WOOD RIVER — Shelia (Aldrich) Young of Wood River understands the sting of war, the triumph of overcoming the impossible and the pride a family can have as she looks forward to the release of American Film Co.’s “Against The Sun,” a film that tells her brother Gene Aldrich’s true story of survival.
On Jan. 16, 1942, veteran Navy pilot Harold Dixon and his crew, radioman Gene Aldrich and bombardier Tony Pastula, crash-landed their single-engine torpedo bomber in the South Pacific while returning to the aircraft carrier USS Enterprise during World War II. The trio survived but were left with no food, no water, no first aid, no signaling device, no map or no chance of being found. The only thing to keep the three men alive was a 4- by 8-foot raft, Aldrich’s pocketknife and a gun with only a couple rounds as they floated aimlessly for 34 days.
“Our family is so excited to see how they portrayed the three of them,” Young said. “We can’t wait until the film comes out. My husband, Mack, and I just hope the film does their story justice. Three men in that tiny raft for 34 days, no food, water and to fight the sun on the ocean — I can’t imagine their fears.”
The only food they had was a shark Aldrich was able to kill with his pocketknife. The men had to endure being challenged by sharks, storms at sea and the smoldering sun while they slowly starved to death.
Some may have given up in such a dire situation by rolling into the water to drown or be taken by a shark, but the three men would not accept failure until there was no other option — a decision that ultimately saved their life.
Young’s brother Gene Aldrich wasn’t the only war hero in her life. Her brother Marty served in the Army during the Vietnam War as a forward observer, also known as a scout. The position was one of the war’s most dangerous jobs, as the soldier maneuvered out before his company to report enemy locations for air and artillery strikes. Marty Aldrich described his position as being the first to be shot at and the first to return fire.
“I was shocked when I got my draft letter in August of 1966,” Marty Aldrich said. “I had to report for duty just over a month later — that’s not much time to prepare or get things in order. I didn’t know I was going to war until after AIT training. We all looked on the board that gave our orders; everyone’s name was listed somewhere. I looked under Germany, France, Italy ... then I looked under Vietnam and my name was third on the list.”
Aldrich described battle conditions in 1967 as horrendous, wet and miserable, but he’d do it all over again if he had to.
“I’m proud of the job we did,” Aldrich said. “We did what we had to do to survive, and I’d do it again. From September to January it would do nothing but rain. We stayed wet, we smelled, we had little to no time off. We would go a month without electricity, having to use a flashlight to write home. The letter would take a week or so to reach our family. Let me tell you, a lot can happen in a week.”
Whereas most people know a veteran or even someone who served in the Iraq war, soldiers and their families today have it much different than in the past.
“When these young men and women go to war today, they have stable shelter, three square meals and the Internet set up before they arrive,” Aldrich said. “When my brother Gene and I served, there was no Skyping, no phone calls, no emails to give families peace of mind at home. Mothers knew that when they got a letter from their son at war, there was always a chance he could have had something happen to him by the time they opened it — then the letters would just stop until the telegram arrived.”
Aldrich survived a year of daily close-quarter combat in the jungle and rice paddies of Vietnam while digging his bunkers and searching for the enemy. When he wasn’t on the front line, he dodged enemy fire while trying to resupply his camp.
“I was assigned to Camp J.J. Carroll,” Aldrich said. “We were south of the demilitarized zone, which made it a key facility, and the Vietnamese tried to overrun us many times. We needed ammunition so we went to the ammo storage. There were occasions that we’d return to camp, chased with heavy fire, and have to bail out of our trucks quickly because we didn’t want them to hit a charge and blow us away.”
Aldrich described his service to his country as a time of fear, but also growth. He was just 19 when he left for basic training and 22 when he returned home.
“I’m proud of who I am, what I’ve done and that I’ve served God and my country,” Aldrich said. “My most prideful achievement was the day I received by sergeant E-5 promotion. My commanding officer sent for me and when I arrived in his office and saluted, he told me to stay at attention. He proceeded to chew me out due to the reports he received on me — he accused me of being everything but a good man. I told him his reports were wrong and I had done no wrong. I took his chewing and when he was finished, he turned over papers on his desk and there were my sergeant stripes. He said that he wanted to see what kind of man I was, and my reactions told him I deserved those stripes. I was proud and very happy that day — that was a good day.”
Aldrich said Camp J.J. Carroll was attacked and nearly destroyed the day after he was shipped home from his tour of duty. Many of his friends died in the strike.
Young says she is proud of her brothers’ sacrifice and survival. Sharing their stories is one way she feels they can be honored.
“My heart still goes out to Marty and Gene; they were just kids when they faced these heroic situations,” Young said. “They were thrown into these experiences, didn’t know if they’d live or die one day to the next. Their strength is inspiring. I know that both Marty and Gene relied on God to help them endure their pain and fears. I can’t imagine what both of them went through.”
Founded in 2008 by entrepreneur Joe Ricketts, American Film Co. says it produces engaging movies based on great American stories. “Against the Sun” was filmed on the same set as James Cameron’s “Titanic.”
“Against the Sun” will be in theaters and on pay-per-view on Jan. 23.