Clusters of black smoke chrysanthemums with red centers bloomed all around them as they roared an unblinking path on the deck toward the Japanese cruiser. They launched their fish and pulled up and away, only to be jumped by a Zero fighter, torn up by its guns and sent into the sea with a wrenching splash.
Far from any American ships, ignored by the Japanese, in the emptiness of the blue Pacific, no one watched the three men in sand-colored khaki crawl from their sinking torpedo bomber into the yellow raft that would be their savior and prison for who knew how many days.
As the sun set in a sizzling glow——the fourth such setting since his Avenger torpedo plane went down——Capt. Fred O’Hara rasped to his two crewman, “Look, we all know there’s no hope for me, so stop with giving me your water.”
O’Hara’s abdomen was cinched into a standard field dressing, which had long since become saturated with blood, the result of a 7.7mm machine gun bullet plowing a furrow into him on its way into and out of his Avenger.
It was his leg, though, that O’Hara knew was not only his death sentence, but probably his crew’s, as well. When the aircraft hit the water, its aluminum skeleton and skin twisted inward on his cockpit and sliced open his leg from hip to knee. Now it was held together with three Navy-issue web belts that served as tourniquets and binding. Blood and sea water sloshed inside the raft.
“No way, Skipper, we’ve got two more days ration of water left for the three of us, and I’m sure the PBYs are out looking for a squadron commander whose plane wasn’t blown outta the sky but was last seen slapping into the ocean,” Ensign Bobby Shaw said. The bombardier/navigator tucked a blanket around O’Hara in the growing darkness.
Despite his pep talks, the nights full of darkness and O’Hara’s painful moaning were beginning to get to Shaw and gunner’s mate Aldo Sciorra. These were the times when they felt most alone, bobbing on the Pacific under the sliver of moon, when sharks would bump the underside of their rubber raft.
Sciorra said, “You saved our asses too many times, Skipper, for us to not take care of yours. The ensign and me are seeing you through, until…well, until whenever.”
“Damn straight, Aldo. Now skitter over here and let’s see if we can get a little more shade on the Skipper,” Shaw said. “I’ll scan the east and you the south. I figure that’s where the carrier felt might be located now. If anything shows, sing out. I’ll pop the Very pistol and then we pray they see our flare.”
“If we have any prayers left in us,” Sciorra said under his breath.
“Nothing, sir. Just…you know…sighing or something.”
On the afternoon of the fifth day, Sciorra caught the flash of sunlight on the large domed fuselage port of a Consolidated PBY Catalina seaplane. He fumbled in the wooden box for the flare gun and in his weakness and hurry dropped the box over the side.
“What the fu…,” Shaw said as he saw Sciorra reach into the water and come up with the flare pistol and one flare cartridge.
“God damn you, Sciorra. Now what the hell we gonna do? We’ve got that one flare and no idea if the damn thing’ll even fire now that it’s been in the drink,” Shaw said. Even with the ensign’s burnt and peeling skin, Sciorra could tell Shaw’s face was flushed with anger.
“Easy, Bobby, easy,” Capt. O’Hara whispered. “We don’t know what the flare’ll do, but you still have it, so you still got a chance. But you’ve got to drink more. Just let me go. That’s an order, Mister.”
Shaw looked at Sciorra, but this time not in anger. It wasn’t that he didn’t want more water, but his devotion to O’Hara and devotion to duty would have to determine a winner in their fight before he would write off O’Hara like a crash-landed Avenger.
He gave O’Hara the last of the morphine——which he’d rationed like the water——from their medical kit. Then he sat with his back against the bouncy wall of the raft and stared at his Skipper.
But four days of keeping the Skipper and themselves alive left Shaw and Sciorra past exhaustion. That night, they closed their eyes and gave in to whatever inevitability might come in what few days they had left.
It was Sciorra who first heard the Catalina flying above them the next morning.
“Mister Shaw, Mister Shaw, listen,” he pleaded as he shook Bobby Shaw awake.
Adrenaline and fatigue nearly blinding him to everything but the flare gun, Shaw shoved the flare into the pistol, made the Sign of the Cross, whispered, “Please, God,” pointed it straight up in the air and pulled the trigger.
With a loud pop, a line of white smoke arced above them and then gave another faint pop, blooming into a flame red flare that hung in the sky upon a small parachute.
The men saw the PBY lower its right wing and bank toward them. Sciorra hugged Shaw and cried, “They see us, Mister Shaw. They see us. Skipper, look. They’re com…”
But all they saw was the blood-stained blanket in the spot where Fred O’Hara let himself over the side overnight. He’d abandoned ship, leaving his men to fend for themselves, an anathema to the ethos passed down from his Admiral father, his Annapolis education and his Pensacola flight training.
“Captain O’Hara took the decision out of my hands,” Shaw later told a crewman on the PBY. “He tore up every code, abandoning his men to give us another day to live. And now here we are.” Shaw buried his face in a blanket and sobbed, but he had no tears to cry.
On Day 10 of my September Story a Day Challenge, I’m supposed to write a piece in what Julie Duffy calls a Hansel and Gretel story structure. That’s where the life changing moment that’s the key to operable fiction occurs right at the beginning and then come the tries and failures where every time the characters take two steps forward they take three steps back. I hope I got this structure right. I hope even more I’ve made a viable story.