The story began in the humid chill of a tropical morning. Norman Smith and his crew rose early. It was 1943, and the Allies were waging war across the Pacific against Imperial Japanese forces. Smith and his crew mates were part of that effort. From their air field in New Guinea, their mission was simple: get their B-17 bomber aircraft in the air, find Japanese convoys, and bomb them into oblivion. It was meant to be a routine mission. Smith recalls looking at his payload of bombs and thinking,
“These babies are going to cause plenty of trouble when we find our target.”
Smith’s premonition was right, but not in the way he initially thought. Rather than a routine mission, things for the crew of the B-17 “Little Eva” were about to turn into a struggle for survival.
A Routine Mission
At the controls, Smith guided the “Little Eva” out over the ocean in their designated search pattern. There were no reports of convoy activity initially; the skies and seas were calm, clouds hanging low. However, things got more interesting at about 0945 when the bombardier called out over the intercom, “Convoy, two o’clock below!”. Smith guided “Little Eva” into a bombing run, while the rest of the crew prepared to rain down ordinance upon the transports below.
Suddenly, a voice called out over the intercom: “Zeros! Two o’clock above!” The Japanese fighter aircraft—some of the best and most feared of the war—swooped in on the attack. The B-17 fought back, guns blazing, but was quickly overpowered. Bullets whizzed through the aircraft body, and blood splattered the windshield as Smith’s co-pilot was hit. The crew of the “Little Eva” was highly trained and disciplined, executing emergency procedures such as extinguishing fires while Smith guided the bomber into a cloud bank to escape their assailants.
The plane was going down, and Smith did everything in his power to execute a safe belly-landing on the ocean below. However, unable to jettison the payload of bombs, the B-17 came down too fast. Smith was knocked unconscious when the aircraft slammed into the waves.
Fighting For Survival
He awoke to a near nightmare. Disoriented, he slowly came to the realization that he was in the aircraft, and it was sinking fast into the uncaring waters of the Pacific. Smith acted as quickly as he could, getting clear of the burning carcass of the B-17. The rest of his crew were no where to be found.
Finally inflating his life vest, he was able to scavenge critical supplies floating on the waters around him. These included a life raft, including oars and an emergency patching kit, and a couple of chocolate bars. A piece of wood from the tail of the B-17 became a makeshift mast and an unused parachute became a sail. Settling in to his new vessel, Smith began to voyage South, hoping to make it to friendly territory while avoiding any further encounters with the Japanese. He never saw any of his crew members again.
A cold wind bore Smith along through a long, lonely night. He eventually slept, waking early in the morning to the sight of another B-17 on the distant horizon. However, the friendly aircraft was too far away to see the flares Smith launched and flew away. The next day, Smith got lucky. Another bomber crew flying above spotted him. Circling his position, they were able to drop additional supplies to him, including precious water. Resupplied and feeling a bit more hope, Smith kept sailing.
The trip was long and arduous. No more aircraft were sighted, no further supplies came. Weak and tired, Smith struggled to keep himself together. After nine days alone in his raft, he sighted land. He assumed it was the coast of New Guinea. Guiding his small craft to shore, Smith found a grove of coconuts, which he feasted upon greedily. With some strength returning, he pulled his small life raft further up the shore and settled in for the night.
Awakened the next morning by a herd of small wild pigs, Smith resolved to row around the island in the hopes of finding some human habitation. Walking would have proved dangerous—the coconut groves which crowded the shore dropped the hard, heavy fruit with every gust of wind. Fearing a concussion, Smith kept to the water. His efforts were soon rewarded. A few miles down the coast Smith sighted a native village. Rowing back ashore, he found that the small collection of huts were abandoned. While collecting water at the village stream, Smith sighted another human figure walking down the coast. He waved at the man, who approached him in a friendly manner.
Using the pidgin English spoken by the islanders, Smith explained his plight. The man was friendly and supportive, explaining that the villagers retreated inland to avoid the fighting. He guided Smith to their new settlement, feeding him on fresh island fruit and sweet potatoes along the way. After conferring with his fellow villagers, they made the decision to guide Smith back to an allied military facility. Journeying through the heart of remote New Guinea, Smith and his companions forded rivers and passed through difficult jungle terrain. Moving from village to village, they led Smith to an old colonial villa.
Back To The Fight
Approaching the European-built structure, Smith was delighted to find that it was inhabited by Australian troops fighting on the island. These troops of the Australian Imperial Forces (AIF) were working on the island as aircraft spotters. After confirming Smith’s identity, they explained they had been the target of a Japanese strafing attack a few days prior that killed some of their native allies.
Smith remained on the island for several more weeks and by the time he left, it had been 37 days since he lost both his plane and crew members. His will to survive is a testament to his training and the fighting spirit of America’s soldiers during the Second World War.