Eddie Rickenbacker, by Gene Hays, September 2016, Medal of Honor Magazine, Congressional Medal of Honor Foundation, publisher: Professional Media Group, Clearwater, FL., 2016
Newspaper salesman, dairy peddler, brewery worker, shoe factory worker, monument maker, car salesman, race car driver, aircraft manufacturer, car manufacturer, President of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, airline owner, aircraft accident survivor, America’s Ace of Aces during World War I and non-military advisor to the United States Secretary of War during World War II – how could one man even hope to accomplish any or all of this? Edward Vernon Rickenbacker did and he was also awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor on December 31, 1931 for his actions in World War I.
Eddie was born in Columbus, Ohio, on October 8, 1890. His parents christened him Edward Rickenbacher, but he later added the middle name of Vernon because he thought it to be ‘classy’ and he changed the spelling of his last name to Rickenbacker as it sounded less Germanic. He liked to be called ‘Rick’ but in later life he was best known as ‘Captain Eddie.’
Young Eddie became passionate about engines-so much so that at age 16 he found a job with Lee Frayer, a race car driver and head of the Frayer –Miller Automobile Company. Frayer indulged the young man allowing him to ride in major races as his mechanic. Rick pursued his passion and became a salesman for the Columbus Buggy Company and later joined car designer Fred Duesenberg in 1912, beginning on his own to become a race car driver. In 1914, Rickenbacker set a world speed record of 134 mph at Daytona, yet he never was able to win the biggest prize at the Indianapolis 500.
In 1916 while preparing for the Vanderbilt Car Race in California, Rick took his first ride in an airplane flown by Glenn Martin. Martin was embarked on his own career as a pilot and aircraft manufacturer and later accepted a merger offer from the Wright brothers becoming the Wright-Martin Aircraft Company. Ironically, Rick had a lifelong fear of heights yet he didn’t suffer any ill effects on his first flight.
When America entered World War I in 1917, Rickenbacker volunteered at a time when he was reportedly earning $40,000 a year. At 27 years old he was too old to enter flight training and didn’t have a college degree but he wanted desperately to become a pilot. Because of his fame as a race car driver, he was offered and accepted an appointment as a Sergeant and assigned as a chauffeur. His first assignment was to Colonel ‘Billy’ Mitchell, driving his twin-six Packard. Rick wasted no time in talking to the Colonel about pilot training until Mitchell acquiesced.
Rick graduated after 17 days of flight training and was commissioned as a lieutenant and assigned to the 94th Aero Squadron based near Toul, France. At first Rickenbacker was shunned by his fellow pilots, perhaps because he did not have the same Ivy League background but he was happier tinkering with engines than with socializing. Initially he was coached by Major Raoul Lufbery but soon developed his own aerial fighting techniques.
Rick’s first victory was shared with Captain James Hall on April 29, 1918 followed by his first solo kill on May 7. As he gained successive victories so did he gain more respect from his fellow pilots. On May 30, Rickenbacker scored his sixth victory and subsequently was grounded due to a severe abscess in his right ear. He returned to duty on July 31 and resumed his string of victories on September 14 when he downed a Fokker D.VII (German fighter aircraft). On September 25, he was given command of the 94th and on the same day gave himself a solo patrol.
While on patrol, Rickenbacker came upon a flight of five Fokkers and two Halberstadt CL.IIs (German World War I fighter/ground attack aircraft) near Billy, France. Without hesitation he dived in among the aircraft and downed one of each type aircraft. His daring action earned him the French Croix de Guerre and the Congressional Medal of Honor – the latter was not awarded until 12 years later. By October 1, Rick had scored 12 victories and was promoted to the rank of captain. He was the most successful American aviator alive and the press dubbed him ‘America’s Ace of Aces.’
During October of 1918, ‘Captain Eddie’ scored 14 more victories for a total of 26 – a total that in the 1960s the United States Air Force fractionalized to 24.33 including four balloons. Undisputed was his total of 300 combat hours flown, more than any American aviator and he survived 134 aerial encounters with the enemy. Rickenbacker ascribed his survival to the ‘Power’ above in his memoirs.
Now a national hero, Rickenbacker was wined and dined across America with several offers for endorsements and was even offered $100,000 for motion picture roles – he declined them all even though he was then broke from supporting his family. When Rick left active duty, he was promoted to Major, but he said, ‘I felt that my rank of captain was earned and deserved,’ and he used that title for the remainder of his life.
Inclined to get into some aspect of aviation, he found his ideas not ready for the time period so he made his second career choice as an automobile manufacturer. With three other well known automobile executives backing him, Rickenbacker became Vice President and Director of Sales for the Rickenbacker Motor Company. The recession of 1925 led to the company’s downfall and to Rick resigning in an effort that he thought might help the company – it didn’t, and two years later it went bankrupt. Captain Eddie found himself in over a quarter of a million dollars in debt but he refused to declare personal bankruptcy and vowed to pay off every penny of debt which he eventually did.
Fortune followed Rick when in November of 1927 he was offered financing by a friend to buy the majority of common stock of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. The job was not time consuming as he served as president of the speedway allowing him to look for other means of paying off his debts. He started a comic strip and published a book based on his World War I exploits. Not content to rest on his laurels, Rickenbacker was also appointed head of sales by General Motors for La Salle and Cadillac.
During all the activities and responsibilities he had, Captain Eddie continued to ‘barnstorm’ the countryside promoting aviation and was actually involved in several crashes as a passenger but miraculously escaped unharmed each time. His speeches drew crowds as everyone wanted to see and hear ‘America’s Ace of Aces” and Rick was credited with persuading city fathers of 25 cities to develop airports including one in Washington, D.C.
