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Eddie Rickenbacker

 

Charles Lindbergh 

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In a Brand New War

 

War erupted in Europe in 1939 while the United States tried to remain neutral.  In 1941, nine out of ten Americans opposed any American intervention, among them the Army Air Service's two living Medal of Honor heroes, Eddie Rickenbacker and Charles Lindbergh.  Both had left military service, Rickenbacker resigning his commission as a colonel in the reserves "in protest against the legalized murder of the young Army pilots sent out to fly the airmail."  Lindbergh resigned his own colonelcy in 1941 to avoid conflicts as he continued to be a high-profile speaker for the America First Committee, which also numbered Rickenbacker among its members.

The two men had much in common:  both were icons of American history, both had visited Germany and witnessed that nation's burgeoning air force, both called for an increased and expanded American air force, and both spoke in favor of American neutrality in the war at hand.  Neither man had garnered favor with the administration of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, but Lindbergh took the brunt of the President's wrath.  Rickenbacker's loyalty, despite his opposition to the brewing war, could not be called into question.  During World War I he had shot down more German aircraft than any other American.  Lindbergh had never fired a round at an enemy of the United States, making his loyalty a more plausible target.  In early 1941 an American hero fell from grace.

At nearly the same time, the other fell from the sky.

 

February 27, 1941

It was after midnight on a rainy Thursday morning as Flight 21 from Washington, D.C. to Brownsville, Texas began a slow circle over the fog-shrouded airport near Atlanta where it would make an intermediate stop.  The weather was bad but Captain James Perry was doing his best.  On this night, his passenger list included his boss, Eastern Airlines president Eddie Rickenbacker.

The big DC-3 sleeper carried sixteen people including the crew as it made a 180 turn, the pilot unaware that he was 1,000 feet too low.  Suddenly the left wing clipped the tops of the trees and Captain Perry quickly tried to adjust, the right wing dropping and then sheering off as it too hit the trees.  The airplane nosed up, then hit the ground and began a series of violent somersaults before breaking in half, killing five instantly and seriously injuring nine more.  Eddie Rickenbacker, the legendary hero of World War I was among the latter, laying amid the wreckage at the point where the fuselage had broken in two.

Hours later he lay in a hospital bed in Piedmont, several ribs broken, two of them protruding from the flesh in his side.  His left hip socket was crushed, his pelvis broken on both sides, his knee broken, and his left elbow had been crushed.  It had taken rescue workers an hour to pry his shattered body from the wreckage, two photographers capturing the grisly scene for their newspapers.  Despite his left eye, hanging loose from the socket and connected only by the nerves, Rickenbacker was blinded by the flash of their bulbs.  News of the tragedy would soon be heard...and seen...all across the country.

At the hospital Rickenbacker was examined by an intern, who then remarked, "He's more dead than alive.  Let's take care of the live ones."  

A priest offered to administer last rites, only to be rebuffed by the man who refused to die.  Then Dr. Floyd McRae, head surgeon at the Piedmont hospital, arrived and took charge.  It was not the first time Dr. McRae had seen Rickenbacker.  More than two decades earlier he had  assisted in the mastoid operation in Paris that enabled the young pursuit pilot to return to duty and achieve what no other fighter-pilot of World War I could match.

By the following morning hope began to surface that Rick would survive.  Dr. McRae had his patient served a milkshake laced with brandy.  Rickenbacker responded, "I want a bottle of beer and a ham-and-egg sandwich."  Rick got what he wanted, as well as a body cast that left him only one arm free, that he didn't want.

Three days later the Rickenbacker boys, David and Bill, were on their way to school when the bus was halted by a patrol car.  Rick had taken a turn for the worse, and Dr. McRae had called his wife Adelaide from her hotel room to hurry back to the hospital.  Her call to the Georgia State Police now had the two young boys returning to their dying father's bedside at 90 miles per hour while lights flashed and sirens screamed.  The troopers couldn't avoid a stop outside Atlanta for gas, urging the attendant to hurry as they were taking Eddie Rickenbacker's boys to his bedside.

"You don't need to hurry," the man who pumped their gas replied.  "The news just came over the radio--Rickenbacker died an hour ago."

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But Rick wasn't dead yet.  Like too many reports in that horrible first week after the Atlanta crash, those who reported the news underestimated the will-to-live of the fifty-year-old American Ace of Aces.  Later that evening when Walter Winchell's voice came over the radio in Rickenbacker's hospital room to announce that Rick was dying and not expected to live another hour, Rickenbacker smashed the radio with a well-aimed pitcher using his one good arm.  "Get on the phone," he told Adelaide.  "Call the top men at the radio networks.  Tell them to make their commentators quit talking like that.  They're not helping me any by telling me I'm dead.  I'm not dead, and I'm not going to die."

Six weeks later most of the cast had been whittled away and Rickenbacker was doing his best to reassure an anxious America that the will to survive can be greater than "Slipping into that sensuous and beautiful state... into that lovely land where there is no pain."  

Four months later Rickenbacker walked slowly, and painfully, out of the hospital.  With his family he moved to a small cottage on Candlewood Lake in Connecticut, where he continued to work on rehabilitation.  

