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Eddie Rickenbacker, Prayer, and Seagull

Posted on Thursday, May 18, 2023
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by AMAC, Robert B. Charles
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16 Comments
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Do you know the story of American hero Eddie Rickenbacker? Exactly 105 years ago this month, day before Memorial Day, a young American fighter pilot by the name of Eddie Rickenbacker shot down his fifth German plane – and became an ace. He would finish the war America’s most decorated pilot, but that is not the story I want to tell. His is a story of uncommon faith.

As a kid, third of eight, he had no silver spoons, father worked in the brewery, mother in the laundry. He worked two jobs in school, one before, one after. When not at school and jobs, he worked the fields.

Lots of people think heroes begin invincible, coordinated, rugged, athletic, educated. That was not Rickenbacker. He had none of that. He was a hard worker, loved his family, knew duty. He was energetic, an optimist, but uncoordinated, neither educated.

When his father died, he was in seventh grade. He dropped out, began working, family needed money. In those days, adults cared about kids, especially those eager to learn. Working around cars, interested in engineering, an engineer taught him cars.

Working for Harvey Firestone – ever see that name on a tire? – he was supervising a dozen men at 16, and had a knack for figuring out problems, why engines overheated, how things worked. Sound All-American? It was, of course – the American Dream, yearning for a chance.

Writing this, I think about one of my old bosses, Colin Powell, who spent thousands of hours under cars, his favorite hobby, taking apart old Volvos bought for nothing, making them purred. To some, that will be hard to understand, but for him it was just a return to reality, sanity, in the blood, fixing things.

That was Rickenbacker, too. Within a few years, he was racing cars, got notoriety. In his mid-20s, things began to change. WWI broke out, and the need was high for those who would take risks, fly for America.

Rickenbacker started training in 1917, in early 1918 joined what we call today a fighter wing, but then was a “pursuit group,” in France. In May 1918 – when he shot down his fifth plane – he became an ace. Truth was, Rickenbacker struggled with shadows, knew he was not self-disciplined, worked on it.

As a child, he was nearly killed countless times, wandering away, getting stuck in odd places, almost run over by trains and a streetcar, fell down a well, was nearly burned up in a building. As he grew, he felt God had saved him for some purpose.

In May 1918, he got deathly sick – just as John Adams did prior to founding the country, just like TR did in his youth, like Winston Churchill id- WWII, recovering to save the Western world. If you doubt me, look them all up, each so.

As Rickenbacker recovered, he swore to himself to keep his faith, get more self-disciplined, work on his faults, failures, get beyond them. Throughout, he kept his own counsel, turned to faith, relied on it.

The result is something hard to imagine, worth pausing to appreciate. He not only got better, stronger, and was well decorated, but built a remarkable aviation team, and was – hope you are sitting – awarded the Distinguished Service Cross (DSC) eight times. Later, he got the Congressional Medal of Honor, French Croix de Guerre and Legion of Honor. His life as a combat pilot was epic.

Back home, he was feted, returned to racing cars, got into civil aviation, eventually ran Eastern Airlines, at the time one of the nation’s largest airlines. Wind beneath his wings was always different, private but real, strong but silent.

In 1942, the US sent Rickenbacker, by then a household name in aviation, to review living conditions in the Pacific, rally the troops, deliver a message to General McArthur from the White House.

Returning in a B-17, long haul, vast ocean, his plane went down, leaving him stranded in the Pacific with seven others for what turned out to be 24 days. Food ran out in three days.

Here is where the miracles began. The US government planned to abandon the search. Rickenbacker’s wife would not have it, she was relentless, insisted the search continue.

Day eight, the men were nearly gone. Praying, Rickenbacker suddenly felt a lone seagull land on his head – one. He grabbed it. From that moment forward, things changed. They ate, fished and got fish with what they had left, were blessed with rainwater, which kept them alive.

Fish saved them, as they were fed to the 5000. His men were rescued. Rickenbacker never forgot the moment, how that bird lifted their spirits and saved them, emotionally, physically. In his old age, he lived in Florida. He would reportedly go down to the shore to the end, just to feed the gulls, remembering.

Years on, an old radio announcer named Paul Harvey summed it: “He never forgot. Every Friday evening, about sunset, on a lonely stretch along the Eastern Florida seacoast, you could see an old man walking, white haired, bushy eye-browed, silently bent, his bucket filled with shrimp to feed the gulls, to remember one which, on a day long past, gave itself without a struggle, like manna in the wilderness.” That, in a few words, is the story of American hero Eddie Rickenbacker.

