U.S. War Heroes: Eddie Rickenbacker Went From Race Car Driver To World War I Ace Pilot To Entrepreneur

Leading up to Memorial Day we’ll spend some time remembering and celebrating the lives of some of the greatest war heroes in U.S. history. Today we honor legendary flying ace Eddie Rickenbacker, who served during World War I.

Edward Rickenbacker was not only an amazing World War I pilot known as the American Ace of Aces, but he was also a top race car driver, automotive designer, airline entrepreneur, wartime advisor to the U.S. government and elder statesman.

Edward Rickenbacker, who was born in Columbus, Ohio on October 8, 1890, dodged the Grim Reaper’s scythe all of his life. Starting at the age of 5-years-old when he smoked to when he was 8-years-old and nearly died when his group of friends called the “Horsehead Gang” stole a cart and rode down a mine shaft, tipped the cart and it almost crushed them to death. Rickenbacker did suffer a gaping wound on his leg that exposed the bone. A botched tonsillectomy also nearly took his life when he was young.

Rickenbacker’s father, a German-Swiss immigrant, died in a construction accident when Edward was 12-years-old. Edward immediately quit school to become the breadwinner for his family and support his mother and four younger siblings. He sold newspapers, eggs, goat’s milk. Rickenbacker then worked in a glassmaking factory, a foundry, a brewery, a shoe factory and a monument works, where he carved and polished his father’s tombstone.

Then in 1906, a 16-year-old Edward was able to get a job that would change his life. Lee Frayer, a race car driver and head of the Frayer-Miller Automobile Co. Frayer, hired Rickenbacker as a mechanic. Edward instantly fell in love with the adrenaline-pumping sport.

Frayer moved to the Columbus Buggy Company, which manufactured Firestone-Columbus automobiles at the time, and took Rickenbacker along with him. Eddie became a a combination race driver/salesman for Columbus Buggy Company. For the next six years he traveled all over the country, racing cars one day and selling them the next day.

Rickenbacker quickly garnered a reputation for being a daring driver, willing to do whatever it took to win the race including wrecking his vehicle.

“You didn’t win races because you had more guts. You won because you knew how to take the turns and baby your engine. It wasn’t all just shut your eyes and grit your teeth,” Eddie said.

Edward set a world record of 134 miles per hour in a Blitzen-Benz at a race in Daytona Beach, Florida. He competed in the Indianapolis 500 four times and earned the nickname “Fast Eddie.” In 1916, the last full year of racing he earned $80,000, which was a huge paycheck at the time, an equivalent of $1.3 million in 2016.

The United States entered World War I on April 6, 1917 against Germany and the Central Powers. Due to the anti-German climate of the time, Edward changed his original name from “Rickenbacher” to “Rickenbacker” to “take the Hun out of his name.”

Rickenbacker met Colonel Billy Mitchell, then chief of the Army’s Air Service, and Edward pitched the idea of forming an air squadron consisting of former racing drivers. However, Mitchell shot the proposal down.

On May 27, 1917, he enlisted in the United States Army and arrived in France on June 26, 1917 as a Sergeant First Class. Rickenbacker desperately wanted to be a fighter pilot, but you needed to be 25-years-old or younger, Edward was 27, and you had to have a college degree. Because of his mechanical abilities and racing experience, Colonel William Mitchell approved Rickenbacker to become a student pilot and was assigned as engineering officer at the 3rd Aviation Instruction Center in Issoudun, France.

He graduated after training for only 17 days. His first assignment was as a lieutenant for the 94th Aero Squadron, out of Toul, France. This was the very first fighter squadron that was trained by Americans.

On April 29, 1918, while flying a Nieuport 28 biplane, Rickenbacker shot down his first plane.

From Ace Pilots:

As the German tried to escape eastward, Rickenbacker opened his throttle and was on him. At 150 yards he pressed the triggers. The tracer bullets cut a streak of living fire into the Pfalz’s tail. Raising the nose of his aeroplane slightly the fiery streak gradually settled into the pilot’s seat. The Pfalz swerved, out of control. At 2000 feet, Rickenbacker pulled up and watched the enemy machine continuing on its course. Curving slightly to the left the Pfalz circled and crashed at the edge of the woods a mile inside the German lines.

To become a fighter ace, a pilot must shoot down at least five enemy aircraft during aerial combat. It didn’t take long for Edward to become an ace. On May 30, 1918, Rickenbacker claimed two German airplanes, to up his tally and become an ace. Rickenbacker was awarded the French Croix de Guerre medal.

Rickenbacker was forced to stop flying because of pneumonia, an ear infection that took away his equilibrium and a severe abscess that had to be lanced. It nearly ended his flying career, but he was back after three months and wreaking havoc on the Germans. On September 14, he shot down Germany’s hottest new fighter, the Fokker D.VII, and then another one the next day.

On September 24, 1918, Rickenbacker, now a captain, was named commander of the 94th Aero Squadron.

“Just been promoted to command of 94th Squadron. I shall never ask any pilot to go on a mission that I won’t go on. I must work now harder than I did before,” Eddie said.

On that same day he volunteered for a solo patrol. He spotted four Fokkers and two Halberstadt CL.II fighter aircraft near Billy, France, and power dived into the formation with guns blazing. He shot down one Fokker and one Halberstadt CL.II.