In December Rick and Adelaide were planning for a move to a warmer, a houseboat in Miami where Rick would continue trying to build up his broken body.  Rick was wrapping things up in New York, working in his office in the early morning to wrap up correspondence.  He frequently worked on Sundays just for this purpose, for there was no one else around to distract him.  This particular Sunday would prove to be full of distraction.  It was a morning that would change life forever.  It was the morning of December 7, 1941. 

 

 DECEMBER 8, 1941
"Now we have been attacked, and attacked in home waters...I can see nothing to do under these circumstances except to fight.  If I had been in Congress, I certainly would have voted for a declaration of war."

DECEMBER 11, 1941
"All that I feared would happen has happened.  We are at war all over the world, and we are unprepared for it from either a spiritual or a material standpoint."

DECEMBER 12, 1941
"Now that we are at war I want to contribute as best as I can to my country's war effort.  It is vital for us to carry on this war as intelligently, as constructively, and as successfully as we can, and I want to do my part.

Charles Lindberg
(In His Wartime Journal)

 

December 8, 1941

Pearl Harbor changed almost everything.   It had been less than a year since Colonel Charles Lindbergh has resigned his commission to pursue his efforts to keep the United States from entering a war he believed would be disastrous for the entire world.  Now that the war had come, it was difficult for him to imagine himself as having any role that did not involve coming to the defense of his country.

"My first inclination," he wrote on December 12, "was to write directly to the President, offering my services, and telling him that while I had opposed him in the past and had not changed my convictions, I was ready in time of war to submerge my personal viewpoint in the general welfare and unity of the country."

In his personal memoirs, unpublished for a quarter-century, Lindbergh went on to explain his concerns..."The president has the reputation, even among his friends, of being a vindictive man.  If I wrote to him at this time, he would probably make what use he could of my offer from a standpoint of politics and publicity and assign me to some position where I would be completely ineffective and out of the way."  In the end, Lindbergh made his request for a return to military service through Air Corps chief, General Henry Hap Arnold.  The letter was composed on December 20, less than two weeks after the attack on Pearl Harbor.

On December 30 the press announced that Charles Lindbergh had volunteered for service in the U.S. Air Corps.  General Arnold had apparently released news of the December 20 letter, and Lindbergh took this as a ray of hope that his request was under consideration.  He realized that even Arnold could not take action without the acquiescence of the President, and had written the letter in such a way that General Arnold could deal with his offer according the manner he felt most advisable.  The two men had worked together in Air Corps business two years earlier, and Lindbergh had a sincere respect for the air chief.

Over the two following weeks Lindbergh waited anxiously for news, hoping that something would break his way.  During the period he met with Colonel William Wild Bill Donovan who was heading up an intelligence organization in need of an aviation expert.  The World War I Medal of Honor hero and father of our modern intelligence services was friendly in efforts to recruit Lindbergh, though he did note that any such move would require the approval of the President.  Neither man was confident that Roosevelt could put the past animosities between himself and Lindbergh aside.

On January 12 Lindbergh went to Washington, D.C. for a late afternoon meeting with Secretary of War Henry Stimson.  The Secretary greeted him warmly, speaking first of a 1930 situation when Charles Lindbergh had answered a call from the State Department for assistance in a potentially disasterous political situation.  To Lindbergh it sounded like the Secretary was saying, "I owe you one...for old time's sake."  Then the conversation seemed to go downhill.

Stimson advised Lindbergh that he was reluctant to put him in a command situation due his prior anti-war views.  He doubted the man's ability to pursue the current war aggressively enough.  Lindbergh replied that his views on the war had not been altered but, "Now that we were in the war my stand was behind my country, as I had always said it would be, and that I wanted to help in whatever way I could be most effective."  At last Secretary Stimson did agree to arrange a meeting between Lindbergh and General Arnold.  It took place the following day.

General Arnold met with Lindbergh in the office of Assistant Secretary of War Robert Lovett.  Both men assured Lindbergh that there were many ways he could serve the Air Corps, but voiced doubts that the public or the media would respond well to him taking an important position in the command structure.  After a half-an-hour Lindbergh finally stated that "In view of the feeling which existed it seemed...it would be a mistake...to return to the Air Corps."  Instead, he would seek to make his contribution to the war effort through the commercial aviation industry such as Pan American Airways, Curtiss-Wright, or United Aircraft.  "It goes against my grain to be out of the Air corps in time of war," he wrote in his journal that evening, "but I am convinced it would be inadvisable for me to push my way back into it.

"Both Arnold and Lovett seemed friendly personally, but I constantly had the impression that they were thinking of orders from higher up.  They were both in a difficult position...the situation was loaded with political dynamite and (they) handled themselves accordingly."

Two days later (January 15, 1942) Lindbergh was walking out the door when he bumped into Eddie Rickenbacker.  The two agreed to have dinner at Rick's apartment that evening, and did.  During that dinner Lindbergh spoke of his own efforts to serve his country in time of war, and Rickenbacker echoed a similar sentiment.  The great ace of a war long past advised Lindbergh that the (President's) Administration was making it "as difficult as possible for him due to his past stand in opposition to their war policies."

For Lindbergh, it would only get worse.  The following Monday he offered his services to Pan American, his first choice among the commercial air lines now turning  their efforts towards supporting the war.  One week later he received his reply..."obstacles had been put in the way".  Lindbergh knew that those obstacles were insurmountable, most certainly coming from President Roosevelt.  

