Three small rafts rose with the twelve-foot swells of the South Pacific, barren but for the slowly sinking B-17 Flying Fortress that had become lost en route to New Guinea. .
The first hint of trouble had come early that morning at about 8:30 when Captain Cherry had dropped from cruising altitude to about 1,000 feet to watch for the four-by-eight-mile island of Canton where the plane would land for refueling. When the 9:30 estimated arrival time came and went without sight of the small speck that interrupted thousands of miles of ocean, concern aboard the B-17 began to grow. At 10:15 Rickenbacker inquired how much fuel remained, as pilot and navigator struggled to find what had gone wrong. "A little over four hours," Cherry replied.
The crew made radio contact with the American outpost at Palmyra, another of the small islands that dotted the Pacific. Captain Cherry climbed to 5,000 feet while the ground crew at Palmyra began firing antiaircraft shells set to detonate at 7,000 feet to mark the island's location. From the cockpit Captain Cherry could see nothing. From the windows behind him in the cargo compartment the anxious crewmen who scanned the horizon for any sight of life were equally fruitless.
It was after noon when Sergeant Reynolds sent out an SOS. By now the airplane was so far off course that the call for help wasn't heard even at Palmyra. The pilot dropped closer and closer to the waves below in preparation for the inevitable moment when the fuel was gone and the engines died. Behind him Rickenbacker and the crew of the airplane were hastily breaking out rafts and gathering provisions for the anticipated days at sea, while mentally steeling themselves for the imminent impact.
Captain Cherry handled that fateful and dangerous moment skillfully, setting his airplane down in the trough between two waves. Had he been even one or two seconds off in his calculations, the B-17's nose would have plunged into a 12-foot wave, sending it immediately to the bottom of the ocean. Sergeant Reynolds continued to bang out his SOS in Morris Code until the moment the airplane slammed into surface, tossing provisions and human cargo from wall to wall.
Quickly the green-blue water of the ocean began to fill the B-17 as injured and dazed men struggled to release the rafts and exit the doomed airplane. Captain Cherry, Sergeant Reynolds, and co-pilot Captain Whittaker got into one of the two larger rafts. Lieutenant John De Angelis, the crew's navigator, struggled to inflate the smaller raft for himself and Alex. When Alex tried to climb in, the raft capsized in the 12-foot swells, forcing both men to coax already exhausted bodies to fight for survival.
.Rickenbacker and Sergeant John Bartek, the flight engineer took the remaining raft. They held it steady as Colonel Adamson slid out onto the wing of the sinking B-17. A year older than Rickenbacker, Adamson was the oldest of the eight men that went down in the Pacific that day; and he was in severe pain. His back had been injured in the crash, thus it was all he could do to slide from the wing and into the waiting arms of Eddie Rickenbacker.
Quickly the eight men took stock of their situation, glancing anxiously at each other across the waves that quickly separated them. Despite the efforts to gather water, rations and emergency supplies in the minutes before the crash, when the moment of truth had come, none of the men had managed to transfer these to the rafts. It would probably have been impossible anyway, as everything had been scattered about inside the fuselage upon impact.
The big B-17 remained afloat for six minutes, causing the men to later regret the decision not to quickly return for water. Then the end came, the nose dropping and the tail raising heavenward as it plunged to the ocean floor. Rickenbacker looked at his watch...it was 2:36 p.m. Honolulu time on October 21, 1941.
The heavy seas swamped all three rafts, and the men bailed with abandon, at first unmindful of the fact that the current was pushing them further and further away from each other. Quickly Rickenbacker called them all back in, all of them paddling furiously to join their comrade. Then the three rafts were lashed together in a line. Rickenbacker later echoed his sentiment at the time, a philosophy that should be well remembered by any man in crisis: "A strong man may last a long time alone but men together somehow manage to last longer."
None of the eight men dared guess at how long they might have to survive. No one knew where they were, the Pacific was a mighty big place, and to further complicate matters, there was a war on.
