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.