Eddie Rickenbacker’s Pacific Ordeal

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Before and after.

Before, he was a gadfly, goading leaders to hasten the age of aviation. After, he was a Jeremiah, warning against complacency, denouncing featherbedding. In between, there was a twenty-three-day ordeal on the Pacific. Because he survived, he believed God had spared him for a purpose. And all those earlier brushes with death suddenly took on new meaning.

Eddie Rickenbacker had already served his country in this second global war. In a nationwide tour of inspection, he had boosted morale among Air Corps pilots. In a series of radio broadcasts, he had reassured the nation that its air forces were strong. In a tour of bases in the UK, he had reported on Army Air Corps readiness as real battle approached.

Rickenbacker had performed all these duties just a year after an airplane crash had wrecked his body and nearly killed him. Now, in October 1942, he was being asked to go even farther afield as Special Consultant to the Secretary of War. To the other side of the world. To the South Pacific. To deliver a sensitive message (a rebuke, really) to the self-important General MacArthur. No one else had the stature, independence, and respect necessary to stand up to MacArthur. So, a week after returning from his UK mission, Rick embarked on a journey of 12,000 miles—and a descent into hell.

Colonel Hans Adamson accompanied Rickenbacker, as he had on his previous tours of inspection. Doctor and masseur, Adamson made sure Rick’s body recovered after the rigors of air travel and the twice-daily talks with troops. It took the pair four days to travel from NY to LA, LA to San Francisco, and San Francisco to Hawaii. At Hickam Field, Oahu, Rickenbacker and Adamson met the flight crew that would take them over the 5,000-mile expanse of ocean to Brisbane, Australia.

Captain William Cherry would pilot the B-17 Flying Fortress with Lieutenant James Whittaker in the next seat. Lieutenant John De Angelis would have the unenviable job of navigating the ship over trackless seas. Staff Sergeant James Reynolds would operate the radio. Private John Bartek would handle mechanical problems, with the assistance of Staff Sergeant Alex Kaczmarczyk, who was still recovering from an appendectomy but whose knowledge of the older plane was needed to supplement Bartek’s.

All, except Kaczmarczyk, had been scheduled to return stateside but were instead told to turn around and head back toward the fighting. They consoled themselves with the thought that they would be transporting the renowned World War I ace Captain Eddie Rickenbacker. In any event, what choice did they have?

The initial take-off almost ended in disaster when a wheel part dislodged and pulled the plane into a spin. Cherry responded masterfully, and no one was injured. There was damage, however, as yet undetected, to De Angelis’s octant, which was flung against the cabin wall. Rickenbacker and crew were hastily reassigned to a second B-17. Cherry requested a trial flight to check the ship’s airworthiness, but his request was denied. The crew took off again, this time successfully, at two o’clock in the morning.

Five years before, Amelia Earhart had been shooting for Howland Island from the west. In 1942, Rickenbacker’s B-17 was headed for Canton Island, not far (relatively) from Howland, though no one but a handful of military brass knew their destination (or their mission, for that matter). Howland and Canton were both steppingstones for planes that, at the time, could not cover the entire distance in one hop. They were both atolls, hardly islands at all, just rings of sand atop beds of coral. They provided room for a landing strip but not much more. Earhart and Noonan had been unable to locate Howland on their ill-fated flight. All depended on Cherry and De Angelis succeeding where their predecessors had not.

Shortly after sunrise, Cherry descended to try to spy Canton. Finding no sign of it, he engaged the direction finder only to discover it was jammed. The lack of a trial flight had proved costly. Reynolds radioed Canton but was told they could provide no bearings. They did not yet have the necessary equipment. Reynolds reached two more islands; neither could provide bearings. The Army was simply not prepared; the infrastructure was not yet in place. Rick wondered aloud if the tailwind had been stronger than thought, and they had overshot the island. De Angelis came clean about the battered octant, confessing that it must have been knocked out of calibration. The Flying Fortress was officially lost.

Remembering his days on the Western Front, when no landings had the benefit of instruments, Rick told Cherry to rise above the clouds and send up flares. De Angelis transmitted their intentions, but no flares were sighted in response. Cherry proceeded to “box the compass,” flying one hour in all four cardinal directions. Still, no sighting. As their fuel ran down, they could put off the inevitable no longer. They prepared to ditch the plane.

