The noise was so slight that only a trained ear could have heard it. It lasted only a moment, and then it was gone, and the engines of the big Air Force bomber sounded as sweet and smooth as they always had.
But Mac, the flight engineer, had a trained ear and heard the noise. He glanced around at the other crew members. Apparently they hadn't heard it, not even the captain.
Mac glanced out the cockpit window. The Pacific Ocean stretched clear to the horizon. He knew there were some islands just beyond the horizon, over to the southwest. He had heard stories about the South Sea Islands when he was a boy. Many of the people were cannibals.
The plane droned on. The navigator had worked out the course long ago and was now reading a paperback book. The pilot had the controls on automatic, and he and the copilot were dozing, their heads propped against their headrests.
Back through the fuselage were gunners at their positions, as relaxed as the men in the cockpit. They aren't concerned, Mac thought. Why should I be?
The noise came again. A little louder this time, and it hung on just a little longer. The navigator didn't notice it, the copilot still dozed, but when Mac looked at the captain, their eyes met. Only for an instant, but it was long enough to confirm Mac's fears.
He had not imagined the noise. Something was wrong with one of the engines.
Sooner than before, the noise came again. Then it came so often and with increasing loudness that everyone heard it.
Tension crackled in the cockpit. The navigator slammed his paperback down. Mac checked the dials. One was flickering in the danger zone. He ran through all the routine procedures for correcting the defect, but none helped. The copilot grabbed the engine manual and read off instructions so Mac wouldn't miss any.
The engine got so bad that the pilot cut it and feathered the propeller. The trouble spread to the next engine, and from there to a third. The bomber was losing altitude.
Mac strained his eyes for a glimpse of one of the islands. The navigator noticed and shook his head. "Nearest island is 100 miles away, Mac."
"Prepare to ditch!" But the captain's order wasn't necessary. The crew had already prepared.
The plane made a remarkably smooth landing. The men had plenty of time to inflate the life raft and stock it with emergency supplies. They were all safely aboard and well away from the plane when it sank.
They rigged a sail, and the navigator set a course for the nearest island. But mostly they went where the wind blew them.
"What's the use of landing?" Mac said. "We'll only run into the savages. They'll either kill us or turn us over to the enemy. There are enemy garrisons on all these islands."
"But there have been missionaries on these islands," the copilot said.
"Missionaries!" Mac scoffed. "Missionaries can't change cannibals."
After two and a half days the men saw land low on the horizon. Under cover of darkness they went ashore, hoping to remain hidden until they could work out some way to get back to the American forces.
They set up camp in a protected spot. "No one will find us here," Mac remarked.
For several days no one did find them. And then one afternoon Mac heard a rustle behind him and looked around. An islander was staring at him. A moment later the man disappeared.
The captain also saw him before he vanished. "It's only a matter of time now," he commented. "The man will return, and he will not come alone."
"We will be outnumbered for sure, but at least we can go down fighting." The tail gunner caressed his service pistol.
The copilot smiled. "Have you forgotten that there have been missionaries on these islands? These people may have been converted to Christianity."
Mac snorted in derision. But though Mac snorted, he didn't say anything. For the first time he realized that their only hope for getting out of this spot alive lay, not in the tail gunner's service pistol, but on the slim chance that the islanders had indeed chosen to follow Jesus Christ.
The sun dropped rapidly toward the horizon. The sky was rosy red and purple and gold. The next minute it was dark. The men waited.
Then there was a light, the flickering flame of a burning torch held in the powerful hand of a South Sea Islander. The light reflected off the swarthy bodies of a long line of huge men coming rapidly toward the American camp.
The tail gunner fingered his pistol. The captain raised a hand. "Hold your fire. These men are not armed."
And now the man with the torch had reached the edge of the airmen's camp. He stopped. He walked forward slowly. He handed one of the airmen a black book–a Bible!
Mac glanced at the copilot. Maybe the missionaries–
But he didn't have time to think about the missionaries just then. Several more islanders came into the clearing carrying food and drink!
And when those good things had been taken care of, the leader opened the Bible and read a passage that even Mac recognized. Then the islanders began singing. Mac couldn't catch all the words, but he remembered the tunes from church back at home. They were the same songs!
The airmen remained on the island 87 more days. Every evening the islanders came with food and read the Bible to the men and sang hymns. More than 200 of them knew the Americans were there, but never a word of their presence was breathed to the enemy.
At last the islanders helped the airmen construct a raft on which, in the dead of night, the Americans set sail. After a few days they were picked up by one of their own Air Force planes.
In a hospital recuperating from the experience, Mac spoke for the whole group. "You can tell the world that I am now a devout Christian," he said. "Those islanders gave us the Bible, and they led us ‘Christians' to Christ. Thank God for missionaries."