On this day in 1942, a Medal of Honor recipient is rescued. He’d spent more than 20 days floating on a life raft in the Pacific Ocean.
Eddie Rickenbacker was known as “America’s Ace of Aces” for his service during World War I. The former race car driver had earned many commendations during that war, including the Medal of Honor. When World War II broke out, Rickenbacker was ready to serve again. This second round of service would earn him the title “the Great Indestructible.”
In October 1942, Rickenbacker was asked to fly out of Honolulu to deliver a secret, memorized message to General Douglas MacArthur. Thereafter, he would also help by inspecting some bases in the Pacific.
Unfortunately, tragedy intervened.
No one then knew it, but Rickenbacker was flying a plane with damaged navigational instruments. The crew had trouble finding its first refueling stop, and the plane ran out of fuel while it was still over the ocean. When the plane hit the ocean’s surface, the crew of 8 men had mere minutes to evacuate.
They managed to get three rafts out into the water, but emergency food supplies were lost. They had only four oranges among them! They had to make those oranges last for days.
The men later reported that the first week was tough. Rickenbacker rationed and doled out the oranges in increments, but the men lacked water and they quickly became parched. They held out hope that Rickenbacker’s fame would help. Surely his absence would be noticed quickly?
Some say that what happened next was a miracle. A seagull landed on top of Rickenbacker’s hat! Was it really a seagull, so far out in the ocean, or was it another type of bird? Either way, Rickenbacker grabbed the gull and strangled it. The men scarfed down the bird, saving only its intestines to be used as bait. They were then able to catch some fish and eat those, too.
Adding to the miracle? It soon began to rain, and the men figured out how to collect rain water to drink. It was the first drinkable water that they had had in days.
And yet, still, no rescue came. One man died and had to be buried at sea. The men became annoyed with Rickenbacker! He was always there, forcing them to focus on living, not dying. He ridiculed those who tried to give up. Apparently, at least some of the men began to really hate him! They became determined to outlive him, just so they could see him die.
Well, I guess that’s one way to motivate people to fight for their lives?!
There was at least one other factor that kept the men going: At some point during their ordeal, they began praying on a routine basis.
Finally, the men decided to change tactics. For most of the ordeal, the three life rafts had been tied together. Now, over Rickenbacker’s objections, the men decided to break the rafts apart. They were soon floating in different directions.
One raft drifted ashore to an island, where the survivors were found. A second raft was found by a search plane. Finally, the last raft, Rickenbacker’s raft, was found just after sundown one evening. His raft had just crossed the International Date Line. Thus, it was Friday, November 13 when Rickenbacker was found.
Rickenbacker had lost dozens of pounds after more than three weeks at sea. He recuperated for a bit, but then still fulfilled his mission: He delivered his message to General MacArthur after all.
- David Lee Russell, Eastern Air Lines: A History, 1926-1991 (2013)
- John F. Ross, Enduring Courage: Ace Pilot Eddie Rickenbacker and the Dawn of the Age of Speed(2014)
- Medal of Honor citation (Edward V. Rickenbacker; 12/31/1931)
- Winston Groom, The Aviators: Eddie Rickenbacker, Jimmy Doolittle, Charles Lindbergh, and the Epic Age of Flight (2013)