Rickenbacker had plenty of experience with forced landings, but never in the middle of an ocean. He knew enough to start heaving all excess weight out the hatch: mail, toolbox, cots, blankets, suitcases, his own expensive Burberry coat. It couldn’t have added up much, but force = mass x acceleration, so they reduced their mass in any way they could. Then, with Kaczmarczyk’s help, Rick filled thermoses with water and coffee. They shoved chocolate bars and packets of cigarettes into their pockets, readied the box of emergency rations, donned uninflated Mae West life preservers, and waited.

As Cherry prepared to lower the plane into the sea and Reynolds continued to bang out dots and dashes in groups of three, Rick led the other five to the rear of the plane and had them lie down, heads toward the tail, feet braced against bulkhead, mattresses arranged for padding. He positioned himself at a port window near the forward bomb bay. Whittaker later mused, “You can’t realize the will power it takes to put a plane into the sea with even a teacup of fuel left in the tanks.” As the plane slowed and lowered, Rick called out their descending altitude: “Fifty feet! …Thirty feet! …Five feet! …Three feet! …One foot!”

The Pacific was not living up to its name. Ten-foot waves swept across its surface, but Cherry somehow succeeded in lowering the Fortress, tail-down, into a trough between crests. This feat of skill saved all their lives. Even so, traveling about 90 mph the plane came to a complete stop within fifty feet. The men were badly banged about. Reynolds’s face was thrown into the communication panel where he was still banging out SOS’s. Adamson’s back was wrenched. No time to deliver first aid. With water gushing into the fuselage the men clambered out the escape hatch above the cockpit, the quinquagenerians, Rick and Adamson, first; the captain, Cherry, last.

The crucial last minutes before abandoning the plane contained both fortuitous actions and tragic blunders. Rick had thought to tie a rope around his waist, Cherry had stuffed four oranges in his pockets, and Reynolds had grabbed a fish line and two hooks. On the other hand, while boarding the life raft from the plane’s wing, Bartek cut his hand badly on a jagged piece of metal. (The sharks began circling right from the start.) The third, ring-shaped raft overturned, throwing Kaczmarczyk and De Angelis into the water. (Kaczmarczyk swallowed a mouthful of seawater, dooming his chances of subsequent survival.) Worst of all, no one had brought the thermoses and rations off the Fortress! Then another mistake: It was decided not to risk going back in the ship to retrieve them, though the plane stayed afloat a full six more minutes.

With waves tossing them about, the octet took stock of what they did have. The Army supplied their rafts with one first-aid kit, eighteen flares with Very pistol for firing them, two hand-pumps for bailing and re-inflating rafts, two collapsible bailing buckets, and three sets of patching gear. Among themselves they carried two sheath knives, two revolvers, two fishhooks and line, a compass, a map of the Pacific, a Bible, a journal, and pencils. Rick’s rope was already in use keeping the three rafts tethered to each other. The cigarettes and chocolate bars had already been soaked in sea water and were thrown out. The four oranges, they decided, would be consumed one every other day, starting the next day.

The group had little time for either recriminations or congratulations. They were now alone at sea, surrounded by a vast emptiness and desolation—yet, ironically, cramped in three undersized rafts and surrounded by a crowd of circling sharks. Rick, Bartek, and Adamson; Cherry, Whittaker, and Reynolds; each group of three men shared a 7’ x 4’ life raft. Ever the analytical engineer, Rick estimated the functional space to be closer to 6’9″ x 2’4″. These accommodations were spacious compared to those “enjoyed” by De Angelis and Kaczmarczyk. The third raft, called “the donut” for obvious reasons, required its two occupants to face each other, De Angelis with his legs around the Kaczmarczyk’s waist, Kaczmarczyk with his legs over the De Angelis’s shoulders, or vice versa.

The sharks that circled their rafts were terrifying and annoying, both. When they weren’t bumping the bottom of the boat from beneath, they were slapping the sides of the vessels, soaking the seafarers with spray. Whittaker believed there wasn’t a time during the entire three weeks “when at least one dorsal fin wasn’t cutting the water about the rafts.”

