April 16, 2006

We Thought We Heard the Angels Sing by James C. Whittaker

I have just read this 1943 account of eight men lost at sea when their airplane, a B-17 Flying Fortress, went down in the Pacific Ocean during World War II. The story is written in the first person by Lieutenant James Whittaker of the U.S. Army Air Corps Transport Command. He was the copilot and eldest crewman. A passenger on board was Eddie Rickenbacker, the famous war hero who had shot down a record 26 enemy aircraft in World War I. Whittaker wrote We Thought We Heard the Angels Sing from his recollections, from entries in his diary, and from a series of stories about the ordeal in the Chicago Tribune. Since World War II was still being fought when the book was published, some details were omitted regarding the plane, equipment, mission, destination, and rescue location.

The introduction "The Loneliest of Oceans" by Charles Leavelle remembers the famous and unsuccessful searches for Amelia Earhart and Sir Charles Kingford-Smith. Leavelle emphasizes the vastness of the Pacific Ocean. He says it covers over 68 million square miles and more than a third of the globe. He says when Captain William Bligh of the H.M.S. Bounty was set adrift in 1789 he travelled 4,000 miles without encountering any land. Even more amazing, he says Magellan sailed almost 12,000 miles without seeing land.

Whittaker's crew delivered a B-24 Liberator to Hickam Field in Honolulu, Hawaii and was scheduled for a stateside leave, but the leave was cancelled and they were given a new mission to fly Captain Eddie Rickenbacker and his aide somewhere on a secret mission for the War Department. The crew consisted of: Captain William T. Cherry, Jr. (pilot and mission commander), Lieutenant James C. Whittaker (copilot), Second Lieutenant John J. DeAngelis (navigator), Sergeant Alex Kaczmarczyk (engineer), Staff Sergeant James W. Reynolds (radio operator), and Private John Bartek (second engineer). The passengers were Captain Eddie Rickenbacker and his aide Colonel Hans Adamson.

Halfway into the takeoff of their B-17 one of the wheels partially locked and they veered off the runway toward the hangers. Cherry managed to put the plane into a tight 50-mph spin to avoid hitting the buildings and keep the plane on the field until it lost momentum. DeAngelis, the navigator, mentioned that his octant had been thrown across the nose compartment during the spin and suffered quite a blow against the side of the plane, but it appeared to be okay. They transferred their gear to another B-17 and took off at 1:30 AM on October 21, 1942. Many hours later they missed the island that was their first stop, possibly due to the damaged octant. After various unsuccessful attempts to determine their position they ran low on fuel and had to fly the plane into the sea.

In the confusion after impact the man who had been assigned to bring the food and water forgot his assignment. When they got the three tiny rafts inflated and took inventory of their supplies they discovered they had no water and only four anemic oranges they had found floating beside the plane. Their other supplies included: air pumps for the rafts, two knives, two flare guns, 18 flares, two .45 caliber pistols, aluminum oars, some fishing line, and some fish hooks. The three rafts were incredibly small. Three men were assigned to each of the two larger rafts which had inside dimensions of only 5½ x 2½ feet. The third raft was too small for just one man, but two men had to use it. After much experimentation the only way they could sit was facing each other with their legs over each other's shoulders. After they tied the rafts together and settled on seating arrangements they noticed the water around the rafts was filled with sharks. The sharks were always there from that point on. What followed was 21 days adrift with starvation, dehydration, praying, roasting under the hot daytime sun, shivering at night, skin ulcers, and delirium. One man died -- Kaczmarczyk, the engineer. Rickenbacker was the strongest personality and vehemently cussed out any man who expressed any negativity or uncertainty about rescue. The author thought some of the men survived just to spite Rickenbacker.

Several events are worth mentioning. It rained a few times. Those rains were the only source of drinkable water. One day the rafts capsized and most of the supplies were lost, including the flare guns and flares. One day a "sea swallow" ("about half the size of a seagull" p. 60) landed on Rickenbacker's head. Rickenbacker managed to catch the bird. The men shared the tiny bit of meat and baited fish hooks with the bird's guts. They managed to catch two small fish that way. Each man got a fish steak about one inch square. One day a school of minnows swam past and the men were able to scoop enough minnows into the rafts so that each man got to eat three 2½-inch minnows. One night two fish being chased by barracuda jumped into a raft. One day they caught a baby shark about two feet long and ate it, however, in killing it they stuck a hole in the bottom of a raft. One day a ten-foot shark flipped its tail catching Captain Cherry full in the face and breaking his nose. One of the author's most vivid memories was a hallucination he experienced in which he slid over the side, sank to the bottom, and had a conversation with Davy Jones and Jim Blood on the bottom.

