“Lost At Sea” by author John Wukovits masterfully recounts the amazing story of famous aviator Eddie Rickenbacker and 7 other crewmembers’ twenty four days adrift in the Pacific Ocean. Wukovits used survivor’s accounts and other records to create a compelling story of survival, leadership and faith against tremendous odds.
Eddie Rickenbacker developed a reputation for cheating death early on in his life. He dropped out of school in 7th grade to support his family after his father’s death. A job at an automobile company began his life-long love with mechanics. He built his first reputation as a race car driver, once again cheating death several times.
He was initially rejected for the pilot corps in World War I but found a workaround. Despite partial sight in one eye from a childhood accident, he would become America’s “Ace of Aces”, shooting down 26 enemy aircraft. He was awarded the Medal of Honor for one mission where he single handedly took on 7 enemy aircraft.
While head of Eastern Airlines he survived another terrible plane crash.
In the early days of World War II, Rickenbacker was chosen to deliver a top secret message to General Douglas MacArthur. Rickenbacker boarded a B-17 crewed by Capt. William Cherry (Pilot), Lt. James Whittaker (Co-Pilot), Sgt. James Reynolds (Radio Operator), Lt. John De Angelis (Navigator) & Private John Bartkek (Engineer). SSgt Alexander Kaczmarchcyzk, recovering for a long illness was also on board returning to his outfit in Australia. Col. Hans Adamson accompanied Rickenbacker as his aide.
A broken hydraulic line caused the B-17 to veer into a ditch. They immediately loaded into a second aircraft, not allowing time to properly check the navigation equipment. This was one of the factors that led them to become lost at sea and have to ditch in the Pacific Ocean.
For 24 days the 8 men huddled in three small life boats, short of food & water and constantly surrounded by sharks. The harsh sun burned their skin so badly they were never comfortable. Close to starvation, a tern miraculously landed on Rickenbacker’s head. This gave them some food but more importantly, bait they could use to catch fish. After 24 days adrift, SSgt Kazcmarchcyzk, already weak from his illness, was the only one not to survive.
TAKEAWAY: A key element of the book describes the tension between Rickenbacker and Captain Cherry. As the pilot, Cherry should have been in command, but that proved difficult with a national hero sharing the raft. However, it was Cherry’s decision to separate the rafts that led to their eventual rescue.