Terror or annoyance, no one doubted that they would be rescued eventually. With the Ace of Aces, Eddie Rickenbacker, in their party, the Navy would do all in its power to find them. They just had to wait it out. No one could have foreseen the length of the trial that awaited them.

***

Night falls abruptly at the equator. For the eight men in three rafts, that first nightfall brought absolute dark, inescapable cold, and overwhelming aloneness. They sent up three flares from the Very pistol at midnight. The first was a dud, the second, feeble and short-lived. Only the third lit up the sky for possible rescuers. None responded. Subsequent nights brought similarly disappointing results from the flares.

The morning sun brought relief in the form of warmth, light, and the return of each other’s faces—until it brought torment in the form of blistering skin, unrelenting heat, and a blinding glare off the water. (“The sea sent billions of sharp splinters of light,” Rick wrote. “No matter where one looked it was painful.”) Some of the men had removed their pants and shoes before abandoning ship. Now their legs and feet were exposed to the merciless attack of the sun’s rays.

Rick was still dressed in his summer-weight blue business suit and floppy, gray fedora. He also carried five handkerchiefs, pocketed in the final minutes on the plane. He passed out four for others, which they tied around their faces bandit-style to protect nose and cheeks. Rick believed the nights were worse than the days, but his erstwhile masseur Adamson thought them equally perverse. The only consolation was that each brought relief from the worst ravages of the other. “Toward twilight each day,” he explained, “they would see that hateful sun vanish with great relief; and, at the end of each cold wet night, they would welcome it as bringer of light and warmth.”

The ocean inflicted discomforts as great as the sun. Between flapping shark tails and leaks, water covered the bottom of the rafts at all times. Constant bailing and hand pumping had the benefit of giving them something to do, but the constant soaking led to salt ulcers. “When the salt water got into the flesh,” wrote Rick, “It burned and cracked and dried and burned again.” A red rash turned into hard bumps which oozed pus. The discomfort was made worse by the cramped quarters. Rick explained how “a foot or hand or shoulder, moved in sleep or restlessness, was bound to rake the raw flesh of a companion. With the flesh, tempers turned raw and many things said in the night had best be forgotten.”

Even worse, the ocean tantalized them with the proximity and ubiquity of water that was yet undrinkable. Rick was especially vigilant for raftmates who might succumb to the temptation drinking. Yet, in any case, none could prevent at least small amounts of water entering their mouths when waves sent spray across their faces. Just a splash would exacerbate the parched mouth and cottony tongue.

Their only antidote to thirst were those four measly oranges of which Rick was made their keeper and carver. On days 2 and 4, he halved and halved and halved again, under great strain to make each piece of equal size. “When you have got seven pairs of hungry eyes watching you, you can’t help but do a pretty good job of carving.” The castaways wisely chose to eat the third orange on day 5 and the fourth on day 6, rather than wait. As it was, the last orange was shriveled and dry.

The men ate skin, seeds and all; all except Rick and Cherry who saved the skins to use as bait on Reynolds’s hook. Weighted with Adamson’s key ring, hook and orange peel were lowered into the deep where they remained, undisturbed. The marine life of the Southern Pacific weren’t interested.

Desperation insinuated itself into the floating band. At some point, the group decided to circle up and hold a prayer meeting. They needed ritual to bind them together and give them strength. Bartek had already taken to reading his leather-encased Bible in private. Now they were asking him to make it a public good. Matthew 6:31-34 became everyone’s favorite passage, for obvious reasons: Therefore take no thought, saying, What shall we eat? Or What shall we drink? Or Wherewithal shall we be clothed? …For your heavenly Father knoweth that ye have need of these things. …Take therefore no thought for the morrow: for the morrow shall take care of itself.

After the oranges ran out on day six, the men could be forgiven for losing faith in the morrow taking care of itself. No food or water was anywhere in sight or likely to make itself available. There was nothing to do but pray. Cherry began invoking the “Old Master” directly and openly. “Old Master,” he intoned, “We know this isn’t a guarantee we’ll eat in the morning. But we’re in an awful fix, as You know. We sure are counting on a little something by day after tomorrow, at least. See what you can do for us, Old Master.” How could God refuse such a prayer?

Rickenbacker’s and Whittaker’s accounts don’t agree on the chronology of the pivotal event. Whittaker, the only one who kept a journal (for all but six days of the ordeal), placed it on day 4, before the oranges had even run out. Rick, whose version makes better copy, placed it on day 8, when desperation would have reached a climax. Both agree on the particulars of the event itself.

