Lost At Sea For 24 Days

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Adrift on the Southern Pacific Ocean, Day Six, October 1942

Fifty-two-year-old Eddie Rickenbacker, America’s top World War I ace and the dapper president of Eastern Air Lines, looked with deep concern over his seven companions in three rafts bobbing on the Pacific. The desperate men had just consumed the third of their four oranges, the only food they had with them. They would have had nothing to eat at all had not Capt. William T. Cherry jammed the fruit into his flight suit just before their B-17D ran out of gas and ditched between Hawaii and New Guinea.

Ten months after America’s entrance into World War II, Rickenbacker, known fondly as the “Ace of Aces,” had been headed to deliver a top-secret oral message to Gen. Douglas MacArthur from Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson, but malfunctioning navigation equipment had sent them far off course, causing them to miss their refueling stop at Canton Island, some 1,800 miles west of Hawaii.

In their scramble to escape the sinking aircraft, no one had grabbed even a single thermos of water or emergency ration box. Then the unrelenting Pacific sun had begun, noted Rickenbacker, “to burn into us and through us.” Several men had taken off their pants and thrown aside their coats and hats before the crash, thinking they might have to swim. Rickenbacker had watched his radioman Sgt. James W. Reynolds’s body turn pink, then red, and finally begin to blister. Others were soon in a similar condition. Rickenbacker, wearing a civilian suit and a battered fedora, was relatively protected from the sun, but the salt water that sloshed into the rafts raised sores all over his body.

In the smallest raft, navigator Lt. John De Angelis and passenger Sgt. Alex Kaczmarczyk had no choice but to lie painfully intertwined, with their legs either over one another’s shoulders or under their arms. While the dark-haired De Angelis developed a tan, the lighter-complexioned Kaczmarczyk turned into a blistered, sobbing mess and began drinking seawater at night.

Morale plummeted early on, when shooting off all 18 emergency flares brought no responding plane. Rickenbacker understood that time was running out. He was no stranger to death: the year before, he had sustained such horrendous injuries in an air crash at Atlanta, including an eye popped out of its socket, that rescuers had left him for dead. Attributing his recovery to a supreme act of personal will, he was not about to give up now.

Rickenbacker proposed a prayer meeting to the barely conscious men. Copilot James Whittaker and Rickenbacker’s aide, the burly Col. Hans Adamson, growled at the idea, but the others were less resistant. Mechanic Pvt. John Bartek pulled out a small copy of the New Testament from his pocket and read a passage. Rickenbacker ordered each man, including the unbelievers, to read one as well. Chapter 6 of St. Matthew’s gospel (from the Sermon on the Mount) proved the most popular: “Therefore, take no thought, saying, What shall we eat? or, What shall we drink? or, Wherewithal shall we be clothed? . . . for your heavenly Father knoweth that ye have need of all these things.”

On the eighth day, Rickenbacker passed out the last orange and started yet another prayer session. Afterward, as he dozed off in the oppressive heat, a seagull alighted on his fedora. He slowly moved his hand to seize the bird’s leg. The gaunt survivors divided up the meager catch and baited two fishhooks with fragments of its flesh. Within minutes they pulled in a small mackerel and ate it, too.

It was no coincidence, insisted Rickenbacker, that the two-course dinner had arrived immediately after they had prayed. Although not a churchgoer, Rickenbacker did believe in a “Great Power above” and carried a crucifix in the inner pocket of his coat.

That night, the sea grew turbulent under gusting winds. Rain splattered the parched upturned faces—and then stopped as the storm moved along. “Let’s go after it!” shouted Rickenbacker. The sick, exhausted men flailed the sea with their paddles. The squall miraculously stalled. In moments, the rafts felt the storm’s buffet and rain poured down in sheets. The ecstatic men wrung out the rainwater from their clothes into buckets.

The half jigger of water per day per man could not save Sergeant Kaczmarczyk, however. Mortally ill from drinking seawater, he slipped away two nights later after a last long, mournful sigh.

A few nights later, Rickenbacker awoke when Adamson, in agony from his terribly blistered skin, pitched over the side. Rickenbacker seized the suicidal colonel by the shoulder and Cherry and Whittaker helped drag the pair back into the raft.

No one spoke that night. In the morning, Adamson forced a smile onto his raw lips and apologized, holding out his hand to the man who had saved him. “I don’t shake hands with your kind,” snapped Rickenbacker, an act that he later admitted was one of the most difficult of his life. “You’ve got to prove yourself first.” For the rest of the day, Rickenbacker watched Adamson seething with anger, trying to decide whether to live or die. The colonel chose life, in spite of his agony—mostly because of his rage at Rickenbacker.

Ignoring their growing despair, Rickenbacker insisted on daily prayer meetings. He studied each man and spoke to him in ways that would help him resist death’s lure. Sometimes the words were compassionate, but often they were harsh, as they had been with Adamson.

“Rickenbacker,” one man croaked in anger, “you’re the meanest son of a bitch that ever lived!” The words only made Rickenbacker “smile inside.” If the man could snarl at him, he had what it took to defy death.

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.