'Old Master': Part One

Lesson Launch Blog

By Dr. Paul E. Binford

President, Mississippi Council for the Social Studies

In The Aims of Education and Other Essays, Alfred North Whitehead, mathematician and philosopher, wrote: "Moral education is impossible apart from the habitual vision of greatness" (69). The teaching and learning of the social studies, particularly history, offers just such an opportunity for students to glimpse greatness. Perhaps a student apprehends this quality in their teacher. At the very least, students deserve regular exposure to the beautiful, the excellent, and the heroic as a result of the teacher's selection of curricular content.

The Journey

Amidst the carnage, darkness, and tragedy of World War II, there are, ironically, countless stories of bravery, gallantry, and grit. One such episode began on October 21, 1942, when a B-17 departed Hickam Field in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii for Canton Island, a tiny atoll (six miles long and three miles wide) some 1800 miles to the southwest (350). The plane carried five crew members and three passengers including the celebrated Eddie Rickenbacker--retired race car driver, past owner of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, World War One "Ace of Aces!" and Medal of Honor recipient, and, then, President of Eastern Airlines. The Secretary of War, Henry Stimson, had commissioned Rickenbacker to travel to the Pacific theater on an inspection and evaluation tour. He also had a secret message to "personally communicate" to General Douglas MacArthur from the Secretary of War (347-348). 

The journey began ominously when a brake-locked while the plane was traveling 75 miles per hour down the runway necessitating an aborted take-off. Unbeknownst to the crew, the battering the plane absorbed also damaged the navigator's octant--"a complex navigational instrument" (349). A few hours later, a replacement plane was found; this time the flight began without incident at 1:30 am. While the flying weather was clear with a three-quarter moon, navigational problems soon posed dire consequences (349). In addition to the damaged octant, the radio operator was unable to establish a “directional fix” for the plane because the local radio stations had signed off for the night (350).

An hour after their estimated arrival time of 9:30 am, the crew began to recognize that they might have overshot Canton Island--they were lost! Running short on fuel, they could not reach a secondary airport. A series of emergency procedures were to no avail, the crew reconciled to their fate; they would have to ditch the plane before it ran out of fuel. "[T]here was no great expectancy of survival in the crash landing just ahead," one of the passengers recollected, ". . . every one realized . . . that unless God had both of his arms around them there was little hope that the impact of a twenty-five-ton bomber on a tossing sea would permit any one to escape unhurt and alive" (276). 

The pilot's final message:  "'We are almost out of gas. Making water landing in 15 minutes'" (276).

There was little hope that the impact of a twenty-five-ton bomber on a tossing sea would permit any one to escape unhurt and alive.
— Hans Christian Adamson

Shortly after 2 pm, the B-17 with its eight crew members and passengers bellied into the Pacific just south of the equator. The plane was equipped with three life rafts and a modest supply of rations and water. While some were injured by the ditching, everyone escaped the plane, which rapidly took on water. Rafts were quickly inflated; however, in their haste to exit the sinking vessel, no one remembered to grab the provisions or, most regrettably, the water. As the tail of the plane rose upright and slid to the bottom of the sea, the men had a first aid kit, a flare gun and eighteen flares, two hand pumps for both bailing and refilling the rafts with air, two sheath knives, pliers, a small compass, tow bailing buckets, two fishing lines with hooks, and two revolvers (354-355). Rickenbacker had wrapped a rope around his waist before the plane was ditched; this soon proved useful in tethering the three life rafts together. The only food they had was the four oranges that Captain William T. Cherry, the plane’s pilot, had managed to stuff in his pockets prior to the B-17 going down (354). 

The Rafts

Over the next several days, as the three rafts floated along in the placid ocean with no rescuers in sight, the castaways endured the cold (relatively speaking), windy, and damp nights followed by the stifling equatorial heat brought by the daylight. The unrelenting sun burned every inch of exposed skin--especially from the hours of 10 am to 4 pm. Blistered skin soon followed, which burst and burned again. Under these circumstances, the spray of saltwater on skin, cuts, and abrasions was particularly excruciating! Dark shadows circled the vessels just a few feet under the water, the sharks were a stark and continuous reminder of their tenous existence on this vast sea.

The raft pictured above is the same model used by Eddie Rickenbacker and his fellow castaways who were forced to ditch their B-17 in the South Pacific.   Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.

The raft pictured above is the same model used by Eddie Rickenbacker and his fellow castaways who were forced to ditch their B-17 in the South Pacific.

Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Eddie Rickenbacker was the custodian and divider of the oranges. A task he later recalled:

I carved up those oranges into eight pieces and rationed them out. If you ever have seven hungry eyes watching you carve, you prove to be a pretty good carver, even though you haven't got the facilities--the parts were pretty well balanced (10).

Every other day, each man received his meal, an eighth of an orange. As James C. Whittaker, the lost plane's co-pilot remembered, "'Except for the pleasant taste we might as well had not had anything'" (348 & 356). After eight days, even the oranges were gone and hope began to fade.

The Devotional

However, in spite of the adversity or, rather, because of it, the men continued a practice that began on the second night out--morning and evening devotionals that included prayer and reading from scripture (12). Eddie first noticed that John Bartek, a mechanic and one of the men in his raft, read from a minature copy of the New Testament (359). Rickenbacker was not a devout person, but he believed in the Golden Rule and in the existence of God (359). At the very least, prayer might bring the men closer and rally their spirits. "Frankly and humbly," Rickenbacker noted, "we prayed for our deliverance" (12). The men also began to confess their sins and shortcomings. "These devotionals were not without detractors, including Whittaker, who doubted that 'this open-air hallelujah meeting was going to do any good.'" In time, he would change his mind (360).

As the rafts drifted aimlessly, one morning--about ten days in--and shortly after their morning devotional, the castaways conversed about self-mutilation (the amputation of an ear lobe, little finger, or toe) as a means of baiting a hook. Suddenly, from an empty sky, a seagull alighted onto the fedora worn by Rickenbacker. Slowly, painstakingly, and stealthily, Rickenbacker raised his right-hand and seized the bird in his fingers and wrung his neck to the wild cheers of his famished companions. The bird was summarily plucked, carved into equal parts, and consumed raw. Eddie saved the gull's intestines for bait, which was soon placed on a hook and dropped into the water. Shortly thereafter, two small fish struck the line and were hauled into the boat and consumed (361).

In spite of the provender, the men desperately needed rainwater . . .

'Old Master': Part Two will be posted next Thursday (July 26, 2018). For more information about this Lesson Launch blog entry, or if you are interested in arranging professional development or a speaking engagement, please contact the author at: theringoftruth@outlook.com


Paul BinfordComment