The Miracle of the Rain

Prodigal: It looks like rain today.

Me: Perfect time for me to tell a good story.

This comes from the book Angels Beside you by James Pruitt

The following is a story that began on October 21, 1942. The participants were members of the United States Army Air Corps, Transport Command, and one famous American civilian.

The Transport Command had the duty of flying newly constructed aircraft to forward operations areas in the Pacific and returning to the States with older aircraft that had been replaced. On this particular flight, the pilot was Captain William T. Cherry. His co-pilot was Lieutenant James C. Whittaker; Second Lieutenant John J. DeAngelis was the navigator; Staff Sergeant James W. Reynolds was the radio operator; and Corporal Johnny Bartek was the flight engineer.

Bill Cherry’s crew was returning from a forward base where they had delivered a new B-17 bomber. They were now on the return trip, and after a stopover at Hickam Field in Hawaii, the would be headed home to the States.

On the morning of the nineteenth, they arrived at the field to find that their orders had been changed. They had their Flying Fortress had been reassigned to carry the famous Captain Eddie Rickenbacker and an aide on a secret mission for the War Department. The crew was disappointed, of course. They had hoped to be home in a few hours, but orders were orders. Besides, they all wanted to meet the World War I ace who had knocked down twenty-six German planes and had become a hero in that war.

The famous visitor arrived at the runway at ten-thirty the following day. Rickenbacker was now a civilian, and Washington had insisted that he have a military aide with him. The man he had chosen was Colonel Hans Adamson, a friend from his World War I days. Accompanying them was Sergeant Alex Kaczmarczyk, another flight engineer, who had been released from the base hospital and was returning to his unit.

Things immediately began to go wrong. As Captain Cherry headed the huge Fortress down the runway to take off, a cable in the brake assembly broke, sending the plane into a sideways skid. Cherry groundlooped the plane a few times before bringing it safely to a stop. Rickenbacker complimented him on his excellent reaction and left the plane with is aide. Cherry went about checking on his crew. Everyone was all right, but he noticed Lieutenant DeAngelis checking his octant, which had flown across his plotting board and hit the side of the aircraft. (An octant is an optical instrument similar to a sextant. It is employed in navigation to measure angles and distances and ascertain latitudes and longitudes.)

“Equipment all right?” asked Cherry.

“As far as I can tell,” replied DeAngelis.

An inspection of the damaged aircraft determined that repairs were out of the question. They would have to take another plane. It was well after midnight by the time all equipment and personnel gear had been switched over to the new aircraft. They departed Hickam Field at one twenty-nine A.M, October 21.

For the first few hours everything seemed to be all right, but soon DeAngelis came up to the cockpit with a worried look on his face. They had passed their ETA (estimated time of arrival) and there was no island in sight. The octant had given them a false reading. By the time they realized the malfunction, they were down to four hours of fuel. In Captain Cherry’s words, “We were totally lost.”

Whittake and Cherry agreed that they would have to fly a box pattern–in other words, make a turn, fly one hour, then make another turn for another hour, then turn again, and so forth until they completed a box pattern. By doing this they hoped by chance to spot the island–or any island, for that matter.

In the meantime, Rickenbacker organized the crew and the equipment that would be needed should they have to ditch. By the time they had made the last turn, it became apparent that there were no islands in their area and they were going to have to crash-land in the sea.

A talented pilot, Captain Cherry brought the giant Fortress in at just the right level and pancaked it across the waves with minimum damage. Immediately three life rafts were inflated and the crew abandoned ship. All told, there were eight men in the three rafts. However, the plane had begun to fill with water so fast that the person designated to recover the food and water had forgotten those two precious items in his rush to exit the sinking aircraft. The only food they had when the plane went beneath the waves were four oranges found bobbing in the water.

Staff Sergeant Reynolds had sent out SOS signals over his radio until the very last minute. As the sun set on their first night, the survivors were not overly concerned. They were certain the signal had been heard and that once they were discovered to be overdue at the island, an immediate search would begin. Cherry busied himself taking inventory of what they had saved. There were two air pumps for the rafts, two knives, three Very pistols with eighteen flares (half of which turned out to be duds), two 45-caliber pistols, oars, some fish hooks, and some line.