Colonel Adamson was in the worst shape, lying almost motionless in Rickenbacker's raft and struggling against intense pain. All of the men were seasick and went through an initial period of vomiting that eventually faded...except for the young Alex who had swallowed much of the briny ocean when his raft capsized. His body retched for hours into the evening and, though relatively uninjured, he seemed to be suffering nearly as badly as Adamson. The plane's impact had thrown Reynolds, still pounding out his SOS until the last minute, against the radio console cutting a deep gash in his nose. The only other major injury was to Bartek who shared the second raft with Rickenbacker and Adamson. He had ripped his fingers to the bone on a piece of metal while untangling the ropes to push the rafts out of the forward hatch when the plane crashed.
As the afternoon wore on the eight survivors took stock of their situation. The rafts held no drinking water and all of their emergency rations rested on the ocean floor inside the B-17. Rickenbacker had a chocolate bar in his pocket, Alex nearly half a dozen, but these had been destroyed when his raft capsized. Captain Cherry had stuffed four oranges in his pockets moments before the crash, and these comprised the full compliment of food the men would have available in the coming days.
Rickenbacker was still fully dressed in a blue, summer-weight business suit complete with necktie and pocket handkerchief. Colonel Adamson was still in full uniform as well, and the pilot and co-pilot had their flight jackets. The other men had stripped for the swim from the sinking plane to the rafts, their bodies now laying exposed to the elements.
Three men were crammed into each of the larger, 5-man rafts with De Angelis and Alex sharing the smaller 2-man raft. Rickenbacker wondered who had determined the raft's rated capacity. Each of the larger ones measured only 6'9" long and 2'4" wide. The three men in each were literally forced to overlap each other in the pitching seas that threw them from swell to swell.
Almost as soon as the rafts began their odyssey, the eight survivors began noticing that they were indeed not alone. From day one until the rescue 24 days later, large sharks followed the men, patiently waiting for a meal. As night enveloped the eight men a stillness fell across the Pacific, broken only by the agonized groans of Colonel Adamson and the sound of Alex retching in dry heaves as the smaller raft trailed the two larger ones.
Throughout the first long, cold night the men had kept up a system of two-hour watches, scanning the darkness for any signs of light from a passing airplane or ship in the distance. During the night the rafts were bumped again and again by the sharks that followed, a grim reminder of the only alternative to the cramped quarters of the small rafts. Rick suffered in agony, his body still not fully recovered from the Atlanta crash. He had still been walking with a cane when the B-17 was lost at sea, undergoing regular daily treatments to his broken body. The stiffness and chill of the night now left him in great pain.
Early morning revealed a calming of the high waves, and the three rafts pulled closer together. Rickenbacker was made custodian of the four oranges that comprised the men's rations. The men determined that they would split one orange every two days, spreading them out to last a week and a day. Now Rick carefully cut the first orange in half, then quarters, and finally eights. Each man thankfully consumed his breakfast, the only meal scheduled for the day.
The ocean surface became mirror-calm that second day, and the sun became unbearably hot as it rose into the morning skies. By noon the exposed bodies of the men who had stripped for the swim to the rafts began turning pink, then brilliant red. Blisters rose as skin baked in the unrelenting heat. Rickenbacker had three large handkerchiefs in his suit pocket, and passed these around. The men tied them bandit-fashion below their eyes to protect their faces. Rick's eyes were sheltered by the battered hat Adelaide had threatened to burn for years. Now he was thankful it had survived not only his fashion-conscious wife, but the plane crash and its aftermath.
When darkness fell on the second night, Captain Cherry brought up the subject of the 18 flares and Very gun for firing them. These, along with two pistols carried by the pilot and co-pilot, were among the meager lot of survival gear that reached the raft. Despite the fact that the men were not sure whether or not their errant flight path had taken them into Japanese-controlled waters, it was decided to fire three flares each night for six days in hopes of attracting rescue.
The first flare was shot upward as soon as the darkness was complete. The shell was a dud and emitted no signal light to be seen, even if some human other than the eight men been anywhere near that part of the ocean. Rather than wait the planned interval to release the second flare, Cherry reloaded and fired again. This time the flare burst to burn dimly for a few seconds. It was better than the first, but not what the men had hoped for.
