there were inhabited friendly islands. Also along such a route I thought we might be able to pick up an American convoy or perhaps even a naval task force.”
“I had no intention of letting that raft drift aimlessly, guided only by the shifting winds. We were without rudder, oars, or canvas, but still I was determined to sail that raft if I could. And I maintain that I did sail it. I worked like the devil to sail it, and I resent anyone’s saying we ‘drifted.’”
With no real means of steering, the craft would sail in the direction of the wind, its eighteen-inch sides acting as satisfactory sails. Two decades in the navy had taught Dixon about navigation and he divined a method for tracking their speed and position. He used bits of floating cloth to gauge the raft’s relative speed and how the wind affected it. Then he used a small pencil and a small aerial navigator’s scale to sketch a rough map on the back of a lifejacket. Each evening, the crew dutifully and ceremoniously updated the map and charted their progress.
For the first days, the wind cooperated with their plan, blowing them south and somewhat west toward the Phoenix Islands, the Samoa Islands, and Fiji. When winds shifted and blew them northward, the crew improvised a sea anchor out of a lifejacket and the cord strung around the raft. When they deployed it, the lifejacket sank several feet below the surface and its drag reduced their rate of drift to almost zero. Dixon also took great care to keep the raft’s bow, not its beam, pointed toward the unfriendly wind.
As days wore on, food and water began to outrank navigation in their immediate concerns. Their mouths were cotton dry by the fifth day; it hurt to swallow. They each knew their systems would soon stop working without fresh water. Gene, the most religious of the three, suggested that they pray. And that night, for the first time since they ditched, it rained.
They used their lifejackets to collect the water, and Dixon drank greedily. They felt renewed with their mouths wet and the salty grime washed from their clothes and bodies. Another prayer session occurred the following night, but providence was not as kind. No rain fell for the next several days. In the interim, their hunger became almost unbearable.
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.