His suspicion was confirmed a week later in a meeting with Juan Trippe of Pan Am who told him that the War Department had been open to Lindbergh working on Pan American's war projects.  But, when Trippe had approached the White House for approval of the matter however, they were very angry with him for even bringing up the subject.  They advised that they did not want Lindbergh "connected with Pan American in any capacity."

On February 11 Lindbergh was advised not to pursue work with United, which had recently come under political attack and suspicion for its sale of aviation materials to both Japan and Germany in the pre-war years.  Though Lindbergh had no involvement in these, it was deemed that the hero's own personal baggage would only make matters worse.

Next Lindbergh turned to the Curtiss-Wright company.  On February 25 he was advised that the situation was loaded with dynamite and that the company's "officers are afraid of the vindictiveness of the White House, and they have good reason to be."

Later that night Lindbergh wrote in his journal:

"I am beginning to wonder whether I will be blocked in every attempt I make to take part in this war.  I have always stood for what I thought would be to the best interest of this country, and now we are at war I want to take my part in fighting for it, foolish and disastrous as I think the war will prove to be.  Our decision has been made, and now we must fight to preserve our national honor and out national future.  I have always believed in the past that every American citizen had the right and the duty to state his opinion in peace and to fight for his country in war.  But the Roosevelt Administration seems to think otherwise."

Ultimately, only one man dared to stand up to the President.  On March 24 Lindbergh met with the owner and officers of a B-24 bomber factory at Willow Run near Detroit.  These advised Lindbergh that they could make good use us his knowledge and experience if he would accept a position as a civilian advisor and aeronautical engineer.  Lindbergh reminded the men of his previous problems gaining employment with Pan Am, United, and Curtiss-Wright and advised them to first bring the matter up with the War Department.  Henry Ford responded that it "Annoys him to think he has to ask anyone about what he wants to do in his own factory."

At last, Charles Lindbergh found the man that would give him the opportunity he had struggled to achieve for four months...to serve his country in time of war...if only as a civilian.  Three weeks earlier Eddie Rickenbacker too had returned to the service of his country, thanks to an old friend well placed in the Army Air Service. 

 

"How are you doing Eddie?"  asked the voice of an old friend across the phone lines.  "Are you recovering from that horrible crash in Atlanta okay?"

"Doing well," replied Rick.  "After the Japs hit Pearl last December, I told Adelaide I had more reason than ever to get fit again."

"Eddie, I've got a very important mission for you.  I can't tell you over the phone.  When can you come to Washington?"

"I'll be there bright and early Monday morning, Hap," Rick replied to his old friend from World War I, now America's air chief, General Henry Hap Arnold.

When the call had ended Rick thought with excitement about what had just transpired.  "I had no idea what job he had for me, I knew that it would be an important one, one related to the mission of the Air Forces in our fight for freedom.  I thanked God for sparing me to fight again for America.  War is hell, but sometimes a necessary hell."

 

Monday, March 9, 1942

General Arnold shook hands with his old friend and sized him up to see if indeed Eddie Rickenbacker had sufficiently recovered from the airplane crash the previous year to undertake the mission the air chief had summoned him to the Capitol to lay out.  Rick looked tired, walked with a cane and a noticeable limp, but there was still fire in his eyes. 

"I'm concerned about the reports I'm getting from combat groups in training, Eddie," he announced.  "I'm told that they are indifferent, that they haven't got the punch they need to do the job they're being prepared for.  I want you to go out and talk to these boys, inspire them, put some fire in them.  And while you're there, I want you to look around and see what our problems are."

After all the roadblocks Rick had faced from the Administration due his pre-war sentiments, this was exactly what he wanted to hear.  The 51-year-old war hero didn't mind at all becoming the cheerleader for a new group of would-be heroes, and the mission directive also gave him opportunity to observe and offer constructive ideas to improve the Air Service.  "I'll be ready to go in ten days," he eagerly replied.

"Eddie, some of these units will be on their way overseas in ten days," General Arnold remarked.  The following day, March 10, Rickenbacker was back in Florida...this time to visit and motivate young fliers at a unit in Tampa Bay.  On Wednesday he was in Savanna, GA, to do the same; on Thursday he was in South Carolina; on Friday in Tallahassee, and in New Orleans on Saturday.  Rick took Sunday off to write a report for General Arnold, then continued the hectic pace in the weeks that followed.

At each of several daily stops over the next month, Rickenbacker spoke to the war-bound airmen, often for more than an hour.  It was a tiring pace, but Rick was dedicated and determined despite the toll it took on his own body, still not fully recovered from the crash.  He also carefully took note of all he observed, reporting back to General Arnold frequently.  In Tallahassee he spoke to a group of Black pilots, all of whom still carried enlisted rank.  He wrote a letter to Arnold observing: "They are a grand bunch of kids and great pilots, but something should be done immediately to commission them, they are deserving of it."  Almost immediately the Air Service acted, and the men received the gold bars of a second lieutenant.

