WWI ace Rickenbacker survived a crash in the Pacific

Published 4:57 pm Friday, November 27, 2020

This week, we will again learn more about Ohio’s other WWI ace, Capt. Eddie Rickenbacker.
As we learned last week, he lost his father at an early age, but instead of returning to the seventh grade in school, he went to work in glass factory working 12 hours a day, seven days a week for the princely wage of $3.50 a week.
He moved from job to job and became fascinated with things mechanical. He finally took a job with the Frayer automobile manufacturing company. He became very adept at assembling and repairing internal combustion engines. He was asked be the riding mechanic with the owner in a race in New York.
After that initial experience in racing, he was fascinated with speed. That led to many races and even traveling to England to work on a race car during the early years of WWI. He had two near-death experiences after the war.
He went to work with Eastern Airlines and eventually was a majority shareholder and CEO of the company.
He was traveling to Atlanta on a business trip in a DC-3 for the company when it crashed near Atlanta. Several people died and many were injured.
Rickenbacker was near death himself. He had a skull fracture, other head injuries, pelvis broken in two places, a fractured elbow, cracked ribs, a paralyzed left wrist, crushed hip socket, a severed nerve in his left hip and a broken knee, plus being saturated in fuel.
If the plane had caught fire, they’d would have all been dead.
It was morning before they were rescued. After they removed all the dead, they got to him and took him to the hospital. The doctor told the assistants to leave him and take care of live ones.
After many months in the hospital and a long time at home, he was able to return to work. In his autobiography, he said he was at death’s door for 10 days.
This was the first time he was reported dead in the newspapers. The next time was in the Pacific Ocean.
U.S. Sec. of War Henry L. Stimson asked him to deliver some secret papers to military commanders in the Pacific Theater including a rebuke from President Harry S. Truman to Gen. Douglas MacArthur for his comments about the administration.
They were taking off from Hawaii to fly to Canton Island for refueling when the takeoff was aborted and in the stop, the navigation sexton was damaged, so they took another B-17 bomber. Unfortunately, they couldn’t find Canton Island and didn’t have enough gas to return to Hawaii, even if they knew the bearing. The ran out of fuel and crash landed in the ocean.
They all survived the impact, although one of the eight crewmen suffered injuries. All they had were three small rafts and five oranges, some of which rotted.
They were on the rafts for three weeks. Seven of the men survived on rain water they caught in their clothes and wrung out and stored in their life jackets. They caught enough fish to survive. They separated after a while and Rickenbacker’s raft was sighted by a Kingfisher plane flying off a battleship. They rode on the wings while the plane was taxied some miles to meet a PT boat.

Don Lee, a pilot flying out of Lawrence County Airport since 1970, has been in charge of equipment and grounds maintenance for the last several years. He can be reached at eelnod22@gmail.com.

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