Following a prayer meeting, as Rick dozed, a tern lit atop his gray Fedora. All eyes—“the hungry, famished, almost insane eyes”—fixed on him, imploring him wordlessly to act with care. Accordingly, Rick lifted his hand achingly slowly. “The whole Pacific seemed to be shaking from the agitation in my body,” he recalled. He made no last-instant grab, merely closed his fingers ‘round the bird’s legs and pulled it from his head. Then he wrung its neck, pulled out the feathers, and carved it up into equal shares. The bird was so scrawny there had actually been talk of setting it free. But Rick knew the intestines could be used for bait to catch more food. Indeed, almost as soon as they had dropped their line, the men hauled in two modest fish, a mackerel and a sea bass. Each man received a tiny “fish steak,” Whittaker said, hardly more than an inch square.

The small amount of nourishment had the perversity of making their hunger all the more intense. They fantasized about foods they would enjoy as soon as they were rescued. They dreamed of steaks, roasts, and chops, but Eddie thought first, almost inexplicably, of the chocolate egg malteds he ate daily while beavering for the Duesenbergs thirty years earlier. Ice cream was at the top of everyone’s list. (Oddly, they all wanted strawberry.) All craved chilled fruit juices, any flavor.

Such talk was quickly outlawed and Cherry put back to work. “Old Master,” he invoked, “we called on You for food and You delivered. We ask You now for water. We’ve done the best we could. If You don’t make up Your mind to help us soon, I guess that’s all there’ll be to it. It looks like the next move is up to you, Old Master.”

God be praised! A rain squall passed overhead that very evening. The men scrambled to capture as much of rainwater as they could. Bailing buckets, Mae Wests, Eddie’s hat, all served as containers. Handkerchiefs and shirts were used to soak up fresh water after being rinsed of their salty rime. In their single-minded pursuit they lost track of the waves. Cherry’s raft capsized, which cost them precious minutes as well as spilled bailing buckets. At the end of the 20-minute storm, the raft-mates had captured two and a half quarts, by Rick’s estimation. They allowed themselves half an ounce each, twice a day, using the spent cartridge of a flare as their drinking vessel.

Sergeant Alex Kaczmarczyk was allowed a double share. Still recovering from his appendectomy, as well as the ingestion of saltwater, Kaczmarczyk was clearly in the worst shape of the bunch, with Adamson in a close second. By the end of day 10, time was running out on the young sergeant. Rickenbacker had him switch places with Bartek. “I put my arm around him, as a mother cuddles a child, hoping in that way to transfer the heat of my body to him during the night.” The shivering stopped and sleep came, and Sergeant Alex survived another day. Rickenbacker nursed him through a second night, but on the third Kaczmarczyk asked to return to the donut. That night, a long, low moan followed by silence told the men that Sergeant Alex was no longer with them. In daylight, his death was confirmed. After a brief ceremony, his body was set adrift, face down, to find its final resting place. But it took a long while in the placid sea to finally float out of their field of vision.

The sight of Kaczmarczyk drifting to sea made an impression on the (current) weakest link of the (now) septet. In the dark of night, Colonel Adamson slipped over the side of the raft, making to follow Sergeant Alex into the world beyond pain and suffering. The small splash roused Rick, who responded with his famed deftness. Probing in the dark, he located Adamson, grabbed him by the collar, and hauled him back onto the raft. Then, according to David Lewis, his biographer, he “unleashed the full fury of his deep voice and abrasive tongue” on his longtime friend.  Whittaker did not dare to “put down all the things he said. They would scorch this paper. But from then on, woe betide the man who appeared to turn quitter or who did anything to lower the morale of others.” This was the pivot point, after which Rickenbacker became the prophet, convinced of his righteousness. As Whittaker wrote, “It was then that Rick took over.”

From the ditching of the plane and the launching of the life rafts, Rick had felt a keen responsibility for the survival of the men. But now his methods changed, became more forceful, more strident. If one of the men prayed for God to end his sufferings, Rick jumped on him, “Cut that out! If you want to pray, pray that the help that’s coming will hurry and get here. Don’t bother Him with that whining. He answer’s MEN’s prayers, but not that stuff!” Or: “Why you blanketty blank blank quitter! …How did you ever get into the Army, anyway?” After more than a fortnight adrift, Rick became the unofficial leader of the group but also persona non grata. He didn’t care, “The morale of his companions was all that interested Rick.”

