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Unbroken

Unbroken

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an unknown quantity to himself. All he knew about his ability to cope with this crisis was that on the first night, he had panicked and eaten the only food they had. As time passed and starvation loomed, this act took on greater and greater importance, and it may have fed Mac’s sense of futility.

For Phil, there was another source of strength, one of which even Louie was unaware. According to his family, in his quiet, private way, Phil was a deeply religious man, carrying a faith instilled in him by his parents. “I had told Al several times before to always do his best as he knew how to do it,” Phil’s father once wrote, “and when things get beyond his skill and ability to ask the Lord to step in and help out.” Phil never spoke of his faith, but as he sang hymns over the ocean, conjuring up a protective God, perhaps rescue felt closer, despair more distant.

From earliest childhood, Louie had regarded every limitation placed on him as a challenge to his wits, his resourcefulness, and his determination to rebel. The result had been a mutinous youth. As maddening as his exploits had been for his parents and his town, Louie’s success in carrying them off had given him the conviction that he could think his way around any boundary. Now, as he was cast into extremity, despair and death became the focus of his defiance. The same attributes that had made him the boy terror of Torrance were keeping him alive in the greatest struggle of his life.

Though all three men faced the same hardship, their differing perceptions of it appeared to be shaping their fates. Louie and Phil’s hope displaced their fear and inspired them to work toward their survival, and each success renewed their physical and emotional vigor. Mac’s resignation seemed to paralyze him, and the less he participated in their efforts to survive, the more he slipped. Though he did the least, as the days passed, it was he who faded the most. Louie and Phil’s optimism, and Mac’s hopelessness, were becoming self-fulfilling.

——

Two weeks had passed. The men’s skin was burned, swollen, and cracked. Mysterious white lines striped their fingernails and toenails, and salt sores were marching up their legs, buttocks, and backs. The rafts were decomposing in the sun and salt water, bleeding vivid yellow dye onto the men’s clothing and skin and making everything sticky.

The men’s bodies slowly wasted away. Each day, Louie noticed incremental differences in his weight, and the weight of his raftmates, from the day before: the pants looser, the faces narrower. As they passed the fortnight mark, they began to look grotesque. Their flesh had evaporated. Their cheeks, now bearded, had sunken into concavity. Their bodies were digesting themselves.

They were reaching a stage of their ordeal that for other castaways had been a gruesome turning point. In 1820, after the whaling ship Essex was sunk by an enraged whale, the lifeboat-bound survivors, on the brink of death, resorted to cannibalism. Some sixty years later, after nineteen days adrift, starving survivors of the sunken yacht Mignonette killed and ate a teenaged crewman. Stories of cannibalism among castaways were so common that British sailors considered the practice of choosing a victim, dubbing it the “custom of the sea.” To well-fed men on land, the idea of cannibalism has always inspired revulsion. To many sailors who have stood on the threshold of death, lost in the agony and mind-altering effects of starvation, it has seemed a reasonable, even inescapable solution.

For Louie, the idea of consuming a human being was revolting and unthinkable. To eat a human being, even if the person had died naturally, would be abhorrent for him. All three men held the same conviction. Cannibalism wouldn’t be considered, then or ever.

The two-week mark was a different kind of turning point for Louie. He began to pray aloud. He had no idea how to speak to God, so he recited snippets of prayers that he’d heard in movies. Phil bowed his head as Louie spoke, offering “Amen” at the end. Mac only listened.

The rafts slid on the current, their tethers snaking behind them. It seemed that they were still drifting west, but without any points of reference, the men weren’t sure. At least they were going somewhere.

——

The second albatross fluttered onto Louie’s head sometime around the fourteenth day. Again Louie slowly raised his hand, snatched it, and killed it. The men sat there looking at it, remembering the stench of the first albatross. When Louie opened it up, they were happily surprised to find that it didn’t smell that bad. Still, no one wanted to eat it. Louie portioned the meat and insisted that everyone eat. All three men forced the meat down. Because Mac seemed to need food the most, they gave him all of the blood.

In the bird’s stomach they found several small fish, which they decided to use as bait, and with them, Louie caught one more fish. He saved some of the bird meat for bait and set the bones out to dry in hopes that they might be useful as fishhooks.

——

Time spun out endlessly. Louie caught a few fish, once parlaying a tiny one, thrown into the raft by a whitecap, into bait that yielded a comparatively fat pilot fish. Rains came intermittently, leaving the men sucking up every drop that fell into their rain catchers. Louie and Phil took turns leading prayers each night. Mac remained in his own world.

