Estimating the bomber’s cruising speed and range, they made rough calculations to arrive at how many hours the bomber could remain airborne after it left them, and thus how far they were from its base. They guessed that they were some 850 miles from the bomber’s base. If this was correct, given that they had crashed about 2,000 miles east of the Marshalls and Gilberts, they had already traveled more than half the distance to those islands and were covering more than 40 miles per day. Phil thought over the numbers and was surprised. They had had no idea that they were so far west.

Extrapolating from these figures, they made educated guesses of when they’d reach the islands. Phil guessed the forty-sixth day; Louie guessed the forty-seventh. If their figures were right, they were going to have to last about twice as long as Rickenbacker. That meant surviving on the raft for almost three more weeks.

It was frightening to imagine what might await them on those islands. The strafing had confirmed what they’d heard about the Japanese. But it was good to feel oriented, to know that they were drifting toward land somewhere out there, on the far side of the earth’s tilt. The bomber had given them something to ground their hope.

Mac didn’t join in on the prognostication. He was slipping away.


Singing in the Clouds


Two sharks, about eight feet long, were placidly circling the raft. Each time one slid past, Louie studied its skin. He had banged sharks on the nose many times but had never really felt the hide, which was said to feel like sandpaper. Curious, he dropped a hand into the water and laid it lightly on a passing shark, feeling its back and dorsal fin as it slid beneath him. It felt rough, just as everyone said. The shark swished on. The second shark passed, and Louie again let his hand follow its body. Beautiful, he thought.

Soon after, Louie noticed something odd. Both sharks were gone. Never in four weeks had the sharks left. Louie got up on his knees and leaned out over the water, looking as far down as he could, puzzled. No sharks.

He was kneeling there, perched over the edge of the raft, when one of the sharks that he had touched leapt from the water at terrific speed, mouth wide open, lunging straight at his head. Louie threw both hands in front of his face. The shark collided with him head-on, trying to get its mouth around his upper body. Louie, his hands on the animal’s snout, shoved as hard as he could, and the shark splashed back into the water. A moment later, the second shark jumped up. Louie grabbed an oar and struck the shark in the nose, and it jerked back and slid away. Then the first shark lunged for him again. Louie was recoiling when he saw an oar swing past, sending the animal backward into the ocean. To Louie’s surprise, it wasn’t Phil who had saved him. It was Mac.

Louie had no time to thank him. One of the sharks jumped up again, followed by the other. Louie and Mac sat side by side, clubbing each shark as it lunged at them. Mac was a new man. A moment before, he had seemed almost comatose. Now he was infused with frantic energy.

For several minutes, the sharks took turns bellying onto the raft with gaping mouths, always launching themselves from the same spot. Finally, they gave up. Louie and Mac collapsed. Phil, who had been startled awake but had been unable to help because there were only two oars, stared at them in groggy confusion.

“What happened?” he said.

Louie looked at Mac with happy amazement and told him how grateful and proud of him he was. Mac, crumpled on the bottom of the raft, smiled back. He had pushed himself beyond his body’s capacities, but the frightened, childlike expression had left his face. Mac had reclaimed himself.


Louie was furious at the sharks. He had thought that they had an understanding: The men would stay out of the sharks’ turf—the water—and the sharks would stay off of theirs—the raft. That the sharks had taken shots at him when he had gone overboard, and when the raft had been mostly submerged after the strafing, had seemed fair enough. But their attempt to poach men from their reinflated raft struck Louie as dirty pool. He stewed all night, scowled hatefully at the sharks all day, and eventually made a decision. If the sharks were going to try to eat him, he was going to try to eat them.

He knelt by the raft wall and watched the sharks, searching for a beatable opponent. One that looked about five feet long passed. Louie thought he could take it. Louie and Phil made a plan.

They had a little bait on the raft, probably the remains of their last bird. Phil hung it on a fishhook and strung it into the water at one end of the raft. At the other end, Louie knelt, facing the water. Smelling the bait, the shark swam toward Phil, orienting itself so that its tail was under Louie. Louie leaned as far overboard as he could without losing his balance, plunged both hands into the water, and grabbed the tail. The shark took off. Louie, gripping the tail, flew out of the raft and crashed into the water, sending a large serving of the Pacific up his nose. The shark whipped its tail and flung Louie off. Louie bolted back onto the raft so quickly that he later had no memory of how he had done it.