In Long Beach, California Rick visited with the new pilots of his old 94th Aero Squadron.  It was a thrill marred only by a ruling years earlier by the adjutant general's office that the famous hat-in-the-ring insignia could not be used by the modern-day 94th Squadron.  The young pilots communicated to Rick that they wished to resurrect the historic trademark, and Rick went directly to General Arnold.  In an April 12 Letter General Arnold thanked Rickenbacker for his efforts over 32 days to visit with 41 groups of men in the Army Air Service.  In that same letter he advised:  "Uncle Sam's Hat-in-the-Ring insignia of the 94th Pursuit Squadron which you commanded with such distinction during the first world war is now being returned to that unit."

When Rickenbacker wrapped up the tour on April 13, he organized his thoughts based upon all he had observed, wrote his report, and then went to see General Arnold.  When he walked into the air chief's office it was not as a military man, Rick had been out of uniform for more than a decade and had conducted his recent tour as a civilian, but as a successful chairman of a board.

"Hap," he announced, "cut off the telephones.  I want three hours of your uninterrupted attention."

"That's impossible, Eddie," the air chief replied.  "I want to hear what you have to say, but you've got to be quicker than that."

"Hap, you're the head man of this outfit.  If you won't listen to me, then there's no sense in my continuing my efforts to be of help to you," Rickenbacker stated flatly.  Arnold advised Rick that all the top generals were on site, and encouraged him to go in and talk to them.

"I've been all over the country talking to them," Rickenbacker retorted.  "I want YOU there, too.  Unless you go in with me and listen to what I have to say, then there is no point of my carrying on.  I'll walk out right now, and we'll forget the whole thing."

For seven hours General Arnold and the top brass listened as Eddie Rickenbacker reported on all he had observed, and made his recommendations for improvement.  Rickenbacker had built a successful airline in the 1930s through hard work, attention to detail, and a frankly, blatant leadership style.  Now he brought it to Washington, D.C. and it was exactly what the fledgling Army Air Service needed most.

Shortly after that important day, General Arnold had called a meeting of all major airline executives at the direction of Secretary Stimpson.  Arnold was speaking to the distinguished assembly when he noticed Rickenbacker's presence and offered him the podium.  Rick's style remained the forceful, no B.S. approach that had made him an American success story:

"First thing I've got to say is that all of you guys get rid of the chisels that you've got in your pockets.  I know.  You brought a pocketful of them down here so that you could chisel your way out of doing things that you're going to have to do whether you like it or not.  This is the time when you're going to have to think about your country first and your airline second.  Because if your country doesn't win this war, you won't have any airline!"

Rickenbacker's keen mind and frank manner got things done, and he continued to work with General Arnold throughout the summer of 1942 to bring necessary changes to the Army Air Service.  His genius, his leadership, and his dedication did not go unnoticed.  On September 14, 1942 he received a letter from Secretary of War Henry Stimson himself.  It said, in part:

Dear Captain Rickenbacker:

This spring you did a magnificent job in evaluating the fighting spirit and training of our men in the Army Forces.  I am writing you at this time to ask if you would undertake to go to England and visit the various Army Air Forces stations in the bomber and fighter commands, as a continuation of your tour of inspection in March and April.

I am, of course, fully aware of the high-spirited confidence and efficiency of the AAF air and ground crews.  Nevertheless, my interest in our Army airmen overseas is so deep that I would welcome a first-hand report by a non-military observer on how they are getting along.

If you accept this assignment, as I hope you will, I am happy to authorize you to proceed to England and visit the various AAF stations.  On your return to this country, you would report to me directly.

Of course Rickenbacker accepted the assignment.  "My personal reason for going on these missions, indeed the foundation of my life" he later wrote, "can be summed up in one sentence:

"Men grow only in proportion to the service they render their fellow men and women."

 

Following Rickenbacker's earlier tour of the state-side installations, he had been offered and declined a commission as a brigadier general.  Now, Arnold and Stimson upped the ante, offering him the two stars of a brigadier.  Again the former colonel, who had always preferred the title Captain Eddie, declined.  Rick felt he could best serve as a civilian, unencumbered by military protocol.  "When I return from these missions, I want to be able to pound the table, point to the facts and insist on what I believe to be the most efficient way of doing things."

Rick went to England therefore as a civilian, with unprecedented authority from the Secretary of War to order the commanders to assist him in the completion of his mission.  He took with him as his personal aide Colonel Hans Adamson.  Adamson had handled the media during Rick's U.S. tour months earlier.  On Rickenbacker's secret mission to Europe during the Fall of 1942 Adamson's job was reversed...keeping the press away from the American hero.

For his services, the War Department negotiated a modest salary with Rickenbacker.  He was paid $1 (one dollar) per year.  Rickenbacker even paid his own expenses during the mission.

In England Rick paid particular attention to two key areas:

  • A survey of the conduct of the air war in general

  • Evaluation of American equipment and personnel in general

Amid his tours of the flying fields, he met with key American and British air strategists.  He had hoped to meet the famous Air Marshall Sir Hugh Trenchard, but the legendary hero of World War II was abroad.  Instead, he left Rickenbacker a copy of his own secret report to the Air Ministry.

Rick's fifty-first birthday came and went almost without notice on October 8.  The man had far more important things to consume his time.  Before he departed England three days later he paid a visit to Lieutenant General Dwight Eisenhower.  This was during the period where the European commander of United States Forces was planning the greatest invasion in history to that point, the landing at North Africa.  Three copies of the top secret plans were to be sent to Washington to insure that at least one copy arrived.  One copy traveled west by Navy cruiser, a second by special courier.  When Rickenbacker departed England on October 11, he carried with him the third copy.

