Edward Rickenbacker (October 8, 1890 – July 23, 1973) was an American fighter ace in World War I and Medal of Honor recipient. With 26 aerial victories, he was America’s most successful fighter ace in the war. He was also a race car driver and automotive designer, a government consultant in military matters and a pioneer in air transportation, particularly as the longtime head of Eastern Air Lines.
He was born Edward Rickenbacker (without a middle name) in Columbus, Ohio to German-speaking Swiss immigrants. From childhood, he loved machines and experimented with them, encouraged by his father’s words: “A machine has to have a purpose”. In what was to become one of the defining characteristics of Rickenbacker’s life, he nearly died many times in events ranging from an early run-in with a horse-drawn carriage, to a botched tonsillectomy, to airplane crashes. His first life-threatening experience occurred when he was in the “Horsehead Gang”. He lived near a mine, and they decided to ride a cart down the slope. It tipped over and almost crushed them. According to Rickenbacker’s autobiography, at age thirteen, his schooling ended in grade seven after the accidental death of his father on August 26, 1904. However, according to Eddie Rickenbacker: An American Hero in the Twentieth Century, by W. David Lewis, his father died after an altercation with another man in Columbus. Rickenbacker found jobs to help support the family, but driven by an intense admiration for machines, Rickenbacker taught himself as much as he could, including enrolling in a correspondence course in engineering. He aggressively pursued any chance of involvement with automobiles. Rickenbacker went to work at the Columbus Buggy Company, eventually becoming a salesman. Rickenbacker became well known as a race car driver, competing in the Indianapolis 500 four times before World War I, and earning the nickname “Fast Eddie”.[Rickenbacker joined the Maxwell Race Team in 1915 after leaving Peugeot. After the Maxwell team disbanded that same year, he joined the Prest-O-Lite team as manager and continued to race improved Maxwells for Prest-O-Lite.
World War I
Rickenbacker wanted to join the Allied troops in World War I, but the US had not yet entered the war. He had several chance encounters with aviators, including a fortuitous incident in which he repaired a stranded aircraft for Townsend F. Dodd, a man who later became General John J. Pershing’s aviation officer and an important contact in Rickenbacker’s attempt to join air combat. During World War I, with its anti-German atmosphere, he—like many other German Americans—changed his surname; the “h” in “Rickenbacker” became a “k” in an effort to “take the Hun out of his name.” As he was already well known at the time, the change received wide publicity. “From then on”, as he wrote in his autobiography, “most Rickenbachers were practically forced to spell their name in the way I had… He believed his given name “looked a little plain.” He signed his name 26 times, with a different middle initial each time. After settling upon “V”, he selected “Vernon” as a middle name In 1916, Rickenbacker traveled to London, with the aim of developing an English car for American races. Because of an erroneous press story and Rickenbacker’s known Swiss heritage, he was suspected of being a spy. En route and in England, agents closely monitored his actions. On a sea voyage back to America, he came up with the idea to recruit his race car driver friends as fighter pilots, on the theory that such men were accustomed to tight spaces and high speeds. His suggestion was ignored by the military.
When, in 1917, the United States declared war on Germany, Rickenbacker had enlisted in the United States Army and was soon training in France with some of the first American troops. He arrived in France on June 26, 1917 as a Sergeant First Class. Most men chosen for pilot training had college degrees and Rickenbacker had to struggle to gain permission to fly because of his perceived lack of academic qualifications. Because of his mechanical abilities, Rickenbacker was assigned as engineering officer at the 3rd Aviation Instruction Center at Issoudun, the US Air Service’s pursuit training facility, where he practiced flying during his free time. He learned to fly well, but because his skills were so highly valued, Rickenbacker’s superiors tried to prevent him from attaining his wings with the other pilots. Rickenbacker demonstrated that he had a qualified replacement, and the military awarded him a place in one of America’s air combat units, the 94th Aero Squadron, informally known as the “Hat-in-the-Ring” Squadron after its insignia. Originally he flew the Nieuport 28, at first without armament. On April 29, 1918, Rickenbacker shot down his first plane. On May 28, he claimed his fifth to become an ace. Rickenbacker was awarded the French Croix de Guerre that month for his five victories.
