It is all right to tell this yarn as is long after the war, it may be made a bit more credible to the average person. Even now, admittedly, it is more than a trifle staggering, even though well vouched for. Since it is not a war story, however, and does not have to be written to get past the censor, suppose we take a gander at it.
Larsen came to this country from Norway at five years of age, was eighteen when he got into the war, and was twenty-one when he started to invade the Philippines with MacArthur, though MacArthur was not aware of it, because Larsen was only the tail-gunner in a bomber that went haywire.
The reason she went haywire that afternoon was that she caught a terrific dose of flak. This was in the hot naval business outside Leyte. When the communications went dead, Larsen knew the worst must have happened, and it had. He had been washed out as a pilot before going into gunnery, and knew his way around a bit, but when he made his way forward he was appalled. She had taken everything there was to take, apparently, and he waded through a bloody mess that left him reeling. He was the only soul alive.
By the time he had pulled what remained of the pilot and co-pilot off the controls he was shaken and trembly, and no wonder. The ship was going like a bat out of hell, but in a fluttery sort of way that showed she would not hold together long; she was at five thousand feet, luckily, but was losing altitude, with wings and fuselage ripped all to helngone. The radio was dead. When he discovered this, Larsen looked around to see where he was; but he had been going five miles a minute and there was nothing in sight. He stared down blankly, with a sense of panic. Leyte gone--the smoke of the burning carrier gone--everything gone!
Dripping blood over the sea, the bomber flew on with Larsen paralyzed at the controls. The sea-surface told him he was gradually dropping, but the instruments were dead like everything else on board. Larsen had on his parachute and might have taken to it and a rubber boat in case of fire, but there was no fire, and he had heard a lot about sharks. He stayed where he was and hoped against hope, straining his eyes at the horizon.
Then, off to the south--at least, he thought from the sun that it must be south, though it was not--he saw a blue land loom, and frantically headed the bomber for it. He cut down the engines, and a good thing he did, for the wings were shaking to pieces. Also, he got his parachute and other essentials ready; it looked like he might have to jump at any instant, to judge by the vibration. His pockets were crammed with cigarettes and chocolate bars and other stuff he had taken aboard at the last minute and had not touched, but he dared not try to get rid of the weight now. Besides, he might need it all.
The dying bomber thundered onward, alone in the empty sky. The blue shadow grew against the sea-edge like a gob of goo on a bayonet, but he knew he was not going to make it, because the shimmering waves below were coming close. The bombs! They were still in the bay. He found the electric release and pressed the button. He could feel the upward thrust at once, as the doors opened and the bombs fell away, but he did not look back. He had picked up something else, dead ahead.
This was an island, a small one with two peaks sticking up out of the water, well this side of the blue coast beyond. He came closer; there was nothing to the patch of island except the two peaks and a depression between them, but it was a life-saver. The peaks could not be more than a few hundred feet high--he was not above them, but on a level with them. But he could see a fringing reef, and it looked ugly as the surf broke over it.
Then his heart skipped a beat, as the sea reached up and clutched at him--almost down! Desperately, he set the gyro pilot and it took hold. He scrambled aft. The bomb bay was still open; he dumped out corpses, ammunition cans, anything he could find. The ship rose a little, but she was not going to make the island.
Like everyone in the service, he had received a thorough course in ditching drill, but drill was far different from the present circumstances; and he did not intend to wait till the bomber struck. As he inflated his Mae West, he eyed the shoreline inside the wide lagoon formed by the reef. He wanted to get out before she hit, and there was no need of a parachute now; he had just time to shed it.
The line of reef was rushing at him; she was barely going to clear it. Already the waves were lapping up at her. He opened the hatch and stood ready. She was over the reef and past it, fuselage right on the water--then he pulled the dinghy release and jumped, a bare instant before she struck her tail and plunged under in a huge shower of spray.
The dinghy inflated itself, and when he came clear, the rubber craft was floating at a little distance. He swam to it and did not try to get aboard; he just hung on and kicked, and the white beach came close. All sign of the bomber had vanished.
Before he knew it, Larsen touched bottom and came crawling out to the white sand, where a thousand sandfleas went jumping and skipping in all directions. He pulled the rubber doughnut up after him, then staggered on toward the trees, and went to pieces in total collapse, and dropped.
It had been early morning when he got here. He did not waken until well along in the afternoon. He blinked, sat up, and stared around, bewildered.
Everything came back to him of itself. There was nothing to suggest it in sight except the rubber boat on the sand. Not a trace of the bomber. He sat for a while staring frowningly at the water, then looked around. He got out of his flying clothes, now dry, found a cigarette packet, and in the center located a smoke that was not brown and ruined, and got it alight, spreading out the others on the sand. He emptied his pockets and looked at his watch. Not watertight, it had stopped; he set it by guess at four o'clock.
