Location: Memphis, Tennessee, United States

Thursday, February 09, 2006

When Duty Calls - Part III - Afloat at Sea

"We ended up with thirteen in our life raft," Cockran said. All thought the destroyers would be back to pick them up the following day, but that did not occur. Due to the rapid currents the American search planes missed the tragic little fleet of rafts floating up the straights.

Through the torturous days that followed, many of the critically wounded died. Several men drown when they could no longer hang on to the rafts, others succumbed to exposure in this tropical climate, and still others to sharks.

"We had no water or provisions," said Layton of this time in the water. "Our raft fell in the water upside-down, and the provisions were underneath the raft. We tried to get to the provisions and just couldn't do it." No food, no water, no help in sight, but the sailors did not despair. "We knew the Navy knew we were out there, and we felt it was just a matter of time before they came for us. We just hoped they made it before the Japs did," survivor Bill Edwards said.

Many of the rafts were donut shaped- canvas covered balsa wood floats, common aboard ships, others were inflatable rafts. Cockran described how they utilized the rafts. "The paddlers would sit on the donut and paddle, most we ever had paddling was four men. Some others sat on a grid in the middle of the raft in waist deep water. Others hung onto the side of the raft."

On Cockran's raft they had tied-off their food and water and had it trailing in the sea behind the raft, in order to make room for more men aboard. "(Our food and water) wasn't there the next morning," he exclaimed. Corckran went on to add, "By the second night we started hallucinating, and fatigue (from rowing) had set in. By the third night it was down to just me and another man paddling."

The men kept their eyes peeled for rescue planes and ships. "Three Jap Zeros came over in a strafing formation, and I thought we were done for," Layton said, "but they never opened up on us. One of the planes just tipped his wings; boy did I feel thankful."

The rafts got separated over the days and nights as they floated, carried by the current. By the third day they had lost sight of each other. Desperation was setting in when the island of Vella Lavella was sighted. The men thought this might be their last chance, so they paddled hard to get out of the current and make landfall. Little groups of survivors were scattered across the island, sepaerated by vast stretches of jungle, when the sun rose the following morning.


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