Colonel Hans Christian Adamson, a pilot in the United States Army Air Corps and a close friend of the World War I hero Eddie Rickenbacker, accompanied Rickenbacker on his 1942 flight across the Pacific. The soft-spoken, bookish Adamson had been a pioneer aviator, and the 52-year-old, only three months Rickenbacker’s senior, would give Rickenbacker a companion who shared not only a similar age but also a love of aviation.
In early 1942, Adamson, an agnostic, visited an old Army Air Corps associate named Freddie Brisson at his home in Hollywood, California. The two loved reading and discussing topics such as religion and philosophy. Brisson, who had become a respected film producer, married actress Rosalind Russell, a devout Catholic, and they settled into their Hollywood life.
Despite Adamson’s agnosticism, Russell had grown fond of her husband’s friend. As she wrote in a 1956 article, Adamson “was one of the best-read men I have ever known, which is why Freddie and I took so seriously his views on religion.” The man who neither believed nor disbelieved in an almighty being often exchanged ideas with the actress. While he admired Russell’s Catholic faith, he could not embrace it. “I try to understand your churches and your little medals and things,” he told her, “but I cannot. So I cannot believe.”
Adamson surprised Russell during his visit by reaching into his pocket and retrieving a religious medal that had belonged to the 17th-century Franciscan priest St. Joseph of Cupertino, the patron saint of aviators. Adamson had purchased it as a gift for Brisson, but Russell grabbed his hand and said, “No. Keep that yourself.”
“I try to understand your churches and your little medals and things, but I cannot. So I cannot believe.”
Adamson tried to protest, but Russell refused to let him hand over the gift, explaining that she sensed he might need it. Adamson kept the medal, not for any religious reason but because he did not want to offend his friend’s wife. He tucked it into his pocket, figuring the medal’s presence wouldn’t do any harm.
Before leaving the mainland with Rickenbacker, in October 1942, Adamson telephoned Brisson in the middle of the night to tell him and his wife of his concern about accompanying Rickenbacker on a secret mission to the Pacific. “Hans kept saying that he felt nervous,” Russell later explained. “He had never talked that way before. There is not a bit of cowardice in Hans Adamson yet he kept saying the trip had a fatality to it.”
The actress sat upright in bed and asked, “Hans, do you have that medal that you tried to give Freddie some time ago?” As if embarrassed, Adamson hesitated before saying, “Yes. I’ve got it in my pocket with my change.”
“Now, mind you,” replied Russell, “I don’t think anything is going to happen. But if it does, if something should go wrong, you take that medal out and put it in your hand and hold on to it.” Adamson remained silent for a few seconds before saying that he would.
“There is not a bit of cowardice in Hans Adamson yet he kept saying the trip had a fatality to it.”
In late October 1942, on his flight with Rickenbacker and seven others, the pilots got lost while crossing the Pacific Ocean and their B-17 Bomber ran out of gas. They had to crash-land in the area where the equator and International Date Line cross. They were stuck at sea on a raft for 24 days.
When her friend went missing in the Pacific, Russell prayed for the safety of the lifelong agnostic. By the fourth day of his disappearance, her optimism began to wane. Dejected at the possible loss of their close friend, she turned to her husband for solace. He put his arms about her and, in a soothing voice, said Adamson was fine. “He’s alive. I know he is alive. He’s getting strength from somewhere.” His comforting words made the actress wonder if that Catholic medal was helping their friend.
As she later learned, the medal had proved invaluable. During every travail of his 24 days adrift, Adamson tightly clutched the religious medal. He held it when he first spotted dorsal fins slicing the water near his raft, and he grasped it when he thought he might die from thirst or hunger. He held it beneath an unforgiving equatorial sun and during the inexplicably cold nights when he shivered and moaned.
On November 12, Adamson, Rickenbacker, and the one other pilot who survived were found and rescued by the Navy.
A few days before Christmas 1942, shortly after Adamson had been saved, Russell was working on a film at a Hollywood studio when she learned that Adamson would soon be in for a visit. She and her husband warmly welcomed their friend, whose weathered face and bandaged hands still showed the ravages exacted by his recent Pacific ordeal.
When Freddie inquired about the colonel’s bound hand, Adamson slowly unwrapped the bandage to reveal the gift Russell had insisted he keep before departing on the trip. “There, cupped in his hand,” wrote Russell in the 1956 article, “was the medal” that had belonged to St. Joseph of Cupertino. Adamson smiled and said softly, “It’s all right, Roz. I understand at last.”
The agnostic had accepted the presence of a higher power.
John Wukovits is a military historian who specializes in the Pacific theater during World War II. His latest book, Lost at Sea: Eddie Rickenbacker’s Twenty-Four Days Adrift on the Pacific, is out now from Dutton Caliber