Moffat County man recalls World War II Pacific survivors
December 6, 2017
CRAIG — A shimmering slick of oil still floats above the sunken U.S. Navy battleships, the USS Arizona and the USS Utah. at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.
On the morning of Dec. 7, 1941, more than 2,400 service members and civilians were killed, and nearly 2,000 others were injured during a surprise attack by the Japanese that permanently sank the two battleships and destroyed 188 aircraft.
Soon after the attack, the United States officially entered World War II, setting into motion a war effort that saw more than 10 percent of Americans enlisted in the military.
Among them were pilot Harold F. Dixon, bombardier Anthony Julius "AJ" Pastula (also known as Tony) and radioman Gene Aldrich.
According to information from the National Archives and Records Administration, on Jan. 16, 1942 — a little more than a month after the bombing of Pearl Harbor — a Douglas TBD-1 "Dauntless," of Torpedo Squadron (VT 6), off the aircraft carrier USS Enterprise (CV 6), ran out of fuel during a scouting mission over the Pacific.
To escape the sinking plane, Dixon, Pastula and Aldrich deployed a small rubber life raft, where the three men spent the next 34 days adrift at sea, with limited tools, the clothes on their backs and what they carried in their pockets.
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The Associated Press reported in 1942 that, on the seventh day, Aldrich stabbed a four-foot shark.
"We ripped the shark open with pliers," Dixon was quoted as saying. "We had read about vitamins in sharks livers, so ate that first. It was very good."
When the men washed up on one of the Danger Islands on Feb. 19, 1942, it was estimated they had traveled about 1,200 miles.
Versions of the survival story have been recounted, primarily from Dixon's point of view, in the book "The Raft," by Robert Trumbull, and the 2015 film, "Against the Sun," as well as in other documentaries.
"The only three men who really know what happened are all dead now," said Aldrich's son and Pastula's nephew, Craig resident Tony Aldrich.
After their ordeal, Pastula introduced his sister, Frances, to Gene Aldrich. Gene and Frances married and had three children — Diane, Anthony (Tony) and Gary.
Tony and Gary both moved to Northwest Colorado from San Diego, California.
"I fell in love with the wildlife of the area. The only time they shoot around here is during hunting season," Tony Aldrich said.
Gary ended up moving their mother, Frances, to Northwest Colorado after he also fell in love with the area.
"She didn't like the cold weather. She took it as well as possible," Tony Aldrich said.
It seems that Frances, like her husband, may have known a thing or two about survival. She passed away at her home in Craig in 2013.
U.S. Navy Admiral C.W. Nimitz awarded Gene Aldrich a citation for "extraordinary courage, fortitude and strength of character, as a member of the crew of the Navy bombing plane which made a forced landing at sea in operations against the enemy."
As the rest of the world celebrates the survivors and heroes, and mourns the loss of so many to war, Tony Aldrich believes his father, who died in 1973, would have told the story of the raft a little differently.
"The way my dad looked at things, none of them were heroes; they were just survivors. It was the Navy that turned it into a chest-pounding, morale-building exercise. I never heard him talking about it," Tony Aldrich said. "He didn't think they were heroes. He thought they were all just fortunate to have made it."
Contact Sasha Nelson at 970-875-1794 or snelson@CraigDailyPress.com.