Days 3 - 7
Captain Cherry fired the third flare of that night shortly before dawn broke. The seas remained totally calm, the rafts idle on the surface. The sun continued to broil flesh and cause multiple blisters and seeping skin ulcers. Colonel Adamson still could barely move from his pain, and Alex continued to retch and shiver. The other men seemed stronger, and for a brief time determined to survive. At that however, death seemed almost preferable to torture. The salty water of the Pacific coated the bodies of the men, then evaporated to leave a white, salty film.
Rickenbacker later described the men's first six days at sea as the worst days of his life--far more painful and miserable than the Atlanta plane crash. The fourth night, and each night thereafter until the flares were exhausted, Captain Cherry fired three signals. On the fourth day, Rickenbacker cut the second orange into eighths and the men had their second meal. Most of the men savored their morsel as long as they could, eating even the rind. Rickenbacker and Cherry saved their rinds for bait. Two hooks and fishing lines had been among the supplies that survived the crash, but the men had no bait. In the clear, calm waters the men could see hundreds of fish around their rafts. None of the fish, sadly enough, had an appetite for orange peelings.
On their fifth day at sea the men decided to eat the third orange, primarily out of concern for Adamson and Alex who seemed only to become sicker and weaker. Temperaments began to fray and discouragement became as pervasive as the hot sun during the day or the chill at night. Almost to a man, bodies were blistered, raw, and oozing puss. Conditions in the small rafts were cramped as the men tried to keep from stiffening up. Any time one man moved in the raft to ease a cramp or find comfort in a new position, his body would brush up against the raw flesh of his comrades, causing pain for all of them.
Lieutenant Whittaker, the 41-year-old co-pilot of the ill-fated B-17, watched the fruitless efforts of Rickenbacker and Cherry to catch fish. When the orange peelings failed to entice a bite, Rick had even fashioned Adamson's key-chain as a makeshift spinner. The fish nosed it curiously, but refused to take the hook. Whittaker took one of the oars, tearing away the flat paddle with pliers and attempting to sharpen it to a point. The next shark that bumped against the raft felt the point of Whittaker's makeshift spear, far to dull despite the man's best efforts, to penetrate the thick skin. After several more jabs Whittaker tossed the useless spear, now equally useless as an oar, into the bottom of the raft.
Colonel Adamson, as a colonel, was the ranking member of the group. He was also in great pain, sick, and often delirious. Twenty-seven-year-old Captain Cherry held up reasonably well, and continued to command his crew. But it was Eddie Rickenbacker, the aging legend of a war past, who became leader, mentor, father-figure...and villain for the doomed group. As the weaker men began losing hope and giving in to the seductive serenity of death, he determined to shock their senses and motivate them to continue on.
At age 22, poor Alex was the youngest of the eight. He was also in the worst shape, shivering uncontrollably even while the sun blistered his body. Unknown to the others, his unquenchable thirst had driven him to drink seawater. Much of the time he was delirious, chanting "Hail Mary!", crying out for his mother, or rambling about a girl he called "Snooks". During his few lucid moments he would pull a photo of "Snooks" from his wallet, talk to it, pray over it. He was convinced now that he would never see his young sweetheart again. It was obvious to all that Alex was fading fast and had given up the fight.
Rickenbacker pulled the rope that tethered his own raft to that of De Angelis and Alex in the rear of the string, drawing them closer until he was face to face with Alex. "What is wrong with you kid? Why the hell can you take it?", Rick shouted as loud as his weakening voice would allow. It was brutal, but in Rick's mind, a necessary shock-treatment to motivate the young man to fight for his life. The other men looked at Rick in shock and disdain, unaware that this outburst had been a calculated effort to save the man's life. It was only as a result of the argument that followed that Rick learned that the young man was recently released from the hospital after contracting a tropical disease of the mouth that left him perpetually thirsty. He had been fragile before the crash, now he was close to death.
On the sixth day at sea Rickenbacker split the fourth and final orange. Already it was drying out and probably wouldn't have survived another day. It vanished along with the last shreds of hope. Until the last orange was consumed, the men had something to look forward to. Now, nothing remained for tomorrow but hot sun, shivering nights, and more doldrums on the surface of the ocean. Tempers continued to flare, bickering was constant, and even the stronger men were totally falling apart.
