'Old Master': Conclusion
Lesson Launch Blog
By Dr. Paul E. Binford
President, Mississippi Council for the Social Studies
For nearly two weeks, Eddie Rickenbacker and his six remaining castaways were adrift in the South Pacific after the ditching of their B-17. With scarcely any food or water—excepting four oranges, a seagull, some small fish, a nearly inedible shark, and the occasional rain shower, they had managed to survive on three crowded life rafts. However, the men were clearly weakening, and there were no signs of rescue!
To make matters worse, the U.S. military would soon call off the search. After 14 days, the men were presumed dead and newspapers began running obituaries. In fact, General Henry “Hap” Arnold, head of the Army Air Force, wrote Rickenbacker’s wife, Adelaide, a missive, which amounted to a condolence letter.
Straightaway, Adelaide took a train to Washington, D.C. and stormed Arnold’s office nearly tearing “‘the decorations off his jacket’” (368). The general was persuaded to grant an extension; the search would continue for another week.
On the sixteenth or seventeenth day, William T. Cherry spotted a plane! It was the first glimmer of potential rescue, but the U.S. Navy Kingfisher was roughly five miles away and did not spot the three tethered rafts. Excitement turned to despondence.
It was Rickenbacker, who, in spite of the semi-daily devotionals, launched into a profanity saturated tirade to motivate his fellow refugees climaxing in a challenge to their manhood. His harangue did include some plausible suppositions:
If a plane appeared once, it would appear again; furthermore, one plane’s appearance suggested that there were more planes in the area, which necessitated an airbase.
He concluded, “‘A MAN would have the courage, the patience, the faith, to wait for them [rescuers]” (366).
Rickenbacker’s not infrequent outbursts during this long ordeal aroused the enmity of his fellow castaways. After these excoriations, the men thought more about their resentment for him and less about their suffering. When their will to live was flagging, Rickenbacker’s raging stirred their anger to the point that they fought to live if only to spite him. It was a cruel motivational tactic, but, maybe, a necessary one in these unforgiving circumstances.
The next morning and afternoon the men saw more planes—as Rickenbacker had predicted, but always at a distance. Maddeningly, the following day more air patrols were spotted, but without rescue.
From the moment the rafts were first launched almost three weeks past, Rickenbacker had preached the importance of the refugees remaining together to preserve morale and for their survival. By this time, however, Adamson, Bartek, and Reynolds were near death, and the condition of the remaining castaways was rapidly deteriorating. Cherry, who probably resented Rickenbacker’s motivational techniques the most, decided it was time that the life rafts separate to increase the likelihood an air patrol would spot them. In spite of Rickenbacker’s objections, Cherry shoved off alone in his life raft. Whittaker and two other men soon followed in the second raft.
The afternoon following the separation, Cherry’s raft was finally spotted by a Kingfisher, and a PT boat picked him up. The three occupants in the second life raft made it to the island of Nukufetau, and they were rescued. The next day, Rickenbacker and his two raft mates were spotted and rescued. As the Ace of Aces was brought aboard the PT boat, Eddie remarked, “Thank God for you and the Navy! You fellows had the guts to come down and get us; but, believe me, it was the hand of God that set your course for us” (305).
The Old Master blog posts are primarily based on two recent biographies of Eddie Rickenbacker and two first-hand accounts from the 1940s. The parenthetical page references are also mostly from these accounts.
Adamson, Hans Christian. (1946). Eddie Rickenbacker.
Groom, Winston (2013). The Aviators: Eddie Rickenbacker, Jimmy Doolittle, Charles Lindbergh, and the Epic Age of Flight.
Ross, John F. (2014). Enduring Courage: Ace Pilot Eddie Rickenbacker and the Dawn of the Age of Speed.
Whittaker, James C. (1943). We Thought We Heard the Angels Sing.
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