A Rainbow Every Day

A woman, four kids and 12 sailors adrift in the Atlantic


In 1942 World War II was raging, and the U-boat menace in the Atlantic was at its peak. France had fallen to the Germans in 1939, and all of French West Africa was governed by a puppet of the Nazis. Food was severely rationed, as were clothes and gasoline.

My mother, Ethel Bell, was an Alliance missionary in Côte d’Ivoire. My father had died in a bus accident six years earlier, and my twin brothers had been buried in Mali. So a family of six had been reduced to three: Mother; my brother, Robert, who turned 11 that summer; and me, who would turn 14 in September. Mother was due for home assignment but was officially denied permission to leave Côte d’Ivoire. The French, however, repaired a road for us to travel inland.

The Adventure Begins

Before dawn on June 16, 1942, we quietly boarded a train to Bobo-Dioulasso, Upper Volta (now Burkina Faso), where another family joined us. It was the beginning of what we children thought was a super adventure—just getting to the coast.

From Bobo we rode atop baggage on a truck to Ouagadougou, where we had to wait several weeks while the French prepared the way. Two more families came along. Finally, we again left town before dawn because the French didn’t want the Nazis to catch them helping us. Soldiers with guns hopped on our truck as we approached the border to Gold Coast (now Ghana). For us kids, it was just more excitement! Then we traveled to Accra, on the coast.

We had planned to fly, but the Near East and North Africa were being evacuated. All the planes were full. Our party split up to find passage across the Atlantic. Because we had heard primarily propaganda in Nazi-occupied Côte d’Ivoire, we didn’t know the real condition of the world. A booking agent persuaded Mother that ships were as safe as planes.

On August 16, we walked down the pier to the West Lashaway and looked up to see the Harvey Shaw family from another missions agency in Central Africa. The Shaws had three children: Richard, 13; Georgia, 10; and Carol, 7.

The West Lashaway was a small cargo ship manned by Merchant Marines, with nine U.S. Navy Armed Guards on board for defense. Because of the possibility of U-boat attacks, we had numerous drills and knew well which lifeboat was ours. A strict blackout called for several layers of curtains in the hallway and thick insertions in the portholes. This made it very hot in our cabin, so we asked our parents if we could sleep outside on the hatch. This was so much fun, we planned to sleep there every night until we arrived in New York City.

Down with the Ship

On Sunday, August 30, I was sitting on the hatch when the alarm sounded. It was about 2 p.m., not the usual time for a drill, so I hesitated. Just as I decided to jump down, a torpedo hit the ship directly under me, and I was thrown to the deck. I got up quickly and ran to Mother and Robert in our cabin.

As we feverishly put on our life jackets, a second torpedo struck. The basin beside me crashed to the floor, and we could hear dishes breaking in the dining room. We grabbed each other by the hand and raced to the deck.

Although it was a bright, sunny day, we could hardly see—the air was thick with water, smoke and flying debris. We hurried to the boat our family was assigned to, but in the mist we saw only big splinters. A sailor sent us to the port side for another boat.

At the center of the deck we met Mrs. Shaw and little Carol. Since their cabin was starboard, none of them had been able to get life jackets. Mrs. Shaw was bleeding from her neck. Half crying, she said, “The whole cabin fell in on us.”

Robert and I got into a lifeboat, but as Mother was getting in there was a jolt. When the torpedoes struck the starboard side, the West Lashaway had listed to port. With a shudder, the ship listed back to starboard and the lifeboat was now stranded in the davit on the uplifted side. A sailor ordered us out.

As I was climbing over the side of the lifeboat, I saw water about three inches from my foot. The next thing we knew, we were going down with the ship.

Up from the Depths

The West Lashaway foundered in less than two minutes. I clearly remember my thoughts as I sank. I had heard of the suction power of a sinking ship, so I thought I had no chance. Since it was useless to struggle, I freely let my lungs continue to function, only now it was water, not air, I was taking in. I remember thinking I would soon see Daddy and Jesus. I had trusted Him as my Savior at age five and was glad to be ready because there was so little time to prepare. We think we have years to make such a decision, but in an instant—while so young—I was face-to-face with death. But because I knew Jesus, I wasn’t frightened.

Then suddenly I realized I was rising quickly. I saw something dark above me and thought I was going to hit my head. But when I surfaced, I saw that the dark stuff was palm oil, part of the cargo.

At first I wondered what good it was to be alive alone on the open sea. Then my little brother swam over to me. We hugged tightly, so thankful to have each other.

Robert started calling for Mother, but I wanted him to keep quiet because the U-boat had surfaced about 200 yards away. Men were shooting into the water from its deck, and I didn’t want Robert to attract their attention. But someone clinging to a plank near the submarine answered him. Robert, full of faith, left me for that person. I realized it was Mother, covered with palm oil, and swam to join them. The U-boat soon left.

The lifeboats had sunk, but four rafts floated up. Men paddled around, looking for survivors. Someone called for a raft to come for a wounded man, who turned out to be Harvey Shaw, and they picked us up, too. Richard Shaw had survived by clinging to a man, who then found a lifejacket for him. Little Carol came up in a swirl crying, and a sailor dove in to save her. We never saw Mrs. Shaw or Georgia again.

A Packed “House”

The captain had Mother and us children join him on the best raft, leaving Mr. Shaw on one of the others. Our raft held 19 people; the other three averaged seven each.