Rickenbacker had noticed Sergeant Bartek, who shared the middle raft with himself and Adamson, reading daily from the New Testament he carried in his jumper pocket. Rick called the others to pull their rafts closer, and instituted a twice-daily services of Bible reading and prayer. Two of the men initially objected, both professing a lack of religious conviction. Rick insisted that all of them contribute, each finding and reading a passage of scripture at each of the twice daily prayer services. In the days that followed, some of the men became bitter when they failed to see answers to their prayers, but the practice went on. Rickenbacker later wrote: "Under the baking sun on the limitless Pacific, I found a new meaning, a new beauty in its (The Bible) familiar words."
Captain Cherry had just finished reading the morning prayer service, the eight men had each prayed in turn and sung a hymn. Rick was starting to doze off as the prayer service gave way to small-talk when he was awakened by a light pressure on his head. At once, he guessed it must be a sea gull, and a glance at his companions through slowly opening eyelids told him he must be right. All eyes were on Rick's hat.
Slowly Rick began moving his arms, reaching his hands alongside his ears and then upward. All the while he resisted the strong urge to grab quickly for the bird lest it escape. A deep hush fell across the group of men and all eyes remained riveted on Rick's every move.
Rick sensed his hand near the brim of his hat and continued to move in slow, even, calculated motions. He couldn't see the bird, could only guess at its position on his head. When his hands were close to where he thought the gull must be he closed his hand, and felt the welcome texture of a leg.
In a fraction of a second he wrung its neck and stripped its feathers to reveal moist, dark meat. He divided it equally among the eight men, saving the intestines for bait. When the men had savored the sinewy but delicious sea gull, Cherry dropped his fishing line from his raft with a piece of the bird's intestine. Almost immediately he landed a small mackerel about 12 inches in length. This meat was cool and moist, satisfying thirst as well as hunger. Rickenbacker was equally successful when he dropped his own fishing line into the water, landing a small sea bass. It was kept for the following day's repast.
His spirits buoyed by the 2-course meal on his ninth day at sea, Rickenbacker dozed off when darkness fell. At midnight he woke with a jar...something was happening...for the first time in a week he felt movement.
Around the raft waves were picking up and a wind was whipping through his tattered clothes, illuminated now by flashes of bright lightening. The men could smell rain, and quickly stripped off their clothing to capture the first drops. The storm teased them for two hours and then, as Rick leaned his head face up over the edge of the raft, he felt the first drops hit him in the face, followed by another, and then another.
And then the rain stopped, almost as quickly as it had started.
Lightening still lit the clouds above, and the men could see a squall in the distance. "It's over there," Rick shouted, as the men picked up oars and paddled with what little strength remained. Somehow, in desperation, they found the strength and were soon being tossed about in the middle of the squall.
In the heavy waves disaster struck before water could be collected. A rope came loose and the small raft containing De Angelis and Alex was drifting away into the darkness. The men in the remaining rafts continued to paddle furiously, searching the dark waters for their comrades and fearing they were lost. Then a white flash of a cresting wave backlit the small craft. The men paddled towards it and, before all was lost, re-secured the line.
The rain revived even the quickly fading Adamson enough that he could pitch in to collect water. The men used the first raindrops to rise out their salt-caked clothes, then spread them out again to capture the fresh water and wring it out into containers before disaster struck again. The lead raft with Cherry, Whittaker and Reynolds capsized, throwing the men into the now-raging surf. Rick recalled, "Determined men who won't give up can do anything." Somehow, with the help of their comrades, the three men clung to the hand-lines along their raft until it could be righted and they were pushed and pulled back in.
The water collected that night was meager in comparison to the need, but it brought some relieve and more importantly, some new hope. During the morning the men ate the small fish Rick had caught the previous day, washing it down with each man's ration of water. As the day wore one, Alex's condition worsened and Rick increased the dying man's water ration. As evening fell, Rick transferred Bartek to the tailing raft with De Angelis and carefully moved the convulsing, nearly lifeless body of Alex to his own raft.