Adamson, who more directly than the others owed his survival to Rick, tried to put the conversion in the perspective of an entire life. Of Rick, he wrote, “All his efforts through life had been concentrated on security: economic security for his mother, younger sisters and brothers, wife and sons; industrial security for his business, his stockholders, and his employees; security for the American way of life, for the youth of the land. All his life in war and in peace he had fought for security of one kind or another for himself and for others—but mostly for others. And now his companions sat on the face of the sea with no security except the security of faith. …Now suddenly appreciation of the only worthwhile security in life came to him: the security of faith!” The Pacific Ordeal was a conversion experience.

Rick similarly understood the situation in light of all that had come before, including the Atlanta crash of 1941. “Those four months had been a test and a preparation for this most demanding of all my adventures.” As he now understood it, “God had a purpose in keeping me alive. It was to help the others, to bring them through. I had been saved to serve. It was an awesome responsibility, but I accepted it gladly and proudly. …To some I spoke with encouragement; I was soft and gentle as a mother. But others required stronger medicine. I rode them; I tore them to pieces; I struck at every raw nerve in their bodies. …If [the man] could snarl back at me, he could snarl back at death.”  This was epiphany even more than conversion.

Food and water found their way into the men’s boats at intervals during the latter two weeks of the ordeal. They scooped up fistfuls of minnows (no more than a couple dozen “fingerlings” in total) and let them wriggle down their throats alive. Cherry captured a small shark and tore a small hole in the raft trying to kill it. (Surprisingly, the meat was too rancid for even starving men to stomach!) Two mackerel leaped into the rafts, free of charge. Rain squalls passed overhead with some regularity. Adamson said that “the men were never long without water,” even if their allotment was just a single tablespoon twice a day.

Sunburn, saltwater ulcers, malnutrition, dehydration continued to take their toll. Even Rickenbacker had begun to hallucinate. They were all reaching the end of their ropes, Rickenbacker’s will-to-live browbeating notwithstanding. On day 17 they began seeing planes fly overhead in the distance. Each near-miss the men grew more despondent, and Rickenbacker berated them more soundly. On day 20, Cherry had had enough. If they split up, he argued, they would cover more ground and might more easily be found. Rick objected. His leadership had always been about teamwork. They must keep the team together now, too.

Cherry could neither be swayed nor stopped from doing what he felt was right. He took the donut and drifted slowly into the horizon. Whittaker, De Angelis, and Reynolds moved off shortly after in a different direction. Rick, Bartek and the ailing Adamson were suddenly more alone than ever on the vast Pacific.

As it happened, Cherry saved Rick’s life this time. He was picked up the next day and gave the Navy search-and-rescue team the information they needed to find Rick’s raft the next day. (Whittaker and his crew made landfall on a small, inhabited island and were recovered earlier on the same day.) “Well, Captain Rickenbacker, here we are!” called Commander William Eadie from the seat of his Kingfisher pontoon plane. “God bless the Navy!” was Rickenbacker’s response. He and the others had been twenty-three days adrift.  They unsteady, emaciated, and covered with sores. Rickenbacker, for one, had lost 56 pounds.

Three weeks later he had put back twenty pounds and insisted on completing his mission. Two days on Guadalcanal were almost as critical in his conversion experience as the twenty-three afloat on the Pacific. God had spared him, he believed, so he could bear witness to the sufferings of American GIs in the “hellholes” of Guadalcanal. Recall that, as squadron commander, Captain Eddie would ask nothing of his men he would not also do himself. In this war, he had suffered twenty-three days of the severest privations imaginable, but he could not share those of the young soldiers on the islands of the South Pacific. Knowing that, he determined to give his all in their behalf. And he called on his countrymen and women to do no less.

In one of his first public statements after his return from the Pacific, Rick hit the note that would become his refrain: “Do not let these boys come back from their graves in these hell-holes scattered throughout the Pacific and other parts of the world…–do not let them come back and plague you for  having failed in your obligation on the home front to give them more and more of everything that is needed to hasten final victory.”