On the eighteenth day they saw a patrol plane pass in the distance. They saw it twice more on the nineteenth day. On the twentieth day they cut the rafts loose from one another in hopes that three separated targets had a greater chance of being seen than one target. Captain Cherry took the smallest raft. The next day Whittaker's raft made it to an island where DeAngelis, Reynolds, and Whittaker ate coconuts and discovered an abandoned hut where they slept. On the twenty-third day they met with natives who took them to a village and radioed the nearest US outpost. Meanwhile Captain Cherry had been spotted and rescued by a search plane. Then Rickenbacker's group was also found and rescued. Rickenbacker, Cherry, Whittaker, DeAngelis, and Adamson were flown to a hospital in Samoa where they made complete recoveries. Bartek and Reynolds were too sick to fly to Samoa, but they too were treated and recovered. Captain Cherry was sent to Washington to help redesign life rafts. Whittaker was ordered to visit west-coast factories telling his survival story to war production workers.

We Thought We Heard the Angels Sing was published in 1943 by E. P. Dutton & Company. It is illustrated with drawings and photographs.

An illustrated account of the story including details of the rescue location can be read online here.

Update: Eddie Rickenbacker also wrote a book telling the story, Seven Came Through.

Update: There is a third book about the same ordeal, by John Bartek, Life Out There.

Update: According to David Weed, John Bartek's grandson, Bartek's book Life Out There was written by a ghost writer and Bartek did not approve of the book. Bartek later wrote another book about the ordeal "My Raft Episode, 21 Days Adrift at Sea". See the comment by David Weed below, dated September 10, 2013.


  1. I flew with Rick just before my 3rd birthday in 1934 at Elk City ok.

  2. Bill Cherry was my great-uncle. I first read this book to my mother (his niece) while she drove us from Lubbock to our home in Arkansas.

    I believe that this was also the first documented successful landing of an airplane in the middle of the ocean.

  3. I am a retired Captain from American Airlines and I flew co-pilot for Captain "Wild" Bill Cherry for several years. We had some wonderful trips, it was a great learning experience for me. I have to say that Capt. Rickenbacker's recall was considerably different than that of Captain Bill Cherry.
    Captain Arthur Hatch AAL Ret.

  4. My name is Toma too and I am from Nukufetau Island, currently studying in New Zealand.
    Toma who rescued the survivors from the carsh was my grandfather I am so honoured to be named after him.
    I would like to keep in touch with someone from the Whittaker family.
    Heres my email add,

  5. i am from germany. i just read your blog entry and think that it is a very good summary of the book. i myself have read the book in german. i am totally fascinated by it. as a teacher for religious education i have used the story in class to teach my students about endurance, suffering, patience, the importance of the bible and prayer.
    when i did a little research i found a book by Eddie Rickenbaker that tells the same story from his perspective. it's title is: "seven came through", originally published by Doubleday, Doran and Company, New York 1942 or 1943. Whittakers book lays more emphasis on his encounter with God and his conversion, whereas Rickenbacker tries to be more "objective" (which in the strict sense is not possible). his story has more the character of an account. the two books complement each other and only differ on minor facts, as for example the length of their odysee on the pacific. if someone wants to know the story, he or she should read both books.

  6. Thank you all for your comments. I enjoyed each of your contributions -- Jim's flight in 1934, Nancy's reading the book to her mother, Art's observations about Cherry and Rickenbacker, Toma's desire to correspond with someone from the Whittaker family, and Jan's remarks, including the mention of Rickenbacker's book Seven Came Through. I was not aware of that book. I'll have to read it. Thanks.

  7. I own the original typed manuscript of the book "We thought we heard the angels sing". Anyone interested in obtaining this rare piece of history may contact me at 1-765-289-2331. Mike

  8. Mike,

    I usually delete advertising comments from my blog posts. However, my post on this book has collected comments from people with a personal interest in the story from around the world. This might be a good place for your offer. I'll leave your comment, but I request that you comment here again if you sell the manuscript to someone who saw your ad here. Ok? I would like to know, and others might also be interested.

  9. hi mike,

    as i live in germany, can you tell how much you want for the manuscript? how did you obtain it?

  10. I have been doing geneology research and my aunt has told me that James is a second cousin of mine. Makes the story all the more interesting and important! My uncle had died paratrooping in WWII so this is the other side.