For two nights and two days Eddie Rickenbacker cradled the quivering body of young Alex in his own, much like a father cares for his own. It was a gentle side of his nature Rick had not yet revealed during this dangerous time, opting instead to motivate his comrades by making them angry enough to survive. Indeed, not all of Rick's outbursts had been calculated...he was human and prone to his own weak moments of irrational thought and irritable behavior. But for forty-eight hours he did his best to nurture the quickly fading young sergeant. It was not difficult for anyone to see that the gesture was futile.
On the evening of the twelfth day at sea during one of his few lucid moments, Alex asked to be placed back in the trailing raft. In the darkness that night Rickenbacker listened to the young man's shallow breathing across the still ocean. Somewhere in the passing of time Alex gave a long sigh. Then, all remained quiet.
It was obvious in the early morning darkness that Sergeant Alex Kacamarczyk had died, but it was not so easy to accept. At daybreak Bartek paddled up to Rickenbacker's raft where Eddie checked for a pulse, a heartbeat, or a shallow breath. The body was already stiff, but Rick refused to do what had to be done unless he was certain all hope had passed for Alex. Captain Cherry and Lieutenant Whittaker verified Eddie's determination. De Angelis did the best he could to offer the young man a Catholic burial service, and then the body of the young sergeant was rolled over the edge and into the sea. It didn't sink as they thought it would. Instead, the lifeless body of Alex Kacamarczyk followed the rafts for some distance, floating face down on the swells of the Pacific.
Days 14 - 18
The death of Alex served a crushing blow to the morale of all seven survivors, reminding them that death was near and forcing them to come to grips with their own mortality. The loss of one man left the smaller slightly more spacious, and Bartek asked De Angelis to change places with him. De Angelis consented to give up the small raft, but preferred to float with the other officers, generating a series of changes that might have been comical but for the desperate situation of the seven men. Sergeant Reynolds joined Rickenbacker and Adamson in the middle raft, Lieutenant De Angelis joined Captain Cherry and Lieutenant Whittaker in the lead raft, and Sergeant Bartek floated alone in the trailing smaller raft.
In the early darkness before daybreak Rickenbacker sensed something wrong. No longer could he feel the tug of a rope behind his own raft. Bartek's small raft was adrift, and Rickenbacker was sure that it hadn't been an accident. When light began streaking across the horizon, Bartek could be seen in the distance. His lone-wolf venture hadn't got him very far and at the insistent yells of the other men, he paddled back to tether his raft in its proper place. He later admitted honestly that he had untied the raft himself during the night. No one asked him why.
Despite his pain and constant delirium, Colonel Adamson had made daily notations on the side of his raft with a pencil. With the water from the storm five days earlier gone and the doldrums returning to the glassy-smooth Pacific, he wrote the last notation of the odyssey: "Fourteenth day. Rick and I still alive." It appeared to be his epitaph. His body burned to a pulp, his back and neck wracked with pain, and his mind fogged by nearly constant delirium, he was obviously close to death. For Rickenbacker it was especially disheartening. Adamson had been a long-time, close personal friend and confident. Now he was wasted away, dying, and there was nothing Rick could do to intervene.
Sometime during the night Rick felt the raft lurch violently. His first thought was that a shark had attacked. Then he noticed there was more room in the raft. Adamson was gone.
Reaching over the side, Rick felt Adamson's shoulder. In despair, his friend had apparently decided to put an end to his misery. Rick would not let him die, holding tightly to him but too week to pull him back into the raft. Only with help from the lead raft was the flaccid body of Colonel Adamson returned to its position at the rear of the raft.
Daylight brought some clarity to Adamson's fogged mind and, realizing what had happened he tried to force a smile and stuck out a week hand towards Rickenbacker. Eddie recognized the sincere apology for what it was...and then did what he claimed was one of the most difficult actions of his life. "I don't shake hands with your kind," he snarled at his best friend, ignoring the proffered handshake. "If you want to shake hands, you've got to prove yourself first!"