The men grew thinner. Phil was gradually regaining his strength after his initial state of concussed exhaustion; Mac’s body grew weaker, following his broken spirit. Then the rains stopped and the water tins dried up. They reached day twenty-one. They caught a fish and had a little celebration for passing what they thought was Rickenbacker’s mark.

For some time, Louie had noticed a stomach-turning reek wafting to and fro over them. It was coming from Phil’s head. The blood on his T-shirt bandage was rotting, and cakes of it were chipping off and falling into the raft. Phil couldn’t smell it, but Louie couldn’t bear it. Louie untied the T-shirt and gently unwrapped it. Beneath a thick cake of dried blood, the wounds had knit neatly. The bleeding didn’t resume. The T-shirt could go.

A few days later, Louie saw something bizarre. The edge of the sea, flush to the horizon, was peeling upward. A vast black rim formed, rose up, and began speeding toward them with a tumbling motion. Louie shouted a warning and the other two men wheeled around toward it. They dropped down, getting their weight as low as possible so they wouldn’t be flipped over. As the wave closed in, they braced themselves.

Just as the wave reached them, they realized it wasn’t a wave at all. It was a giant school of dolphins, swimming with astonishing speed. The dolphins rushed at the rafts and were soon muscling all around them. Looking into the water, Phil saw small fish, thousands of them, seeming to fill the ocean. The dolphins were chasing them. The men thrust their arms into the water and tried to grab some, but the fish slipped through their fingers. If they had had a net, they could have whisked it through the water and filled the rafts. But with only their fingers, they couldn’t snare even one.

Louie was out of bait. Other than the sharks, the only fish that ventured near the rafts were pilot fish, which hugged the sides of the sharks as they circled. They were within easy reach, only when Louie tried to grab them, they squirted away. The sharks had stolen every hook small enough to fit in the mouths of pilot fish, so Louie tried albatross bones, but the fish spat them out.

Looking at the fish line that he had left, he got an idea. He cut off small portions of line, tied them to the large fishhooks, and then tied three hooks to the fingers of one hand, one on his pinkie, one on his middle finger, one on his thumb, orienting them as if they were claws. He held his hand over the water’s surface and waited.

A shark, attended by a pilot fish, swam by. Once its head had passed, Louie sank his hand into the water. When the unsuspecting pilot fish moved under his hand, he snapped his fingers shut around its back. The hooks dug in. Louie yanked the fish out of the water, jubilant.

Sometime that week, a small tern landed on the wall of the raft, right between the men. It was closest to Phil, and without speaking, the men indicated to each other that he’d catch it. Phil clapped down on the bird. It was tiny, and offered little meat, but not long after, another tern settled on the raft. This time, Mac caught it. Louie was so famished that he went at it with his teeth, ripping the feathers loose and spitting them out in whuffs. Almost immediately, he felt a crawling sensation on his chin. The tern had been covered in lice, which were now hopping over his face.

Something about the tickle of lice on his skin rattled Louie more than anything he had yet encountered. He began scratching and rubbing at his face, but he couldn’t get at the lice, which had burrowed into his beard and were moving up his head and into his hair. He pitched his upper body into the water. Phil and Mac, realizing that Louie was going to get his head ripped off, grabbed the oars and bumped the sharks away while Louie splashed about, trying to drown the lice. After about half a dozen dunks, the tickle was gone.

As the days passed, the men caught three, perhaps four more birds. One bird kept dipping low over the raft, then soaring off again. Mac suddenly shot his hand up and snagged the bird by the leg in midair, then handed the squirming animal to Louie, who was amazed at Mac’s alacrity. The men ate every morsel of the bird, and every other bird that they caught, leaving only feathers and bones.

——

For days, Louie lay over the side of the raft, fishhooks tied to his fingers, trying to catch another pilot fish. He caught none. The water ran out again, and the thirst was agonizing. Day after day passed with no rain. Twice, the men rowed toward distant squalls, but each time, the rain sputtered out just as they reached it, leaving them exhausted and demoralized. When the next squall inched along the horizon, none of them had the strength to chase it.

