Lt. Smith and the booby bird — a true tale of survival

When I was 10 or 11 years old I picked up a copy of The Survival Book, and read it from cover to cover. The 350 pages of small dense type had advice for surviving in cold areas, deserts, tropical rainforests, savannas, seashores, and life rafts in the middle of the ocean. It discussed surviving wild animal attacks, foraging for food and water, and defending yourself against hostile human beings. I lost my original copy but bought a replacement. It's out of print but you can pick up a used copy for about $5.

For some reason, the story of Lt. Smith and the booby bird popped into my head today, and I found the passage from the book:

One very hot day in July, 1943, Lt. (j.g.) George H. Smith of the United States Navy was sitting on a small rubber raft somewhere between Munda and Guadalcanal. He was very thirsty, and he was cursing man's inability to drink sea water To his surprise, he saw a booby bird land on the water, put its long neck under the surface, and apparently take a drink.

In Smith's own words, "It made me mad. I couldn't understand why the bird, which was only flesh and blood like myself, could drink sea water while I couldn't."

Smith's next reaction was the crucial one. Though under all the strain of a life-and-death predicament, he set himself a plan of scientific investigation.

"I shot the bird, he relates, "cut him open, and traced the course of the water through his digestive system. Around the intestines of the bird I found a handful of fat, and I reasoned that if I greased my mouth with this fat, I might be able to swallow sea water without tasting it. For five days then I drank a pint of sea water each day."

Lieutenant Smith was picked up after 20 days of float, still in fairly good physical condition. Smith's story was widely circulated. His procedure for making sea water drinkable, and the fact that he drank a pint of it a day, were even incorporated into survival instructions used by some Navy and Army Air Force crew. Soon, however, less optimistic reactions began to be expressed.

Articles appeared in service publications pointing out that men are not booby birds and that drinking sea water as Smith had done could kill a man. U.S. Navy medical authorities reported that the reason Smith had suffered no ill effects from five continuous days of drinking sea water was that he was not seriously dehydrated at the beginning of the ordeal and that on the fifth day a rain squall provided him with all the fresh water he could drink. If he had been dehydrated when he started or if the rain squall had not come when it did, he might have lost his life.