“It happens every Friday evening, almost without fail … Old Ed comes strolling along the beach to his favorite pier. Clutched in his bony hand is a bucket of shrimp.”
“Before long, dozens of seagulls have enveloped him, their wings fluttering and flapping wildly. Ed stands there tossing shrimp to the hungry birds. As he does, if you listen closely, you can hear him say with a smile, ‘Thank you. Thank you.’”
“To the onlooker, rituals can look either very strange or very empty. They can seem altogether unimportant …. maybe even a lot of nonsense. …” (Swindoll)
Let’s look back …
Edward Vernon ‘Eddie’ Rickenbacker had first gained fame as a racecar driver from 1912-1917, racing in a number of events including the first Indianapolis 500. He even broke the land speed record, reaching 134 mph. (Nye)
When the war to end all wars broke out (WWI), “he became the nation’s ‘Ace of Aces’ as a military aviator despite the fact that he had joined the Army as a sergeant-driver on Gen. John J. Pershing’s staff.”
“He was named by Gen. William Mitchell to be chief engineering officer of the fledgling Army Air Corps. His transfer to actual combat flying – in which he shot down 22 German planes and four observation balloons – was complicated …”
“… not only by his being two years over the pilot age limit of 25, but also because he was neither a college man nor a ‘gentleman’ such as then made up the aristocratic fighter squadrons of the air service.” (NY Times)
After the war, he delved first into the automobile industry and then wound his way back to aviation, eventually becoming president of Eastern Air Lines.
“A self-made man whose formal education ended with the sixth grade, Rickenbacker was a driving leader. He put the stamp of his dominant personality on everything he touched.” (NY Times)
In 1942, the Army Air Force asked Rickenbacker to consult on operations in the Pacific theater. It was a secret mission touring air bases around the world, but also to deliver a secret message to General Douglas MacArthur, supreme commander of Allied forces in the Southeast Pacific Theater.
With a $1 a day salary, he set out for a tour of the Pacific. He first visited Hawai‘i en route to bases from Australia to Guadalcanal.
On October 20, Rickenbacker inspected air units stations on O‘ahu. Evidence of the Pearl Harbor attack were still present – bullet holes pockmarked hangars, sandbags surrounded public buildings and armed patrols enforced nightly blackouts. (Lewis)
From Hickam, their first stop would be Canton Island, an atoll in the Phoenix archipelago where Pan American had established a base in 1938.
The following are portions of a speech given by John Bartek. It is an account of the flight of Capt. Eddie Rickenbacker; Col. Hans Christian Adamson (Protocol Officer accompanying Rickenbacker); Capt. William T. Cherry, pilot; Lt. James C. Whittaker, co-pilot; Lt. John DeAngelis, navigator; Sgt. Frank Reynolds, radio operator; Pvt. John Bartek, flight engineer; and Sgt. Alex Kaczmarzyck, passenger returning to his unit after hospitalization.
“Well, anyway, as we approached the island we flew all night … as we approached the island we let down about an hour and a half ahead of time because we were on a secret mission. We just wanted to go in and locate the island without any interference.”
“Our time of arrival was overdue. In the meantime the navigator was beginning to look a little worried.”
“Oh, he said there was no problem. So then he called the island and he asked for lost plane procedure. But when he called about the lost plane procedure what took place then was the island called back and said we have had the equipment here for two weeks but we haven’t had time to set it up yet.”
“(W)e asked the island to fire anti-aircraft shells at 8,000 feet. We climbed to 8,000 feet to see whether we could see the burst at 8,000 feet. Well, we climbed to 8,000 feet and we didn’t see any burst for about a half an hour.”
“Captain Cherry then decided, well, the best we could do is we’ll fly around in what they call a square. You fly for maybe thirty minutes or forty-five minutes north, and you fly east, and you fly south, and then you fly west. We could look on each side of the plane to see whether we could see ships at sea or something down there.”
“Well, we flew the whole course and in the meantime we saw nothing out in the vast Pacific. We covered hundreds of miles and still nothing. I figured we would at least find somebody trying to get away from the war in some ship out there, some little sail boat or something, find the Japs or something, but there was nothing out there.”
“But we realized how big the ocean was.”
“So then Captain Cherry decided well, we’ve got to figure out a way to bring this plane in because we don’t have enough gas to go to the next island. … So we decided how we were going to ditch this plane.”
“Anyway, Captain Cherry was telling Rickenbacker how he would like to bring the plane in. Now no B-17 before had ever been brought in without cracking up in two and losing half of the crew.”