  11. Can anyone here tell me whether James Whittaker and Jim Reynolds are still living? My grandma knew them, and I would love to be able to let her know "where they are now." If someone knows, could they email me at emskwared@gmail.com? Thanks so much... : )

  12. If anyone writes to the person who made the above comment, please post your information here too, to share the information with the rest of us. Thanks. - Jon

  13. hi there, to answer your question: james whittaker was, when he experienced the boat journey, a little bit older then 40 (41 or 42) years. as the story happenend in 1942 he must , if he is still alive, be over 105 years old, which i doubt he is. So he is most likely dead.
    It must be interesting to find out, though, if his son, which he mentiones in his book, is still alive. Does anybody know?
    Jim Reynolds was probably (i am not sure) around 25-30 years old, when the story happened. So he would be older then 90 years today, which would be possible. Maybe he is still around and able to tell the story or to remember details. would be interesting to find out and if realistic and feasable to meet him.

  14. I just recently came into the possession of some original newspaper articles featuring James C. Whittaker and his "adventure" in the sea. I have also secured a copy of his book for my own collection. The reason I am writing is that the newspaper stories were pasted into a book found amongst the belongings of one of my deceased relatives (a Whittaker as well). My Great Great Grandfather's name was James Whittaker (b.1861) who had nine children including my Great Grandfather Harry (b.1891) who had ten children of his own in the South Bend, Indiana area (my clan still lives, primarily, in the northern Indiana/southwestern Michigan region). My Grandfather, Leonard Whittaker, served in WWII but that's all I know. Perhaps Lt. James C. was named after Great Great Grandpa James? I don't understand why the collection of articles would be found amongst the belongings of another Whittaker unless there is a connection. Obviously I would be proud to find out that I am related to such a hero as he.

  15. @Pastor Jeff: Is there the possibility that you scan the newspaper articles and make them availabe either on this blog or send them to janfischer66@googlemail.com? that would be great!

  16. @art hatch: can you tell us a little bit more about captain bill cherry? in which year did you fly with him? do you know when he died? or mayba nancy knows...

  17. My 5th grade teacher read this book to the class. This was in 1955 and I've never forgotten it. The story had a profound effect on me. I have a copy of the book and just dug it out to loan to a friend. I decided to google "James Whittaker" and was surprised and pleased to learn his story continues to inspire people today.

  18. Thanks for sharing your experience with this book, Barbara. I posted this review in April 2006. I've been delighted by how many people have expressed their interest and continue to leave comments. - Jon

  19. Bill Cherry was my uncle. He was quite a character...one of the most interesting and fun men I've every been around. I first read Whitaker's book in 1961 and have re-read it several times. I've also read Seven Came Through and also Bartek's account in Life Out There. That is a book that no one knows much about. I am fortunate to have copies of all three.

    Bill Cherry went back to flying for American Airlines after the war and was the first to fly the 747. He lived in California until his death a few years back...playing golf everyday until his death at 80+.

    There was a teacher in Des Moines, Iowa that had her class read We Thought We Heard Angels Sing each year. About 15 years ago a young girl, one of her students was on a trip to the Dallas area and looked up Bill's son in the phonebook. To her amazement, Bill was at his son's house and from this telephone conversation, a relationship was built and that class (I believe it was a 5th grade class) was able to locate all the living survivors. They held a reunion at the school. The reunion was covered by Good Morning America. I have a copy of the reunion video that my cousin made and of the news reel.

    I also have a copy of a scrapbook that my mother had put together about her brother's ordeal. It has articles from most of the newspapers.

    Bill was a great man. I loved to play golf with him and just being around him. He was fascinating. I'm sure God had a great sense of humor when he put Bill on this earth and I'm sure he has had lots of laughs visiting with Bill...assuming God can get Bill to slow down talking long enough. And I certainly hope Bill doesn't tell ALL his jokes to the "the Ole Master".

  20. Dear Mr. Smith,
    I would absolutely love to see the Good Morning America story! Please let me know what I have to do to make it happen! God Bless and thanks again,

    Jeff Whittaker

  21. Paul,

    I was unaware of the Bartek book and I have added it to my wishlist. Your story of the class assignment and reunion is great. Thanks a lot for your post.


  22. Yes, Mr. Smith, if there is a way to get a copy of that reunion, that would be great...what do I have to do to obtain it?
    I just ordered the book by Bartek. Looking forward to read his account of the adventure

  23. Send me your address and I'll copy it off. It is a VCR tape, but I can probably make it into a CD. I'll get to work on it. These were some great men and I'm just so glad to see that their story hasn' been forgotten. You can e-mail me your addesses at paul.smith@masonisd.net.

    I was incorrect on a couple of items. It was a 6th grade class from Ames, Iowa. I know that my uncle kept up with the little girl that found him all the way thru her HS graduation and in college. As an educator, I am always so impressed when a teacher motivates her children to do independent research and to put these men back together after all those years was remarkable. It was the first time they had seen each other since they returned from their ordeal.