Soaking and embarrassed, Louie rethought his plan. His first error had been one of appraisal: Sharks were stronger than they looked. His second had been to fail to brace himself properly. His third had been to allow the shark’s tail to stay in the water, giving the animal something to push against. He settled in to wait for a smaller shark.

In time, a smaller one, perhaps four feet long, arrived. Louie knelt at the raft’s side, tipping his weight backward and keeping his knees far apart to brace himself. Phil dangled a baited hook in the water.

The shark swam for the bait. Louie clapped his hands around the tail and heaved it out of the water. The shark thrashed, but could neither get free nor pull Louie into the water. Louie dragged the animal onto the raft. The shark twisted and snapped, and Phil grabbed a flare cartridge and jammed it into the shark’s mouth. Pinning the shark down, Louie took the pliers and stabbed the screwdriver end of the handle through the animal’s eye. The shark died instantly.

In his Honolulu survival course, Louie had been told that the liver was the only part of a shark that was edible. Getting at it was no mean feat. Even with a knife, sharkskin is about as easy to cut as a coat of mail; with only the edge of a mirror to cut with, the labor was draining. After much sawing, Louie managed to break the skin. The flesh underneath stank of ammonia. Louie cut the liver out, and it was sizable. They ate it eagerly, giving Mac a larger portion, and for the first time since breakfast on May 27, they were all full. The rest of the shark reeked, so they threw it overboard. Later, using the same technique, they caught a second shark and again ate the liver.

Among the sharks, word seemed to get around; no more small sharks came near. Large sharks, some as long as twelve feet, lumbered alongside the raft, but Louie thought better of taking them on. The men’s stomachs were soon empty again.

Mac was in a sharp downward spiral. He rarely moved. All three men had lost a staggering amount of weight, but Mac had shriveled the most. His eyes, sunken in their sockets, stared out lifelessly.


It was nightfall somewhere around the thirtieth day. The men went through their usual routine, bailing water into the raft and entwining themselves for warmth. The sky was clear and starry, and the moon shone on the water. The men fell asleep.

Louie woke to a tremendous crash, stinging pain, and the sensation of weightlessness. His eyes snapped open and he realized that he, Mac, and Phil were airborne. They flopped down together onto the raft and twisted about in confusion. Something had struck the bottom of the raft with awesome power. The garden-variety sharks that made up their entourage weren’t large enough to hit them with such force, and had never behaved in this way.

Looking over the side of the raft, they saw it. Swelling up from under the water came a leviathan: a vast white mouth, a broad back parting the surface, and a long dorsal fin, ghostly in the moonlight. The animal was some twenty feet long, more than three times the length of the raft. Louie recognized its features from his survival school training. It was a great white shark.

As the castaways watched in terrified silence, the shark swam the length of one side of the raft, then bent around to the other side, exploring it. Pausing on the surface, it swished its tail away, then slapped it into the raft, sending the raft skidding sideways and splashing a wave of water into the men. Louie, Mac, and Phil came up on their knees in the center of the raft and clung to one another. The shark began to swim around to the other side. Louie whispered, “Don’t make a noise!” Again came the mighty swing, the shower of water, the jolt through the raft and the men.

Around and around the shark went, drenching the raft with each pass. It seemed to be playing with the raft. With every pass, the men cringed and waited to be capsized. Finally, the great back slid under, and the sea smoothed behind it. It did not surface again.

Louie, Phil, and Mac lay down again. The water around them was now cold, and none of them could sleep.


The next morning, Mac could no longer sit up. He lay on the floor of the raft, little more than a wrinkled mummy, his gaze fixed far away.

One last albatross landed. Louie caught it, wrenched its head off, and handed it to Phil. Phil turned it upside down over Mac and let the blood flow into his mouth. As Louie and Phil ate the meat, dipping it into the ocean to give it flavor, they fed bits to Mac, but it didn’t revive him.

