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The Rescue of Eddie Rickenbacker Forum

The Rickenbacker Web site is about a bomber that went down in the central Pacific ocean on its way from Hawaii to Port Moresby, New Guinea, (yes, New Guinea, as it was in those days) via Canton (Kanton, Phoenix Group, Republic of Kiribati). The first part of the journey should have ended on Canton, however, the B-17 carrying Eddie Rickenbacker, his aide Col. Hans Adamson, and their flight crew, overshot Canton Island by at least 100 miles to the southwest. Out of fuel and hundreds of miles off-course, the pilot ditched his plane in the central Pacific ocean. The survivors were finally located on Nukufetau, Ellice Islands (Tuvalu), some 500 miles away from Canton.

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The search for the missing plane was mounted because aboard it was a VIP from the United States of America, Eddie Rickenbacker, a WW1 ace, who was on an important mission from USA to General MacArthur. Because the reference material was written and published during WW2, the names of the islands were removed. But it was established in the 1980's that Nukufetau was the island where the survivors were found. That confirmation led to a reunion of the US personnel who were involved. The survivors were taken from Nukufetau to Funafuti.

The reference material for this site were Rickenbacker's book "Seven Came Through" and a book by James C. Whittaker, one of the survivors, entitled "We Thought We Heard The Angels Sing" and primarily a series published in "Life Magazine" in three parts in 1943. The people of Nukufetau played an important part in the rescue of Eddie Rickenbacker and the crew of this bomber. First cast adrift in three life rafts, these rafts were tied together for about twenty days until they separated and the raft containing Whittaker went ashore off Nukufetau. They were subsequently rescued by the people of Nukufetau who radioed through to Funafuti to enable the rescue of the inhabitants of the other two rafts by the American servicemen. It is a story that has never been told before from a Tuvalu perspective and I would recommend this site to all Tuvaluans and to anyone interested in Tuvaluan history. I should mention that the Web site is still incomplete but nevertheless does give an outline of this significant event in Tuvaluan history.    ....  Jane Resture

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Eddie Rickenbacker's parents came from the German-speaking cantonment of Switzerland, but he himself was born in Columbus, Ohio in 1890. His father died when he was twelve. The day after the funeral he went down to the Columbus glass company and talked himself into a job by saying that he was fourteen. That was the end of his schooling. He worked twelve hours a night, six nights a week, and turned his weekly pay cheque over to his mother. He had a series of better jobs and took correspondence courses in engineering and in 1910 began winning automobile races. Four years later he achieved the unbelievable world record of 134 miles an hour.

When the war came he was the Ace of Army Staff Drivers and went to aviation, then an obscure branch of the signal corps. When the war ended, he was America's premier ace with 19 decorations for bravery and an official box score of 22 German planes and four balloons. After the war, he finally found his place in the 1930's as a leader in the air transport industry.

This particular story concerns the crash of the plane carrying Rickenbacker in the Pacific off Nukufetau, Tuvalu, during WW2. 


Here adrift on the Pacific is a powerful leader of men battling against the elements and against discouragement, fighting despair with flaming bitterness, never relenting, never compromising. And not always with tact, for there was hardly time for that. If the story lacks anything, it is cannibalism and had it been longer, it might have had even that; for in another week I think his raft colleagues would, with relish, had eaten Eddie Rickenbacker. There is a limit to everything. Even the tough old Pacific, after battling Eddie Rickenbacker for 21 days, finally gave him up to the skies. Rickenbacker and the crew were adrift for 21 days. On the 17th day it rained and they were able to have some fresh water and on this day they heard the sound of a plane overhead for the first time. This aeroplane was the first sign of human life they had seen in almost three weeks adrift. On the 18th day two more aeroplanes of the same type flying close together were seen about six miles away. On the nineteenth day in the morning, there were four more aeroplanes, first a pair to the north, then another to the south, perhaps 4,000 feet high. That afternoon no aeroplane appeared and the survivors feared that perhaps they had drifted through a string of islands and were moving into the open Pacific making their chances of being picked up less than one in a million.   .  .

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On the evening of the 20th day, the rafts were cut adrift with one party saying they were going to try and make land. Shortly after, the second raft decided to do the same thing and before night fell, both rafts were out of sight.

