Cheating Death

Captain Eddie Rickenbacker Takes on the Elements

Sep 1, 2004
Outside Magazine

Rickenbacker shot down 26 enemy planes and tangled with the Red Baron over France during WWI, earning the Medal of Honor. On October 21, 1942, the Ohio native was en route from Hawaii to evaluate American air bases in the South Pacific when his Flying Fortress bomber ditched into the ocean. In the rush to evacuate, all eight on board neglected to grab sufficient supplies—leaving them stuck in three life rafts with five chocolate bars, four oranges, and some fishing hooks and line. Rickenbacker, clad in a blue suit and a gray fedora, took charge, lashing the three rafts together. He and his seven men broiled on the open seas, their parched skin cracked and bleeding. After a week, they were out of food, until a gull fortuitously landed on Rickenbacker's head. He reached up and wrung its neck. The men split the meat and used the entrails as bait, pulling in a mackerel and a sea bass. Five days later, one of the men died from exposure. On day 20, the rafts separated in a last-ditch attempt to find rescue. The gamble paid off: A Navy scout spotted and rescued one of the rafts, and the pilot was alerted to Rickenbacker's location. On his 24th day adrift, a Catalina seaplane retrieved Rickenbacker and the men in his boat. The third raft washed up on a beach, where a missionary found them. In 1973, Rickenbacker died of natural causes, at the age of 83.

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