THE 456th FIGHTER INTERCEPTOR SQUADRON

THE PROTECTORS OF  S. A. C.

 

 

Edward V. Rickenbacker

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Captain Eddie

The Ace Of Aces

 

His Childhood

 

Rickenbacher's childhood home in Columbus, Ohio, now on the National Registry

Edward Rickenbacher was born on October 8, 1890 in Columbus, Ohio. He adopted his middle name, "Vernon," later and changed the spelling of his last name to "Rickenbacker" in 1918. His father, William, and his mother, Elizabeth (Basler), were Swiss immigrants who met and married in Columbus. "Eddie" was the third of eight children, seven of whom lived to adulthood.

After 1893, William Rickenbacher operated his own construction company, but the family remained mired in poverty. Eddie recalled that most of the land surrounding their home (handbuilt by William but without electricity, indoor plumbing, or heat) on the outskirts of Columbus was used for growing vegetables and pasturing goats. William was a stern disciplinarian, present- and practical-minded, and Elizabeth instilled in Eddie a great reverence for religion, attributes that seemed to form the nucleus of Eddie's personality.

Eddie worked at odd jobs since he was seven years old, earning cash for his own projects. This changed in 1904 when William was killed at a construction site. Eddie attributed his father's death to an accident, but the Dictionary of American Biography entry by Dr. W. David Lewis concludes that William "was killed by an assailant." Nevertheless, Eddie quit school immediately to find work to support his family.

Though his older brother (also named William) worked full-time, Eddie decided it was his job to support the family. He knew his mother and brother would oppose him, so he decided to present them with a fait accompli. He lied about his age to circumvent the child-labor laws and got a night job as a helper at the Federal Glass Factory. In a few weeks he quit to take a day job at the Buckeye Steel Casting Company. From there he worked in a beer factory, a bowling alley, a cemetery monument yard, and with the Pennsylvania Railroad as an apprentice.

He was unhappy and viewed every job only as a way to make money for his family. His stint in the machine shop of the Pennsylvania Railroad combined with his lust for adventure lured him into the nascent automobile industry. He began his automotive career in the Evans Garage. To upgrade his mechanical skills, he took the mechnical engineering course from International Correspondence School in 1905. He also successfully campaigned to land a job with the Frayer-Miller automobile manufacturing plant in Columbus.

 

Auto Racing and Manufacturing

 

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Like many young men of his era, Eddie was obsessed with technology and speed. The automobile combined both, and it became one of his life-long passions. He indulged it early, as in this photo above that shows Eddie driving orator, statesman, and politician William Jennings Bryan (seated behind Eddie) on a Texas speaking tour in 1909. Eddie was in Texas helping Firestone-Columbus establish dealerships, and thought of driving Bryan as an advertising stunt.

Eddie worked for the Frayer-Miller automobile company until 1907 when he followed Lee Frayer to Firestone-Columbus. In 1910, as Firestone's branch sales manager for the mid-west, Eddie raced his employer's cars on small-town dirt-tracks. He raced for Lee Frayer until 1912, then took a job with Fred Duesenberg at Mason Company. He raced through a series of companies but spent most of his racing career on his own. He formed the "Maxwell Special" team, racing with it until October, 1916, when he planned a trip to England to open that country's 1917 racing season. In the meantime, Eddie raced for Duesenberg again and closed his racing career with a win at Ascot park, Los Angeles, CA. He made the trip to England, but enlisted in the U.S. Army rather than working in the British automobile industry.

From 1925 through 1927 Eddie was the "front man" for the Rickenbacker Automobile Company, manufacturers of a car he claimed to be "worthy of its name." Unusual in appearance, the Rickenbacker autos incorporated highly-advanced systems such as four-wheel breaks that later became common on all cars. The company pursued technology too aggressively and were too far advanced for their time. Their competition was able to manipulate consumer conservatism and eventually drive Rickenbacker into bankruptcy.