The decision by Whittaker to try and make it to land turned out to be a good one. As they awoke on the 21st day, they could see across the horizon a line of palm trees about ten miles long and about twelve miles away. They broke out the aluminium oars and started to row and at a point just before twelve o'clock they had reached a distance of less than 250 yards from the shore. Suddenly, the boat went out of control and they were racing back out to sea. Nothing they could do with the oars was any help. The wild current held them until they were a mile or so out to sea. The long narrow island was moving across their bows like a giant ocean liner and they started to drift out to sea.

They cried to the Lord to give them strength and they started to row towards the land. Now, they were overcoming the current just as a delude of rain hit them that all but blotted out the island. They looked in horror as several twelve feet long sharks surfaced, splashed at their oars and slid under the water and they knew that if these sharks attacked the raft then they were gone. Strength surged back into their shoulders and arms and Whittaker slashed at the man-eating shark with his oar. The rain was coming down in torrents. The sharks had doubled in number and appeared to be massing for the attack, whizzing past them and slashing at the oars. Miraculously their strength stayed with them until their bow rounded soundlessly. They had touched solid land for the first time in three weeks. The time was 2.00 p.m. on November 11th, 1942.

Slowly, they dragged the boat up on a beach picking their way carefully over the coral as they were without shoes and the coral was as sharp in places as broken glass. The next thing was to find food and shelter and they realized that the part of the island where they now stood was only a few hundred feet wide. The island ran north and south and they were in need of reaching the lee side for shelter from the sun and the rain. They walked across and on the way found some coconuts which they rolled along with their feet. By the time they found a suitable place, they had six coconuts in all and set about opening them with the sheath knife. It took Whittaker in his weakened condition some forty minutes to cut around the hole and into the eyes of the nut. There was little milk in them but the pulp was fairly soft and was nourishing.

On the morning of November 12th, they found more coconuts and they ate again. The drenching from the skies had washed the salt out of Jimmy's ulcers and they seemed to start healing. The next morning they found a single thatched hut with nothing inside it except an unfinished boat. At 12.30 p.m. on this 23rd day, a plane passed over their head only 200 feet up. They sprawled out on the floor and fell asleep at once. Whittaker could not explain why he woke up at about 1.10 p.m. and looked out of the hut to see outrigger canoes about a quarter of a mile away.

The natives had seen Whittaker and as they drew close Whittaker observed that the head man in the lead boat appeared strikingly Japanese. Whittaker called out: "You Japanese?" All the men in the canoe shook their heads in unison and Whittaker relaxed. They threw Whittaker a line and he made fast to the bow of the raft.

The outrigger had four lithe paddle men who certainly could make speed. For the first time, Whittaker now saw a young fellow come out of the canoe carrying a length of rope and a chopper made of a wooden stick and a metal blade. Assisting himself with the rope, he ran up a palm tree and knocked down some ripe coconuts. By the time the rest of the group Whittaker had reached the hut, he was already there lopping the tops of the coconuts with the chopper. He fashioned them into crude drinking cups. The survivors downed the milk - about a pint from each coconut and ate the rich white meat.

The natives appeared to be in a great hurry to get somewhere and were assisting the survivors out to the canoe. They made Whittaker understand that they were to go with them to the village which they did. When the group reached the village, they were greeted by what appeared to be the entire population. The women were clad only in lava lavas and smiled and the smell of cooking filled the air. The smiles quickly changed to tears when the women of the village saw the condition of the survivors. They were emancipated with their hair and beards long and straggly.

On their way to the guest hut, Whittaker was informed that the island was owned by a friendly power which maintained a radio station there. Shortly before, a United States navy plane had dropped the note asking that the natives be on the look out for them. Whittaker was informed that a runner was already on his way to the United States headquarters to inform them of the news.

Two officers arrived shortly afterwards and they were fed a rich chicken broth prepared under supervision of a man from the garrison. The survivors had their first bath with soap in more than three weeks and sat down to wait for dinner. As they finished the last of the soup and were gnawing on the chicken bones, a navy scout plane circled and landed on the water and a physician ministered to the needs of the survivors.

Rickenbacker, Col. Adamson and Bartek were picked up by Lieutenant William F. Eadie whose kingfisher squadron located them.

The next day, November 14th, 1942, was Whittaker's 41st birthday. Before long, delegations of native women began arriving, bearing gifts of mats, fans, shells and grass hula skirts. They held court like native chieftains.