In subsequent days, Mac became a faint whisper of a man. His water tins ran dry. When Phil opened his tin and took a sip of the little he had left, Mac asked if he could drink from it. For Phil, thirst had been the cruelest trial, and he knew that the water left in his tin, essential to his own survival, couldn’t save Mac. He gently told Mac that he didn’t have enough left to share. Louie was sympathetic to Phil, but he couldn’t bring himself to refuse Mac. He gave him a small sip of his own water.

That evening, Phil heard a small voice. It was Mac, asking Louie if he was going to die. Louie looked over at Mac, who was watching him. Louie thought it would be disrespectful to lie to Mac, who might have something that he needed to say or do before life left him. Louie told him that he thought he’d die that night. Mac had no reaction. Phil and Louie lay down, put their arms around Mac, and went to sleep.

Sometime that night, Louie was lifted from sleep by a breathy sound, a deep outrushing of air, slow and final. He knew what it was.

Francis McNamara on May 26, 1943, the day before the crash. Courtesy of Louis Zamperini


Sergeant Francis McNamara had begun his last journey with a panicked act, consuming the rafts’ precious food stores, and in doing so, he had placed himself and his raftmates in the deepest jeopardy. But in the last days of his life, in the struggle against the deflating raft and the jumping sharks, he had given all he had left. It wasn’t enough to save him—it had probably hastened his death—but it may have made the difference between life and death for Phil and Louie. Had Mac not survived the crash, Louie and Phil might well have been dead by that thirty-third day. In his dying days, Mac had redeemed himself.

In the morning, Phil wrapped Mac’s body in something, probably part of the ruined raft. They knelt over the body and said aloud all of the good things they knew of Mac, laughing a little at his penchant for mess hall pie. Louie wanted to give him a religious eulogy but didn’t know how, so he recited disjointed passages that he remembered from movies, ending with a few words about committing the body to the sea. And he prayed for himself and Phil, vowing that if God would save them, he would serve heaven forever.

When he was done, Louie lifted the shrouded body in his arms. It felt as if it weighed no more than forty pounds. Louie bent over the side of the raft and gently slid Mac into the water. Mac sank away. The sharks let him be.

The next night, Louie and Phil completed their thirty-fourth day on the raft. Though they didn’t know it, they had passed what was almost certainly the record for survival adrift in an inflated raft. If anyone had survived longer, they hadn’t lived to tell about it.


The raft bobbed westward. Petulant storms came over now and then, raining enough to keep the water supply steady. Because the water ration was now divided by two instead of three, each man had more to drink. Louie made a hook out of his lieutenant’s pin and caught one fish before the pin broke.

Phil and Louie could see the bend of their thighbones under their skin, their knees bulging in the centers of birdlike legs, their bellies hollow, their ribs stark. Each man had grown a weedy beard. Their skin glowed yellow from the leached raft dye, and their bodies were patterned with salt sores. They held their sun-scorched eyes to the horizon, searching for land, but there was none. Their hunger dimmed, an ominous sign. They had reached the last stage of starvation.

One morning, they woke to a strange stillness. The rise and fall of the raft had ceased, and it sat virtually motionless. There was no wind. The ocean stretched out in all directions in glossy smoothness, regarding the sky and reflecting its image in crystalline perfection. Like the ancient mariner, Louie and Phil had found the doldrums, the eerie pause of wind and water that lingers around the equator. They were, as Coleridge wrote, “as idle as a painted ship upon a painted ocean.”

It was an experience of transcendence. Phil watched the sky, whispering that it looked like a pearl. The water looked so solid that it seemed they could walk across it. When a fish broke the surface far away, the sound carried to the men with absolute clarity. They watched as pristine ringlets of water circled outward around the place where the fish had passed, then faded to stillness.

For a while they spoke, sharing their wonder. Then they fell into reverent silence. Their suffering was suspended. They weren’t hungry or thirsty. They were unaware of the approach of death.