Hans Adamson sadly withdrew his hand, mulling over his close friend's rebuke. For Rick it was an emotional moment. Chances were very good that Hans was close to death, and his last memory of Rickenbacker would certainly be a sorrowful one. At the same time, Rickenbacker honestly believed it was at that moment that Adamson determined to fight...to survive...to live.
"Rickenbacker, you are the meanest, most cantankerous (expletive) that ever lived," one of the other survivors shouted across the water. Inside hearts crushed by too much pain and suffering, anger arose. Several of the other men determined in their hearts that they "would live for the sheer pleasure of burying Rickenbacker at sea", and later admitted the same to Rick.
In his own mind, Rickenbacker refused to give up, or to let anyone else give up. "It was clear to me," he later recalled, "that God had a purpose in keeping me alive. It was to help the others, to bring them through. I had been saved to serve. It was an awesome responsibility, but I accepted it gladly and proudly.
"I did not forget that I myself still had a mission to perform and a message to deliver to General MacArthur."
Despite the anger and profane words exchanged among the seven men, the twice-daily prayer services continued until about the seventeenth day. That was the day the men finally decided to part ways in hope of rescue. Against Rick's better judgment, he had always felt the men had the best chance of rescue by remaining together, the others convinced him it was time to separate. The hope was that the three healthiest men might be able to break out of the current that drifted all three rafts southeast, and perhaps find a transport ship or airplane. With most of the remaining water and all of the remaining oars, the three Air Service officers in the lead raft set out in the early afternoon. As darkness fell, little headway had been made. When morning dawned Rickenbacker looked across the green swells only to find the three rafts still floating nearly side-by-side. It was a great source of disappointment, diverted only by an unexpected rainfall.
The run of good fortune continued into the night when a pack of sharks began feasting upon a school of mackerel all around the rafts. In the frenzy that followed, one mackerel jumped into Rickenbacker's raft, followed by another that jumped into Cherry's raft.
The rain that had refreshed the seven survivors intermittently became more steady with the dawn. By early afternoon the waves had become large, white-capped swells. Water had been collected that might last for several more days. Suddenly Captain Cherry yelled above the howl of the winds:
"I hear a plane. Listen!"
Day 20 & 21
Two more similar airplanes appeared in the distant skies the following day. The men had no way of knowing if they were American or Japanese aircraft, but by this time it mattered little. Besides, neither pilot noticed the three small rafts that floated on the wide expanse of the Pacific Ocean.
Four more airplanes appeared on the distant horizon early the following day, but again the men in the rafts went unseen. During the afternoon the survivors were able to scoop up several small minnows that swarmed around the raft, a most welcome meal at a time when hopes began once again to sag. As the day wore on, no more aircraft were spotted. Rick feared that perhaps the rafts had been near an island base, then floated on past.
Tempers flared at about six o'clock that evening, and a great argument broke out between Captain Cherry in the lead raft, and De Angelis in the smaller raft that trailed in the chain. Cherry wanted his navigator to give up the small raft, so that he could then set out alone seeking help. "I'm going to try to make land. Staying together is no good. They'll never see us this way."
Rickenbacker sided with De Angelis and tempers flared, but Cherry remained insistent. He advised Rickenbacker, "I won't go unless you agree it is all right for me to." Against his better judgment, Rick finally consented. In the fading twilight he watched as the B-17's captain floated alone into the distance.
Now De Angelis and Whittaker took up the refrain, wanting to strike out on their own as well along with the nearly dead Sergeant Reynolds, too ill to add his own preference to the argument. Tempers continued to rule until Rickenbacker was too tired to continue, realizing it was fruitless. When darkness finally fell, three separate rafts floated on the dark swells, each separated by miles of water.
Days 22 & 23
Three men floated alone, now almost too sick to despair their situation. Rickenbacker tried to give Adamson and Barteck their rations of water, but both men were so weak they could hardly lift their heads to drink. During one brief lucid moment Bartek asked, "Have the planes come back?"
"No, there haven't been any since day before yesterday," Rick replied weakly.
"They won't come back," Bartek repeated again and again, fading back into delirium. "I know--they won't come back."
Rickenbacker was awake, but his mind had numbed after days of torment and repeated disappointment. He could see or hear nothing until he felt Bartek pull feebly on his shirt and whisper weakly through parched lips:
"Listen, Captain--planes! They're back. They're very near."