The cigarette gone, he got up and went to the dinghy. The compartments were stocked with rations and needfuls; cigarettes, too, thank Uncle Sam! He got everything out and hid the packets under the trees, then went back and stared at the white coral sand. Someone else was or had been here, for the marks were plain. Except in stories and wet sand, footprints do not show up as such; he could make nothing of these, and went to the creek. Here he drank long and thirstily.
"No reception party on hand," he observed aloud, and squinted up at the two small peaks. These were of bare rock, but below them trees were thick. Shouting, he gained no response, so he started up the creek by a well-traveled path that appeared.
Within a few hundred feet, he was looking around in utter amazement. He came upon a big canoe, helpless for use, with a huge hole in its bottom. Pigs ran about wild, and quite a few chickens were in sight, less wild. Over across the creek showed patches of cultivated ground. And on ahead was a collection of houses beside the stream. Houses! Sure enough, there was no mistake. He came close, staring at them. Native houses thatched with nipa.
He hurried to them, calling. No answer came. He looked into one after another; all were empty and deserted, empty of people, empty of effects. Yet they had not been very long abandoned, by the looks. The taro and yam patches were clear of grass or weeds; a pile of camotes, the island yams, lay freshly dug.
Larsen almost forgot his providential escape in the contemplation of this mystery. No people anywhere, yet no sign of death or disease. No boats except the one busted craft. The natives had not dropped everything and fled upon his arrival; there was not so much as a sleeping mat in the houses.
"Be damned if I can savvy it!" He came into the open, peering at the trees, at the creek, and lit another smoke. The sound of his own voice was good to hear. "Where's everybody? Why have they skipped out? Tell me that, will you?"
He jumped. There was a cackle of human laughter.
"They were scared of old Gunner Gunn, that's why!" came the words.
Larsen swung around. Nothing in sight, no one anywhere.
"Hey, there!" he called. "Where are you? Come on, show yourself! I'm a friend! Are you English or American? Come on out of hiding! I won't hurt you! Amigos!"
Another faint cackling laugh responded and then was stilled. Larsen called, threatened, cajoled, and the only response was silence.
Dazedly, he made his way back to the beach where he had landed. Somebody was assuredly hanging around; it was a human voice that had answered his query, and it had spoken good English. Mystery, sure enough!
However, sunset was approaching, and being a very practical young man, Larsen resolved to let the mystery take care of itself for the moment. He wanted a dip in the lagoon, and he was hungry. So he stripped and had a plunge, then attacked his cache of rations. He had food and water and shelter, and the rest could wait till morning. His cigarettes were drying, and he stretched out comfortably in the warm sand as the stars began to dot the greenish sky.
He lay awake a long while. Where this island was, he had no idea. Tomorrow, he reflected, he would explore the place. It was a small island; he would have no difficulty in running down that voice of mystery. It did not come from an enemy, or he would have been attacked before this. Might have been a parrot or a mynah bird, of course; but the voice had been very human.
Lulled by the surf-vibrations from the reefs, he drifted off to sleep before he knew it.
Warm sunlight wakened him; he was on the eastern side of the islet, obviously. He rose, stretched luxuriously, rid of the baggy flying suit, and went down to the creek to douse his head. He came back and attacked his rations anew--it was a K-ration he had opened and there were two others in their waxed containers.
He was eating away heartily when he became vaguely aware of something wrong. At first he could not place what it was; then he woke up. The rubber boat was gone! Yet he had pulled it up far above high water mark.
"Damn!" he said, and went to investigate, without result. The dry sand was scuffed up; the tide was low, and there were no footprints in the wet sand. "Damn!" he repeated, and stood looking around angrily. He lifted his voice.
"Whoever you are, bring that boat back or you'll pay for it! Hear me?"
Only the surf answered him. This was silly business, he thought, addressing the blank trees. Well, he would soon attend to the blighter! He went back and finished his meal, rather soberly. Whoever had taken the boat, could have killed him in his sleep had it been an enemy; this obvious reflection was distinctly annoying. He had no weapon of any kind except a pocket-knife and a razor, part of the toilet kit in the boat.
He palmed his long, lean features, took the razor and went to the creek. There he made shift to get a shave, of sorts; might have been better, but he was in a hurry. He wanted to settle this disturbing business without delay. He looked out at the lagoon where the wrecked bomber lay hidden, and for almost the first time it occurred to him that he was alive where he might well have been dead.
With a somewhat stealthy glance around, Larsen came down on one knee and repeated the Lord's Prayer, the only one he could bring to mind.
" ... world without end, Amen. And thanks, God," he concluded, then rose. It made him feel better, somehow, though he was not much for religion. And now, hiding his stuff away once more, he started for the deserted village. There were paths everywhere.