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Lost At Sea For 24 Days
Steely determination enabled Eddie Rickenbacker, the World I ace pilot and president of Eastern Airlines, to survive drifting across the Pacific in a life raft.
Fall 2008 | Volume 58, Issue 5
One night while Rickenbacker dozed, several of the men made a pact to stay alive until they had the pleasure of burying Captain Eddie at sea. “I wish I’d known it at the time,” Rickenbacker said later. How glad he would have been to know that his nasty medicine was working.
Early on day 19, Captain Cherry awoke everyone from their gloomy thoughts with the cry: “Plane! I hear a plane!” A single-engine pontoon plane emerged from a squall about five miles away. Their feeble yells and shirt-wavings failed to catch the pilot’s attention. The men slumped to the bottom of their rafts, some sobbing. “Cut that out!” roared Rickenbacker. “Where there’s one plane, there must be more!”
Hopes rose. They talked all night about when the next one would fly over. The next two days brought six aircraft sightings, but they caught none of the pilots’ eyes. The following two days saw no more planes, and desperation took charge. Captain Cherry obtained permission to paddle off on his own, believing that he had a chance of reaching an island. Next, Whittaker and De Angelis departed with one of the larger rafts, taking the unconscious Reynolds with them. That left Rickenbacker with Adamson and Bartek, both near death. He had to hold up their heads to pour their water rations down their throats.
On November 13, their 24th day at sea, Bartek awoke Rickenbacker with a feeble croak: “Listen, Captain. Planes!” Rickenbacker madly waved his ruined gray hat, but the planes disappeared over the horizon. The sun was sinking in the western sky. Rickenbacker was sure Adamson and Bartek would not survive another cold, wet night.
Then the sound of motors mounted, the same two planes now heading right toward them. Rickenbacker gesticulated frantically as they flew overhead and then banked.
A PT boat soon arrived and carried them to one of the Ellice Islands, 500 miles southwest of Canton. They had drifted through this chain during the night. Had the planes not found them, they would have faced another thousand miles of empty ocean. In the island’s one-room hospital they learned that De Angelis, Whittaker, and Reynolds had made it to one of the smaller islands. Cherry had been spotted by a patrolling aircraft and picked up by another PT boat. Soon all were flown to Pago Pago in American Samoa, where a fully equipped Navy hospital treated them.
In two weeks Rickenbacker had regained 20 of the 60 pounds he lost on the raft, and told his old friend Gen. “Hap” Arnold, head of the U.S. Army Air Forces, that he was ready to continue his mission. In another week he greeted General MacArthur in Port Moresby, New Guinea, and gave him the secret message. No one has ever divulged its contents.