Rickenbacker joined the Army to fight in Europe during World War I. He began his career in 1917 as the chauffeur of the U.S. Commander of the European forces, General John J. Pershing. But he transferred to the newly formed Army Air Corp, the Ninety-fourth Aero Pursuit Squadron. In time he became the "Ace of Aces" by shooting down twenty-six German aircraft in daring dogfights. Because of this he was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor. With his fame, when he returned to the States, he founded in 1921 General Motors and helped design automobiles. In time he headed up and purchased for himself that company's new division, Eastern Airlines. He built it into the first profitable commercial airline in history.
Following the attack at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, no one was more qualified to inspect our American air units' readiness than Rickenbacker. When he returned from England on a tour of bases there, he met with Secretary of War Henry Stimson who lost no time in assigning him to the Pacific to continue reviewing Allied readiness in that theater of operation.
Flying from Hawaii in a B-17, Rickenbacker and six members of the crew realized midway that they had faulty navigational equipment and were hundreds of miles off course over the ocean. They had to ditch in the sea some six hundred miles from the Samoa Islands. Constructing three makeshift life rafts they had to hold on for dear life, hoping that some ship would find them. They floated for twenty-one days with no water and food. "In the daytime we prayed for the coolness of the nights; nights we craved the sun," he remembered.
One crewman, Private Johnny Bartek, had grabbed a New Testament with Psalms, from the plane. The men read David's prayers over and over again, and the words of Christ: "Your heavenly Father knows that you have need of all these things. But seek you first the kingdom of God, and His righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you." Rickenbacker added that with the daily singing of hymns and their prayer services, the men were able to "release something" in the midst of all their anxieties, and "the talk for the first time became intensely personal." By the end of the first week two of the men became angry at God because they were not rescued, but the rest went on praying with deep-felt hope. Rickenbacker never gave in to feelings of despair.
One morning after prayer, a seagull landed on his head. With his bare hands he captured the bird. The men drank the blood and ate even the bones. From the gut they made bait to catch fish by which "that seagull kept us alive."
After the war Rickenbacker made strong recommendations as to what planes should carry to save men downed over the water. He also wrote a book about his experiences: "Seven Came Through". He did not forget the role Divine Providence had played in his rescue and wrote a prayer of gratitude that was widely circulated to the troops and to Americans on the home front:
For thy rod and thy staff comforted me even unto the four corners of the world. I have sinned, O Lord, but through thy mercies thou hast shown me the light of thy saving grace.