BACKGROUND TO THE PACIFIC
"He Has Cheated the 'Grim Reaper' About as Often as Any Living Man"
1890 to 1940
They would soon be dead. How could they think otherwise? The eight men, ranging in age from twenty-two to fifty-two, alone on the ocean, crammed into three tiny rubber rafts, had drifted for so long that they could not be certain where they were or how long they had been afloat. In a day or two, at most, they would undoubtedly join the countless unlucky voyagers lost forever to the Pacific.
They had survived multiple challenges. Each day, the sun's glare bounced off the ocean surface to emit "billions of sharp splinters of light; no matter where one looked, it was painful." The blistering sun had so burned their skin that one of the group compared it to "being turned on a spit." They had prayed for nighttime's welcome relief, only to shiver in the dark from the chilling ocean swells that drenched them. "Daytimes we prayed for the coolness of the nights; nights we craved the sun," wrote one of the eight.
Men had lapsed into stupors, bobbing in the ocean with their mouths half open and fatigued heads drooping on sunburned chests. They had battled both extreme hunger and severe thirst, and had grimaced from constricted muscles caused by squeezing into rafts hardly big enough for two people, let alone three. "Our bodies, our minds, the few things we had with us were slowly rotting away." Intensifying their anxiety was that they would perish without a trace, denying family and other loved ones details that could help bring closure. They could hold on awhile longer, but eventually the Pacific would wield the upper hand.
Except for one, the eight men had led routine lives. They had attended school, dated girls, played baseball and football, and afterward commenced careers they hoped would bring long and pleasant lives. The one exception, however, enjoyed a lifestyle the others could only envy. His name dominated the nation's headlines, and he had packed more thrills into his fifty-two years than the other seven combined. He enjoyed fame as a race car driver, dated gorgeous women, and basked in the limelight of being the nation's preeminent hero of World War I. He had eluded death so often on the racetrack and in the skies that an adoring public believed nothing could stop him.
"No man of this living generation has seen death more closely and more often than Eddie Rickenbacker," wrote popular author W. L. White. "He has learned to look the Old Fellow right back in the eye, as one man to another, returning his steady gaze." Time magazine turned to legendary figures from ancient Rome in depicting Rickenbacker as a man whose core was built upon "a gladiator's indomitability."
In October 1942 eight men crafted a rousing saga at sea that inspired their fellow countrymen and enhanced the legend of a man who had long captured the nation's adulation.
"I DIDN'T GO TO SCHOOL—I WENT TO WORK"
Eddie Rickenbacker's youth in Columbus, Ohio, provided few hints of the extraordinary path he would follow. In 1879 his father, William Rickenbacher (the last name contained the letter h until Eddie changed it later in life), joined tens of thousands of Europeans who sought a better life across the Atlantic than that offered by the hardscrabble existence prevalent in their native countries. William said goodbye to family and friends in the small village of Zeglingen, Switzerland, nestled in the foothills of the Jura Mountains, determined to join his uncle in Columbus and begin work as a railroad laborer. Two years later, Elizabeth Basler crossed the ocean from Switzerland to settle in the same city, where her two brothers resided. The confident, assertive woman, called Lizzie by everyone in Columbus, adapted quickly to her new surroundings, and four years after her arrival, she married William.
Life with William, who waged a constant battle with financial problems, was never easy. The birth of their third of eight children, Edward Vernon Rickenbacher, on October 8, 1890, added to William's burdens. Hampered by his inability to provide for the family, the father vented his rage by whipping the children for the slightest misdeeds.
Eddie inherited his mother's grit, and, before he was five years old, he was scouring the city's streets for walnuts, rags, or pieces of coal that dropped from railroad cars as they rumbled by. He awoke before sunrise to walk two miles to collect the newspapers he would hawk for the Columbus Dispatch, and to milk goats to sell to neighbors.