The story of how a seagull saved the life of America’s greatest fighter pilot

Plus – March 11 Zoom meeting on August trip to Baltics

Edward V. Rickenbacker stands next to his Nieuport 28 in a field near Toul, France. (National Archives)

Several months ago I led communion service at my church. To introduce the service, I shared an anecdote about Eddie Rickenbacker’s life-giving encounter with a seagull. It’s a fascinating and true story.

Captain Eddie Rickenbacker was a legendary war hero.

Born in 1890, he was in his 20’s when WW1 began. He persuaded Army leadership to allow him to train as one of the first pursuit fighter pilots. He became one of the most successful pilots in military history — known as America’s “Ace of Aces.” 

As a result of repeatedly attacking enemy aircraft alone or outnumbered, in his first six months as a pilot he shot down 26 German aircraft, which was a record that stood until the later part of WW2. 

For his service in the war, he received the Congressional Medal of Honor and a record eight Distinguished Service Crosses, as well as the Legion of Honor and the Croix de Guerre by France.

When World War II began, Rickenbacker was eager to serve his country once again.  

Too old to fly, he toured the country recruiting and inspiring pilots and became a special envoy for President Roosevelt. One of his assignments from the President was to deliver a secret message to General Douglas MacArthur who was in New Guinea.

In route to New Guinea, the B-17 on which Rickenbacker was a passenger had a malfunction in its navigation system, got lost over the Pacific Ocean, ran out of fuel, and ditched at sea. For 24 days, Rickenbacker and seven other crew members lived in a small rubber life raft. Food ran out in three days. One man died and the others began to slowly waste away.

Then, a miracle happened. 

On the eighth day of being lost at sea, following a brief worship service, Rickenbacker leaned against the side of the raft and drifted into sleep. We was awakened by the feel of a seagull that had landed on his head. He reached up and grabbed the bird and it became both dinner for the men, and fishing bait. They ate the bird and fished with what was left. In the next 16 days – until they were rescued – they lived off of the fish they caught using the bird’s bones as hooks.

Captain Rickenbacker never forgot that moment – how that one bird appeared, lifted their spirits and saved them, emotionally and physically. 

In his old age (he lived to age 82), Rickenbacker lived on the east coast of Florida. In the final years of his life he created a personal tradition—a routine that would remind him of the event that happened 52 years earlier, when the seagull saved his life. 

He would walk down to the pier with a bucket of shrimp and slowly and methodically feed the seagulls. It was a time of reflection; a time of gratitude, and a time of remembrance.

Years ago, radio announcer Paul Harvey summarized the story by saying this: “Rickenbacker never forgot that incident. 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 sea gulls, to remember one bird, on a day long past, that gave itself without a struggle.”

The following is also a true story.

Two thousand years ago, Jesus, the Son of God gave himself as a sacrifice for mankind. He died a cruel and undeserved death on our behalf. 

On the night before he died, Jesus and his disciples observed the Passover meal together. 

During the meal, Jesus changed the metaphors of the passover. When he took the unleavened bread in his hands he said “from now on this bread will represent my body which will be broken for you.” When he took the wine he changed it’s  symbolism by saying, “from now on this wine will represent my blood that will be spilled for you. Do these two things to remember me, and the sacrifice I made for your redemption and healing.”

So just as Captain Rickenbacker had a tradition to remember a significant event in his life, our Lord has given us a tradition that reminds us of the historical event that changed the world and our lives.

For the past two thousand years, followers of Jesus have met and set aside time to “remember.” This morning, we join with believers worldwide now and through the ages, to eat a small morsel of bread and sip a small amount of juice – not for the sake of sustenance – but as an act of remembering.”

Readers: The next time you participate in the Eucharist, use it as a moment to remember the sacrifice that Christ made on our behalf

Travel with Friends Information Meeting

Join me on March, 11, 7:00p.m. CST for a 45-minute information meeting on Zoom about the 2024 Travel with Friends trip to the Baltic Sea and Northern Europe.

We’ll discuss the itinerary, accommodations, and ports of calls. The Q&A will answer all your questions. If you want to attend, let me know and I’ll send you an invitation. You can download Zoom for free. You can also participate via a conference call using your mobile phone.

Here’s the brochure that we’ll discuss. Baltic-Sea-Trip-2024-Brochure-110823-Fillable

If you want to attend, email me at [email protected] or call me at 214.783.4414


6 Replies to “The story of how a seagull saved the life of America’s greatest fighter pilot”

  1. The Rickenbacker story is great. Thanks for sharing it.
    But, we missed the Lord’s Supper part somewhat drastically. Jesus didn’t say “This represents my body/blood.” He said, “This is my body, this is my blood.” The Lord’s Supper is more than mere remembrance. Instead, it’s a gracious miracle, in which Jesus gives us himself, along with the bread and wine. The original Greek is crystal clear.

    1. Thanks, Thomas, for taking the time to respond.
      Question, if we take Christ’s words literally, doesn’t that lean toward transubstantiation? I think it was a metaphor.

      1. Don,

        Thank you for your emails. They challenge me to think differently and deeper about any number of topics.
        In your last communication though, you blatantly emphasize reformed theology when you reference the words of Jesus relative to communion. You even quote “this bread will represent my body” and “this wine will represent my blood.” Where did such quotes come from? The Words in Scripture that Jesus speaks are, “this is my body” and “this is my blood.”

        This is not just some empty memorial looking back to the past, but the living Christ is filling us with his love and forgiveness now. He is empowering us with his strength that we need at the present.

        Sincerely in Christ,

        Richard Krause

        1. Thanks, Richard, for taking the time to respond. I think there’s some room here for subtle interpretation. I don’t think Jesus meant the bread and wine were literally his body, as in transubstantiation. When he says, take eat in remembrance of me, I think the emphasis is on remembering.

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