A true story by Ada Brownell
Originally published Nov. 8, 1970 in “LIVE,” a publication of Gospel Publishing House, Springfield, MO
The airplane’s engine sputtered and died.
“SOS!” the radio operator shouted. “Mayday! Mayday!”
While he continued to cry out and static filled the air like a swarm of gnats, the B-17’s nose turned downward toward the sea.
This was a confidential mission only a few months after the attack on Pearl Harbor. Eddie Rickenbacker, one of eight persons aboard, was sent to inspect military bases in the Pacific Theater and to carry a super-secret unwritten message from the Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson to Gen. Douglas MacArthur.
The General expected them in Canton at 9:30 a.m., but the navigator’s octant became damaged, and they were lost. The captain’s watch showed 1 p.m as the engines sucked the last drops of fuel.
“Prepare to ditch the plane!” Capt. William Cherry jumped up from the pilot’s seat.
Cherry, Rickenbacker, five crewmen, Rickenbacker’s aide, and Col. Hans Adamson grabbed rations and Thermoses of coffee and water. They and Sgt. Alex Kaczmarczyk, on his way back to his unit in Australia after an appendectomy in Hawaii, scurried toward the escape hatch.
Rickenback tied a rope around his waist, stuck a map and important papers in his shirt.
The plane collided with the Pacific Ocean with explosive force. Two life rafts automatically released. A third was inflated by hand as the men scrambled onto the wings. High waves reached for the men as they dropped into the rafts.
“Where are the thermoses?”
In the hustle, the water and rations were left behind.
In about three minutes, the plane’s tail swung up, poised a moment, then slipped beneath the sea.
Dark shadows circling the rafts proved to be sharks.
Rickenbacker tied the rafts together with his rope. They found buckets, knives, oars, compasses, a pistol, eighteen flares, and two fishing lines on the rafts—but no food or water. Cherry had four small oranges. The men decided to eat one every forty-eight hours, in case they weren’t rescued soon.
Rickenbacker warned against drinking sea water. “If you drink salt water, you’ll die. It’ll drive you mad with thirst!”
They arranged two-hour watches. The night was miserably cold, although they were almost on the equator. Water splashed them continually. Rckenbacker wore a business suit and leather jacket, but others weren’t as well protected. Sgt. James Reynolds took off most of his clothes when he left the plane in case he would need to swim.
At dawn, Rickenbacker was appointed to divide the orange. He carefully peeled it, being sure not to squeeze out the juice.
“Let’s save the seeds and peel for bait,” suggested Cherry. They dangled the bait in the water, but the fish weren’t interested.
Rickenbacker took out his map and the men decided they were northwest of Canton. The nearest land would be Gilbert Archipelago, held by the Japanese, and 400 miles away.
After lighting two duds, that night they sent up a flare. The men waited all night for a plane. None came.
The ocean rocked the crowded rafts day after day while the sun burned their skin and made sores aggravated by salt water.
They ate the last orange on the sixth day. “I need water!” croaked Alex, weak from surgery, and repeated his plea often. The men knew if they were not rescued, all could face death.
“Why don’t we gather for prayer?” asked Rickenbacker. Although he hadn’t been to church in years, he never went to sleep at night without praying. “I believe God answers prayer.”.
They pulled the rafts together for a prayer meeting. Pvt. John Bartek had a New Testament. He read a Scripture, then passed the Bible on. Each man tried to read something fitting. Voices quivered, but they weren’t ashamed. After that, they gathered for prayer twice daily.
Not all believed, but that changed the eighth day. When the prayer meeting was over, Rickenbacker pulled his hat over his eyes and dozed off. A sea gull landed on his head. He awoke and slowly moved his hand until he grasped the gull’s legs. In minutes, the raw sinewy meat was divided and devoured, bones and all.
They saved the intestines for bait. Cherry caught a mackerel and Rickenbacker landed a small sea bass.
The men’s spirits rose as nourishment flowed through their starving bodies, but they were aware the gull miraculously landed right after their prayer meeting.
Toward dark, the sky filled with rain clouds. The ocean churned, jerking the rafts against the lines that held them together. Lightning flashed .They took off their clothes so they would be ready to absorb rain water and squeeze it into buckets. But only sprinkles fell. They were on the edge of the squall.
“Over there!” Rickenbacker pointed. “Get the paddles.”
They put all their energy into reaching the storm. Rain washed away salt and cleansed sores. They rinsed salt out of their clothes then gathered water while the rafts jerked and swayed on the huge waves.
Then Cherry’s raft capsized. Gasping, the men grabbed the hand lines while Rickenbacher and Bartek turned the raft upright. The men climbed back aboard.
They lost one bucket, but the men went back to work drinking rain water and accumulating about a quart and a half of liquid.
They decided on one-half ounce each per day.
The rest of the fish was consumed the next day. Sharks carried away the lines before they could catch more fish.
Alex suffered, and three nights later, he died and was buried at sea. The men wondered who would be next. Hans Adamson, a fair-skinned Dane, was a mass of saltwater sores and he’d suffered a back injury in the crash. Paralysis crept over his body and he apparently developed pneumonia.
Rain came again a few nights later and they got enough water to have two ounces a day. But sharks tailed them. The sharks went after a school of mackerel and two mackerel jumped into the rafts, giving them another small supply of food.
On the nineteenth day, Cherry sat up. “I hear a plane!”
The plane came out of the clouds flying low and fast. The flares were gone, so the men shouted and waved, but the plane flew on.
The men decided, over Rickenbacker’s protests, to unhook the rafts to attract more attention. By now, Reynolds was unconscious and Adamson and Bartek were in such poor condition Rickenbacker had to pour their daily water down their throats.
November 13, 1943, the twenty-fourth day, Rickenbacker dozed when Bartek pulled at his shirt.
“Planes! I hear planes!”
Two planes flying low passed over and kept going. Thirty minutes later, they came back. Rickenbacker signaled with his hat. The pilot smiled and waved back.
One plane circled while the other, a U.S. Navy seaplane, landed on the choppy sea. “The others have been found,” said the pilot.
It was forty miles to the base at Ellice Islands. Because the enemy was in the area, they didn’t wait for the PT boat. Adamson rode in the cockpit, but it would hold only one man, so Bartek and Rickenbacker were tied on the wings.
“Thank God,” Rickenbacker said over and over as they crossed the water.
All seven survived. Rickenbacker recovered enough by Dec. 1 to meet with General MacArthur.
But Rickenbacker was not the same person who set out to see the General. After his miraculous deliverance, which he told everybody was because of the grace of God, he no longer hesitated to tell others about his faith.
Ada Brownell tell another story about Rickenbacker in her book, Swallowed by LIFE: Mysteries of Death, Resurrection and the Eternal. http://amzn.to/Jnc1rW
Also, read Rickenbacker, Eddie Rickenbacker’s autobiography for more adventure and miracles.
©Ada Brownell 2012