On May 30, he scored his sixth victory. It would be his last for three and a half months. He developed an ear infection in July which almost ended his flying career and grounded him for several weeks. He shot down Germany’s hottest new fighter, the Fokker D.VII, on September 14 and another the next day. On September 24, 1918, now a captain, he was named commander of the squadron, and on the following day, he claimed two more German planes, for which he was belatedly awarded the Medal of Honor in 1931 by President Herbert Hoover. After claiming yet another Fokker D.VII on September 27, he became a balloon buster by downing observation balloons on September 28, October 1, October 27, and October 30, 1918. Thirteen more wins followed in October bringing his total to thirteen Fokker D.VIIs, four other German fighters, five highly defended observation balloons, and only four of the easier two-seated reconnaissance planes. The military determined ace status by verifying combat claims by a pilot, but confirmation, too, was needed from ground witnesses, affirmations of other pilots, or observation of the wreckage of the opposing enemy aircraft. If no witnesses could be found, a reported kill was not counted. It was an imperfect system, dependent on the frailties of human observation, as well as vagaries of weather and terrain. Most aces’ records are thus ‘best estimates’, not ‘exact counts’. Nevertheless, Rickenbacker’s 26 victories remained the American record until World War II. Rickenbacker flew a total of 300 combat hours, reportedly more than any other US pilot in the war. When Rickenbacker learned of the Armistice, he flew an airplane above the western front to observe the ceasefire and the displays of joy and comradeship, as the formerly warring troops crossed the front lines and joined in the celebrations.
Verified aerial victories
|1||01918-04-29-0000Apr 29, 1918||1810||Nieuport||Pfalz D.III||Baussant|
|2||01918-05-07-0000May 7, 1918||0805||Nieuport||Pfalz D.III||Pont-à-Mousson|
|3||01918-05-17-0000May 17, 1918||1824||Nieuport||Albatros D.V||Ribécourt|
|4||01918-05-22-0000May 22, 1918||0912||Nieuport||Albatros D.V||Flirey|
|5||01918-05-28-0000May 28, 1918||0925||Nieuport||Albatros C.I||Bois de Rate|
|6||01918-05-30-0000May 30, 1918||0738||Nieuport||Albatros C.I||Jaulny|
|7||01918-09-14-0000Sep 14, 1918||0815||SPAD XIII||Fokker D.VII||Villecy|
|8||01918-09-15-0000Sep 15, 1918||0810||SPAD XIII||Fokker D.VII||Bois de Warville|
|9||01918-09-25-0000Sep 25, 1918||0840||SPAD XIII||Fokker D.VII||Billy|
|10||01918-09-25-0000Sep 25, 1918||0850||SPAD XIII||Halberstadt C||Foret de Spincourt|
|11||01918-09-26-0000Sep 26, 1918||0600||SPAD XIII||Fokker D.VII||Damvillers|
|12||01918-09-28-0000Sep 28, 1918||0500||SPAD XIII||Balloon||Sivry-sur-Meuse|
|13||01918-10-01-0000Oct 1, 1918||1930||SPAD XIII||Balloon||Puzieux|
|14||01918-10-02-0000Oct 2, 1918||1730||SPAD XIII||Hannover CL||Montfaucon|
|15||01918-10-02-0000Oct 2, 1918||1740||SPAD XIII||Fokker D.VII||Vilosnes|
|16||01918-10-03-0000Oct 3, 1918||1707||SPAD XIII||Balloon||Dannevoux|
|17||01918-10-03-0000Oct 3, 1918||1640||SPAD XIII||Fokker D.VII||Cléry-le-Grand|
|18||01918-10-09-0000Oct 9, 1918||1752||SPAD XIII||Fokker D.VII||Dun-sur-Meuse|
|19||01918-10-10-0000Oct 10, 1918||1552||SPAD XIII||Fokker D.VII||Cléry-le-Petit|
|20||01918-10-10-0000Oct 10, 1918||1552||SPAD XIII||Fokker D.VII||Cléry-le-Petit|
|21||01918-10-22-0000Oct 22, 1918||1555||SPAD XIII||Fokker D.VII||Cléry-le-Petit|
|22||01918-10-23-0000Oct 23, 1918||1655||SPAD XIII||Fokker D.VII||Grande Carne Ferme|
|23||01918-10-27-0000Oct 27, 1918||1505||SPAD XIII||Fokker D.VII||Bois de Money|
|24||01918-10-27-0000Oct 27, 1918||1450||SPAD XIII||Fokker D.VII||Grand Pre|
|25||01918-10-27-0000Oct 27, 1918||1635||SPAD XIII||Balloon||St. Juvin|
|26||01918-10-30-0000Oct 30, 1918||1040||SPAD XIII||Balloon||Remonville|
Between the wars
October 8, 1890
July 27, 1973 (aged 82)
Place of burial
United States United States of America
United States Army Air Service
94th Aero Squadron
World War I
Medal of Honor
Distinguished Service Cross
World War I Victory Medal
Legion of Honor
Croix de Guerre
Championship racing driver
Rickenbacker car company
Indianapolis Motor Speedway
Eastern Air Lines
After World War I ended, Rickenbacker was approached several times about exploiting his fame. He chose to go on a Liberty bond tour. He was offered many movie positions, but did not want all the attention, even though he was the most celebrated aviator in America (soon to be supplanted by Charles Lindbergh after his solo flight across the Atlantic). Rickenbacker described his World War I flying experiences in his memoirs, Fighting the Flying Circus, published after the war. In this book, he also describes the character, exploits, and death of fellow pilot Lt. Quentin Roosevelt, the son of US President Theodore Roosevelt. Rickenbacker also continued to associate with Reed Chambers, with whom he had served in World War I; they jointly founded an airline.