The second day passed and there were no signs of search aircraft. Still they were not overly worried. There was a war going on, after all, and a rescue would take considerable organizing.

By the third day, the men began to realize the hardships facing them. From about eleven in the morning to four in the afternoon, the sun bore down on them as if they were ants on a huge griddle, cooking them unmerciful. That night, the waves rose to heights of ten to twelve feet, tossing them about and covering them with spray and mist that became unbelievably cold during the early morning hours. Each man was soon hoping for the heat of the sun.

By the fourth day food was becoming a major concern. The small pieces of orange that were passed out each day did little to sustain them. It was afternoon when Staff Sergeant Reynolds remembered the fish hooks and line. Captain Cherry used an orange peel for bait, but after a few hours realized that fish were not attracted to the peeling.

On the fifth day Cherry made another attempt with the peeling and again found it useless. The discussion suddenly wen to more formidable bait. When Cherry asked aloud if fingernail parings would work, Johnny Bartek replied, “Naw, the only things we’ve got for bait is our hides.”

Everyone went quiet. This presented a startling possibility.

“What part would you use?” asked Whittaker.

“The earlobe,”, said Bartek. “You don’t need it and you wouldn’t miss it.”

“How about the fall of the little finger?” said Whittaker. “A small slice wouldn’t cause much pain and there would be little chance of infection.”

“I think a piece of toe would do,” said Reynolds. “That way no one would ever know you’d been disfigured.”

However, the part of the anatomy that they would have selected will never be known. For a few moments after the others asked Captain Rickenbacker’s opinion, a startling event occurred.

Just before, the air above them had been void of anything but the burning sun. Now there was a loud flapping of wings. Totally without warning and seemingly coming from nowhere, a sea swallow landed on Eddie Rickenbacker’s head. A bird about half the seagull, the sea swallow sat precariously on Rickenbaker’s head and stared at each man with understandable curiosity.

Slowly, Rickenbacker moved his hand up to his chin, then long his eyebrow. No one in the boat breathed. In one quick motion, Rickenbacker snatched the bird from his head. Holding it firmly, he began to tear it apart and divide it among the starving men.

Where had this bird come from? Whittaker himself estimated that the box pattern they had flown revealed that there were no land masses within a 165 square-mile radius of where their plane went down. Yet this small bird appeared from nowhere to provide the desperate men with a small amount of food, but more importantly, with the bait they needed for their hooks.

Within minutes of eating the sea swallow, they caught two fair-sized fish. As the fish were being prepared for distribution, young Johnny Bartek unzipped his small New Testament and gave a silent prayer of thanks.

Whittaker noticed this and commented, “Do you think that had anything to do with the Bird, Bartek?”

The airmen nodded and replied, “The Lord’s angels can appear in many shapes and forms, Lieutenant Whittaker.”

The lieutenant started to criticize the statement, but let it go for the time being.

By the sixth day, water was becoming a critical need. That afternoon, Bartek removed his small Bible and asked if the others would mind pulling the three rafts, which were attached by a line, together so that they could hold a prayer meeting.

Lieutenant Whittaker commented, in his book, We Thought We Heard the Angels Sing, that he had been exposed to religion and Bible teachings at an early age, but had long ago lost any interest in such things. When Bartek began reciting the Lord’s Prayer, Whittaker could only remember a word here and there. He never seriously thought that the open-air revival meeting was going to do much good. But they were in trouble, there was no denying that, so what harm would it do?

Colonel Adamson, Rickenbacker’s aide, volunteered to read at this first meeting. Thumbing through the small Bible, the colonel found the Scripture he was searching for. It was Matthew 6:31-34. In a reverent tone that seemed natural to the man, he began to read aloud.

“Therefore take no thought, saying, What shall we eat? or, What shall we drink? or, Wherewithal shall we be clothed? (For after all these things do the Gentiles seek:) for your heavenly Father knoweth that you have need of all these things. But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness, and all these things shall be added unto you. Take therefore no thought for the morrow: for the morrow shall take thought for the things of itself. Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.”

When he had finished, Whittaker was surprised to find himself rather impressed and said so, aloud, adding that the evil had certainly been sufficient unto the last few days.

The colonel quickly explained that these verses did not mean tomorrow literally, that perhaps they meant soon.

