“People don’t believe in the supernatural anymore.” That’s what my cousin said after reading my long piece about the rescue of famous World War One hero “Captain Eddie” Rickenbacker and six companions from the Pacific Ocean in World War Two. America was fighting Japan in the Pacific.
My cousin and I both believe in the supernatural.
The Rickenbacker Mission pilot, Captain Bill Cherry, credited their survival to “divine intervention” and insisted this be inserted in the record of their post-rescue interrogation. (Rickenbacker's mission was to deliver a secret message from the Secretary of War to General Douglas MacArthur the Pacific theater Army commander.) Seven men survived; one died of pre-existing illness and drinking salty ocean water.
Briefly, here’s what happened.
On October 21, 1942, the B-17D Flying Fortress carrying the Rickenbacker Mission became lost flying from Hawaii to Australia when navigation instruments failed. Before fuel ran out Captain Cherry ditched the plane safely between two wave crests and crew and passengers evacuated into three small life-rafts. At first hopeful of quick rescue, the fliers fell into hopelessness in a few days.
Then the men spied John Bartek, the flight engineer, reading from a pocket Bible given him by his hometown church. Bible reading was not a habit for any of them but they began to gather the three rafts daily for reading the Bible aloud and praying. One passage became a favorite: Matthew 6, verses 31-34, words spoken by Jesus. Do not be anxious; seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness and all you need will be given you.And focus on today’s challenges, not tomorrow’s.
Co-pilot Whittaker recorded miraculous answers to their prayers in a pocket notebook (from which he later wrote a book). Among the prayers answered were prayers for water on Days 7, 11 and 13 that brought immediate results in the form of rain squalls passing over the rafts, each squall renewing exhausted water supplies from previous downpours.
On Day 20, after several friendly planes passed over the rafts without seeing them, Cherry split off alone, deciding dispersed rafts would more likely be spotted than three rafts linked together. Rickenbacker protested but Cherry went anyway. Whittaker soon followed Cherry in a raft with two other crew members.
A U.S. Navy float plane scouting for enemy activity spotted Cherry’s raft and called in a rescue boat. Cherry described the location of the other rafts and Rickenbacker and two companions were found and brought to safety.
The Whittaker raft drifted near an island, and Whittaker paddled to safety while shouting prayers for God to help him defeat the powerful currents that were forcing the raft past the island back into open sea. He and his two fellow crew members made it ashore and were found by natives who alerted the U.S. Navy. By November 14, 1942 all the fliers but one were safe.
If I hadn’t already believed in an all-powerful and merciful God, I would have found it hard to disbelieve after reading the reports by pilots Cherry and Whittaker and flight engineer John Bartek, and seeing their declarations that God had engineered their rescue.
Co-Pilot Whittaker’s book about the episode, now out of print, is Whittaker, J. C. (1943). We thought we heard the angels sing: The complete epic story of the ordeal and rescue of those who were with Eddie Rickenbacker on the plane lost in the Pacific. E.P. Dutton.
Copyright 2022, Douglas M. Smith