As he watched this beautiful, still world, Louie played with a thought that had come to him before. He had thought it as he had watched hunting seabirds, marveling at their ability to adjust their dives to compensate for the refraction of light in water. He had thought it as he had considered the pleasing geometry of the sharks, their gradation of color, their slide through the sea. He even recalled the thought coming to him in his youth, when he had lain on the roof of the cabin in the Cahuilla Indian Reservation, looking up from Zane Grey to watch night settling over the earth. Such beauty, he thought, was too perfect to have come about by mere chance. That day in the center of the Pacific was, to him, a gift crafted deliberately, compassionately, for him and Phil.

Joyful and grateful in the midst of slow dying, the two men bathed in that day until sunset brought it, and their time in the doldrums, to an end.


Given how badly the men’s bodies were faring, it would seem likely that their minds, too, would begin to fail. But more than five weeks into their ordeal, both Louie and Phil were enjoying remarkable precision of mind, and were convinced that they were growing sharper every day. They continued quizzing each other, chasing each other’s stories down to the smallest detail, teaching each other melodies and lyrics, and cooking imaginary meals.

Louie found that the raft offered an unlikely intellectual refuge. He had never recognized how noisy the civilized world was. Here, drifting in almost total silence, with no scents other than the singed odor of the raft, no flavors on his tongue, nothing moving but the slow procession of shark fins, every vista empty save water and sky, his time unvaried and unbroken, his mind was freed of an encumbrance that civilization had imposed on it. In his head, he could roam anywhere, and he found that his mind was quick and clear, his imagination unfettered and supple. He could stay with a thought for hours, turning it about.

He had always enjoyed excellent recall, but on the raft, his memory became infinitely more nimble, reaching back further, offering detail that had once escaped him. One day, trying to pinpoint his earliest memory, he saw a two-story building and, inside, a stairway broken into two parts of six steps each, with a landing in between. He was there in the image, a tiny child toddling along the stairs. As he crawled down the first set of steps and moved toward the edge of the landing, a tall yellow dog stepped in front of him to stop him from tumbling off. It was his parents’ dog, Askim, whom they had had in Olean, when Louie was very little. Louie had never remembered him before.*


On the fortieth day, Louie was lying beside Phil under the canopy when he abruptly sat up. He could hear singing. He kept listening; it sounded like a choir. He nudged Phil and asked him if he heard anything. Phil said no. Louie slid the canopy off and squinted into the daylight. The ocean was a featureless flatness. He looked up.

Above him, floating in a bright cloud, he saw human figures, silhouetted against the sky. He counted twenty-one of them. They were singing the sweetest song he had ever heard.

Louie stared up, astonished, listening to the singing. What he was seeing and hearing was impossible, and yet he felt absolutely lucid. This was, he felt certain, no hallucination, no vision. He sat under the singers, listening to their voices, memorizing the melody, until they faded away.

Phil had heard and seen nothing. Whatever this had been, Louie concluded, it belonged to him alone.


On the men drifted. Several days passed with no food and no rain. The raft was a gelatinous mess, its patches barely holding on, some spots bubbling outward, on the verge of popping. It wouldn’t bear the men’s weight much longer.

In the sky, Phil noticed something different. There were more birds. Then they began to hear planes. Sometimes they’d see a tiny speck in the sky, sometimes two or more together, making a distant buzz. They were always much too far away to be signaled, and both men knew that as far west as they had probably drifted, these planes were surely Japanese. As the days passed, more and more specks appeared, every day arriving earlier.

Louie had come to love sunrise and the warmth it brought, and each morning he’d lie with his eyes on the horizon, awaiting it. On the morning of July 13, the forty-sixth day,* the day that Phil had picked for their arrival at land, no sunrise came. There was only a gradual, gloomy illumination of a brooding sky.

Phil and Louie looked up apprehensively. The wind caught them sharply. The sea began to arch its back under the raft, sending the men up to dizzying heights. Louie looked out over the churning water and thought how lovely it was. Phil was fond of roller-coastering over the big swells that came with storms, thrilled as he skidded down one and turned his face up to see the summit of the next, but this was ominous.

To the west, something appeared, so far away that it could be glimpsed only from the tops of the swells. It was a low, gray-green wiggle on the horizon. Phil and Louie would later disagree on who saw it first, but the moment the sea tossed them up, the horizon rolled westward, and their eyes grasped it, they knew what it was.

