War hero survives 24 days at sea in a life raft
August 14, 2014
MANGILAO, Guam – Dr. Bob Underwood, a fellow USC alum, is president of the University of Guam, and I’ve been visiting with him at the university’s beautiful campus, which is the centerpiece of this village on Guam’s eastern shore.
While chatting with Bob about the World War II history of Guam and its neighboring islands, I was reminded of a dramatic, mid-Pacific aircraft downing and rescue of its crew and passengers, one of whom was a prominent U.S. military hero, that I learned about some time ago from two of his longtime faculty members.
The two men, history professors Dirk Ballendorf and Tony Palomo, told me about the harrowing, headline-grabbing airplane crash-landing while we were having lunch in the university’s cafeteria four or five years ago.
Sadly, Ballendorf, 73, and Palomo, 81, died within three days of each other 18 months ago. But I will never forget their hair-raising account of the Army’s B-17D “Flying Fortress” that fell into the sea east of here 72 years ago and the agonizing ordeal of all those aboard.
The drama surrounding the fate of the B-17 unfolded 10 months after Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor, when Capt. Eddie Rickenbacker, the president of Eastern Airlines and an Army pilot who had won the Medal of Honor for shooting down 26 German airplanes during World War I, accepted the invitation of Gen. H.H. “Hap” Arnold, commander of the U.S. Army Air Forces, to evaluate the readiness of U.S. air bases in the Pacific.
Rickenbacker also carried with him on his trip across the Pacific a secret message of rebuke to Gen. Douglas MacArthur written by President Franklin D. Roosevelt that criticized MacArthur’s negative public comments about the president and Gen. George C. Marshall, the Army Chief of Staff.
Taking off from Honolulu on Oct. 21, 1942, the aging B-17 bomber carried eight men: Rickenbacker, who had recently celebrated his 52nd birthday; Hans Adamson, his old friend and aide; five crewmen; and a young Army corporal hitchhiking a ride back to his unit in Australia.
The aircraft was headed for Canton Island, a tiny U.S. possession about 2,000 miles southwest of Hawaii, where it was to refuel before continuing on to New Guinea.
But the plane never made it.
Plagued by faulty navigational instruments, the B-17 overflew Canton, and its pilot, Capt. William T. Cherry, at the risk of breaking radio silence because the Japanese held several islands in the area, radioed, “… 14 hours SSW of Oahu … may have overflown Canton Island … one hour’s fuel left ….”
That was the last message he sent.
Realizing he was rapidly running out of gas and there was no place to land, Cherry ordered his crew and passengers “prepare for an ocean landing.”
The B-17 made a perfect water landing despite heavy ocean swells, and the eight men grabbed three life rafts, clamored through broken windows onto the wings and jumped into the rafts. But in the confusion, they neglected to take aboard food and water.
The men, several of whom had suffered moderate injuries, lashed the rafts together and rowed away from the aircraft which sank about six minutes after ditching.
Rickenbacker, who was still recovering from near-fatal injuries incurred in a Georgia airplane crash six months earlier, assumed command of the group and discovered that he had the only food: four oranges.
The men were adrift in the Pacific for 24 days. Other than the oranges, their fare consisted of seagulls, mackerel and sea bass they had caught and eaten raw. On the 17th day, a rainstorm provided them with fresh water.
The young Army corporal returning to his base in Australia died of crash injuries and from drinking sea water. He was buried at sea.
The men’s skin burned, blistered and became raw from the sun. Their eyes were bloodshot and swollen. Some of the survivors began arguing among themselves and became delirious. Two of the rafts overturned in a storm and their oars were swept away. But the men righted the rafts and climbed back aboard.
On the 24th day, when nearly all hope of rescue had been lost, a Navy amphibian “Catalina” search plane appeared on the horizon, circled low, dipped its wings, and landed on the water near the rafts, which had drifted about 400 miles from Canton Island following the crash-landing.
The Catalina’s crew helped the weak, starving and injured castaways climb aboard, and flew them to the joint U.S-British air base at Samoa, where they received medical attention, food, water and rest.
The following day, newspapers around the world headlined the rescue: “Rickenbacker Found Alive!”
After three days of recuperation, Rickenbacker, whose weight had tumbled from 180 to 126 pounds, was flown to New Guinea where he presented Gen. MacArthur the scathing letter from President Roosevelt.
On July 23, 1973, at the age of 82, Rickenbacker died in Zurich, Switzerland. His wife, Adelaide, who was five years older, died five years later at 92.
Rickenbacker’s ordeal at sea, a saga that defied all odds, has been chronicled in a dozen or more books and the 1945 20th Century Fox motion picture “Captain Eddie” that starred Fred MacMurray as Rickenbacker.
And the U.S. Postal Service issued a tribute stamp in 1995 that honored Rickenbacker’s accomplishments as a military hero and aviation pioneer.
David C. Henley is Publisher Emeritus.