On Tuesday, October 13, Rickenbacker reported directly to Secretary Stimson, and received his next assignment.  There would be no rest for the American hero.  On Wednesday the War Department issued orders authorizing Rickenbacker to make a similar tour of the Pacific including a visit to the headquarters of General Douglas MacArthur.  Secretary Stimson communicated a special, highly sensitive message to Rickenbacker to relay to the Pacific commander.  Since it was so highly secret that it could not be written on paper, Rick memorized it for delivery.

On Saturday night Rickenbacker and Colonel Adamson left New York for the West Coast.  Rick spent Sunday visiting his mother in Los Angeles, then departed the following day on a Pan American Sikorsky Clipper for Hawaii by way of San Francisco.  At 10:30 p.m. Tuesday Rickenbacker and Adamson climbed aboard a B-17-D at Hickam Field for the flight from Hawaii to General MacArthur's headquarters at Port Moresby, New Guinea.  In addition to the airplane's five-man crew there was one more passenger, Alexander Kaczmarczyk whom everyone called "Alex".  Alex was recently discharged from a hospital in Hawaii and was returning to his unit in Australia.

Brigadier General William Lynd, commander of Hickam Field, personally drove Rick and Colonel Adamson to the airfield.  As the pilot, Captain William Cherry, tried to take off a tire blew sending the plane out of control.  Skillfully he managed to maneuver the big B-17 back on the runway and halt it before it could plunge into the bay beyond the airstrip.  

Shortly after mid-night a replacement Flying Fortress taxied off the runway, taking Eddie Rickenbacker and seven American servicemen into the dark clouds of the sky tropical sky.  Three days later the news spread around the world.

An American legend was

Lost At Sea

 

 

 

 

 

 

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. . 

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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.

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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.  

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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.

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Day 1

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.

Day 2

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."

 

Day 8

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.

 

Day 9

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.

 

Day 13

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.  

Day 19

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!"

 

Peering intently into the distance, all seven men strained their eyes against the dark clouds.  Then they saw it, a single-engine pontoon boat flying low through the squall about five miles away.  Bartek stood up in the raft he now shared with Rickenbacker and Adamson, Rick steadying him against the crash of the ocean swells, to wave his shirt.  All seven men, including Adamson, yelled at the top of their voices.  Then the dark clouds obscured the small plane in the distance and it disappeared.  The men had gone unseen on the dark waters.

Still, for the first time in nineteen days the doomed men saw signs of life beyond the rims of their raft.  A new optimism began to grow.

 

 

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."

Day 24

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.

 

The Mission:

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!"

 

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Summer, 1943

Major Joseph Jacob Foss was finally back to work, away from what he later called "The Dancing Bear Act" that had followed his earning the title Ace of Aces, his appearance on the cover of Life magazine and the presentation of his Medal of Honor.  He was assigned to the Marine base at Santa Barbara, California, where he was building the new VMF-115 and training his pilots in the new F4U Corsairs.  All of his nearly 100 Marine pilots were young, green, and in need of solid leadership.  Authorized to recruit his own top officers, Foss requested assignments for several of the men who had served with him on Guadalcanal.

The new Corsairs were supposed to be highly superior to the old Wildcats men like Foss had flown out of Henderson Field a year before, but Major Foss was finding them temperamental.  They tended to cut out at altitudes above 21,000 feet, and several crashes had occurred during testing and training, some of them fatal.  Foss brought the matter to his commanding officer, who quickly put Foss on the phone to General Bill Wallace who was in charge of Marine aviation for the entire West Coast.

"General, I'm having a terrible time with these Corsairs," he stated bluntly.

"You'll have an expert tomorrow," the General promised.  Foss smiled to himself; military men are quite used to such promises and their probable outcome, or lack thereof.

Two days later Foss was working in his cramped office when someone knocked on the door.  "Come in," he intoned routinely, scarcely looking up from his work as a tall, slender man in plain Khakis with no military insignia walked in.

"Major Foss," the gentleman announced, "It's good to meet you.  I'm Charles Lindbergh."

"The REAL Charles Lindbergh?" Foss asked incredulously as he looked more closely at the new arrival.  Lindbergh simply nodded his head.

"Come in, come in!"  Foss said, hardly able to contain his excitement.  "When I was a kid I wanted to meet you in the worst way when you flew into South Dakota, but the cops threw me off the stand.  And here you are.  Gosh!"

Lindbergh smiled and looked a little embarrassed.  "General Wallace sent me over to see if I can help you solve the Corsair problem."

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Lindbergh spend several weeks with Foss who not only finally got the handshake he had wanted fifteen years earlier, but gained a friend for life.  (Foss later served as co-chairman of the non-profit Lindbergh Foundation.)  Foss also learned quickly that the man abhorred being called Charles or Lucky Lindy"He wanted to be known either as Slim or Charlie."

To Major Foss' great relief, Lindbergh was indeed the expert he needed, and quickly the problems with the Corsairs were fixed.  At the end of the month the time came to say "good-by".  Lindbergh asked Foss if he could address the men before his departure.  Naturally, Foss quickly consented.

"I just want to thank you for your generous support of my efforts here," Lindbergh told the young men who would soon be off to war.  "I've really enjoyed working with you, and there's only one more thing I'd really like to do.  I'd like to fly tail-end Charlie with this outfit."

