Dorothy's List: 'Lost In The Pacific, 1942' Recounts A Tense — And True — Survival Story

Mar 26, 2018

Westford Elementary School students have broken up into small groups, clustered around library tables — but in this case, the tables are figurative life rafts. The students are discovering a nearly-forgotten piece of history, as they dive into the nonfiction book Lost in the Pacific, 1942 by Vermont author Tod Olson.

Each "raft" has to use clues to solve a puzzle. The answer to that puzzle is the combination to a lock. The padlocks all secure one lockbox, with a mystery inside. If every raft solves its riddle and unlocks in the allotted time, the group gets the surprise hidden inside.

These life rafts in the Westford school library are metaphorical. But Lost in the Pacific, 1942 — a nominee for Vermont’s Dorothy Canfield Fisher Children's Book Award — tells the story of men who really did have to figure out how to survive for weeks in three small rafts in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.

First, they had to survive the plane crash that got them there, and then the eight men began what would be a three-week wait to be rescued from shark-infested waters, with almost no food or fresh water.

Listen to the audio above to hear Olson read the scene just following the plane crash.

Ian Curry, left, and Max Drapa, work with their fellow tablemates - their metaphorical life raft cohorts - to figure out a clue from this shark image.
Credit Meg Malone / VPR

One fifth-grader said she was a little worried when she first heard what the book was about.

Abigail Curry: "I know, for one, when I came into this hearing that it was just about, like, eight men just floating on an ocean for a whole, like, 180 pages, I was like, 'OK, this is gonna be the most boring book I’ve ever read.'"

But Abigail said she was pleasantly surprised.

Abigail Curry: "And then, like, I actually started reading it and it was, like, a lot more interesting. … It kind of puts into perspective how much stuff can happen in such a, like, small, isolated space."

Still, Abigail wondered if the author was tempted to spice up what could have been a tedious story.

Abigail Curry: "Did you ever consider, like, editing the story to make it not true, but ... based on a true story — to make it, like, more active and interesting?"

Tod Olson: "Oh, that’s a really interesting question, Abigail, because I am actually of the opinion that nonfiction – truth – can be every bit as interesting, and every bit as suspenseful and dramatic, as a fictional story. And, in part, that’s the reason why I chose this particular story because I really didn’t feel like I had to do anything to it to make it suspenseful and dramatic.

"And so, no, I didn’t, and I do feel very strongly that if a book tells you that it’s nonfiction, it shouldn’t make anything up. An author shouldn’t invent dialogue between the characters or invent events in the story."

From left, Willa Wilson, Ada Jorschick and Sonja Reilly work to decipher the first clue in this activity. On the screen is a timer counting down the time for the entire group to unlock their box and find out what is inside.
Credit Meg Malone / VPR

One sixth-grader wondered what drew Olson to this particular story.

Sonja Reilly: “Why did you decide to tell this part of World War II when you could tell lots of other perspectives?”

Sonja said this book isn’t like most World War II stories she’s read, which often focus on events in Europe.

Tod Olson: "I actually feel like this is more of a survival story than a story about World War II, and that’s the thing that really drew me to it, is that there’s nothing better than a great survival story. And so, to me, it’s a story about eight men with personalities that were really different — some of them got along and some of them had a lot of conflict — who were stranded on rafts for three weeks without food and water.

"And that, to me, was the real drama of the story — not the war that was circling around them. But, how were they gonna survive? Were they gonna be able to get along? Where were they gonna get food? Where were they gonna get water? And, would they make it back to their families alive?"

Grace Symula, standing left, and Justin Finn work on opening letters from a mailbag in pursuit of the clue their "raft" had to solve in order to unlock another lock.
Credit Meg Malone / VPR

Lost in the Pacific, 1942 is the first in a series of adventure stories Olson has written. There’s also Lost in Outer Space, about the Apollo 13 moon mission, and the third book is Lost in the Amazon, about a teenager who falls from a plane and has to survive on her own in the rainforest.

All that led one seventh-grader to ask about a recurring theme.

Ian Curry: "Why are you so fascinated with the concept of 'lost'?"

Olson says it all goes back to when he was about the same age as the kids who are now reading his books.

Vermont author Tod Olson stopped by VPR's Montpelier studio to answer questions that Westford students had about his nonfiction book "Lost in the Pacific, 1942."
Credit Amy Kolb Noyes / VPR

Tod Olson: "When I was eleven, I went on vacation in Maine and I read a book called Alive, which is about a rugby team that gets stranded in the Andes mountains when their plane goes down. And they’re stuck there for about two months. And, shockingly enough ... the way that they survive is to eat the bodies of the people that died in the plane crash.

"And I was just amazed by this story. I didn’t get out of my chair for about two days, finished the book, and I think ever since then I’ve been just fascinated by survival stories – by people who are thrown into situations where they have to improvise in order to survive, who are taken way out of their comfortable lives. And so I thought, you know, how great to be able to write an entire series full of survival stories."

The survival story told in Lost in the Pacific, 1942 starts out with a six-man military Air Transport Command crew flying a B-17 bomber carrying a VIP war hero and his military escort on a top-secret mission.

Col. Eddie Rickenbacker was that very important person. He was an ace pilot in World War I, a race car driver and then president of a civilian airline.

Molly Drapa works on unlocking one of the locks at the Westford Elementary School library, as part of the students' activity about the book "Lost in the Pacific, 1942."
Credit Meg Malone / VPR

Several Westford students were curious about how Olson researched his subjects, including this seventh grade student:

Rosie Whitney: "How did you get all this information?"

Tod Olson: "Good question, Rosie. It took a while. But, one of the great things about this story is that Eddie Rickenbacker was sort of like the LeBron James of his day. Like, everybody knew who he was. And so when these guys got lost out in the Pacific, it was front-page news on all the newspapers in the country.

"And, thankfully, Rickenbacker kind of thought pretty highly of himself, so he kept pretty much every clipping, every news story that was ever written about him. And they’re all at a library at a university in Georgia, and I got them to send me photocopies of all of these articles.

And, also, you know when they got back, when they were saved, everybody wanted to hear their story. So, these guys talked to newspaper reporters. They each wrote books. So there was plenty of information on this story."

In addition to that research, one fifth-grader wondered if Olson got to hear the story from anyone in person.

Grace Symula: "Did you ever get to talk to anyone on the rafts’ or plane’s family members or friends?"

Tod Olson: “No, unfortunately I didn’t. Their families, I think, have scattered far and wide. I did end up, after the book came out, somebody got in touch with me who lives out West who is the — let me see if I can get this right – the daughter of, daughter or granddaughter of, one of the guys who saved these guys in the end – one of the pilots of the flying boat that came down and found them. So, that was pretty fun."

Success! The Westford Elementary students ultimately figured out all the lock combinations, allowing them to unlock the box which had snacks inside.
Credit Meg Malone / VPR

To find out exactly how many of the men made it home alive, you’ll want to read Lost in the Pacific for yourself.

And if you’re wondering if the Westford Elementary students ever got inside that lockbox – they did! The surprise inside was a book-inspired snack, including an abundance of gummy sharks.

Special thanks to Westford Elementary School Library Media Specialist Beth Shelley and Westford Public Library Director Bree Drapa. Find more episodes of Dorothy's List here.