The intense thirst and overheating drove Phil to do something almost suicidal. He waited for the sharks to wander a short distance away, then pulled himself overboard. Louie and Mac knelt near him, jabbing at sharks with the oars as Phil hung on the raft, savoring the cool water and swishing big mouthfuls of it over his tongue before spitting them out. He only just had the strength to drag himself back in. Since Phil had gotten away with it, the other two thought it worth a try, and took their turns in the water. The men were able to keep the sharks away long enough for all three to have a dip.

On the sixth day without water, the men recognized that they weren’t going to last much longer. Mac was failing especially quickly.

They bowed their heads together as Louie prayed. If God would quench their thirst, he vowed, he’d dedicate his life to him.

The next day, by divine intervention or the fickle humors of the tropics, the sky broke open and rain poured down. Twice more the water ran out, twice more they prayed, and twice more the rain came. The showers gave them just enough water to last a short while longer. If only a plane would come.


*In 1942, Poon Lim survived for 133 days alone on a raft after his ship was sunk by a German submarine. Lim’s feat was a record, but his vessel was a large, wood-and-metal “Carley float boat” raft, equipped with ten gallons of water, a fair amount of food, an electric torch, and other supplies.





Fifteen

Sharks and Bullets


ON THE MORNING OF THE TWENTY-SEVENTH DAY, A PLANE came.

It began with a rumble of engines, and then a spot in the sky. It was a twin-engine bomber, moving west at a brisk clip. It was so far away that expending the flares and dye was questionable. The men conferred and voted. They decided to take a shot.

Louie fired one flare, reloaded, then fired a second, drawing vivid lines across the sky. He opened a dye container and spilled its contents into the ocean, then dug out the mirror and angled a square of light toward the bomber.

The men waited, hoping. The plane grew smaller, then faded away.

As the castaways slumped in the rafts, trying to accept another lost chance, over the western horizon there was a glimmer, tracing a wide curve, then banking toward the rafts. The bomber was coming back. Weeping with joy, Louie, Phil, and Mac tugged their shirts over their heads and snapped them back and forth in the air, calling out. The bomber leveled off, skimming over the water. Louie squinted at the cockpit. He made out two silhouettes, a pilot and copilot. He thought of Palmyra, food, solid ground underfoot.

And then, all at once, the ocean erupted. There was a deafening noise, and the rafts began hopping and shuddering under the castaways. The gunners were firing at them.

Louie, Phil, and Mac clawed for the raft walls and threw themselves overboard. They swam under the rafts and huddled there, watching bullets tear through the rafts and cut bright slits in the water around them. Then the firing stopped.

The men surfaced. The bomber had overshot them and was now to the east, moving away. Two sharks were nosing around. The men had to get out of the water immediately.

Clinging to the side of Louie and Mac’s raft, Phil was completely done in. The leap into the water had taken everything that was left in him. He floundered, unable to pull himself over the raft wall. Louie swam up behind him and gave him a push, and Phil slopped up on board. Mac, too, needed Louie’s help to climb over the wall. Louie then dragged himself up, and the three sat there, stunned but uninjured. They couldn’t believe that the airmen, mistaking them for Japanese, would strafe unarmed castaways. Under them, the raft felt doughy. It was leaking air.

In the distance, the bomber swung around and began flying at the rafts again. Louie hoped that the crew had realized the mistake and was returning to help them. Flying about two hundred feet over the water, the bomber raced at them, following a path slightly parallel to the rafts, so that its side passed into view. All three men saw it at once. Behind the wing, painted over the waist, was a red circle. The bomber was Japanese.

Louie saw the gunners taking aim and knew he had to go back in the water. Phil and Mac didn’t move. They were both exhausted. They knew that if they went overboard again, they wouldn’t be strong enough to get back in, and the sharks would take them. If they stayed on the raft, it seemed impossible that the gunners could miss them.

As the bomber flew toward them, they lay down. Phil pulled his knees to his chest and covered his head in his hands. Mac balled himself up beside him. Louie took a last glance at them, then dropped into the water and swam back under the rafts.

The bullets showered the ocean in a glittering downpour. Looking up, Louie saw them popping through the canvas, shooting beams of intensely bright tropical sunlight through the raft’s shadow. But after a few feet, the bullets spent their force and fluttered down, fizzing. Louie straightened his arms over his head and pushed against the bottom of one of the rafts, trying to get far enough down to be outside the bullets’ lethal range. Above him, he could see the depressions formed by Mac and Phil’s bodies. Neither man was moving.