In 1926, Rickenbacker and several partners formed Florida Airways. When it failed he was appointed Vice President of General Aviation Corporation followed in 1933 by Vice President of North American Aviation and General Manager of Eastern Air Transport. In February 1934 President Roosevelt cancelled the airlines’ air mail contracts and announced that the Army Air Corps would replace them. Maintaining that the airlines were better qualified to fly the mail, Rickenbacker, along with the Vice President of Trans World Airlines Jack Frye, flew coast to coast in a Douglas DC-1 along with some journalists in 13 hours and two minutes, a coast to coast record for commercial aircraft.
Many innovations and accomplishments followed Rickenbacker as a result of the national headlines he was making: a weather reporting and analysis system; radio communications improvements; and reduction of fares increasing passenger traffic. Eastern became the first airline in the world to become a bonded carrier – goods entering the United States could be transported by Eastern for delivery to any city that had a custom house. In 1937, Eastern was the first airline to be awarded by the National Safety Council for having operated seven consecutive years, flying more than 141 million passenger miles without a fatality – that ended in August 1937 with a fatal DC-2 crash at Daytona Beach. By the end of 1941, Eastern was serving 40 cities with 40 DC-3s as well as three aircraft used for instrument training and an autogiro (a forerunner to the helicopter) that was a mail carrier on an experimental basis from Philadelphia to Camden, New Jersey.
Predictably, the advent of World War II changed all commercial carriers. Eastern was required to give up half its fleet to the military services and began military cargo airlifts to South America and across the South Atlantic to Africa. With the government in control, Captain Eddie had little to do but make sure his Eastern obligations were met. In September 1942, Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson asked Rickenbacker to be a non-military observer in England. His job was to evaluate military equipment and personnel based on his own experiences in commercial aviation. Offered a commission as a Brigadier General, Captain Eddie declined. The offer was increased to Major General and was once again declined. He took a salary of only $1 per year and paid his own expenses as he wanted to feel free to criticize whatever he found wrong.
In October of 1942, Rickenbacker returned to the States and Secretary Stimson immediately sent him to the Pacific on the same type of mission. Part of that mission included taking a memorized, verbal message to General Douglas MacArthur from President Roosevelt. He was en route from Honolulu to Canton Island in a Boeing B-17 when the pilot got lost and had to ditch the aircraft due to lack of fuel.
The next 22 days were harrowing for all of the eight men aboard that aircraft – it became a classic survival drama. Looking dapper dressed in a gray fedora hat and business suit, Captain Eddie assumed command of the other military members as a civilian. Over all those days, Rickenbacker cajoled, insulted and angered everyone in an attempt to keep their hopes alive. No search planes appeared (no one knew where they were) and the men weakened with each passing day. Using rafts from the ditched aircraft, tied together to make it easier for a search plane to see them, Rickenbacker doled out what rations there were and made himself the center of antagonism to keep the others alive. Search planes flew in their general area but never close enough to see the rafts.
After two weeks afloat, with some wrangling, the men decided to cut the three rafts apart, allowing them to drift in hopes that one of the search aircraft would see them. After three weeks, one of the rafts was found leading to the rescue of seven men; the eighth was lowered into the ocean soon after he died of his injuries during the plane wreck. Captain Eddie, once again, became front page news – he had lost 60 pounds, had a bad sunburn and salt water ulcers and was barely alive. The Boston Globe captioned his picture as ‘The Great Indestructible.’ Rickenbacker could have come home immediately but he insisted on continuing his mission to General MacArthur and visited some of the bases in the war zone. Upon his return to Washington, he briefed Secretary Stimson making extensive recommendations about survival equipment that should be adopted on a priority basis.
Rickenbacker continued to make speeches at bond rallies and he toured defense plants. In mid-1943 he was sent on a three-month, 55,000 mile trip to Russia and China and any other areas he deemed appropriate. The mission included looking at what the Russians were doing with American equipment under the Lend-Lease agreement. With the war drawing to an inevitable end in Europe and the Pacific, the airlines began to return to normal operations. Rick led Eastern’s expansion ordering Lockheed Constellations and Douglas DC-4s followed by Martin 404s and Lockheed Electras. The induction of jets in the late 1950s caused serious adjustment issues with the airlines. Rickenbacker resisted the change to some extent, extolling the virtues of good piston-powered aircraft and deciding that the other airlines should be the first to take the risk.
The Civil Aeronautics Board (CAB) was a federal agency created by the Civil Aeronautics Act of 1938 that regulated aviation services, including scheduled passenger airline service, and provided air accident investigation. Rickenbacker did not like the way that the CAB interfered with private enterprise, believing that it leaned more towards bureaucracy and control. He battled the CAB about routes and fares, resisting what the competition was forcing him to adopt against his better judgment.
In 1953, Captain Eddie became chairman of the board of Eastern but remained general manager. In his memoirs, he proudly wrote that ‘we always showed a profit, never took a nickel of the taxpayer’s money in subsidy, and we paid our stockholders reasonable dividends over the years.’ Edward Vernon Rickenbacker reluctantly retired from Eastern on the last day of 1963 at age 73. He passed away 10 years later on July 23, 1973.
General James H. ‘Jimmy’ Doolittle delivered Rickenbacker’s eulogy in Miami. His ashes were buried beside his mother in the Columbus, Ohio, family plot. During the ceremony four jet fighters flew overhead; 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 published in a national magazine: ‘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 be the phrase I’ve heard a thousand times: I’ll fight like a wildcat!’