Undaunted by financial failure, Eddie raised $700,000 in one month in order to buy the Indianapolis Speedway in 1927. The "Brickyard," as it was called, was host to the most famous of all American automobile races, the Indy 500. Eddie had raced in the first "500" in 1911, and he knew the importance of the race as a testing ground for automotive technology. Eddie closed the Speedway during World War II. By the time the war was over, his attention had turned toward running Eastern Air Lines. The repairs needed to make the Indianapolis Speedway usable after years of neglect were too much for Eddie. He sold the track in 1947 for what he had paid for it. Nevertheless, Eddie stayed in contact with automotive racing for the rest of his life.

 

 

World War I

 

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Captain Eddie

Eddie enlisted in the U.S. Army in May, 1917 and arrived in France on June 26. Although interested in aviation, the AEF assigned him as staff driver for General John Pershing at the rank of sergeant first-class. With the connivance of high-ranking friends in the AEF, Rickenbacker was accepted into the air corps. He trained at Tours, France, was promoted to lieutenant, and became the chief engineer at Issodun air training facility. In March, 1918, after training in aerial gunnery at Cazeau, Eddie was assigned to the 94th Aero Pursuit Squadron, the first all-American air unit to see combat (April 14, 1918). He became an ace, and won the French Croix de Guerre, in May by shooting down five German airplanes and was named commander of the 94th, the "Hat-in-the-Ring" Squadron, on September 24. The following day, Eddie shot dow two more German airplanes, victories for which the U.S. government awarded him a belated Congressional Medal of Honor in 1930. His twenty-sixth confirmed victory occurred on October 30, and the last victory (the 69th) for the 94th occurred on November 10, 1918. World War I ended the next day.

 

World War II

 

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Rickenbacker vehemently opposed the United States' entry into World War II and even joined the "America First" committee. Nevertheless, Eddie supported the war effort once the U.S. committed itself, though he spent the first three months of the war recuperating from an airliner crash. At the request of General H.H. "Hap" Arnold, Eddie toured Army Air Corps training bases throughout the Southeast during March and April of 1942 to bolster morale, impress pilots with the seriousness of their mission, and secretly examine the bases and training pilots received. In September, Secretary of War Henry Stimson asked Rickenbacker to tour bases in England "as a continuation of your tour of inspection" and to seek out evidence of espionage.

Rickenbacker returned from England in October. Stimson immediately sent him on a tour of the Pacific theater. After visiting bases in Hawaii, Eddie, his aide Col. Hans Adamson, and their B-17 flight crew flew for Port Moresby, New Guinea. The first leg of their trip should have ended on Canton Island, but with inadequate navigational equipment and a faulty weather report, the B-17 overshot its mark. Hundreds of miles off-course and out of fuel, the pilot ditched his plane in the Pacific. Rickenbacker and company were lost at sea for twenty-four days. Their meager supply of food ran out after three days, but on the eighth a sea gull lighted on Eddie's head (as he shows in this photo). The unfortunate bird became dinner and fishing bait. Navy pilots rescued the crew in the Ellice Island chain on Friday, November 13, 1942, more than 500 miles beyond Canton Island.

Suffering from exposure, dehydration, and starvation, Rickenbacker rested a few days then proceeded on his original mission to inspect facilities at Port Moresby, Guadalcanal, and Upola. He reported to Secretary Stimson and General Arnold on December 19, then returned to New York the following day.

In April, 1943, Eddie took on yet another assignment for Stimson, this time visiting bases and production facitlies in North Africa, the Middle East, India, Burma, China, the Aleutian Islands, and the Society Union.

 

A Man Born Out of Season:

Fighting the Flying Circus

Lost At Sea

Adelaide Rickenbacker

David Rickenbacker

William Rickenbacker

 

Eastern Air Lines


Eddie retained his interest in the potential of aviation throughout the 1920s. After passage of the Air Mail Act of 1925, he worked with Reed Chambers, his 94th Areo Squadron flying buddy, to build Florida Airways, later to become Eastern Air Transport and Eastern Airlines. The hurricane of 1926 ruined this venture, but in June, 1929, Eddie found a position as vice-president of sales with General Motor's newly-acquired Fokker Aircraft Company. From there he moved to American Airways for one year, 1932-33, then moved back to GM to run its aviation properties. By 1938, Eddie had revived Eastern Airlines for GM, which then entertained John Hertz's $3 million offer to buy it. Eddie raised $3.5 million in one month to purchase Eastern before Hertz could exercise his option.

