A Rainbow Every Day–Part Two

The journey toward land continues


Read A Rainbow Every Day, Part 1 from the December 2006 issue.

On August 30, 1942, the West Lashaway was sunk by a German U-boat. C&MA missionary Ethel Bell; her children, Mary and Robert; two children from another family; and 12 sailors were adrift on a small raft in the Atlantic for weeks. Read Part One of this story.

Time hung heavey on our hands. The folks on the raft were of varied nationalities and races. Most of them were very good to us, and we loved them dearly.

At first we talked of meals we’d treat each other to after we were rescued. The cook said he would serve his specialty, the Italian-American sailor wanted spaghetti and meatballs and someone else wanted Chinese food. Mother, a Canadian, would treat everyone to maple syrup from Ontario. But as days passed and hunger worsened, food became a forbidden topic. If someone slipped up, curses filled the air.

We had four kinds of food on the raft: small cans of pemmican, biscuits, chocolate bars and malted milk tablets. A tiny pemmican can served two people at first. I didn’t like it because it was mostly coconut with oils and added nutrients, but after hunger took over I relished every morsel. At the end, three people ate from one can, and that was all our food for the day.

Morning and evening, we drank about two ounces of water that had been stored in the wooden barrel and was full of slivers and sediment. We all shared two enamelware mugs that were covered with slimy palm oil, but we were thankful for fresh water.

Harmful Intent

I often watched schools of beautiful fish swim around and under the raft—such a bounty. Minnows swam in the raft at our feet, and some would get caught and eaten on the spot. Once I caught one and showed it to someone else because it was so pretty. But I didn’t get it back. It went down another throat instead of mine.

One man, the boatswain, was determined to harm us, but God restrained him. After the captain died, he took authority and settled himself with his feet up on the food box. The captain had had Mother and us kids sitting on it together for some protection from the sun and water. The boatswain moved us to another spot and kept himself dry.

He tried to put Mother and us four kids in the doughnut. The others warned her that he was trying to kill us—he’d cut us loose without any food or water—so she refused. Years later one of the dear sailors told me they were keeping an eye on that man and wouldn’t have let him go too far.

A Heavenly Sight

We were on the raft one week before we saw a plane. The first one flew directly above us, very high. We shouted and waved, and the plane turned to fly over us. We hoped it had seen us, but nothing came of it. After that, we saw many planes and always waved and shouted but to no avail.

Then, on Sunday evening, the second week after the sinking, we were settling down for the night when suddenly a plane came roaring quite low out of the sunset. We waved and shouted as always, but it seemed to be passing like all the rest. Then it turned and dove to drop a package, which broke apart. Ham sandwiches were spread over the ocean, to the sharks’ delight and our sick disappointment. The plane circled so low we could see the airmen’s faces, and they dropped two more packages wrapped in waterproof yellow canvas, probably their own emergency rations.

A man paddled out in the doughnut to pick up the bundles. The plane continued to circle and dove again, dropping one more parcel, which we think they had hastily put together. It was wrapped in a life jacket and contained four tins of milk, a tin each of Spam and corned beef, a note saying “Trinidad” and, of all things, two dresses! The airmen must have seen Mother and me. We didn’t get them though as they were quickly taken by men whose clothing was in worse shape than ours. Then the plane flew off.

Wonderful Answer

That night we thought surely would be our last on the raft—the plane’s crew would certainly send help the next day. So we all enjoyed a taste of the food, and throughout the night we ate and drank—foolishly. We also took down the sail so we’d be near the same spot. It was almost over!

Sure enough, at dawn I saw a ship toward the horizon. As the sun rose, everyone watched intently as it trolled back and forth, obviously searching. But by mid morning the ship disappeared, taking with it our hopes and spirits.

That afternoon the boatswain caught all five of us napping, so he handed out the day’s rations to everyone but us. We woke and asked for our share but he refused. That is the only time I cried on the raft.

Two sailors appealed to the boatswain for us. He said, “It’s their hard luck if they weren’t awake.”  That night he announced we had less than two gallons of water left. It was about the bluest Monday possible.

The next morning, the men asked Mother to pray for rain. She did, although it was sunny. But soon the sky was covered with dark clouds. It rained so hard it stung our legs as Mother and I stood to catch all we could in the canvas flap. The men used an empty can as a funnel and soon filled one barrel. When the other barrel was almost full, the rain stopped. We drank all we wanted.

That was a wonderful answer to prayer for me to witness as a teenager. After Daddy died when I was seven, it was like God had died for me, too. Though I was saved, I really didn’t know the Lord well, and nothing passed between us for years. I had no idea He would answer if I prayed—I just thought it was my family He answered prayer for.

Cream Puffs and Gale Winds

Many goals for rescue had passed, but now another one emerged—September 20, my 14th birthday. I decided I would like cream puffs that day. I had never tasted one, áá but a missionary girl in Côte d’Ivoire had invited us over to look at some she had baked. I remembered that, so I wanted to actually eat cream puffs. It really was a preposterous desire for starving people adrift on a raft for almost three weeks.