The applause was long and earnest before Foss announced, "You've got a job flying with us any time you show up.  But if I have anything to do with it, you won't be flying tail-end Charlie.  I want you up the line."

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May 25, 1944

It was a somber day as Major Foss returned to his operations office on Emirau Island in the Pacific.  He and his VMF-115 had been back at war for more than three months, and he was returning from the funeral of one of his pilots who had died the previous day in the test flight of a Corsair.  As he got closer to his tent he noticed a new Corsair on the airfield indicating he had company.  A tall, slender man in khaki but devoid of military rank or insignia was walking towards him, hand outstretched.

"Hi Joe," he greeted the squadron commander.  "You remember what you said?  You promised me I could fly with you."

Major Foss returned a warm but firm handshake, smiled and said, "Charlie, Consider yourself on duty right now!"

Over the weeks that followed, Lindbergh fulfilled his job as an observer, flying missions with the men of VMF-115. Indeed he felt that if he were to understand the problems with the Corsairs, he would need to experience the same problems the young Marine pilots were experiencing.  Thus when they took to the skies for bombing or strafing missions, one of the Corsairs flying formation in the hostile skies was piloted by Lindbergh himself.

"He flew from morning till night, and he taught us some tricks," Foss remembered.  "Charlie was no coward.  I remember one time we were bombing Kavieng, going after an oil dump that had been spotted there...The area was heavily fortified and the hidden entrenchment of antiaircraft fire was intense.  The order was to drop our loads and get the hell out of there.  I looked back and saw number eight--Charlie--turn around and go back for a second round.  When he was coming down the first time he'd noticed a major dump hidden off to the side, so he made a swing around for a second run by himself with all that AA fire concentrating solely on him.  Apparently he hit something, because there was a big explosion and clouds of smoke billowed.

"When we got back to base, I jumped out of my plane and walked over to chew him out.  "Charlie, you just don't do that.  There's no way you're supposed to go back after a target alone.  It's a sure way of dying young."

Sadly, too few Americans knew then, or are aware even today, of the combat courage of Charles Augustus Lindbergh.  

Lindbergh flew every combat mission with VMF-115 from the date of his arrival until the unit was sent home on June 1.  He arrived a celebrity to the young Marines on Emirau, but became an admired friend, not for what he'd done twenty years before but for his courage and dedication in this new war.

During his visit to Foss and VMF-115 a photographer snapped a photograph of Charlie and Foss, which was promptly printed in Parade magazine, finally advertising to the world the man's presence in the war zone.  (Lindbergh's Pacific mission had been sanctioned by the Navy without the knowledge or assent of the President.)  

Major Foss was suddenly deluged with letters, hundreds of them, from citizens on the home front who had seen that photo.  Most of the letters admonished Foss for associating with "bad company" and advised him to avoid Charles Lindbergh.

Foss was furious, as were the other men that flew missions with Charlie, and as a unit they undertook to answer each and every one of more than 700 such letters.  Foss himself pulled no punches in his own replies, stating:  "Lindbergh's out here fighting a war at his own expense while YOU'RE at home!"

 

 LINDBERGH'S PACIFIC MISSION

The Pacific mission had been proposed early in 1944.  Lindbergh would visit the combat air units as a representative of United Aircraft Corporation, which produced the new F4U Corsair.  His job was to observe the men in the field, and help them correct problems with the "Bent-winged Flying Coffins".  He would wear a Naval uniform devoid of any rank or other insignia, for his status was strictly that of a civilian.

Though vilified by civilians at home, he was welcomed warmly by the Marines upon his arrival.  In early May Charlie made a gunnery flight to learn his guns with John L. Smith, now a Lieutenant Colonel.  On May 19 he arrived at Henderson Field at Guadalcanal, then traveled to Bougainville before arriving at Eirau in search of Joe Foss on May 25.  There he flew with VMF-115 until they went home, and continued to fly with VMF-222 after Foss' departure.  During the period he also accompanied a PT boat crew on a combat mission.

By the time his work with the Marines was completed, he flew more than a dozen combat air missions in the Corsairs, both bombing and strafing.  Marine Corps commanders looked the other way when the civilian fired his guns on these missions...even a civilian had a right to defend himself.

When the Army Air Forces learned of Lindbergh's presence and his success in helping the Marine pilots solve problems with their Corsairs, they invited Charlie to visit their own airbase and observe their P-38s in action.  He arrived at New Guinea on June 15, quickly checked out on the P-38 (which was one of the few aircraft he had never piloted), and soon was flying with the Army pilots.  In the following two weeks he completed four combat missions with the 475th Fighter Group commanded by Colonel Charles H. MacDonald, who emerged from World War II as the third-leading American Ace in the Pacific with 27 victories.  During these missions Lindbergh discovered a way to effectively conserve fuel consumption and extend the airplane's range by 400 miles.  Before his concepts could be effectively put into use however, Charlie got some bad news.

On the evening of July 5 Lindbergh received word that "a rumor was circulating to the effect that I was flying combat in New Guinea, and that, if true, there should be no more of it."  To answer these charges, Lindbergh was called to Australia, arriving at Brisbane on July 12 to meet with General George Kenney, commander of the Allied Air Forces in the Southwest Pacific.