  24. Nancy,
    You and I are cousins...but I don't know how. You have to be one of the Cook clan. Please let me hear from you. My e-mail is
    Paul Smith (Pauline's son)

  25. Paul,
    My name is Geni and I am the daughter of Gene Smith who flew with Bill during WWII. Bobbie and my Mom were great friends and remained close until my Mom passed. Six weeks ago Bobbie shared your info on the book, "We Thought We Heard Angels". I am very interested in obtaining a cope of the CD you have of the reunion. Please let me know what I need to send to you.
    BTW my first son Greg is Captain on the 747 and flys cargo around the world many times for the military. I am a pilot instructor MCFIAI Gold Seal and have logged over 10,000 hours.
    Looking forward to hearing from you.
    I send my deepest regards to you and family upon the passing of Bobbie, I loved her so.
    Geni Grant


  26. Hi all,

    My name is Rick Topping and I want to share my small piece of the pie with you.

    My mother, Coreen Schwenk, was engaged to Alexander Kaczmarczyk, the young man that died during James Whittaker's ordeal at sea.

    Coreen Bond and Alex Kaczmarczyk were from a small town in Connecticut and were young lovers when Alex went off to war.

    My mother went through the waiting to find out her love didn't make it.

    Eddie Rickenbacker was a celebrity because he was a WWI flying ace and hero.

    My mother eventually joined the US Navy as a WAVE to "replace her man." She served a short time until the war's end.

    During her time in the Navy she met my father, Fred. My father was a swashbuckling submariner who saw a whole bunch of action in the Pacific.

    My father passed on in 1974. My mother married Elmer Schwenk in 1975 and they still live happily ever after. Elmer saw a whole lot of action in Europe and North Africa during WWII.

    God bless all who served and the ones that gave their all.

    My mother was in contact with the Iowa school children, and their teacher, for several years.

    I lived my entire life knowing about the 21 days these men spent and the ordeal they went through.

    I have a copy of Jim Whittaker's book and authgraphed copies of Rickenbacker's book, "Seven Came Through" and John Bartek's book, "My Raft Experience."

    My mother still keeps in touch with John Bartek and his wife. John is alive and well and lives in New Jersey.

    I'm a private investigator. About 20 years ago I decided to find Capt. Bill Cherry and arrange for him to meet my mother.

    I located Capt. Cherry in the Rancho Palos Verdes area and had a great telephone conversation with him. What a good guy.

    I arranged to have him meet with my mother. I was privileged to be involved in the meeting.

    Capt. Cherry lived up to the good guy hero image I had of him.

    Capt. Cherry's account of the incident was a bit different to Rickenbacker's account in Seven Came Through.

    I won't go into detail but it was different.

    I will be posting my investigative search on my web site in the very near future. You are welcome to take a look, www.top-pi.com

    Thank you all for your comments.

    Rick Topping

  27. My brother Lt. Jack Gardner flew with everyone mentioned in the 6th flying group. Four of my brothers served in WW II: Don (Merchant Marines faced German U-boats), Vere (US Navy ... shot down a Jap plane on 12/7/41 with a rifle at Pearl Harbor), Allen (US Marine ... met Jack on Guam, before laying telephone lines on Okinawa for Navaho code talkers) and Jack ... a mustang, entering in 1938, became a flying Sgt in 1942 before joining the 6th flying group: http://fourstarsinwindow.blogspot.com/

  28. Virginia G. GaringOctober 26, 2012 at 3:42 PM

    The story of this epic and the reunion were later a feature story in Reader's Digest. I first read about it in a l985 commenorative issue of Newsweek and corresponded with the teacher in Ames. I found an autographed copy of the book (l943) on Amazon.com. I have read this about fourtimes and am fasinated by it still. I lost a brother in the US Navy in the Pacific in same area on the same day the plane went down in the Pacific Ocear. This is great reading and so inspirational.

  29. I think the issue of Reader's Digest was about l986, and the story title was "A Gathering of Legends."

  30. Thanks for your comments, Virginia. I couldn't find "A Gathering of Legends" available online, but I did find the Reader's Digest cover that had it. The issue was July 1987 and the article was by Jack Fincher. I wish I could come as close as you did when I estimate dates from over twenty years ago. - Jon

  31. Hi Jon and everyone else,

    My name is David Weed and I am John Bartek's grandson. I just discovered this blog today while doing some research about my grandfather. I regret to inform you that he passed away peacefully on Monday, Sept 9, 2013 in his home in Mercerville, NJ. I believe he is the last surviving crew member. A link to his obituary follows:


    You may find it interesting that the book "Life Out There" was not written by my grandfather but was ghost-written and published under his name for a short time. He disagreed with this version and took legal action to have it pulled from the shelves. He did, however, write "My Raft Episode, 21 Days Adrift at Sea", of which I have a copy my grandfather inscribed to me.