Rick struggled to stand, but could only raise his frail body into a seated position as he waved the battered remnant of his old hat at the two passing airplanes. His heart sank as he watched them fade into the distance. He knew this had been the last chance for any of them...and now it had vanished.
"Half an hour later we heard them again, much closer. They came directly out of the sun, straight for us. The first dived right over the raft. We yelled like maniacs. The plane was so low that I could see the pilot's expression. He was smiling and waving. Not until then did I look at the insignia. It was the U.S. Navy and gratitude and happiness filled me. I waved and waved, out of a half-crazy notion that the pilot must be made to understand we were not three dead men on a raft."
Incredibly, the planes vanished again. Hope washed away in the fear that they would not return. Darkness was falling. And then they were back, one circling overhead as the other landed on the ocean swells and taxied up to the raft.
Colonel Adamson was so close to death, he was hoisted into the cockpit. Lieutenant W.F. Eadie advised Rick that they were in hostile waters, and had to watch for Japanese ships. An American P.T. boat was en route to ferry the men to safety, but first the Navy float-plane would have to taxi across the water. With a full cockpit, Rick was strapped in a sitting position on the airplanes left wing, Bartek on the right. For half-an-hour the wind whipped across the two men as Lieutenant Eadie taxied towards the waiting P.T. boat. Throughout the journey Rick kept saying:
"This is heaven", "Thank God", "God bless the Navy".
Rickenbacker and Bartek were transferred from the flying-boat a short time later, to be rushed to a hospital at the nearby American base aboard the P.T. boat. Colonel Adamson, so near death his survival was still uncertain, was flown on to the hospital.
En route, Rick received the best news he could have hoped for. Two days earlier the raft with Whittaker, De Angelis and Reynolds had reached a small island after a dangerous brush with violent surf and preying sharks. The day after landfall they were met by friendly natives, who rowed them to safety. That same afternoon a Navy pilot had spotted the raft carrying Captain Cherry. All seven men had been rescued and were being transported to the hospital. The following morning the men enjoyed their first real meal in twenty-four days:
SOUP & ICE CREAM
Later on that Saturday afternoon, five of the seven survivors were flown to a larger hospital at Samoa, only Reynolds and Bartek left behind, too critical to move. Hans Adamson was worse even than those two, but doctors determined that the advantages of the larger, better equipped hospital outweighed the dangers of moving him. Despite three transfusions of plasma and intensive medical care, the 52-year-old man was dying.
Despite the ordeal he had just been through, Eddie Rickenbacker hadn't forgotten the reason he had come to the Pacific nearly four weeks earlier. In his first contact to Secretary Stimson he requested and received permission to continue that mission. Two weeks later on December 1, Rick checked in on his recovering comrades from the adventure at sea, then boarded a B-24 transport to fly to Australia.
Over the next four days, as he traveled, Rick continued to visit air bases along the route. He maintained his grueling schedule, despite the fact that his body was still weak and fifty-five pounds lighter for his ordeal.
General MacArthur refused to allow Rick to fly to Port Moresby in an unarmed plane and sent a heavily armed B-17 to transport him. Rick arrived in time to spend the weekend with the MacArthurs--and to deliver his communiqué from Secretary Stimson. Few secrets of World War II have survived the revealing light of the decades. One that has is the content of that message.
Ten days later Rick was back in Samoa after stopping to visit with American airmen at other stations along the way. His stops included a visit to Henderson Field on the small island of Guadalcanal, "A miserable little airstrip" where "it was difficult to see how men could even exist under such conditions, much less carry on the highly skilled warfare of the twentieth century."
Upon his return to Samoa he checked in on his friend Hans, who was improving but still in serious condition. "I'm going to Upola Island this weekend," Rick advised. "I'll be back here on Monday. If you are strong enough, you can fly out with me to Hawaii then." Rick's promise was just the motivation Hans needed, and at 5 p.m. on December 14, the two men were back in Hawaii.