"Kenny told me that a situation had arisen which caused some of the officers at headquarters much concern: that somehow I had managed to get into the forward areas in New Guinea without their knowing about it; that rumors had filtered back to the effect that I was flying combat with the Army squadrons; and that, of course, flying combat as a civilian was against all the regulations there were.

"He went on to tell me that if I were caught by the Japs, I would have my head chopped off immediately if they found out I was flying combat as a civilian.

"I told him...that I didn't want to go back to New Guinea and sit on the ground while the other pilots were flying combat."

"Kenney spoke about Army regulations, the 'reaction back home' if I were shot down, etc.  I asked him if there wasn't some way to get around the regulations.  He became thoughtful and his eyes twinkled.  'Well, it might be possible to put you on observer's status, but, of course, that would not make it legal for you to do any shooting.  But if you are on observer's status, no one back in the States will know whether you use your guns or not.'"

Lindbergh didn't care what his status was, he just wanted to be able to do his job.  Later in that same afternoon, Charlie echoed this once again...in a private meeting with General Douglas MacArthur himself.  MacArthur was impressed with Lindbergh's ideas nearly double the effective range of the P-38 through his fuel-conservation ideas, and was eager for Lindbergh's knowledge and experience throughout his air command.  He even promised Lindbergh he could "Could have any plane and do any kind of flying" he wanted to.

Lindbergh spent two days visiting Australia, content to move about at will since the press did not know he was there and no one recognized him.  On July 15 he flew back to New Guinea to resume his work with the three combat squadrons of the 475th Fighter Group.

 

Throughout the last two weeks of July Lindbergh spent his time teaching the Army Air Force pilots his techniques for extending the range of their flights:  Cruise Control--reduce standard 2,200 rpm to 1,600, set fuel mixtures to "auto lean," and slightly increase manifold pressures.  Properly applied it stretched the range of the P-38 Lightening by as much as 400 miles--a nine hour flight.

Lindbergh also continued his flights:  bomber protection, reconnaissance, strafing.   He flew with the best.  In addition to being the command of Colonel MacDonald, the 475th Fighter Group was the home of Major Thomas McGuire, well on his way to becoming America's all time Ace of Aces.  (Before his death on January 7, 1945, Major McGuire claimed 38 aerial victories, earning a Medal of Honor and making him the second-leading American ace of World War II.)   All of them quickly gained a great respect for Lindbergh, both for the mechanical genius he brought to aviation, as well as for his courage in the air.  He was accorded officer's privileges, but addressed as Mr. Lindbergh due his civilian observer status.  He was also treated as one of the squadron, taking the same kudos for a job well done and a good-natured ribbing when he erred.  On one mission Lindbergh began dropping behind the rest of the formation as quickly as it had taken off, unaware he had forgotten to retract his landing gear.  Ahead of him, one of the pilots quipped into the radio, "Charlie, get your wheels up!  You're not flying the Spirit of St. Louis."

 

July 28, 1944

Captain Saburo Shimada and Sergeant Saneyoshi Yokogi were flying a rescue mission to locate a downed comrade in their two-seat, armed Mitsubishi 51 Sonias.  Both were veterans, well trained and schooled in the crucible of aerial combat.  Returning home, the two Japanese pilots had the misfortune to run into the US Army Air Force's Captive Squadron (9th Squadron, 49th Group).  

In the distance Colonel MacDonald and Charles Lindbergh were returning with their own flights, listening to their American counterparts barking directions over their radios as the dogfight stretched into half-an-hour.  

"There he is now!  Go in and get him."
"Can't somebody shoot him down?"
"Damn...I'm out of ammunition."
"Somebody get him who's got some ammunition."
"The (expletive) is making monkey's out of us."
"Who's got some ammunition?"

With great skill and cunning, Captain Shimada and Sergeant Yokogi were weaving in and out of cloud cover to escape--much to the frustration of Captive Squadron. Only the Japanese pilots' experience and skill was preventing disaster, as they twisted and turned in an aerial ballet that would have been comical were it not so dangerous.  In the distance MacDonald's pilots circled, eager to locate the enemy planes and enter the fray.

"What's the matter, Captive, having trouble?" 

Captive Squadron didn't acknowledge the good natured jibe.  They didn't want MacDonald's squadron swooping in to claim the credit on this one.  As the two Jap Sonias broke and ran for home, two Captive Squadron pilots managed to flame Yokogi's aircraft and send it into the sea.  

Diving in from 3,000 feet, MacDonald found Captain Shimada's Sonia and stitched a few bursts of machinegun fire across the fuselage.  It was at that point Shimada realized there was no hope in trying to out run his pursuers, and turned to fight.  Banking sharply Shimada lined up and dove on the first P-38 he saw.  It belonged to the second element leader in MacDonald's formation, Charles Lindbergh, who later recalled that deadly day:

"We are spaced 1,000 feet apart.  Captain (Danforth) Miller gets in a short deflection burst with no noticeable effect.  I start firing as the plane is completing its turn in my direction.  I see the tracers and the 20's (20-mm cannon) find their mark, a hail of shells directly on the target.  But he straightens out and flies directly toward me.

