I found this book at the local thrift store. The sub-title is "A Story of Cannibalism in an Open Boat" and it has real pictures of a cool old freighter as well as the old salts who were on her. It's an old book, yellowed pages, dust jacket long since gone, part of the "Lowell Thomas Adventure Library". I learned later that Lowell Thomas was a promoter, radio announcer and general publicity guy who was very well known in the 20s, 30s and 40s. He is credited for making famous the story of Lawrence of Arabia. I put this in context because it was weird to me that he is credited as the author of this story, considering that he only wrote the first chapter and the rest was written by Fred Harmon, the guy who actually lived the story. It's funny, because the first chapter is really floridly written and almost discouraged me from continuing. Fortunately, the rest of the book is really clear and direct. As Thomas (slightly patronizingly) says "an extraordinary simplicity and graphic power, with that strength and reality which a man unschooled to writing and to literary artifice can achieve when the impressions of some fearful crisis have graven themselves on his brain."
The story is about a poorly and quickly built merchant ship, during the First World War. Most of the men on it were forced to be there, there only alternative to going to the trenches or in some cases jail. Once on, they found out that it was carrying a load of dynamite. It got caught in a lightning storm just off of Guam and blew up. The bulk of the story is one of the three life boats (actually two life boats and a raft), which was carrying almost twice its capacity (because the first life raft deserted) and had only a tin of biscuits and two gallons of water. They got caught at the first day of the tradewinds, which pushed them away from shore and ended up floating in the sea for 24 days. It got rough. Some went mad, over half just died and in the end there definitely was some cannibalism.
It turned out to be a great read. The author is clearly a straightforward guy but an observer and he spends the first chapter detailing the boat and then all the crazy misfits and castoffs that manned her. When we finally get to the lifeboat, you already know a lot of the characters well and you dread how they are going to behave under the pressure of surival. The narrative goes through it all in an engrossing, enjoyable but dreadful detail. When they do finally resort to eating one of the bodies, you are truly horrified, but also relieved because it actually ends up prolonging their lives and giving them enough energy to push on. But it is really disturbing. They strip the meat (what was left of it) from one of the guys thighs just after he dies, as he is lying there with his legs straight out in front of him. And they cook it in a tiny metal biscuit tin. It freaks you out!
I don't know if this book is around in any form other than a lucky find. But I am glad I found it. A great slice of sea life and an amazing story of survival and human behaviour.
[In searching for the cover of the book I have, I noticed that this story was published in 4 parts in Argosy magazine.]