    If anyone is interested in obtaining a copy of my grandfather's book, please contact me and I may be able to help.

    -David Weed
    Philadelphia, PA
    e: ispydafydd@gmail.com

  32. Hi David,

    I'm sorry to hear of your grandfather's death. It seems he outlived all the other crew members as well as all of his siblings. I appreciate the info about the ghost-written book "Life Out There" and Bartek's own book "My Raft Episode, 21 Days Adrift at Sea". I am sure others who find this blog will appreciate it too. Thanks for posting.


  33. I read the book because my grandfather was a young sailor stationed on the island where some or all of the survivors were brought. The island was primarily used to re fuel the planes crossing the ocean. He worked in the medical building and helped care for the guys until they were strong enough to travel. My grandfather passed a few years ago too. He was proud of his service and always had a framed dollar bill hanging on the wall of his home that Eddie had signed and given him during his recovery time on the island.

  34. That's a neat connection. Hang on to that dollar bill. It's quite a memento. - Jon

  35. I have a copy of Lt. Whittakers book that was given to my mother who was a WASP pilot who knew him when he was with the ATC. It is inscribed as follows.
    " 12-21-43 To my good friend WASP Dorothy Kocher, a very lovely young lady who is doing a swell flying job for our Army. Best of luck Dorothy, Love and Kisses,Jim
    Lt. James C. Whittaker" Mom is 99 and still going strong.

  36. Nice inscription. "Mom is 99 and still going strong" is wonderful. Thanks for sharing. - Jon

  37. I have a copy of Lt. Whittakers book that was signed by him in 1947 and given to my Dad, who flew Grumann Hellcats off the carrier, Lexington in the Pacific. I read the book in 6th grade and did a report on it. I want my twin sons to read this amazing story.

  38. Wow. These comments are as fascinating as the book! My mother gave my dad a copy of the book after they met at a USO dance and started dating when he was stationed (Navy) in Corpus Christi. My dad found God in part, through this book. I'm now a hospice chaplain and am privileged to read this book to veterans and others who have an appreciation for this story. I'm so grateful I grew up with it and still have the original copy Mom gave Dad as a gift on June 10, 1945. Blessings, all.

  39. When I posted this review 11 years ago I had no idea it would serve as a sort of gathering place for people who felt a connection with the book or the people in it. Like you, Larry, I think the comments in this thread are wonderful. Thanks for posting your own comment. - Jon

  40. I discovered this blog about a month ago, and enjoyed the comments. I am the oldest grandson of James C Whittaker, and have done a bit of research regarding the episode. There is a museum and an archive at Wright Patterson Air Base that includes a lot of material, including one of the rafts. It's amazing to consider that three men could not only fit in a raft of that size, but survive the entire time on the ocean. The museum is open to the public, but we had to get special permission to visit the archives, and the staff there was very helpful. Tom Whittaker

  41. Hi Tom! That's interesting about the museum archives at Wright Patterson. I'm glad one of the rafts has been preserved. Thanks for joining in and commenting on this slow-growing 12-year-old thread.

  42. Dear Tom Whittaker,
    It was great to see your post about James. My Grandfather's name was Leonard, and had a collection of articles about James and the others which I discovered a few years ago. My grandfather's Father's name was Harry Whittaker from South Bend, Indiana. I am just anxious to close some gaps in my understanding of connections. Thanks, Jeff

  43. I hope Tom visits here again and sees your comment, Jeff.

  44. Me too! God Bless

  45. Hello Jeffrey, I wish I could shed some light on my lineage, but I have not delved into my family background beyond my grandfathers. I am hoping to hear from Toma, and wrote his previous email, but have not heard back. I do believe my grandfather's family was from the upper Midwest, but that's a vague recollection. Thanks for your comments.


  46. Jeffrey WhittakerMarch 6, 2018 at 2:26 PM

    Thanks Tom! We'll just keep picking away until get some more light on things. What a story, and what a heritage! God Bless!

  47. I have a photo of the handmade outrigger given to my grandfather from Toma, and I tried unsuccessfully to post it to this blog. If anyone is interested, I can send it via email. Still no word from Toma's grandson.

  48. Just to clarify for future visitors, I assume the previous post was by Tom Whittaker whose grandfather was James C. Whittaker. If I'm mistaken hopefully the poster will correct me.