Whittaker thought of the words all through the cold, wet, dreary night that followed, finally dismissing them with the decision that he would “believe” when he saw the food and water. Whittaker would not have to wait long. He would receive a sample of startling proof the following night.

The sweltering sun beat down on the group as they drifted into their seventh day on the sea. The last orange was carefully divided and its minimal liquid was gone in seconds, leaving Whittaker even thirstier than before. His hopes stirred the previous night had now vanished in the face of hard reality.

By the time the evening prayer session began, Whittaker’s cynicism had reached epic proportions. As Colonel Adamson began to read, Whittaker thought to himself how ridiculous it appeared for men as practical and as hardboiled as these to expect a mumbling voice bobbing about in the middle of an ocean to summon help for them.

When the colonel had finished, Captain Cherry repeated the passage from Matthew about the food and water on the morrow.

“Yeah, always tomorrow,” thought Whittaker bitterly.

Captain Cherry then began his own version of a prayer, referring to God as the Old Master. He spoke simply and directly.

“Old Master, we know this isn’t a guarantee we’ll eat in the morning, but we’re in an awful fix, as you know. We sure are counting on a little something by day after tomorrow, at least. Please see what you can do for us, Old Master.”

Finishing his prayer, Cherry fired off a flare just as they had done each evening, in the hope that someone would see it. This time the flare’s charge was faulty and the fireball rose only fifty feet or so into the air, then fell back among the rafts. It hissed and zigzagged in the water like a small red snake, giving off a brilliant red light, illuminating the sea for a hundred yards. In the glow the men could see a school of fish attracted by the light. They were being pursued by a number of barracuda.

Two large fish, fleeing one of the razor-mouthed predators, suddenly broke the surface of the water and dived straight into one of the rafts. The men only had seconds to grab them before the flare faded and darkness closed in around them. Once again, food had been provided.

By the eight day, water became more important than food. On this afternoon, Captain Cherry again called on the Old Master.

“Old Master, we called upon 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’s up to you, Old Master.”

It was a prayer that had everything a prayer should have: a petition to God, an expressed resignation to God’s will, and the belief–the faith–that the petition would be answered.

As the rafts drifted apart, Whittaker thought to himself that if God ever wanted to make a believer out of Lieutenant James C. Whittaker, this was the time for it.

His thoughts continued along that line for a while. It wasn’t until he looked off to his left that he saw what had earlier been a bank of fleecy white clouds, They were darkening by the second.

He shouted, drawing the attention of the others to the beautiful sight. They all watched in silence as a bluish curtain unrolled slowly from the cloud to the sea. It was rain–and it was carrying straight for the rafts. Prayers rose from the excited group. It was less than a quarter mile away when a perverse wind suddenly rose and began pushing the curtain away from them.

For the first time, Lieutenant Whittaker found himself leading the group in prayer. Not sure what to say, he simply began, “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.”

Some of the others had already given up, saying that the wind would blow in that direction for the next forty years. But Whittaker wasn’t about to give up. He had already seen things happen that had renewed a long-lost faith within him. Now, shouting with all the strength he could force from his lungs, the lieutenant screamed, “God, the wind is yours. You own it. It is in your power to have your angels bring that rain back to us, your children, who shall surely die without it.”

Now, there are some things in this modern world that defy all the rules of logic or nature. What occurred that day in the middle of the Pacific Ocean was witnessed by every man present, including the highly respected Captain Eddie Rickenbacker, a man whose character was without reproach.

No sooner had Lieutenant Whittaker finished his heartfelt appeal than the curtain of rain stopped exactly where it was. However, the wind did not change direction, nor did it decrease in velocity. Nonetheless, the curtain of life-giving rain, ever so slowly, began to move back toward the rafts–against the wind.

In all, the men survived twenty-one days of their torturous ordeal before being rescued. One of their number, Sergeant Kaczmarczyk, who had been released from the hospital the day before the flight had departed and who had not been in top physical condition, lost his battle with the harsh elements during the rigorous ordeal.

If you were to ask Lieutenant James C. Whittaker to explain these happenings to you, his answer would be, “God and his corps of angels reminded us that they are always with us. We have only to ask for their help.”

Psalms 34:8

Oh, taste and see that the LORD is good! Blessed is the man who takes refuge in him!

Jennifer Van Allen

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