It was an island.

* Askim was notorious for his kleptomania; the Zamperinis lived above a grocery, and the dog made regular shoplifting runs downstairs, snatching food and fleeing. His name was a clever joke: When people asked what the dog’s name was, they were invariably confused by the reply, which sounded like “Ask him.”

* Since the men had floated across the International Date line, the forty-sixth day was July 14.



ALL DAY, UNDER A DARK, GYRATING SKY, LOUIE AND PHIL rode the swells, straining their eyes westward and feeling a weary thrill as the bump on the horizon peeked into view. Slowly, as the current carried them toward it, the island became more distinct. They could see a bright white line where waves dashed against something, maybe a beach, maybe a reef. In the afternoon, one island became two, and then a dozen or so, lined up like railcars. The castaways had expected that if they ever saw land, they’d be rapturous. Instead, they discussed it matter-of-factly. They were too weak for anything more, and there were pressing worries. Overhead, a huge storm was gathering.

In training, Louie and Phil had memorized the geography of the central Pacific. They knew that the islands ahead had to be part of the Gilberts or Marshalls, enemy territory. Between them, the two island groups had dozens of atolls and islands, so there was a good likelihood that there were places unoccupied by the Japanese. Louie and Phil decided to hang offshore until they found an island that looked uninhabited, or inhabited only by natives. They began rowing over the wind-chapped sea, turning parallel to the islands so they could wait until night to slip ashore.

The sky broke all at once. A sudden, slashing rain came down, and the islands vanished. The ocean began heaving and thrashing. The wind slapped the raft in one direction, then another, sending it spinning up swells, perhaps forty feet, then careening down into troughs as deep as canyons. Phil and Louie had drifted into what was almost certainly a typhoon.

Wave after wave slammed into the raft, tipping it sideways and peeling it upward, on the verge of overturning. To try to stop it from flipping, Louie and Phil bailed in water as ballast, positioned themselves on opposite sides to balance their weight, and lay on their backs to keep the center of gravity low. Knowing that if they were thrown loose, they’d never get back in, Louie reeled in the raft cord, looped it around the cushion sewn into the center of the raft, threaded it through a grommet, then wound it around his waist and Phil’s waist, pulling it taut. They pushed their feet under the cushion, leaned back, and held on.

Night fell, and the storm pounded. The raft raced up and down hundreds of mountains of water. At times, in the darkness, they felt the strange lightness of flying as the raft was swept into the air off the tops of the waves. Louie felt more intensely afraid than he had felt as Green Hornet was falling. Across from him, Phil lay in grim silence. Both men thought of the nearness of the land they could no longer see. They feared that any second, they’d be flung into a reef.

Sometime in the night, the storm sagged and softened, then moved on.* The swells remained, but their tops became smooth. Louie and Phil freed themselves from the raft cord and awaited daylight.

In the dark, they could smell soil, greenness, rain washing over living things. It was the smell of land. It flirted with them all night, growing stronger. As dawn neared, they could hear the hiss of water scouring a reef. Exhausted, they decided to take turns napping, with one man on the lookout for land. Somewhere along the way, they both fell asleep.


They woke in a new universe. They had drifted into the embrace of two small islands. On one island, they saw huts, trees heavy with fruit, but no people. They had heard of the Japanese enslaving native populations and moving them en masse off their home islands, and they thought that perhaps this had been the fate of this island’s inhabitants. They pulled their shoes over their sore-pocked feet and began rowing for shore. From overhead came the whine of engines. They looked up and saw Zeros looping through combat maneuvers, far too high for their pilots to notice the raft below. They rowed on.

Louie had predicted that they’d find land on the forty-seventh day. Phil had chosen the day before. Because they had spotted land on the day Phil had chosen and were about to reach it on the day Louie had chosen, they decided that they had both been right.

They could see more islands now. Louie spotted a tiny island to their left and pointed it out to Phil, describing it as having one tree on it. Then a strange thing happened. The lone tree became two trees. After a moment’s confusion, the men suddenly understood. It wasn’t an island, and those weren’t