At the beginning of the war, most downed American Air Force planes were lost due to accidents rather than combat. Most of the time, mechanical failures in the planes themselves were the reason for accidents. But bad weather, human error, and the challenges of navigation also accounted for some of the losses.
After describing the heroic victory at Wake Atoll, Hillenbrand undermines the idea that war is inherently heroic by describing all the futile, unglorified ways to die in war.
If crewmen survived a crash into the Pacific, the U.S. Air Force would search for them for thirteen months before giving them up for dead. Although the military was dedicated to finding survivors, the chances of actually seeing anyone on a tiny life-raft in the middle of the Pacific was highly unlikely. Sharks, starvation, and crash wounds all contributed to the unlikelihood of staying alive on a raft long enough to be rescued.
Because of the events related in the preface of the book, we know that Louie will soon find himself on one of those very same life-rafts. The description of the unlikeliness of survival gives the reader an understanding of how challenging survival will be on the raft.
Above all else, the airmen fear capture by the Japanese after a crash. Word of the Japanese atrocities had swept through the U.S. military barracks, including reports about the six-week killing frenzy known as the “Rape of Nanking” where Japanese soldiers murdered between 200,000 and 430,000 Chinese civilians in the city of Nanking. The men also heard stories of Japanese soldiers torturing and executing American prisoners of war.
Once again, Hillenbrand provides a sense of the extent of Japan’s wartime atrocities. These descriptions serve to show that while sharks and starvation seem like terrible ways to die, nothing compares to the cruelty that human beings are capable of inflicting upon each other.
To cope with the possibility of death, Louie learns survival techniques in case he finds himself stranded on a desert island. But, like most airmen, Louie turns to drinking to repress his fear of dying.
During wartime, drinking is a socially acceptable and perhaps necessary coping mechanism. It’s hard to find fault with men who drink to forget, if only for a moment, that death is all around them.