A Teacher’s Sixth Graders’ Inspirational Search for the WWII Survivors of a Downed B-17 and the Men Who Rescued Them
by Suzanne Zobrist Kelly
In October 1942, a B-17 carrying a crew and passengers, including famed WWI Ace and Medal of Honor recipient Eddie Rickenbacker, was forced to ditch in the Pacific Ocean. While floating aimlessly for three weeks on life rafts, the men battled sharks, blistering sun, and the lack of fresh food and water before being rescued. All but one survived.
More than forty years later, sixth grade teacher Suzanne Kelly read to her students a book written by the plane’s co-pilot. They were enthralled and asked the question, “What happened to the men?”
REACHING BEYOND THE WAVES tells the story of how Suzanne and her sixth graders searched for―and found―the survivors, the men who rescued them, and others involved with this historic event. From declassified military reports and correspondence with the Army Air Corps, Marine, and Navy men involved, she shares how she and her students located people and information, and the multitude of discoveries they made through their investigations. It is an inspirational tale of facts and friendships, of reaching out and building relationships around the world.
A sixth grade teacher shared the same book with her students that had been read to her as a sixth grader–We Thought We Heard the Angels Sing by the copilot of a B-17 forced to ditch in the Pacific Ocean. Only one man perished. The others were rescued and suffered more ordeals.
This story is about the students who kept asking what happened to the men after the war. This led to their looking up information about Pacific Islands, bombers, Seabees, different ways of trying to find information and individuals (before the internet), even how to write letters, then report back on what they learned.
It led to a reunion of several of the survivors in Ames, Iowa, where groups volunteered to help host the veterans and hold a reception for them. Mrs. Kelly’s parents even donated boxes of Drew’s Chocolates as gifts for the men–from my hometown of Dexter–where Mrs. Kelly’s mother had taught.
Reporters even got in on the action. The students from that class will never forget their sixth grade year when their interest and efforts led to a wonderful reunion, along with research skills which I bet they still use today.
I couldn’t find Mrs. Kelly on Facebook, but the book has a Facebook page!