As the bullets raked overhead, Louie struggled to stay under the rafts. The current clutched at him, rotating his body horizontally and dragging him away. He kicked against it, but it was no use. He was being sucked away, and he knew that if he lost touch with the rafts, he wouldn’t be able to swim hard enough against the current to get back. As he was pulled loose, he saw the long cord that strayed off the end of one of the rafts. He grabbed it and tied it around his waist.

As he lay underwater, his legs tugged in front of him by the current, Louie looked down at his feet. His left sock was pulled up on his shin; his right had slipped halfway off. He watched it flap in the current. Then, in the murky blur beyond it, he saw the huge, gaping mouth of a shark emerge out of the darkness and rush straight at his legs.

Louie recoiled, pulling his legs toward his body. The current was too strong for him to get his legs beneath him, but he was able to swing them to the side, away from the shark’s mouth. The shark kept coming, directly at Louie’s head. Louie remembered the advice of the old man in Honolulu: Make a threatening expression, then stiff-arm the shark’s snout. As the shark lunged for his head, Louie bared his teeth, widened his eyes, and rammed his palm into the tip of the shark’s nose. The shark flinched, circled away, then swam back for a second pass. Louie waited until the shark was inches from him, then struck it in the nose again. Again, the shark peeled away.

Above, the bullets had stopped coming. As quickly as he could, Louie pulled himself along the cord until he reached the raft. He grabbed its wall and lifted himself clear of the shark.

Mac and Phil were lying together in the fetal position. They were absolutely still, and bullet holes dappled the raft around them. Louie shook Mac. Mac made a sound. Louie asked if he’d been hit. Mac said no. Louie spoke to Phil. Phil said he was okay.

The bomber circled back for another go. Phil and Mac played dead, and Louie tipped back into the ocean. As bullets knifed the water around him, the shark came at him, and again Louie bumped its snout and repelled it. Then a second shark charged at him. Louie hung there, gyrating in the water and flailing his arms and legs, as the sharks snapped at him and the bullets came down. The moment the bomber sped out of firing range, he clambered onto the raft again. Phil and Mac were still unhit.

Four more times the Japanese strafed them, sending Louie into the water to kick and punch at the sharks until the bomber had passed. Though he fought them to the point of exhaustion, he was not bitten. Every time he emerged from the water, he was certain that Phil and Mac would be dead. Impossibly, though there were bullet holes all the way around the men, even in the tiny spaces between them, not one bullet had hit either man.

The bomber crew made a last gesture of sadism. The plane circled back, and Louie ducked into the water again. The plane’s bomb bay doors rolled open, and a depth charge tumbled out, splashing down some fifty feet from the rafts. The men braced themselves for an explosion, but none came. Either the charge was a dud or the bombardier had forgotten to arm it. If the Japanese are this inept, Phil thought, America will win this war.

Louie rolled back onto the raft and collapsed. When the bomber came back, he was too tired to go overboard. As the plane passed a final time, Louie, Mac, and Phil lay still. The gunners didn’t fire. The bomber flew west and disappeared.

——

Phil’s raft had been slashed in two. A bullet had struck the air pump and ricocheted straight across the base of the raft, slitting it from end to end. Everything that had been in the raft had been lost in the water. Because the ruined raft was made from rubberized canvas, it didn’t sink, but it was obviously far beyond repair. Shrunken and formless, it lapped about on the ocean surface.

The men were sardined together on what remained of Mac and Louie’s raft, which was far too small for all three of them. The canvas was speckled with tiny bullet holes. The raft had two air chambers, but both were punctured. Each time one of the men moved, air sighed out of the chambers and the canvas wrinkled a little more. The raft sat lower and lower in the water. The sharks whipped around it, surely excited by the bullets, the sight and smell of men in the water, and the sinking raft.

As the men sat together, exhausted and in shock, a shark lunged up over a wall of the raft, mouth open, trying to drag a man into the ocean. Someone grabbed an oar and hit the shark, and it slid off. Then another shark jumped on and, after it, another. The men gripped the oars and wheeled about, frantically swinging at the sharks. As they turned and swung and the sharks flopped up, air was forced out of the bullet holes, and the raft sank deeper. Soon, part of the raft was completely submerged.

If the men didn’t get air into the raft immediately, the sharks would take them. One pump had been lost in the strafing; only the one from Mac and Louie’s raft remained. The men hooked it up to one of the two valves and took turns pumping as hard as they could. Air flowed into the chamber and seeped out through the bullet holes, but the men found that if they pumped very quickly, just enough air passed through the raft to lift it up in the water and keep it mostly inflated. The sharks kept coming, and the men kept beating them away.