Rick left Hawaii on December 15, leaving Hans behind in a hospital to continue his recovery. Eventually it would be complete, and the intrepid colonel who had come so close to death in the Pacific, lived a long and fruitful life. On December 19 Rick reported personally to Secretary Stimpson. The following day from his home in New York, Rickenbacker gave a stirring and patriotic radio address to the Nation. He told America, "You can never approximate the sacrificed our men are making on the battlefront for you and me. If I can only help you understand that, then I will be able to enjoy the first Sunday afternoon I have spent at home in many, many weeks."
Eddie Rickenbacker was quickly approached by Life Magazine for the story of his incredible ordeal and survival at sea. Over the next month he wrote it and it was published in three parts in three consecutive weeks beginning on January 25, 1943. In that story Rick wrote of his "21 days adrift in the Pacific". The $25,000 fee he received for the story was contributed to the Army Air Forces Aid Society, and was presented to the wife of General Hap Arnold who served as that organization's vice president.
Later that year when he published the same account in a book titled Seven Came Through, he again referred to his "21 days at sea". Only later did he realize that after being lost on October 21, the total time at sea was not twenty-one, but TWENTY-FOUR days.
The date of that rescue was Friday the Thirteenth (November, 1942) .
Ironically, only hours before Eddie and his comrades were plucked from the Pacific, hundreds of miles to the southwest the USS Juneau was sunk following the Naval Battle of Guadalcanal. As Rickenbacker, Adamson and Bartek were being ferried to safety on a Navy flying boat, more than 100 survivors from the 595-man-crew of the Juneau were floating at sea, many of them in rafts like Rickenbacker's. In that sad case, only TEN came through...ten men out of 595. Among the losses were five brothers serving aboard that ship together--The Fighting Sullivans.
While Eddie Rickenbacker was returning home from his inspection in Europe and preparing to visit the Pacific, another legendary airmen was on his way home. This was no older hero from a previous war, but a 27-year-old hero of this new war. Flying out of Henderson Field on Guadalcanal after arriving on August 20, Major John Lucian Smith had led his Marine Fighting Squadron 223 in achieving an unbelievable record of aerial combat--95 confirmed victories. Smith had personally knocked down 16 enemy planes, making him the Ace of Aces of this new war. By the time the squadron was sent home on October 12, Smith had upped his tally to nineteen, just seven shy of Captain Eddie's WWI record.
On December 7, 1942, even as Rickenbacker was touring Guadalcanal just two weeks after being rescued at sea, Major Smith was featured on the cover of Life magazine. He was the first Medal of Honor recipient of this new war to be so honored. It was a distinction that he would share with Audie Murphy and only one other Medal of Honor hero of this new war (exclusive of Rickenbacker's appearance on the January 25, 1943 issue).
That third man was making history flying out of Henderson Field during the time Rickenbacker was lost at sea. The day before Rick started his Pacific tour, the young pilot became an ace. Three days after Rickenbacker's B-17 went down in the Pacific, that young Marine pilot shot down four Japanese airplanes in a single day. On the day Rickenbacker was dividing up the third of his four oranges in a life raft, that Marine pilot was shooting down four more Zeroes--equaling the record of Major Smith. On that same November 7 afternoon, that young pilot himself went down in the Pacific, but was rescued and returned to his unit within 48 hours.
For weeks in the Fall of 1942, talk among pilots in the Pacific centered on who would be the first airman of this new war to equal the record of America's Ace of Aces, Eddie Rickenbacker. Three days after Rickenbacker was pulled from the sea, that same young pilot on Guadalcanal was this new war's undisputed Ace of Aces with 23 victories. Less than one month later, the intrepid Marine pilot shot down three planes in one day to tie the record of Captain Eddie Rickenbacker of WWI.
Eddie was most gracious, sending both a congratulatory letter and a case of scotch to the young man. For the kid from South Dakota, it was a thrill. Eddie Rickenbacker had been one of his two greatest heroes since his youth, second only to the one man he admired most--Charles Lindbergh.
America's newest hero was a young man who fifteen years earlier had tried unsuccessfully to work his way through a crowd to shake Lindbergh's hand, then said to his father on the ride home:
"I'm going to be bigger than Lindbergh some day!"