"I hold the trigger down and my sight on his engine as we approach head on.  My tracers and my 20's splatter on his plane.  We are close--too close--hurtling at each other at more than 500 miles an hour.  I pull back on the controls.  His plane zooms suddenly upward with extraordinary sharpness.

"I pull back with all the strength I have.  Will we hit?  His plane, before a slender toy in my sight, looms huge in size.  A second passes--two--three--I can see the finning on his engine cylinders.  There is a rough jolt of air as he shoots past  behind me.

"By how much did we miss?  Ten feet?  Probably less than that.  There is no time to consider or feel afraid.  I am climbing steeply.  I bank to the left.  No, that will take me into the ack-ack fire above Amahai strip.  I reverse to the right.  It all has taken seconds.

"My eyes sweep the sky for aircraft.  Those are only P-38's and the plane I have just shot down.  He is starting down in a wing over--out of control.  The nose goes down.  The plane turns slightly as it picks up speed--down--down--down toward the sea.  A fountain of spray--white foam on the water--waves circling outward as from a stone tossed in a pool--the waves merge into those of the sea--the foam disappears--the surface is as it was before."

It was Charles Lindbergh's first (and only) aerial victory.  It would never be officially credited to his military record however, for Captain Shimada was shot down over the Pacific by Mr. Charles Lindbergh...a civilian observer.

 

Three days later the tables were reversed...and it was very nearly Charles Lindbergh who was shot down.  The American icon never saw the enemy aircraft, or heard Colonel MacDonald shouting into the radio, "Zero on your tail!" until a stream of tracers was reaching out for his P-38.  The only thing that saved Lindbergh in that first fateful moment was the Jap pilot's poor gunnery skills.  Lindbergh didn't panic, but went immediately into a high speed turn as MacDonald shouted over the radio, "Break right!  Break right!"  Lindbergh coolly stayed his course, leading the trailing enemy into the range of MacDonald, who intercepted with a series of tracers of his own.  The crippled Zero broke and ran, and the American P-38's returned home, now low on fuel.

August 1 was the day the first man to make a solo flight across the Atlantic, was nearly lost over the ocean half-a-world away.  It was also the day that ended the combat exploits of Charles Lindbergh.  Word of the flight three days earlier, and Lindbergh's first aerial victory, had reached higher echelons.  

Colonel MacDonald was reprimanded, then grounded for sixty days.  Lindbergh noted, "I am fully as much to blame for the flight as he; but unfortunately he must carry the responsibility, as he commands the group."  Ultimately, Colonel MacDonald's grounding was lessened to a sixty-day leave at home, a welcomed opportunity for him to see the son that had been born in his absence.  Lindbergh continued to fly for ten more days, then visited other airfields en route to Australia.

On August 22 Charles Lindbergh and Douglas MacArthur met again--just the two of them.  But for Lindbergh's detailed War Journal, MacArthur's reaction to the controversial flight of July 28 would never have been known:

"How many Japanese planes have you shot down?" MacArthur asked.
"One," Lindbergh replied frankly and honestly.
"Where was it?"
"Off the south coast of Ceram."  
MacArthur smiled at that.
"Good!  I'm glad you got one."

On September 16 Lindbergh arrived in San Francisco.  The man had spent four months in the war zone, flown fifty combat missions with the warriors of a new generation, and proved he was still the hero he had been seventeen years before.  

 

 

EPILOGUE

The end of World War II found the older heroes of decades past returning to active but relatively quiet lives.  Eddie Rickenbacker turned his attention back to running an airline and continuing to promote aviation.  He died in Zurick, Switzerland on July 23, 1973 at the age of 82, and was buried in his hometown of Columbus, Ohio.

In 1947 Billy Mitchell's dream of a separate United States Air Force came true, and Charles Lindbergh worked for a time as a consultant to its new chief of staff.  In 1954 President Dwight Eisenhower restored Lindbergh's commission, appointing him a brigadier general in the U.S. Air Force.  Until his death on August 26, 1974 he devoted much of his time to conservation, campaigning for the protection of endangered species and the world environment.  He was buried on the grounds of the Palapala Ho'omau Church in Kipahulu, Hawaii.

In the shadow of the two great men, America found a new generation of heroes...men who rose to the challenge thrust upon the United States at Pearl Harbor on a calm Sunday morning in December, 1942.  In the four years of warfare that followed, millions of young men and women rose up to defend freedom and save our world, proving that within their breast beat the same heart of courage that had inspired their fathers to greatness.  Each step of the way, these new heroes were encouraged, motivated, and inspired by heroes of the past. 

 


Part II
WORLD WAR II


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Sources:

Cook, Donald, For Conspicuous Gallantry, C.S. Hammond & Company, Maplewood, NJ, 1966
Foss, Joe and Donna, A Proud American, Pocket Books, 1992
Lindbergh, Charles A, The Wartime Journals of Charles A. Lindbergh, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc., New York, NY 1970
Manning, Robert, Above and Beyond, Boston Publishing Company, Boston, MA, 1985
Rickenbacker, Edward V.,  Rickenbacker, An Autobiography, Prentice Hall, 1967
Rickenbacker, Edward V., "Pacific Mission" (Parts 1, 2 and 3), LIFE Magazine, January 25, February 1 & February 8, 1943
Runyon, Damon and Kiernan, Walter, "Capt. Eddie Rickenbacker", Dell Publishing Company, New York, NY, 1942


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