Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Eddie Rickenbacker: Ace of Aces

Known as “America’s Red Baron,” Edward Reichenbacher, the son of Swiss immigrants, grew up during the early 1900s in Columbus, Ohio. An aptitude for speed inclined Eddie to race in multiple Indianapolis 500s in which his skills swiftly vaulted the young man to third place among all American racers in 1916. Driving for different motor companies offered Rickenbacker a substantial income and a mechanical career which soon ignited a passion for the developing field of aviation.

Patriotic heart ablaze, Eddie immediately volunteered to join the armed forces upon the United States' decision to intervene in the international affairs of World War 1.
Innovative and resourceful, he petitioned to form a league of militarized racecar drivers, a unique alternative that was promptly refused. Despite the rejection of his idea, Eddie received a position as the personal driver for General John Pershing and other high-ranking officers. He was even called upon to repair the car of Army Air Service Chief, Billy Mitchell, who insisted on Rickenbacker attending aviation school in France which specialized in training US airmen prior to their deployment to the Western Front. However, he remained at Issoudun as an engineering officer who was permitted to fly outside of his duties yet forbidden from participating in the war. Growing restless with the arrangement, Eddie requested to join the most recent aerial division, the 94th Aero Squadron; a request which was granted.

With fast reflexes and a keen eye, Eddie took to the sky in a Newport 28 until the famous Spat 13 could be mobilized. Though Newport aircrafts were fast and nimble, the machine lacked diving prowess in which many a pilot suffered though up to eighteen thousand feet of brutal wind chill in an open cockpit during the descent.

A WWI Dogfight clip from Flyboys, 2006

Modeled after Eddie's plane, a Spat 13 bears the "Uncle Sam's Hat in the Ring" colors in honor of  the 94th Division
Apparently ambitious, Eddie successfully achieved five confirmed air combat kills within his first month of combat, an act which awarded the French War Cross and elevated the pilot to ace status. He became the commander of the 94th aerial division, entitled "Uncle Sam's Hat in the Ring Squadron" to represent the United States' intention to aid the Allies. At the Great War’s end, Rickenbacker had achieved twenty-six air victories, boasting the greatest destruction rate of enemy planes of any American pilot during World War I. His record proved the necessity for increased air power and the emerging contest for air superiority. With the signing of the Armistice in 1919, he returned to the US and toured the nation as a celebrated hero.

Lavishing in the height of personal fame, Eddie created an auto-manufacturing company, Florida Airways, with fellow WWI pilot Reid Chambers in 1922. Though the company produced quality vehicles, steep competition drove the firm to bankruptcy. Employment with General Motors enabled Eddie to earn enough money to pay his debts and purchase the Indianapolis Speedway, which he maintained until 1940. In 1930, Eddie was one of four men who received the Medal of Honor for their gallantry in WWI yet his participation in international affairs was far from over. On Sept 1, 1939, Nazi Germany invaded Poland, effectively launching the globe into crisis.

Initially, Rickenbacker opposed US intervention yet retracted his opposition upon Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941. From the tragedy onward, the famous pilot wholeheartedly supported American involvement and promptly responded to assist as a civilian in military affairs. At the request of Gen. Hap Arnold, Eddie went on a tour of military bases to determine their morale and status. Later, due to Secretary of War, Henry L. Stimson, Rickenbacker flew off on an ill-fated mission over the Pacific. Drifting 600 miles off course, Rickenbacker and other survivors were fortunately rescued by the Navy twenty four days after impact into the ocean. In 1943, Sec. Stimson again requested Rickenbacker’s services. He was privately commissioned to inspect and gather intelligence from China, India, Iran, North Africa, and the Soviet Union.

At the conclusion of World War II in 1945, Eddie officially retired from the military to pursue the arena of commercial airlines. In the late 1950s, Rickenbacker began to speak adamantly about conservative sociopolitical concerns. An autobiography captures some of his marvelous and stirring feats from the World War I era. The successful and exciting life of Eddie Rickenbacker, stretched between many crucial decades of world events, came to an end with his passing in Zurich, Switzerland on June 23, 1973.

A documentary presented by the Nat. Museum of the U.S. Air Force on Cpt. Rickenbacker's role in WWI

Eddie Rickenbacker’s exploits during the Great War and through his career as an aviation and government consultant prompted the most decorated United States combat pilot to advocate for the vital necessity of American air power. A pioneer in air transportation, Rickenbacker was conscious of ensuring that the legacy of America’s fledgling aviation history was preserved. Today, Eddie is synonymous as an immortal ace and remains a leading figure of national recognition.

Suggested Reading:
Hart, Peter. Aces Falling: War Above the Trenches, 1918. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2007.
Groom, Winston. The Aviators: Eddie Rickenbacker, Jimmy Doolittle, Charles Lindbergh, and the Epic Age of Flight. Washington D.C.: National Geographic Society, 2013.
Jeffers, H. Paul. Ace of Aces: The Life of Capt. Eddie Rickenbacker. New York: Ballantine Books, 2003.
Lewis, W. David. Eddie Rickenbacker: An American Hero in the Twentieth Century. Auburn, Ala.: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2008.
Malinovska, Anna, and Mauriel Joslyn. Voices in Flight: Conversations with Air Veterans of the Great War. Barnsley: Pen & Sword Aviation, 2006.
Rickenbacker, Eddie. Fighting the Flying Circus. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1965.
Rickenbacker, Eddie. Seven Came Through; Rickenbacker's Full Story. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, Doran, 1943.
Ross, John F. Enduring Courage: Ace Pilot Eddie Rickenbacker and the Dawn of the Age of Speed. St. Martin's Press, 2014.