Robert Charles is a former Assistant Secretary of State under Colin Powell, former Reagan and Bush 41 White House staffer, attorney, and naval intelligence officer (USNR). He wrote “Narcotics and Terrorism” (2003), “Eagles and Evergreens” (2018), and is National Spokesman2 for AMAC.

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Lieutenant Beale
Lieutenant Beale
1 year ago

RBC,
Excellent article about Eddie Rickenbacker. A great example of strength of the human spirit, depth of character and his unshakable faith in God. These characteristics are becoming increasingly rare in this day and age, but, nevertheless there are some young folks today who rise to the challenges facing said youth. (I suspect our usual wise-guy troll will weigh-in with one of his asinine comments when he sees this). Not to worry, I have seen, know, and have worked with some of our youth who are young “Eddie Rickenbackers”. Keep the Faith RBC, stay strong.

SusanW
SusanW
1 year ago

Great story! It actually gave me goose bumps. I did not know the full story behind Eddie Rickenbacker. Thank you. Very inspirational! Once again, an important reminder of how we must always keep moving forward, remain lifelong learners, be aware that God is always walking beside us, and be forever grateful for our many divine gifts. Stay strong and optimistic, Robert.

Flo
Flo
1 year ago

What a wonderful story of Rickenbacker. The last paragraph was the best. God bless him. We need more Americans like him.

Louis
Louis
1 year ago

What a great article and what a great man. Articles like this restore faith in God and mankind. Thank you for sharing this with us.

James Cox
James Cox
1 year ago

Wow…excellent edifying article. Must read his biography. PS…THIS is what I like about AMAC…AARP would NEVER post this…too Godly…Thank you again AMAC…Jim

Eladio Martinez
Eladio Martinez
1 year ago

A beautiful tale of sacrifice, faith, courage and worthy of emulation.

anna hubert
anna hubert
1 year ago

It’s men like him who made this country the best in the world

Morbious
Morbious
1 year ago

He saved those men in the raft by making them hate him so as to stoke their will to live. He was a taskmaster. The men stayed alive in order to see him die first. Sometimes the right leader is not warm and fuzzy. When times are good people quickly forget this.

Paul Plominski
Paul Plominski
1 year ago

I enjoyed the story, but this is not completely accurate! Considering Mr. Charles’ background in the Department of Defense, one would think he would know better. I would expect AMAC to do better as well in checking the ‘facts’ before disseminating information.

Mr Charles states that Eddie Rickenbacker received the “Congressional Medal of Honor” which he never did! There is NO SUCH Medal!! Anyone who refers to “The Medal” as a “Congressional” Medal doesn’t know what they are talking about. If Mr. Charles made the same mistake that has been perpetuated since Frank Capra’s classic movie: “It’s A Wonderful Life” where it is also called the Congressional Medal of Honor that George Bailey’s both “Won” for saving the lives of all those on a Navy ship coming under Kamikaze Attack… that line in that movie, has caused numerous inaccurate and honestly ‘Lazy’ authors and news reporters, to dishonor the Brave Men who Earned ‘the Medal’ which is only to be known as: The Medal of Honor. The US Congress has nothing to do with approving the Medal of Honor for any recipient.

Read the history, and you may find that following the American Civil war, the slackers in the US Congress created the “Congressional Medal of Honor Society”. This was done, to self elevate members of both houses during re-election. The Congress paid for a huge gala/banquet for the recipients who won ‘The Medal of honor’ during the civil war. A substantial budget for food, drink and entertainment among other items was funded by the Congress, with tax-payer dollars of course.

The often destitute Veterans had to fund their own transportation, hotel bills, etc., in-order to attend the Gala. The Congress paid to have photographers present, so they could have their pictures taken with these Heroes, just to use the images in the up-coming re-election campaigns.

So I ask each of you to stop and correct anyone, whether on your local or national News programs, or the History Channel, Discovery Channel or your local PBS to correct them every time our nations highest military award is referred to as anything other than “The Medal of Honor”, or they are perpetuating a disservice to those recipients.

Semper Fi,

Spitfire1940
Spitfire1940
1 year ago

Beautiful story Mr Charĺes.I read Eddie’s story many years ago while in Her Majestys service.Always admired the Spad X111,great aircraft flown by a very brave pilot.

Lyn
Lyn
1 year ago

That was outstanding.

Elizabeth Sonner
Elizabeth Sonner
1 year ago

Loved !!!

Di B
Di B
1 year ago

I always enjoy your articles RBC, but this one is the best! Thank you!

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