In 1925, Rickenbacker was a defense witness, along with Hap Arnold, Tooey Spaatz, Ira Eaker, and Fiorello H. La Guardia, in the court-martial of General Billy Mitchell.
World War II
Rickenbacker supported the war effort as a civilian. In 1942, he toured training bases in the southwestern United States and in England. He encouraged the American public to contribute time and resources, and pledged Eastern Air Lines equipment and personnel for use in military activities.
Rickenbacker inspected troops, operations, and equipment, and served in a publicity function to increase support from civilians and soldiers. In 1942, with a sweeping letter of authorization from Henry L. Stimson, US Secretary of War, Rickenbacker visited England on an official war mission and made ground-breaking recommendations for better war operations.
Adrift at sea
One of Rickenbacker’s most famous near-death experiences occurred in October 1942. Stimson sent him on a tour of air bases in the Pacific Theater of Operations to review both living conditions and operations, but also to deliver personally a secret message of rebuke to General Douglas MacArthur from the President for negative public comments MacArthur had made about the administration and disparaging cables sent to Marshall. After visiting several air and sea bases in Hawaii, Rickenbacker was provided an older B-17D Flying Fortress (s/n 40-3089) as transportation to the South Pacific. The bomber strayed hundreds of miles off course while on its way to a refueling stop on Canton Island and was forced to ditch in a remote and little-traveled part of the Central Pacific Ocean.
The failure in navigation has been ascribed to an out-of-adjustment celestial navigation instrument, a bubble octant, that gave a systematic bias to all of its readings. That octant reportedly had suffered a severe shock in a pre-takeoff mishap. This unnecessary ditching spurred on the development of improved navigational instruments and also better survival gear for the aircrewmen. The B-17’s aircraft commander, former American Airlines pilot Captain William T. Cherry, Jr., was forced to ditch close to Japanese-held islands but the Americans were never spotted by Japanese patrol planes, and were adrift on the ocean for thousands of miles.
For 24 days, Rickenbacker, Army Captain Hans C. Adamson, his friend and business partner, and the rest of the crewmen drifted in life rafts at sea. Rickenbacker was still suffering somewhat from his earlier airplane crash, and Capt. Adamson sustained serious injuries during the ditching. The other crewmen in the B-17 were hurt to varying degrees. The crewmen’s food supply ran out after three days. Then, on the eighth day, a seagull landed on Rickenbacker’s head. He warily and cautiously captured it, and then the survivors meticulously divided it into equal parts and used part of it for fishing bait. They lived on sporadic rain water that fell and similar food “miracles”.
Rickenbacker assumed leadership, encouraging and browbeating the others to keep their spirits up. One crewman, Alexander Kaczmarczyk of the USAAF, died and was buried at sea. The U.S. Army Air Forces and the U.S. Navy’s patrol planes planned to abandon the search for the lost B-17 crewmen after just over two weeks, but Rickenbacker’s wife persuaded them to extend it another week. The services agreed to do so. Once again, the newspapers and radio broadcasts reported that Rickenbacker was dead.
