In the theatre of war anything could happen, but because not very much had happened, the men on the patrol boat had become somewhat complacent about keeping watch. John Kay, the officer in charge, was below decks, resting after hours of being on watch, when the crash happened.
‘What the hell...!” John raced up the companionway and out onto the slanting deck, attempting to grab the handrails as he went, not wanting to lose his footing until he could see for himself what the problem was. There were men in the water, floundering in the bow wave of the ship which had apparently just rammed them. There were men clinging to the guardrails, but not for long for even as he looked around, the boat tipped almost on its side and threw them all into the relatively warm South Pacific waters.
John kicked out for the surface, spitting water and trying to clear his vision. The boat had overturned so he reached out, clinging to it as best he could, shouting for his crew.
‘Here! To me!’
One by one names were called as survivors managed to make their way to the keel. Two didn’t respond. John called out again and again, hoping the missing ones would hear but no one answered.
‘Damn it to hell! Who didn’t keep watch then? Who let them sneak up on us? Who’s responsible...’ Stupid question. He was. The officer in charge always is, no matter what the circumstances are. He felt tears prickling his eyes for the missing men but blinked them away, pretending they were affected by the sea water. Enough. He had to deal with the living, later he could grieve for the dead.
Most of his men were in reasonable shape apart from one, Pedro, who was badly burned and could not do anything for himself. John held him by his lifejacket, making sure the man did not float away.
‘Someone has to know what happened to us!' he shouted, not because he could not be heard, but because he wished to encourage his men, to put some hope into them, to give them the strength to hang on as long as possible. ‘Someone will order a ship for us!’
No one spoke. They needed their strength to hang on to the keel, for the sea was doing its best to try and tug away, as if looking for more sacrifice, as if the two already claimed were not enough. They looked at one another, at first with the brightness of anticipation of a destroyer, or a lifeboat of some kind, heading toward them. They scanned the horizon endlessly, but it remained ominously empty.
Hours passed and still they clung on, both to the keel and to hope but it became very clear that both were sinking, the keel had the weight of the ship pulling it down and the men had the weight of disappointment and rapidly receding hopes pulling them down too.
Evening closed in and John had to make a decision. Dare they let go the keel, which was sinking very slowly, to swim to the nearest island, which he knew was a long way away? Or should they continue to hold on as long as possible in the hope the rescue would come?
There was only one thing to do. He swam round the keel and spoke to the men one by one. He said the same thing to each one: ‘there’s an island north of here but it is a very long swim. Are you prepared to make it with me?’
One by one, with his encouragement, they said yes.
‘What are you going to do about Pedro?’ one asked.
'Take him with us, of course.’
‘How?’ asked another crew member.
‘Leave that to me.’ John did not want to burden them with what he was going to do; he needed to ensure they were full of enthusiasm, as far as possible, for the ordeal ahead. He had some idea of how long it would take, he didn't tell the men because he knew it would defeat their hopes and deflate them before they set out.
‘Come,’ he told them and, pulling Pedro along by the lifejacket that John clenched in his teeth, they began the long journey.
It took five hours. Five long relentless hours of pushing against the currents, of being hungry, thirsty, shocked, exhausted, kept going only by following John who could not speak to them but who regularly turned as best he could to wave to them and motion them ever onward.
John began to believe the journey would never end. He sent out with great hopes, even though he knew it was going to be a long time, but the sheer tedium of the journey, the agony of keeping his jaws so tightly closed, the dread that he was actually towing a dead person alongside him, the ever present worry that the rest of his crew would not be able to make the distance with him, combined to put the fear into his mind that he would never ever reach the island, that his navigation was so far out that they would be swimming forever until one by one they gave up and simply sank below the waves.
Just when he reached the absolute end of his reserves of energy and strength, they found themselves on the dry earth of the island. There was no water, no food, no shelter, but it was enough to be out of the sea and able to rest.
John went back out into the ocean twice, looking for lights, for any indication that a ship was coming for them, but saw nothing. He was incapable of going out for a third time, so one of the other men made the effort but came back saying he could see nothing. After that they abandoned any effort and decided to take care of themselves.
They all fell into the sleep of totally exhausted men, including Pedro, who was somehow holding on to the threads of life, much to John’s surprise and intense pleasure.
Next morning John and one of the crew members swam to the next island, where they fortunately found a small boat stocked with water, some biscuits, and candy. They rowed the boat back to the men who had been discovered by locals, and have been taking care of.
In a moment of inspiration, John took one of the coconuts they were offered and carved a message into the shell saying that there were survivors from his wrecked patrol boat and that the natives knew the position of the island. One of them offered to take it to the nearest place where help could be summoned.
John was called a war hero for they said without him none of them would have survived. He had encouraged, guided, and led them to safety.
John said there is no such thing as a war hero; it was just a man being in the right place at the right time and, without thinking, doing the right thing. He held that point of view to the end of his life.
That coconut was turned into a paperweight which sat on the desk in the Oval Office for the entire time he was President of the United States.
Dorothy Davies lives on the Isle of Wight, a small island off the south coast of England. There she works as an editor, writer and medium, channelling books from the rich (and not so rich) and famous from all eras of history, ancient through modern. Her novels are available from Amazon. She edits and features in Static Movement anthologies.
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