San Francisco to Tokyo

Be it known, I fear flying.  I have gotten braver about it over time, but years ago I would begin trembling as soon as the reservations were made, and stay in that condition until the whole ordeal was over.  Soon after we were married, Bill was scheduled for a naval tour of duty in Japan.  He left on his ship and I was to fly over later and meet him.  We planned to live there for about 8 months until his release from the Navy.  Flying to Japan meant flying over the Pacific Ocean.  Now the Pacific is the largest body of water in the world, taking up more than a third of the surface area of the entire Earth.  It takes many hours to fly that far and that is a long time to have to sit stiffly in stark fear of imminent disaster, with every nerve ending in survival mode.  How can you sit stiffly and tremble at the same time?  I can do it, just believe me.  And the Pacific Ocean has deep trenches - most of them are 20,000 to 30,000 feet deep.  30,000 feet!  Jets fly 30,000 feet up and look like specks.  Imagine 30,000 feet down into the Mariana Trench.  So, by the time I arrived at San Francisco International on the designated day, I was like the walking dead.  I had imagined it all.  I boarded the plane, hoping the rest of the people hadn't brought as much stuff as I had.  Imagine if the cargo hold was overweighted - and because of me!  Would the plane be able to stay in the air?  Another thing to worry about.  I didn't get off the plane, but I wanted to.  I had to meet Bill in Tokyo.  I didn't know it at the time, but en route to Japan I would be in very earnest communication with God.

Wake Island

We had to land on a tiny speck (Wake Island) in the middle of the Pacific Ocean to refuel.  As we descended and strained our eyes to see what we were going to land on, I thought maybe there was enough room for a helicopter, but not a big commercial jet.  Thank goodness the plane had powerful brakes and we stopped before sliding off what little land there was and into the ocean.

We stayed onboard as they refueled the plane, and once again wondered if we would run out of land when we took off.  When we were airborne, there was a problem with retracting the landing gear.  I think one of the crew crawled down into the wheelwell area to try and fix the problem, but the wheels wouldn't go up, and they couldn't tell whether the wheels would lock in the down position either.  Rather than flying on to Japan where an emergency landing would be more risky and the fuel supply might be too low for diverting us away from populated areas, it was decided best to return to Wake and attempt a landing there, not knowing whether the landing gear would hold in the down position or not.

Before we could do that, all the fuel had to be dumped out over the ocean (the thousands of gallons they had just taken on), because if the plane crashed there would be a terrible fire and explosion. So the plane circled and circled out beyond the little coral atoll for a long time while dumping the fuel into the air, and all of us sat in silence with our own thoughts.  I don't remember what I thought about, I don't think there was any order to it, or even if I was able to think about only one thing at a time.  I probably thought about crashing in flames mostly.  But while I tried to concentrate on these serious matters, several asian men of religion behind me in orange oriental religious robes seemed ecstatic with the whole affair.  I turned and looked at them in disbelief.  I was scared to death and they were laughing with glee (somewhat like the Japanese couple in the back seat of the car Chevy Chase drove wildly down the streets of San Francisco on the way to the Mikado performance in the movie with Goldie Hawn).  This annoyed and worried me as it increased my fears.  I thought maybe they knew something I didn't and they were excited they were going to meet their holy one.  They were almost beside themselves with happiness.  So I prayed extra hard not to die in the ocean or smashed into the runway pavement, as I believed they were praying we would.  We prepared for the worst and got out the oxygen masks, listening more intently this time to instructions again about using the seats as floats if we hit the ocean.  I wondered if there were sharks waiting, but hoped they didn't like the fuel we dumped on them, if it ever reached the ocean.  Fuel was almost gone and we buried our faces in pillows and prayed.

Picture I took
Out off the plane's wingtip is Wake Island

Down, down, down we went, waiting without breathing, wondering if the wheels would collapse and the plane would end up in flames.  The plane touched the earth...the wheels didn't collapse.  While still in a zombie-like state, we were whisked off through hordes of emergency military vehicles and taken to a metal Quonset hut where we were secured behind locked doors.  We were not allowed outside as this was a military base. 12 hours locked in a hot Quonset hut with hundreds of people and only pineapple juice to drink.  Nervously, we sipped on the pineapple juice in the paper cups, while the plane was repaired.  Did we contemplate life and our miraculous survival, or complain about the tepid pineapple juice and the stifling heat?  How quickly our minds return to the trivial.

I haven't thought about this for many, many years.  I wonder what I promised God as we circled that atoll in the Pacific.  I hope I have kept my promises.

Wake Island is a United States possession in the west-central Pacific Ocean. It is a triangular atoll made up of three small coral islets, Wake, Peale, and Wilkes. The islets cover a land area of about 3 square miles (8 square kilometers). They have about 300 people, all of whom are U.S. citizens. With a curving reef, they enclose a lagoon that is less than 4 square miles (10 square kilometers) in area. Wake's vegetation consists mainly of shrubs and bushes. 

Spaniards probably sighted Wake when they explored the Pacific in the late 1500's. The British schooner Prince William Henry landed there in 1796. In 1841, Lieutenant Charles Wilkes of the United States Exploring Expedition surveyed Wake with the aid of the naturalist Titian Peale. They found no indication that the atoll had ever been inhabited. Wake Island became an unincorporated territory of the United States in 1898. The United States claimed Wake because it lay on the cable route from San Francisco to Manila. In 1935, Wake became a base for Pacific air traffic. 

Wake Island was the site of an early World War II battle. For two weeks in December 1941, a force of 400 U.S. Marines and about 1,000 civilians fought off a Japanese invasion. But the Japanese captured Wake in late December 1941. The Japanese garrison on Wake surrendered at the end of the war, in 1945. 

Today, Wake is used primarily for emergency stopovers for airplanes and ships. The U.S. National Weather Service and the U.S. National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration have research and monitoring units on the atoll.
World Book Encyclopedia
On to Japan