A US Navy patrol OS2U-3 Kingfisher float-plane spotted and rescued the survivors on November 13, off the coast of Nukufetau in Tuvalu. All were suffering from hyperthermia, sunburn, dehydration, and near-starvation. Rickenbacker completed his assignment and delivered his message, which has never been made public, to General MacArthur. Rickenbacker had thought that he had been lost for 21 days, and wrote a book about this experience titled Seven Came Through, published by Doubleday, Doran. It was not until later that he recalculated the number of days, and he corrected himself in his autobiography in 1967. The pilot of the plane that rescued the survivors, Lieutenant William F. Eadie, USN, was awarded the Navy’s Air Medal for his actions during the rescue.
The story was also recounted in Lt. James Whittaker’s book We Thought We Heard The Angels Sing, published in 1943.
The story of Rickenbacker’s ordeal has been used as an example for Alcoholics Anonymous when the first of their Twelve Traditions was formulated: “Our common welfare should come first. Personal recovery depends upon AA unity.”
1943 mission to the USSR
Still determined to support the US war effort, Rickenbacker suggested a fact-finding mission in the Soviet Union to provide the Soviets with needed technical assistance for their American aircraft. Rickenbacker approached Soviet diplomats, and avoided requesting help from President Franklin Roosevelt, due to their prior disagreements. He scheduled resumption of his tour of American air operations in the Far East, interrupted by his ordeal in 1942, while he awaited approval of his visit from the Soviets. With Stimson’s help and by trading favors with the Soviet ambassador, Rickenbacker secured unlikely permission to travel to the Soviet Union. The War Department provided everything Rickenbacker needed, including a highly unusual letter stating that the bearer was authorized to “visit … any … areas he may deem necessary for such purposes as he will explain to you in person”, signed by the Secretary of War.
Rickenbacker’s trip in the spring and summer of 1943 took him along the South Atlantic air route that Eastern Air Lines had helped pioneer in 1941, traveling to Cairo in an AAF C-54 provided him by Gen. Henry H. Arnold, commanding general of the United States Army Air Forces. He made observations about conditions at every stop and reviewed American operations with a critical eye, forwarding reports to authorities. From Cairo he traveled by C-87 to India to experience the Hump airlift into China, on which he reported unfavorably to Arnold after his return to the United States. Continuing over the Hump to China himself, Rickenbacker was impressed by the determination of the Chinese people but disgusted with the corruption of the Kuomintang government. Reaching Iran, he offered to bring along an American officer to the Soviet Union, although approval of the request delayed Rickenbacker’s party several days.
In the Soviet Union, Rickenbacker observed wartime conditions, the extraordinary dedication and patriotism by the populace, and the ruthless denial of food to those deemed unproductive to the war effort. He befriended many Soviet officials and shared his knowledge of the aircraft they had received from the United States. He was lavishly entertained and recalled attempts by KGB agents and officials to get him intoxicated enough to disclose sensitive information.
Rickenbacker’s mission was successful. He discovered that a commander of Moscow’s defense had stayed at Rickenbacker’s home in 1937, and personal connections like this and the respect the Soviet military personnel had for him greatly aided his information-gathering. He learned about Soviet defense strategies and capabilities. In the distraction resulting from the outbreak of the Battle of Kursk, he saw a map of the front line showing the locations of all major Soviet military units, which he did his best to memorize. He also persuaded his hosts to give him an unprecedented tour of the Shturmovik aircraft factory. But it was comments made by Rickenbacker during his trip that alerted the Soviets to the existence of the secret B-29 Superfortress program.
Rickenbacker observed some traces of capitalism (for example, people were allowed to grow food and sell their surplus) and predicted that the Soviet Union would eventually become a capitalist nation.
British Prime Minister Winston Churchill interviewed Rickenbacker about his mission. In the US, Rickenbacker’s information resulted in some diplomatic and military action, but President Roosevelt did not meet with Rickenbacker.
|USA – Aviator Wing|
|Junior Military Aviator Badge|
|Medal of Honor||Distinguished Service Cross w/ 8 oak leaf clusters||World War I Victory Medal w/ 6 Battle Clasps||Legion of Honor||Croix de guerre (WWI) w/ 2 palms|
Medal of Honor citation
Medal of Honor citation, awarded November 6, 1930
First Distinguished Service Cross citation
Second Distinguished Service Cross citation
Third Distinguished Service Cross citation
Fourth Distinguished Service Cross citation
Fifth Distinguished Service Cross citation
Sixth Distinguished Service Cross citation
Seventh Distinguished Service Cross citation
(There is a lot more to This Hero’s story I am however only going to relate to the military aspects of his adult life,
To read the whole story and it is quite long, )