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At the time, just prior to the Second World War, all airlines in the United States used government subsidies to stay financially sound. Eddie vowed to wean Eastern and did so in 1939. The only government monies he accepted into Eastern's coffers came from air mail contracts, money Eastern was willing to sacrifice in the interest of building its empire. This occurred when Eddie put in a sealed bid of $0 for carrying the mails across south Texas. His reward was that he secured another leg of his dream route across the U.S.'s southern tier of states and into Mexico.

Immediately following World War II, Eddie purchased new Lockheed Constellations and Eastern was the first airlines to fly them. Eastern collaborated in designing its successors, the Super-Constellation and the Electra. It also re-designed its operations to be open and responsive, and implemented a training system that prepared entry level workers to move up the corporate ladder. The pay-off to Eastern was that it was the most profitable airline in the country in the post-war era.

By the late 1950s, however, Eddie's ideas began to age. Eastern had to struggle to keep up with its competition. Eddie became less flexible as time went on, and a series of bad business decisions, particularly his insistence that Eastern continue to use turboprop rather than jet planes, started Eastern on a financial slide. Upper management forced Eddie out as Eastern's chief executive officer on October 1, 1959. Eddie remained as chairman of the board until December 31, 1963, less than two weeks after Floyd Hall brought in a new management team from Trans World Airlines.

 

Post-war Politics


Politically, Eddie was always an arch-conservative. He made no pretense about his feelings that the New Deal of the 1930s created in the United States a "socialized welfare state," and he had often spoken on the subject. As his duties at Eastern Airlines diminished after 1959, he devoted more time to speaking for conservative causes and, by his own account, opened "a new chapter in my public-address experience" with his hour-long speech to the Chicago Economic Club in April 1961.

Entitled "Conservatives Must Face Up to Liberalism," it touched a nerve among his listeners, many of whom were from the economic and political elite of Chicago. Eddie eventually had the speech printed as a pamphlet, and he found many other opportunities to deliver similar addresses. He divided the honoraria from these speeches, $300-$1000 per appearance, among eight "uplift" organizations such as the Boys' Clubs, Big Brothers, and Boy Scouts of America.

Over the years, Eddie's tenor changed more than his political opinions. He seemed to grow increasingly bitter in his public utterances. He also injected disturbing racial imagery into his writings during the 1960s and 1970s as backlash against the U.S. civil rights movement increased. Even his opinions about world affairs changed from resistance to Communist ideological domination of the world to fear of Communist-inspired race war in Asia and Africa.

 

 

Life at Home

 

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Although Eddie was away from home for extended periods and his income during the 1920s was unstable, he married Adelaide Frost. She was a beautiful and wealthy divorcee whose first husband, R. C. Durant, was also a race car enthusiast and driver. Their courtship was brisk, and they married in the Cumberland Presbyterian

 Church of South Beach , CT, before a small party of witnesses on September 16, 1922. Eddie announced the marriage to his mother that evening via telegram. He and Adelaide honeymooned in Italy and France. The photo at right shows them in St. Mark's Square, Venice. It was not the only time a bird landed atop Eddie's hat.

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Eddie Rickenbacker 1972 a year before his death

Before the end of the decade, the Rickenbackers adopted two sons. David was born in 1925 and William in 1928. When old enough, the boys attended boarding school. A great deal of William's correspondence survives in this collection.

Adelaide and Eddie's marriage lasted until his death in 1973, a total of 51 years. Eddie credited Adelaide with saving his life when he and his air crew were lost at sea in late 1942. After days of fruitlessly searching the South Pacific, the Army Air Corps was ready to abandon the lost crew. Adelaide cajoled General "Hap" Arnold into extending the search for another week. The lost airmen were found within a few days.