“I think first now we are coming in at a hundred miles an hour and when you are [up] a hundred feet or so a little bit everything looks still pretty quiet but as you get lower to the surface you realize that the waves are pretty high. We had about ten to fifteen foot waves out there and we were coming between the swells.”
“When we come between the swells I looked at Captain Cherry. He was in complete command of that ship. He knew exactly where he was going to put that plane. So I was pretty confident even coming in. I wasn’t scared, I was very confident. None of the men seemed to be scared of anything. I guess they had confidence in Cherry, too.”
“It suddenly started to flutter a little bit and in the meantime Captain Cherry hollered “cut.” When he hollered cut Cherry put the tail down in the water and that put a drag on the plane and then the plane flopped right down. It had flopped down but it stopped suddenly.” (All survived the crash.)
“When we come in and stopped the first thing I did I let one life raft out … In the meantime the other fellows were in the back of the plane they let the third raft down, but they had to do that by themselves. I got up on a fuselage and I got out to the wing and I saw the raft out there and the colonel and Rickenbacker was up there atop the fuselage.”
“(Cherry) was in the plane to see whether there was any food around so when we get to floating out there we’ve got something to eat. He come out with three oranges. Now DeAngelis who was in the raft in the back of the plane come out with one orange. So we had four oranges.”
“The first thing we did, we took inventory and the main thing is we didn’t have water, we didn’t have any food. We had a fishing line but that was sort of rotted. We had to double, triple up on that. We had about four fish hooks that weren’t too big. You couldn’t catch a big fish with it and we had no bait.”
“So the second day comes around we had an eighth of an orange and Rickenbacker was chosen to divide that orange. When I say an eighth of an orange I don’t think you’ve got scales in this whole university that could measure an eighth of an orange as accurate as he did.”
“An eighth of an orange with us hungry men all looking at that we made sure we got our eighth of an orange. No more and no less. One of the fellows says while we are eating the orange, he said don’t eat the peels. While thinking about that over a little bit, I said ‘I never heard of a man dying of eating orange peels but they do die of starvation.’”
“So the third day went on and we had another eighth of an orange and I figured today should be the day that the air force would be out to look for us because the search party had to go from Hawai‘i to Canton Island and then they had to get themselves together, oriented and then they would go search”.
“Now what happens is the nights are very cold. The nights are black, when I say black you don’t see anything. You can’t see your eyeball in front of you. I mean that’s how dark it is, you don’t see the other rafts. Plus on top of that it is cold and the salt spray gets on your face and gets on your eyes, and in the meantime we were thirsty, dying of thirst.”
“We didn’t have much to say because Eddie Rickenbacker told us we shouldn’t talk too much, we had to save the saliva in our mouth because when we dry it that would be the end. So the sixth day came along we had sighted nothing. No planes, no nothing but sharks.” (John Bartek)
“Eight days out, their rations were long gone or destroyed by the salt water. It would take a miracle to sustain them. And a miracle occurred. In Captain Eddie’s own words, “Cherry,” that was the B-17 pilot, Captain William Cherry, “read the service that afternoon, and we finished with a prayer for deliverance and a hymn of praise. “
“There was some talk, but it tapered off in the oppressive heat. With my hat pulled down over my yes to keep out some o the glare, I dozed off.” Now this is still Captain Rickenbacker talking … “
“‘Something landed on my head. I knew that it was a sea gull. I don’t know how I knew, I just knew. Everyone else knew too. No one said a word, but peering out from under my hat brim without moving my head, I could see the expression on their faces. They were staring at that gull. The gull meant food … if I could catch it.’”
“Captain Eddie caught the gull. Its flesh was eaten. Its intestines were used for bait to catch fish. The survivors were sustained and their hopes renewed because a lone sea gull, uncharacteristically hundreds of miles from land, offered itself as a sacrifice.”
For 24 days, they were drifting; Navy pilots rescued the members of the crew on November 13, 1942, off the coast of Nukufetau near Samoa. The men were suffering from exposure, dehydration, and starvation. Rickenbacker completed his assignment and delivered his message to MacArthur, which has never been made public.
“You know that Captain Eddie made it. And you also know … that he never forgot. Because every Friday evening, about sunset … on a lonely stretch along the eastern Florida seacoast … . you could see an old man walking … white-haired, bushy-eyebrowed, slightly bent.”
“His bucket filled with shrimp was to feed the gulls …. to remember that one which, on a day long past, gave itself without a struggle … like manna in the wilderness.” (Harvey)