L. Douglas Keeney is the well-known author of over a dozen books on US history, and has just completed a book on WWII air-sea rescue missions. However, it isn’t the book he originally intended to produce. While conducting research, he expected to focus on the technical aspects; the various types of seaplanes, radio signal triangulation systems used to find pilots, etc. But, at Maxwell Air Force Base in Montgomery, Alabama, he was surprised to find a far more compelling tale. He discovered pages and pages of records, untouched for seventy years, featuring the first-person survival and rescue accounts from the Pacific Theater. His new book, LOST IN THE PACIFIC: Epic Firsthand Accounts of WWII Survival Against Impossible Odds, contains the best of these narratives.
The book reveals twenty three original, first-person stories of US Air Force bomber crews and Navy fighter pilots who managed to survive ditching their planes over uncharted waters in the Pacific during WWII. For every airman saved, two were lost.
The riveting accounts begin with Staff Sergeant William I. Coffeen. After jumping from his damaged plane, he finds he cannot inflate his life vest. He manages to board his flimsy life raft, just seconds before two sharks come at him. The next 32 days are epic – alone and adrift, his raft gets stuck in a storm and capsizes. Weak and hungry, he reaches uninhabitable islands where he fights off a four foot iguana, and constantly has to protect himself from the scorching sun. He endures dehydration, starvation, infections, and sickness, but despite it all, and with help from natives on the island of Choiseul, he prevails. Upon being reunited with his squadron at Guadalcanal, SSgt. Coffeen didn’t complain. He “wanted to get back in a plane and start right out again, but no soap.”
Every chapter reveals a hero: an airman who kept his delirious radar operator alive by holding him up in the water for more than 24 hours, despite being 35 pounds lighter than the guy he was saving; the downed airman who bobbed in the sea during the The Battle of Leyte Gulf, watching as Japanese and American destroyers shot at each other over his head, shells whizzing by; the man who felt the shark’s fin rubbing against his lifeboat; the rescue pilot who managed to land in 20-foot swells, putting himself in jeopardy to save another.
Here at WarbirdsNews, we surely enjoyed reading Keeney’s latest book. We had the opportunity to catch up with him recently, and talk about Lost in the Pacific.
WN: “Doug, how did the idea of this book come about?”
Keeney: “I got interested in this while writing The Eleventh Hour, which is due out at the end of this year. Eleventh Hour is about FDR and the Tehran Conference, and thus involves the progress of the war in the ETO. Plenty of books had been written about Search and Rescue in the ETO but not many on the Pacific. I did some research, called my agent, who called my publisher, and we had a book.
I was blown away by the hardships these young men endured. I was moved by their determination not to be broken by the bad hands they were dealt. I was floored by how they took control of the situations. No welfare on a life raft; it’s up to you. And they did it; they survived. They ate disgusting fish out of the bellies of birds. They ate rotten eggs, fended off sharks, hiked for weeks through swamps and snake infested jungles….. but they did it.
I’ve talked to hundreds of WWII vets, but I didn’t want to find any of these [for this book]. I wanted to take the reader back to 1944, and let them hear these voices just as they were. That’s a hard thing to do as an author. You want to take control of the narrative, but they told their stories in words I could never write so I let their voices dominate, not mine, nor their present day voices. When you read these stories, they are speaking to you as 22-year old pilots would speak to you in 1944.”
As Doug told WarbirdsNews, the best way to read this book is one story at a time. Let one account sink in, and then another. They are profound, timeless tales of courage and endurance.
To buy LOST IN THE PACIFIC: Epic Firsthand Accounts of WWII Survival Against Impossible Odds click HERE.
L. Douglas Keeney is the bestselling author of more than a dozen histories of the events that shaped American and world history. He has been well reviewed by The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Salon.com, Newsweek, The New Yorker, The Courier-Journal, Publisher’s Weekly, and others. He is a frequent speaker, and a dedicated researcher.
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