Sunday, November 2, 2008

If you wait long enough

The pieces come together.

Some thirty or more years ago, I read in a book of sea stories, or perhaps a book about the naval war in World War II, a paragraph account about a ship's steward from China who held the record for the longest survival at sea following a sinking, more than a hundred days. My recollection was that this occurred in the Pacific. For some unknown reason, this glancing reference fascinated me then, and has stuck with me over the years. I think it was just the idea of being adrift for nearly a third or half a year, an immensity of time for a ten or fifteen year old as I would have then been, when I read of it. I remember wondering, as I often do when reading of disaster or survival stories, what later became of the survivor.

Well, good things come to those who wait. I picked up a copy of Captain James E. Wise, Jr.'s Sole Survivors of the Sea from the Eagle Eye Bookstore. Published in 1994, it is a collection 2-10 page accounts of sinkings in which, as one would suspect from the title, there is a sole survivor. And there, in Chapter Two, is the account of Poon Lim and his survival for 133 days adrift as the sole survivor of the S.S. Benlomond. My recollection of the story proved to be pretty accurate with the exception that the sinking actually took place in mid-Atlantic 750 miles east of the Amazon River.

The Benlomond was torpedoed on November 23, 1942 by the U-172 and sank quickly. Lim with the rest of the crew abandoned ship and was left drifting in the water till he managed to locate one of the ship's large rafts. Climbing aboard, he found himself alone but with some basic provisions. With careful husbanding of these supplies and recurrent efforts at fishing and collecting rain water, Lim survived 133 days alone and adrift across the South Atlantic before being rescued by a fisherman ten miles off the Brazilian coast.

Lim was feted, studied and honored for his unique feat of survival. He received the US Merchant Marine Combat Bar with One Star as well as being invested by King George VI with the British Empire Medal. Poon Lim eventually settled in the USA, became a US citizen, and worked with the United States Line as Chief Steward until retiring in 1983.

While there have now been longer durations of survival at sea (177 days is the current record), Poon Lim still remains, sixty five years after the event, the holder of the record for duration of solo survival at sea with 133 days alone on a raft in a wide open and little travelled ocean.

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