Thursday, January 3, 2013

We Thought We Heard the Angels Sing by James Whittaker

Source of book: I own this. A library discard that my wife ran across for next to nothing.

This short book is the real-life story of the crew and passengers of a B-17 lost at sea during World War Two. The book was published in 1943, less than a year after the events took place, and while the war was still ongoing.

Although the book was written by Whittaker, and tells of his journey toward faith during the ordeal, it probably captured the attention of the public because of another of the survivors: Eddie Rickenbacker.

Rickenbacker was one of those larger than life characters that seemed to live a charmed life. He probably had more near-death experiences than anyone else, at least in his time. And they weren’t limited to his crashes of airplanes and cars - he also survived a botched tonsillectomy He first came to fame before World War One as a race car driver, then became the first United States Ace as a pilot in the war. His record of 26 confirmed kills lasted until the next World War.

Between the wars, he founded an auto manufacturer, which later went bankrupt, managed Eastern Airlines, co-wrote a comic strip, and collaborated on the development of several Douglas passenger aircraft. He was nearly killed in an airplane crash (in which he was a passenger, not a pilot), leading to the first time he was reported as dead by the press.

In World War Two, he was technically a civilian, but served as an official consultant. He continued in a diplomatic capacity after the war, all while continuing to manage Eastern Airlines. After his retirement, he toured as a speaker up until his death in the 1970s.

(Guitar buffs will note that Rickenbacker’s distant cousin co-founded the eponymous guitar company.)

Even within the context of this book, which is not really his story, he remains a formidable force, an inspiration to his companions, and a fearless and strong leader.

The events of the book are fairly simple. The plane gets off course while flying from Hawaii to another island, probably due to a faulty instrument. It is unable to reach an alternate destination on its fuel, so the pilot is forced to ditch it in the ocean. The crew and passengers take to the open sea in three life rafts for twenty-four days, with only the food and water they can capture and collect, until they are finally rescued, with the exception of one who dies before the rescue.

Paralleling the actual events is Whittaker’s personal journey from agnosticism to faith as a result of the miracles he experiences during the ordeal. These include rain timed exactly as needed, fish that jump into the boat, and a sense of supernatural strength he receives near the end as he rows his raft to an island despite being so weak from starvation that he (and the others) are unable to stand upon arrival. One of the crewmen has his New Testament along in his pocket, and they read from it and hold a church service of sorts each day until the rescue, during which the author finally learns the Lord’s Prayer.

In addition to the faith of Johnny Bartek, the owner of the New Testament, the fortitude and leadership of Rickenbacker carried the survivors through. He kept morale up through a combination of encouragement and brow-beating, complete with strong language that the author hinted at, but omitted due to the publishing standards of the time.

I found a few additional details to be interesting. One was the choice of how to ditch the plane in the ocean. The pilot noted that going head on into the waves was the usual choice, due to the use of the wind to slow the relative ground speed. However, if the nose caught a wave, the plane could go straight down without a chance for escape. In this case, the pilot chose to land between swells, in a crosswind. While more difficult, it allowed him a gentle landing that preserved the aircraft intact and allowed the crew and passengers to evacuate in an orderly manner. This was a bit revolutionary at the time, and led to a re-thinking of procedure.

Second, I noted that this incident led to changes in aircraft navigation and the development of new technology in survival equipment. Oddly, no provision for food or water was made at the time, with rescue assumed to occur before it would be needed - which might be the case in a modern disaster, but certainly wasn’t the case at that time.

Third, I was intrigued that the older survivors weathered the hardships better from a physical point of view, which was not what I expected. The author was in his forties, and Rickenbacker was in his fifties, yet they were the ones in the best shape by the end, far better than the younger members, who perhaps had less body fat to consume.

In general, this was a quick read, simply and clearly written, from the point of view of a straightforward military man not given to excess words. If you are looking for soaring description, you won’t find it here. By comparison, Thor Heyerdahl’s account of his voyage is better literary reading. However, the facts themselves are compelling, and the author lays them out plainly for the reader. The story itself is well worth the read.

1 comment:

  1. This sounds really fun!

    I am, however, going to go away and try to stop thinking about a botched tonsillectomy.