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This Day in History: Eddie Rickenbacker rescued from the ocean

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 already known as “America’s Ace of Aces” for his service during World War I. Now he would also be dubbed the “Great Indestructible.”

He was yet another American hero who came from tough beginnings! He would later say that the turning point in his life came when his father was tragically killed. “That day I turned from a harum-scarum youngster into a young man serious beyond my age,” he said.

Rickenbacker applied himself and became a well-regarded race car driver. When the United States entered World War I, he left race cars behind and volunteered to serve. He was a wildly successful aviator who received many commendations, including the Medal of Honor.

When World War II broke out, Rickenbacker was once again called to serve his country. This time, he was employed as a non-military observer who could evaluate base operations. In October 1942, Rickenbacker was asked to fly out of Honolulu to deliver a secret, memorized message.   Thereafter, he could also inspect some bases in the Pacific.

Unfortunately, tragedy intervened.

No one then knew it, but the plane’s navigational instruments had been damaged during a problematic takeoff. 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.  

He was finally able to return home in December.

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