Throughout the first part of 1943, he took on the “racketeers and parasites” of organized labor, admonishing the workingman in politically charged language, “You should not worry about whether you are producing too much per man per day. No, you would and should be grateful for the privilege of offering everything you know how. For none of us are doing so much that we cannot do more. This is a life and death struggle for the welfare of this nation.” In perhaps his most revealing utterance, he declared, “I say that this bloody war can be won only if we at home show that we deserve to have it won” [emphasis mine]. Captain Eddie had spent a lifetime proving himself worthy. Now he turned to a kind of religious asceticism—and he called on the country to join him in sacrifice and self-denial.

***

When Rickenbacker and his raft mates were rescued, on November 11/12, 1942, [they had crossed the IDL] newspapers trumpeted with bold headlines: “Iron Man Eddie,” “The Great Indestructible,” “The Man Who Always Comes Back,” “One Ace that Can Get out of Any Hole.” Captain Eddie had seemingly come back from the dead twice in two years. The public, too, saw Eddie’s life as a grand narrative of survival. Hollywood accordingly hustled out a movie with the Pacific Ordeal as its centerpiece. Rickenbacker made “cheating the Old Grim Reaper” the central theme of his life.

Captain Eddie seemed to outlived them all. Commander Eadie, whose Kingfisher arrived just in time to save Rick’s life, was killed “somewhere in the Pacific” in January of 1945. Richard Bong, whose forty kills against the Japanese had made him America’s new Ace of Aces, was killed on August 6, 1945 (the same day the atomic bomb exploded over Hiroshima), when the new plane he was testing in California exploded. The aging former Ace of Aces eulogized his youthful successors.

Of himself he liked to say, “No one living has cheated the old grim reaper oftener than I have.” But death eventually caught up with him, of course. He died, prosaically, of complications of a stroke, in his eighty-fourth year. Adelaide, five years his senior lingered four more years, into her nineties, her blindness becoming steadily more complete. She had probably long before lost the will to live, but it wasn’t until February 2, 1977, that she gained the will to act. She took her own life, as Colonel Adamson had tried to do those many years before in the Pacific.

Eddie had berated his friend then. Would he berate his wife when they met in heaven? Surely not. He loved his wife, and, beneath his rock-hard exterior, he had a soft heart. (As EAL historian put it so memorably, Captain Eddie had a “marshmallow center covered by a cactus coating.”) Besides, he understood that when “your work” on earth has been finished and “you have paid back…what you owe,” you are free to submit to the sweet, tender supplications of death. Even Eddie, “that s.o.b.” as Cherry called him, would have forgiven Adelaide her final, desperate act.

 

Sources:

Adamson, Hans Christian. Eddie Rickenbacker. New York: Macmillan Company, 1946.

Lewis, W. David. Eddie Rickenbacker: an American hero in the twentieth century. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2005.

Rickenbacker, Edward V. Rickenbacker. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1967.

Rickenbacker, Captain Edward V. Seven Came Through: Rickenbacker’s Full Story. Garden City: Double Day, Doran and Company, Inc., 1943.

Rickenbacker, Edward V. “There is No Absenteeism on the Battlefront.” Vital Speeches of the Day. Vol. 9, No. 11; March 15, 1943: 326-331.

Whittaker, Lieutenant James C. We Thought We Heard the Angels Sing: The Complete Epic Story of the Ordeal and Rescue of Those Who Were with Eddie Rickenbacker on the Plane Lost in the Pacific. New York: E. P. Dutton & Co., Inc., 1943.

“Will You Put Your Hat in the Ring?” December 22, 1942. Statements/Eddie Rickenbacker Papers, 1915-1972/SPEC.RARE.MS.AMER.18. Ohio University Rare Books and Manuscripts Library.

“Rickenbacker Tells Story of His 23 Days on Raft.” New York Times. December 20, 1942: 1, 37.

“Rickenbacker Sets Detroit Goals in Blunt Talks to War Workers.” New York Times. January 23, 1943: 8.

Serling, Robert J. From the Captain to the Colonel: An Informal History of Eastern AirlinesNew York: Dial Press, 1980: 303.

Images: Wikimedia Commons, eBay.com, Goodreads.com

 

 

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