The Hawaiian islands are beautiful, climate perfect, but I’ll take New Jersey with its change of seasons. A little snow is good when you know summer is just six months away.
- John Bartek, My Raft Episode: 21 Days Adrift at Sea
At the age of 18, John F. Bartek enlisted in the army and was stationed in Hawaii. A couple of years later he joined the Air Corps., and in October of 1942 was chosen for a mission to deliver obsolete B-17 bombers for new pilots to train with. Things changed at the last moment, and the crew was notified that they would now be joined by a top-secret passenger. The passenger turned out to be national hero and WWI flying ace Captain Eddie Rickenbacker. His mission was to deliver a classified verbal message to General Douglas MacArthur, and their mission was to get him there.
Navigating through the clouds to their destination, the plane's directional finder malfunctioned. Soon the crew were lost, and all efforts from the ground failed to locate them. Captain Cherry ordered them to throw everything overboard to prevent loose items from becoming dangerous shrapnel during a hard landing. Bartek made a quick decision to toss his camera but keep his pocket Bible. When the fuel supply finally ran out, Cherry did his best with the crash landing. The plane dove into the ocean where it “popped up like a cork,” and three life rafts were released and tied together. Cherry re-entered the plane, emerging with three oranges. They added these to the one orange held by another crew member, and that was their entire food supply for eight men lost in the Pacific Ocean. The only other assets they had were a couple of fishing hooks and some fishing line, a bucket or two, two knives, some flares, two guns, two life raft pumps, oars and some cigarettes.
At sunset, the sharks began bumping the bottoms of the rafts. The nights were cold and wet. The days exposed them to the brutal sun, and they were starving and dehydrated. Six days in, they finished their last orange, and it seemed hopeless. Bartek stumbled upon an appropriate verse from his Bible which said, “Therefore take no thought, saying what shall we eat? What shall we drink…?” Soon after, a seagull began circling...and landed directly on Rickenbacker’s head! He slowly reached up, grabbed it by the legs, and dinner was served.
Many days went by, and the harsh reality of survival continued as the men tried to fish and collect rainwater from passing storms. They could not collect water in the bottom of the raft because the constant mixing with the salt water waves made it undrinkable. They wrung rainwater from their clothes into a bucket, but the precious water was lost when the waves tossed the rafts. Someone had the idea of using a life vest compartment for water storage. The supply needed to be divided equally, so Rickenbacker was chosen to place the water from the bucket into his mouth - without swallowing a drop - and blow it through the small tube into the compartment. After they executed this plan, they estimated that they had had about a pint of water.
The days became longer and more brutal; the salt water and rocking rafts had created painful sores on their skin, and finally 22-year old crew chief Sgt. Alex Karzmarczyk succumbed and was buried at sea. The men passed Bartek’s Bible around to pass the hours, reading until the salt sprays had irritated their eyes to the point that reading was impossible. They wished they had fresh water to at least rinse them out! They continued to watch the cloud formations, the sea gulls, and the sharks...
On day 21, at their most hopeless, two planes flew above and disappeared. They waved their arms wildly as Bartek prayed they would be seen. As they waved and shouted, one of the planes circled back and tipped its wing in acknowledgement. At that moment, a huge storm swelled and caused the planes to abandon them. At the end of it, the men were left staring at open sea again, and a half hour later the planes returned. They were saved, and brought to a makeshift hospital on the nearby Hawaiian island of Funifuti. Eddie Rickenbacker joined another crew soon after and completed the mission.
In May of 1944, Bartek donated his pocket Bible to the Monmouth County Historical Association. His father, a janitor at the Karagheusian Rug Mill, said that churches all over the country wanted it but "Johnny was a Freehold boy, so it belonged in Freehold". John went on to sell war bonds and give speeches on his experience, later becoming a photographer for the NJ State Police. Bartek died in 2013 at the age of 94. Our Director of Collections, Bernadette Rogoff, had the special honor of meeting Johnny Bartek in 2006 during his visit to MCHA's Home Front exhibit, for which he also donated the vest he wore during his three weeks adrift at sea. Bernadette filmed a short video to give you a look at his vest: