The Leak in the Raft

Lesson Launch Blog

By Dr. Paul E. Binford

Past President, Mississippi Council for the Social Studies

Library of Congress, Geography and Map Division

Library of Congress, Geography and Map Division

Johnny Graves, a gunner in the U.S. Army Air Service, was struggling for survival in the frigid sea! 

In the early evening, his bomber was returning from a sortie over German held territory during World War 2, but it had been badly damaged. It was clear the plane would not be able to return to England, but would have to ditch in the North Sea.

The radio operator managed to notify Air-Sea-Rescue shortly before the ditching. The plane hit the waves hard, bounced, and then settled.  The crew members rushed to launch the rafts and abandon ship before the plane sank. Graves and four other men were in one raft with the remainder of the crew in another.

It was dusk when the plane hit the water, so rescue—should it come—would have to wait until morning. “‘In a very short time,’” Graves lamented, “‘we were soaking wet from the wind blowin’ spray on us and so cold—so cold’” (124). The second raft drifted away in the dark and was never found. 

To make matters even worse, Graves’ raft had a leak—either due to a defect or battle damage—which threatened its seaworthiness. Graves began operating the hand pump; he and one of the waist gunners kept the raft inflated. However, there was a concern that the hand pump might wear out before morning.


Wise people learn not to dread but actually to welcome problems and actually to welcome the pain of problems
— Dr. M. Scott Peck

The late Dr. M. Scott Peck began his classic work, The Road Less Traveled on love, discipline, and grace, with this simple, but profound sentence: “Life is difficult” (15). He elaborates further by recognizing that our existence is difficult, in part, because it is full of problems and solving these problems is often painful.  Successfully addressing life’s problems requires us to be willing to suffer in the short-term for a long-term gain or benefit. Conversely, he notes, the avoidance of problems—and the emotional suffering that this process may entail—is “the primary basis of all human mental illness” (17).

Although it may seem counter-intuitive, it is in the process of facing, addressing, and solving problems that gives life its purpose and meaning. Contrary to the messaging of popular culture and, perhaps, our own personal inclinations, there is such a thing as “legitimate suffering.” Furthermore, as Dr. Peck enigmatically concludes, “wise people learn not to dread but actually to welcome problems and actually to welcome the pain of problems” (16).


Returning to the leaking raft, John Graves and the waist gunner took turns throughout that long, cold, and miserable night operating the hand pump.  They managed to keep the raft afloat. In spite of their extended exposure to the elements, the two men survived and were rescued with the morning dawn. Tragically, the other three crewmates in the raft had died from the cold and wet. The problem of the leak in the raft had saved Graves’ life. As he poignantly recalled, “‘The exercise of pumpin’ was just enough to keep two of us alive that awful night’” (124).

As teachers, the challenge for us is to be willing to face, address, and solve the difficulties and complications we encounter in our classroom. Don’t allow waves of peer pressure to submerge you! Don’t allow a colleague’s feckless “lecture, worksheet, and exit ticket” teaching approach puncture your commitment to providing engaging experiences for your students. Confront the urge to “cover” material in the name of accountability; don’t allow testing to drown-out meaningful learning and the higher level thinking that accompanies it. Trust your teaching instincts knowing that rich lessons will result in authentic growth for your students. Patiently, boost your students aspirations and desires to learn through your creative teaching strategies, your efficient and clearly delineated procedures, and your fair, firm, consistent, and respectful classroom management.

Recognize the problems for what they are, thinly disguised opportunities for professional growth for you and the colleague(s) that needs your example!


A final note on content: The events described above are based on an excerpt from John Coomer’s personal journal, which later evolved into the book, Combat Crew: The Story of 25 Combat Missions over Europe from the Daily Journal of a B-17 Gunner. Coomer, who had made John Graves’ acquaintance while they were both in gunnery school, later had a chance encounter with him in London. At that time, Graves shared his raft experience on the North Sea.

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