Don Lee: Rickenbacker survived plane crash in Pacific Ocean

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, May 11, 2021

EDITOR’S NOTE: Don Lee is taking a break from his column this week. The following is a piece that originally was published on Dec. 22, 2018:

Columbus native Capt. Eddie Rickenbacker had an interesting life besides flying the Spad in WWI.

He was credited with shooting down 26 enemy aircraft. On a tour after the war to sell Liberty Bonds to help pay for the war, he was in Boston and several thousand people turned to hear the ace. He is quoted in the book, “The Aviators” by Winston Groom, as saying that he felt like Daniel Webster after listening to “Silent” Cal Coolidge’s irritating speech. At the time, Cal was the governor of Massachusetts. From the initial embarrassment of trying to do his best in his first few speeches, Captain Eddie had hired a coach. By the time the tour was over, he was an accomplished speaker.

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Much later he was sent by Harry L. Stimson, U.S. Secretary of War in the fall of
1942, on a mission to the Pacific Theater of Operations to review the needs of military personnel and also to deliver a message of secret rebuke to Gen. Douglas MacArthur from President Roosevelt.

MacArthur had made negative public comments about the administration. Captain Eddie was in Hawaii visiting with the troops there and then the plan was to fly on Australia in a B-17 Fly Fortress bomber. He and eight others took off for their first stop at Canton Island for refueling.

Unfortunately, they were using a celestial instrument for navigation that had been damaged in a runway accident. With faulty information, they become lost over the South Pacific. They were able to ditch the bomber in 12-foot waves and all survived although some were injured.

They had two rafts and some food but did not save any water. I remember reading about the accident and the news reports were very negative about them, even after surviving the ditching.

It was an amazing story. They survived 24 days.

Their water that kept them alive was wrung out of their clothes from the rains. They would suck water from the cloth and then blow it into their May west life jackets.

It seems that someone was looking after Captain Eddie. One day, a seagull landed on his head.

He very careful and slowly moved to grab the legs. They divided the bird among themselves and used the guts for bait to try to catch fish.

They also ran into a school of “fingerlings” and were able to catch them with their bare hands.

One of the crew decided to drink seawater and soon died and was buried at sea. One of the crew who was in the small raft decided to leave them and was later found after 21 days and rescued.

The others, including Rickenbacker, drifted on to a small island next to another island, which was inhabited by friendly natives and were rescued after 24 days adrift in the South Pacific.

Captain Eddie hung on the secret message and delivered it to MacArthur. It was never made public. Even Google on the Internet cannot find it.

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