The rafts were eight-by-ten feet and made of wooden slats, like a park bench. Both sides were the same so the rafts were usable regardless of which side surfaced. There were benches along the long sides and a narrow strip across both ends, with a “floor” in the center.

Under the floor was a storage area with two barrels of water, a watertight food box, a canvas tarp, a first aid kit and a few other items. The boatswain, a petty officer, got busy “setting up housekeeping”—putting oars and poles in the corners, getting the barrels and food box out and spreading the tarp between the poles.

The first afternoon and evening we were stunned by what had happened. Most everyone heaved over the side. We dangled our feet in the water, but it wasn’t long before someone sighted a shark. After that, we had to be alert so that no part of us hung over the raft.

The men combed through the wreckage for objects that might prove useful. They tied a “doughnut”—a rectangular cork raft intended for one person—to our raft to ease the crowding. Two men at a time took turns in it, but they hated it, and we were still crowded.

High Hopes

That first night we had high hopes our ordeal would soon end. The captain said we were due to dock in Trinidad on Tuesday, so they’d start searching for us Wednesday. “If we can put up with it until then, we’ll be rescued,” he said.

The captain sat on the floor in water up to his waist with his back against the food box. All night he held Robert between his legs and against his chest. Mother and I were on a corner, and one of the sailors held me in his arms all night.

Flags (the Navy Guard signalman) was floating in a doughnut just off the corner. He asked me if I had slept at all. “Yes,” I said. “That’s more than I’ve done,” he replied. Soon someone was singing “Happy Birthday” to him, and he joined us on the raft.

The first morning Mother led us four children in an extension of our home devotions—we recited a Psalm or other Scripture, sang a hymn or two and then prayed. She did that with us morning and evening before we received our rations and water. She always ended with the Lord’s Prayer.

The men asked, “Mrs. Bell, would you pray with us, too?” They wouldn’t eat without prayer time—they desired it very much. Often they joined in reciting the Lord’s Prayer. Before the rafts were separated, I remember leaning against the first mate’s back while we were singing “Rock of Ages” and feeling the vibration of his deep voice from his spine next to mine. I believe Mother made the raft a chapel and those times together were what sustained us as God honored her faith. It maintained sanity on board.

Psalm 107 has a paragraph that fit us on the wild ocean, and Psalm 91:5 brought comfort to us all—“You will not fear the terror of night.” I don’t know why, but many of the men went crazy at night. One tried to throw a water barrel overboard. In the darkness it was quite a struggle to stop him. Another night, the cook tried to throw Carol overboard, but the Lord spared her. We knew that although we were lost at sea, we weren’t lost to God—He was watching over us.

Always Grateful

No matter how troubled we were, there was always something to be thankful for. We were thankful the current was not taking us out to sea but toward the Antilles, where we were more likely to come across ships. The miserable oil that covered everything was a blessing, too, because it helped protect us from sunburn.

We saw a rainbow almost every day, a reminder of God’s promise to Noah after the Flood. That helped me feel near to Him. One day a dove landed on the head of the man on watch. He was so startled he made no effort to catch it. But that made us think that perhaps we were near land.

With the sailors looking to Mother for spiritual encouragement, the morale on our raft was distinctly different from the other three tied with us. Those survivors mainly just huddled under their tarps and didn’t ration their food. On our raft, a watch system was set up—four hours at a time in case a ship was sighted or approaching, especially in the dark when we could be run down. I often watched in place of someone, and I found it helped my body to stand. The men hoisted a sail, hoping to make a tiny difference in our speed. They also hung a rag across the back to provide some privacy for Mother, Carol and me.

Parting Ways

The four rafts stayed together for a short while; then two disappeared one night, never to be seen again. Mr. Shaw, along with about six others, was on the one that remained. It was very hard for him because he had been wounded and had lost his wife and Georgia.

The men decided to separate the rafts to increase our chances of being sighted. So the sailors cut Mr. Shaw’s raft loose. I watched it slowly float away, getting smaller and smaller until it was entirely out of sight. It was such a lonely feeling!

One night we saw lights. The men thought it was Trinidad and had a big discussion about the best thing to do. Some wanted to row in, but the captain said that since the harbor was heavily mined, it would be best to go in by daylight. Some tried to row anyway but soon gave up. By daybreak there was no land in sight.

Another night I was awakened by the men lighting a flare to attract attention from something giving off light near us. I was afraid it was a U-boat. There was no response, and I was relieved when the flare burned out. It could have been a life jacket with a light attached. We never knew.

Who Will Be Next?

During the first week, Flags died. At the end he was squatting on the floor drinking the salt water, and no one could stop him. He was “out of his head”—he thought he was at a ball game, then he was phoning his girlfriend and later he recited part of Psalm 23.

The next morning it was clear Flags was almost gone. The other men offered him their meager food, but soon he died. The men asked Mother to conduct a funeral service for him. She had never done such a thing but did her best. She asked God for courage and care and His mercy to deliver us. Then, the men just put Flags over the side. Mother made us hide our eyes as sharks tore the body apart.

Soon after, the captain started failing. He was wounded and seemed to be heartbroken over the loss of lives and his ship. One of the men held him at night so he wouldn’t slip into the water. But the captain, too, died. Again the men turned to Mother for a service. Before they put his body over the side, they took what little clothing he had to protect themselves from the sun, as our clothes were rotting in the salt water. Everyone wondered how many would die and who would be next.

With food and water nearly gone, the survivors ask God for a miracle . . .
[Read A Rainbow Every Day, Part 2 , in the January 2007 issue.]

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