Saturday, July 8, 1967 is a date etched in my memory. My father took my two brothers and me to Selfridge Air Base just outside of Detroit to see the famous Thunderbirds Air Demonstration Squadron perform.
But Dad also had another agenda.
Before the aerial show, we sat in the stands listening to a few speakers. Boring stuff, actually. Dad wanted us to see someone. After what seemed to be an eternity waiting for the jets to roar, he said, “There he is, right down there.” I looked and saw a group of men walking. They were in military uniforms.
This one older man wore a dark suit and what I later learned was a fedora hat. Dad said that the man always wore a fedora hat.
The occasion for the air show at Selfridge turned out to be the 50th anniversary of what was called “The Hat in the Ring Squadron,” a band of pioneer American aerial warriors who complicated things for the Kaiser in The Great War.
And their leader was that man in the fedora hat-Eddie Rickenbacker.
This story came to my mind recently with the release of the powerful film, ‘UNBROKEN,’ based on the story of Louis Zamperini, who died last Summer at the age of 97. In the film, Rickenbacker’s name is referenced a couple of times.
He was a race car driver before World War I and made a lot of money at it. When America mobilized to go “over there,” Rickenbacker pitched the idea of training drivers like him to fly airplanes in combat, but was rebuffed. So he just drove bigwigs around.
Then one day he had the chance to chauffer an officer named Billy Mitchell, and Rickenbacker’s idea found fertile soil.
Eddie was America’s top ace, shooting down 26 enemy aircraft during this nation’s comparatively brief participation in the European war. He then went into business and became one of the country’s top boosters of commercial aviation.
A few months before Pearl Harbor, he was in a fiery airline crash. He broke several bones and nearly died. But by late 1942, he had sufficiently healed so that President Roosevelt recruited him to carry a secret message to Douglas MacArthur, who by then was in Australia beginning to scrounge and plan for an eventual return to the Philippines.
The message from FDR was verbal. No record of it exists, which indicates its important and the confidence the President had in Rickenbacker.
He was wearing a suit and that fedora hat.
They ran out of food on the third day.
A natural leader of men, Rickenbacker made sure he and the men prayed and had scripture reading each day. On the eighth day, one of the men read from the Gospel of Matthew about how the Lord watches over the lilies of the field and the birds in the air. Following the reading that day, Eddie pulled his fedora down over his face to catch a nap.
About twenty minutes later, he was awakened by something on his head. He looked at the men and saw that they were looking at what was on his head. Rickenbacker slowly reached up with his hand and grabbed a big bird, which became Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Easter rolled up into one.
They then used the “insides” of the heaven-sent bird as bait to catch fish for days to come, ensuring that they would have sufficient nourishment for the duration.
The man in the fedora hat was convinced ever after than an angel had sent that bird. – DRS