His courageous actions on that day earned him the French Croix de Guerre military decoration (Medal for Merit) and the coveted U.S. Medal of Honor, the highest military honor of the United States, awarded for personal acts of valor above and beyond the call of duty. However, Eddie was not awarded the Medal of Honor until 1931 by President Herbert Hoover.

Rickenbacker kept on reigning supreme in the skies. By October, his kill count included 13 Fokker D.VIIs, four other German fighters, five highly defended observation balloons and four reconnaissance planes.

“Fighting in the air is not sport. It is scientific murder,” Eddie once said.

The Great War ended in November of 1918 and Rickenbacker flew a total of 300 combat hours, more than any other U.S. pilot in the war, survived an astounding 134 aerial encounters with the enemy and notched 26 victories, which were the most by an American until World War II. Rickenbacker was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross a record eight times as well as the Legion of Honor. In 1919, Rickenbacker was discharged from the Army Air Service with the rank of captain.

In 1920, Eddie started the Rickenbacker Motor Company, which sold technologically advanced cars. The Rickenbacker came equipped with the first four-wheel brake system, which all cars have now. Despite its innovations, the Rickenbacker Motor Company went bankrupt in 1927, also bankrupting Eddie. His love of cares prompted him to continue developing cars for General Motors.

“The four cornerstones of character on which the structure of this nation was built are: Initiative, Imagination, Individuality and Independence,” Rickenbacker  said.

Eddie persuaded GM to purchase North American Aviation, which included Eastern Air Transport. Rickenbacker became the head of Eastern, and merged Eastern Air Transport with Florida Airways to form Eastern Air Lines. From 1935 to 1960 Eastern Air Lines earned a profit every single year.

“I don’t care what you cover the seats with as long as you cover them with assholes,” Eddie said as the head of Eastern Air Lines.

On November 1, 1927, Rickenbacker bought the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, which he operated for nearly 20 years. In 1941, Rickenbacker closed the Speedway due to World War II because he didn’t want to waste valuable fuel.

One of Eddie’s many near death experiences happened on a foggy night in February, 1941. From the New York Times:

One of his own Eastern Air Lines planes, on which he was a passenger, crashed into a hill as it approached Atlanta. Although he was pinned to the body of a dead steward by the wreckage and had a shattered pelvic bone, half a dozen broken ribs, a broken leg and one eyelid torn away, he remained conscious for nine hours until he was taken to a hospital.

Even though Rickenbacker was a civilian, he was deeply affected by the planet being ravaged by World War II, and did all that he could to support the troops. Eddie encouraged the American public to contribute time and resources to help the war effort, and even pledged Eastern Air Lines equipment for military activities. Rickenbacker gave his vast war expertise and provided ground-breaking recommendations to better military operations.

Rickenbacker toured military bases at home and abroad to boast morale. However, during a tour of air bases in the Pacific Theater, the B-17D Flying Fortress that he was flying on traveled hundreds of miles of course. Once they were in enemy territory near Japanese-held islands, they ditched the plane and were lost in the remote section of the Pacific Ocean.

From Wikipedia:

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.”

One crewman, Alexander Kaczmarczyk of the USAAF, died and was buried at sea. After two weeks, everyone thought that all of the passengers and crew were dead. The Navy’s patrol planes were about to call off the search until Rickenbacker’s wife persuaded them to extend it one more week.

On November 13, a U.S. Navy patrol OS2U-3 Kingfisher plane spotted and rescued the survivors off the coast of Nukufetau in Tuvalu. All seven people in the raft were suffering from hypothermia, sunburn, dehydration and near-starvation after being lost at sea for 24 days. Once he was nursed back to health, Rickenbacker resumed his tour despite his harrowing ordeal. He expanded his tours to include Egypt, Iran, India, China and the Soviet Union.

In 1963, Rickenbacker reluctantly retired from Eastern Air Lines at the age of 73. On October 1972, Eddie continued to defy death by surviving a stroke. On July 23, 1973, the grim reaper finally got to meet Edward Vernon Rickenbacker when the war hero died from pneumonia.

Four jet fighters flew overhead during his funeral. One turned on its afterburners and zoomed up and out of sight in the traditional Air Force ‘missing man’ salute to a brother pilot.

William F. Rickenbacker, one of Captain Eddie’s two sons, wrote an obituary for his father:

“Among his robust certainties were his faith in God, his unswerving patriotism, his acceptance of life’s hazards and pains, and his trust in persistent hard work. No scorn could match the scorn he had for men who settled for half-measures, uttered half-truths, straddled the issues, or admitted the idea of failure or defeat. If he had a motto, it must have been the phrase I’ve heard a thousand times: ‘I’ll fight like a wildcat!'”

Edward Rickenbacker was inducted into the National Aviation Hall of Fame in 1965, the International Motorsports Hall of Fame in 1992, the National Sprint Car Hall of Fame in 1992 and the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America in 1994.

“Courage is doing what you’re afraid to do. There can be no courage unless you’re scared.” – Edward Rickenbacker

Let’s take some time away from our barbecues and suntanning at beach this long weekend to remember and pay tribute to the incredibly brave souls who have sacrificed so much to make this country so great.

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