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There was much bowing and giggling. The translating was done by the father of Toma, the tall native youth whose outrigger had picked them up and brought them to the village. His father, a sub-chief of the tribe, once had been a cook on a trading vessel, making several visits to San Francisco. Through him the survivors told the ladies that they could never repay the kindness and hospitality of the tribe.

Whittaker also gave the following descriptions of Toma. He was nineteen years old and stood well over six feet and was handsomely proportioned. He was about the colour of honey with live intelligent eyes. His English was described as being pretty good which was surprising as he had never been far from his native island. Whittaker and Toma took an instant liking to each other and Toma liked "Jim" alright but found difficulty with the pronunciation of "Whittaker". Toma rechristened Whittaker as "Jim America".

Toma wanted to know from Whittaker what else he would like. Whittaker replied that he would like some good American cigarettes. He had hardly finished speaking when Toma bounded out of the hut and headed for the palm trees at an easy lope. In a short while, he was back holding in his hand a packet of American cigarettes. Whittaker was thunderstruck and Toma explained that white warriors had given them to him and he had buried them intending to dig them up at Christmas time.

Just before they left Nukufetau, Toma presented Whittaker with a scale model of the outrigger in which he had rescued Whittaker. Whittaker regarded it as a supreme compliment. Toma informed him with great earnestness that he should keep it safe for if anything should happen to it the same disaster would befall the big outrigger. On the bow of the model, Toma had put the name "Jim America" and "from Toma". Toma had also added the name of the island, Nukufetau.

Whittaker later commented that when he thought of the natives; their kindliness and their childlike friendliness that they had been instruments in God's hands. He commented that it seemed then that these children of the South Pacific probably were much nearer God than many a race lighter than they and many times wiser in the ways of the world. 

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The following takes up Eddie Rickenbacker's story from the time
the rafts parted company on the evening of the 20th day.

On the 21st morning, there were still a little water to share around and the sky had cleared during the night and after the sun came up, it turned terribly hot. The crew in the remaining raft looked out for seaweed and debris - anything suggestive of land but the ocean was bare. Even the gulls were absent.

Late in the afternoon, two planes returned approaching from the south-east. The planes, only a few hundred yards off the water, passed within a couple of miles and disappeared into the setting sun. Half-an-hour later, they came back again, coming directly out of the sun straight for the raft. The first dived right over the raft. The plane was so low that Rickenbacker could see the pilot's expression. He was smiling and waving.

The first aeroplane made a full circle around the raft, then set off after the other. They disappeared into the direction from which they first had come. Like the others, they were a single-engine pontoon job.


About three quarters of an hour later, the same two aeroplanes reappeared. While still a mile or so off, they veered off into a low cloud and vanished. But a few minutes later they burst out of the squall and headed directly for the raft. One plane then left while the other stayed overhead. The light was starting to fade and only a little light was left in the western sky when a white flare flamed below the plane. A minute later the pilot fired another - a red one. The pilot was waiting for a boat. Far off on the southern horizon two lights blinked a code signal. The plane straightened out and made a cautious landing on the darkened sea. Fortunately, it was smooth except for a long swell. After taxying within a few yards the pilot shuttled the engine and we paddled up and caught hold of the platoon. Rescue had come at last. 

Rickenbacker's raft during the night had drifted through the chain of islands into the open sea. The next landfall was hundreds of miles away. They also received good news about the other rafts. One had been sighted the afternoon before about 25 miles away by a naval plane on a routine evening patrol. They had only been able to give vague directions as to the third raft's likely position. Every available plane was put in the air, and in the midst of the search, a radio call from a nearby island informed the base that natives have seen three castaways on the beach of an inhabited island several miles away. This news had been supplied by an English missionary who had a small radio transmitter.  

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Nukufetau atoll with location of wartime airstrips drawn in

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Eddie Rickenbacker with the head of the Samoan
Education Department (second from right)
and two school teachers

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Beach scene, Tuvalu


Click on the above Nukufetau map for a detailed map

We Thought We Heard The Angels Sing

Lieutenant James C. Whittaker, author of We Thought We Heard The Angels Sing

click here Jane's Tuvalu Home Page   
click here Jane's Oceania Home Page

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