As Phil and Mac pumped and struck at the sharks, Louie groped for the provisions pocket and grabbed the patching kit, which contained sheets of patching material, a tube of glue, and sandpaper to roughen up the raft surface so the glue could adhere. The first problem declared itself immediately: The sandpaper wasn’t waterproof. When Louie pulled it out, only the paper emerged; the sand that had been stuck to it had washed off. For the umpteenth time, Louie cursed whoever had stocked the raft. He had to devise something that could etch up the patch area so the glue would stick. He pondered the problem, then picked up the brass mirror that he had used to hail the bomber. Using the pliers, he cut three teeth into the edge of the mirror. Phil and Mac kept fighting the sharks off.

Louie began patching, starting with the holes on the top of the raft. He lifted the perforated area clear of the water, wiped the water from the surface, and held it away from the waves, letting it dry in the sun. Then, with each perforation, he used the mirror edge to cut an X across the hole. The material consisted of two layers of canvas with rubber between. After cutting the X, he peeled back the canvas to reveal the rubber layer, used the mirror to scratch up the rubber, squeezed glue onto it, and stuck the patch on. Then he waited for the sun to dry the glue. Sometimes, a whitecap would drench the patch before it dried, and he’d have to begin again.

As Louie worked, keeping his eyes on the patches, the sharks kept snapping at him. Growing wiser, they gave up flinging themselves haphazardly at the men and began stalking about, waiting for a moment when an oar was down or a back was turned before bulling their way aboard. Over and over again, they lunged at Louie from behind, where he couldn’t see them. Mac and Phil smacked them away.

Hour after hour, the men worked, rotating the duties, clumsy with fatigue. The pumping was an enormous exertion for the diminished men. They found that instead of standing the pump up and pushing the handle downward, it was easier to press the pump handle to their chests and pull the base toward themselves. All three men were indispensable. Had there been only two, they couldn’t have pumped, patched, and repelled the sharks. For the first time on the raft, Mac was truly helpful. He was barely strong enough to pull the pump handle a few times in a row, but with the oar he kept every shark away.

Night fell. In the darkness, patching was impossible, but the pumping couldn’t be stopped. They pumped all night long, so drained that they lost the feeling in their arms.

In the morning the patching resumed. The rate of air loss gradually lessened, and they were able to rest for longer periods. Eventually, the air held enough for them to begin brief sleep rotations.

Once the top was patched, there was the problem of patching the bottom, which was underwater. All three men squeezed onto one side of the raft, balancing on one air tube. They opened up the valve and let the air out of the side they weren’t sitting on, lifted it clear of the water, turned it over so the bottom faced skyward, wiped it off, and held it up to dry. Then Louie began patching. When that half of the bottom was patched, they reinflated it, crawled onto the repaired side, deflated the other side, and repeated the process. Again, whitecaps repeatedly washed over the raft and spoiled the patches, and everything had to be redone.

Finally, they could find no more holes to patch. Because bubbles kept coming up around the sides of the raft, they knew there were holes someplace where they couldn’t reach. They had to live with them. The patches had slowed the air loss dramatically. Even when struck by whitecaps, the patches held. The men found that they could cut back on their pumping to one session every fifteen minutes or so during the day, and none at night. With the raft now reasonably inflated, the sharks stopped attacking.

——

Losing Phil’s raft was a heavy blow. Not only had they lost all of the items stored on it, but now three men were wedged in a two-man raft, so close together that to move, each man had to ask the others to give him room. There was so little space that they had to take turns straightening their legs. At night, they had to sleep in a bony pile, feet to head.

But two good things came from the strafing. Looking at the dead raft, Louie thought of a use for it. Using the pliers, he pulled apart the layers of canvas on the ruined raft, creating a large, light sheet. At last, they had a canopy to block the sun in daytime and the cold at night.

The other benefit of the strafing was the information it gave the men. When they had a moment to collect themselves, Louie and Phil discussed the Japanese bomber. They thought that it must have come from the Marshall or Gilbert islands. If they were right in their belief that they were drifting directly west, then the Marshalls and Gilberts were roughly equidistant from them. They thought that the bomber had probably been on sea search, and if the Japanese followed the same sea search procedures as the Americans, it would have taken off at around seven A.M., a few hours before it had reached the rafts.