The evening of September 17, I was leaning on a pole, and Mother was sitting by Robert. He suddenly began to confess things to her that he wanted to make right. I couldn’t hear what he said, but soon she stood and came to me. Then I confessed things that had weighed on my heart. We were always mindful that the men needed God, but He had work to do in our hearts as well.

That night there was a gale. The raft rode 20–30 foot waves until dawn, not really cresting the tops but going through them. Everyone floated temporarily and then rested back on the raft a few inches from where they had lifted off. Even the boatswain said, “If you believe in prayer, you’d better do it now. The raft is breaking up.” But God kept it together!

Food Fight

The next morning, one of the sailors braided strands of string for a fishing line and caught two pilot fish. The cook cleaned them with a pocket knife and cut them into small squares, enough for each of us to have two pieces of raw fish.

The cabin boy—the lowest man in rank—tactfully took vital leadership. Johnny spoke to everyone about the awareness that food was being stolen. He didn’t name names, but everyone understood. We suspected the boatswain had been helping himself at night. Johnny suggested that we be responsible for our own food. So solemnly, the remaining food was distributed.

We thought we had passed the Lesser Antilles and were on our way to Mexico, so our rations would have to last a while. I put my two cans of pemmican back in the food box so I wouldn’t lose them. But I planned to keep an eye on them.

“Will You Save Us?”

About mid morning, Mother had her head on my lap when the man on watch shouted, “Convoy!” We had been disappointed so many times Mother didn’t even look. I remember seeing seven ships in a row. As we watched, one separated from the group and came steaming toward us.

We were elated. But then we saw two flashes from the ship. I thought, They’re shooting to let us know they’ve seen us. However, they kept it up. Sixteen shots landed all around us as mustard-colored geysers of water rose into the air. One shot landed right in front of us and ricocheted over the men’s heads. “Jesus, Jesus!” I screamed.

It was an unbelievable moment of despair—to have Allies bombard us after all we’d endured. The men cried, “It’s the flag!” and tore down the mast, which must have resembled a U-boat periscope. The shooting stopped, and the destroyer continued toward us.

“We’re Americans!” we called. “Will you save us?”

The wonderful answer came back across the water. “Yes!”

I still get goose bumps just thinking of that.

Beyond Unbelievable

The HMS Vimy maneuvered beside us, and I never saw such a wonderful sight as the clean-shaven men lining the railing. They lowered rope ladders, and as I started climbing, hands reached down to pull me up. As soon as my feet touched the deck, a sailor lifted me in his arms and carried me below deck. It was unbelievable to sit on red leather seats in the captain’s lounge—just past unbelievable.

Mother and I were put in a private room so we could change our clothing. My once pretty pink and white dress, the first I had made for myself, was gray and rotten. Mother’s dress was mostly gone as she had been tearing off pieces for a head covering, but she had a sturdy slip under it. We dropped them all on the floor and put on the men’s clothing they brought us.

The crew shot up the raft and about 12 sharks. They couldn’t explain their bad aim earlier, as they were trying hard to hit us. Mother learned afterward that many of her family and friends had had a special burden to pray for us, though they had no idea of our need.

We were given chocolate, apples and tomato soup. Then the ship’s doctor dressed our sores and put us to bed. At about 3 p.m. they carried us topside again. The Prins Willem van Orange laid side-by-side with the HMS Vimy to take us on, since the Dutch vessel was going to Barbados and the rest of the convoy was headed to the Mediterranean. The ships were so close that a lifeboat was smashed as they literally handed us from one deck to another over the heaving sea.

Mother and I were taken to separate cabins. Around 5 p.m., the first mate came in and carried me to the porthole so I could see Barbados. Beyond a tranquil harbor with little boats were palm trees and houses with red-tiled roofs. It had actually happened—I had gotten to see land once again!

Birthday Wish

At dusk they carried us to a launch with the other survivors, and we were taken to a large warehouse with long benches. Eventually Richard and I were taken to the hospital. Mother was already in bed with Carol next to her, and they put me beside her, too. It was absolutely wonderful. Several days after we were rescued, the raft we had cut loose floated to the island of St. Vincent. Two men were still alive, but one died before he made it to the hospital and the other died later.

The people of Barbados had seen hundreds of survivors of U-boat attacks come to their shores, but we were the first from a raft, the longest at sea and the only one with a woman and children. The boys spread word of my 14th birthday, and the nurses were kept busy bringing trays of gifts the islanders showered on me. I had four cakes, and we all had cream puffs for my birthday!

How kind God was to this girl who didn’t know Him well. But He was very real to me on the raft. I am so thankful He spared all three of us, because our family had already been reduced by half. As time went on out there on the ocean, I felt He was right there—I could touch Him if I reached out my hand.

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