'Old Master': Part Two

Lesson Launch Blog

By Dr. Paul E. Binford

President, Mississippi Council for the Social Studies

 

In late October 1942, the celebrated Eddie Rickenbacker along with two other passengers and five crew members were castaways adrift in a vast ocean. As a result of a confluence of navigational problems, their B-17 was lost and ditched shortly before it ran out of fuel.

 B-17 similar to the transport plane that carried five crew members and three passengers, including Eddie Rickenbacker, which ditched in the South Pacific on October 21, 1942.    Image courtesy of the Library of Congress

B-17 similar to the transport plane that carried five crew members and three passengers, including Eddie Rickenbacker, which ditched in the South Pacific on October 21, 1942. 

Image courtesy of the Library of Congress

Hunger will make men suffer, but thirst will drive them to the point of self-destruction.

The life rafts had saved their lives—at least in the short term, but they had run out of their only ration (four oranges). Moreover, sharks, the elements, the enemy (the Japanese), and—most of all—thirst remained threats to their survival. Regarding the latter, Hans Christian Adamson, Rickenbacker’s aide and fellow passenger, described it thusly, “Hunger will make men suffer, but thirst will drive them to the point of self-destruction” (286).

Old Master

About ten days in, Rickenbacker seized, strangled, and carved up a sea gull (or, perhaps a sea swallow), which had "miraculously" perched upon his shoulder. The raw meat was divided among the ravenous men.

Shortly after their impromptu meal, the eight castaways gathered for their evening devotional, as had become their practice. While their hunger was temporarily satiated, they desperately needed water. With the three rafts huddled together, William T. Cherry, the pilot, began praying. In his supplications, he set aside formality preferring a more intimate and conversational cadence with the Creator:

‘Old Master, we called on You for food, and You delivered. We ask You now for water. We’ve done the best we could. If You don’t make up Your mind to help us pretty soon, well, I guess that’s all there’ll be to it.’ (362)

The Baptism

Within minutes, the sky darkened and rain drops began striking the sea. A torrent of rain swept over the men; Cherry shouted, “‘Thanks, Old Master’” (362)! The water washed away the salt, sweat, and grime of this perilous journey cleansing the castaway’s cuts and sores.

The men cupped their hands and drank. Then, they began to collect the water as previously planned. This was the first of several squalls that would sustain them over the next several days.

The Suffering

The rain provided some relief—at least temporarily—but it did not end their suffering. Each man’s condition gradually weakened from the lack of nourishment leading to a dramatic weight loss—often 40 pounds or more. Several men developed skin ulcers after prolonged exposure to the sun and almost continuous contact with sea water. Their clothing began to disintegrate. The rafts were so small that the cramped conditions permitted little sleep; rather than rest the men would often sit in a stupor or hallucinate.

The health of Reynolds and Adamson (a diabetic, who was without his insulin) was deteriorating; however, it was Alex Kaczmarczyk’s condition which was most dire. He had only recently been released from the hospital (after more than a month-long stay) due to jaundice and an appendectomy. Furthermore, Alex had succumbed to quenching his thirst by drinking the ocean water possibly a result of delirium. 

As any experienced sailor knows, drinking sea water causes the kidneys to purge salt from the body. Rather than hydrating, drinking salt water exacerbates the partaker's dehydration.

In his rapidly deteriorating condition, the men offered what comfort they could provide for Alex. He was given an additional allotment of drinking water, which was still meager. He was moved from the smallest raft to one occupied by Rickenbacker and Adamson. During the chill of the night, Rickenbacker held Alex hoping his body heat might lesson the stricken man's discomfort.

Tragically, in the early morning hours of their twelfth day on the Pacific, Alex Kaczmarczyk died. After a brief ceremony, which concluded with the Lord’s Prayer, Kaczmarczyk was buried at sea. As Whittaker noted, “It was hard to keep from seeing in Alex’s fate the precursor of my own” (86). 

Undoubtedly, many—if not all—of Whittaker’s fellow survivors had similar thoughts as they ended their second week at sea . . . 

'Old Master': Part Three will be posted on Thursday (August 9, 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