The correspondence between Eddie and Bill, from c. 1936 until just before Eddie's death in 1973, demonstrates a strong bond of affection between father and son. Bill also attests to this affection in his 1970 book, From Father to Son: The Letters of Captain Eddie Rickenbacker to His Son William, From Boyhood to Manhood. Correspondence and testimony from David are rare, but we can extrapolate from available evidence to say that a similar relationship existed between him and his famous father. Though loving, Eddie held his sons to high standards of conduct. He required that they live up to his ideas of hard work and honor as well.

 

 

Capt. Eddie Rickenbacker

C.O. 94th Pursuit Squadron

Top American Ace of WWI, 26 victories

 

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The American Ace of Aces, Eddie Rickenbacker, was a successful race car driver, fighter pilot, airline executive, wartime advisor, and elder statesman. Few aces achieved so much in so many different lifetime roles.

His twenty-six aerial victories came in only two months of combat flying, a spectacular achievement.

 

Background

His family name was originally spelled "Reichenbacher," anglicized to its more familiar form when the U.S. entered World War One. His father died when Eddie was twelve, and the youngster quit school to help support his mother. He found a job with the Frayer Miller Aircooled Car Company, one of the thousands of automobile companies that emerged in the early 1900's.

 

Auto Racing

From his job road-testing cars for Frayer-Miller, he made his way into automobile racing, racing for Fred Deusenberg, among others. He raced three times in the Indianapolis 500 and set a speed record of 134 MPH in a Blitzen Benz. He became one of the most successful race car drivers, earning $40,000 per year (in incredible sum at that time).

 

Off To War

When the United States entered the war, Rickenbacker proposed a flying squadron staffed by race car drivers. The Army didn't accept his suggestion, but did accept his personal services; he became a driver for the Army general staff (but not chauffeur to General John "Black Jack" Pershing as frequently claimed). Once in France, he hoped to transfer into aviation.

Rickenbacker got a break one day when he had a chance to fix a motorcar carrying Colonel Billy Mitchell, then chief of the Army's Air Service. He made his interests known to Mitchell, and Rickenbacker, then at the advanced age of twenty-seven, entered pilot training. Because of his mechanical skills, he was first made engineering officer at the Issoudun aerodrome, but he flew whenever he could.

 

The 94th Pursuit Squadron

In March, 1918, he was assigned to the newly formed 94th Pursuit Squadron, which included: James Norman Hall (of the Lafayette Escadrille), Hamilton Coolidge, James Meissner, Reed Chambers, and Harvey Cook. But no airplanes! Once they secured some cast-off Nieuports, they moved up to the front.

 Before April 3, 1918, only the 94th, commanded by Major John Huffer, (one of the old Lafayette flyers), and Captain James Miller's squadron, the 95th, were at the front. Both squadrons had been at Villeneuve and together had moved to Epiez. None of the pilots of either squadron had been able to do any fighting, owing to the lack of airplane guns. In fact the pilots of Squadron 95 had not yet been instructed in the use of airplane guns. The 94 Squadron pilots however had been diverted to the Aerial Gunnery School at Cazeau for a month early in the year and were ready to try their luck in actual combat fighting over the lines. But they had no guns on their machines before April 3. Then suddenly guns arrived! All sorts of wonderful new equipment began pouring in. Instruments for the aeroplanes, suits of warm clothing for the pilots, extra spares for the machines. Shortly, they moved up to an aerodrome at Toul. Here, they unpacked, organized the squadron, and selected the famous "Hat-in-the-Ring" insignia.

On the 6th, Major Raoul Lufbery, selected "Rick" and Douglas Campbell for the squadron's first flight over German lines. As he eyed the trenches and desolation of war from 15,000 feet up, suddenly "Archy," German anti-aircraft fire opened up. Carefully shepherded by Lufbery, it was an uneventful flight, but back on the ground the experienced Lufbery chided the two novices for failing to notice other planes that he had seen. And for a good measure he casually poked his fingers into several shrapnel holes in Rickenbacker's Nieuport.

 

First Sorties

 

On the 14th, a patrol of Rickenbacker, Captain Peterson, and Lieutenant Reed Chambers was ordered to fly from Pont-à-Mousson to St. Mihiel at 16,000 feet. Lieutenants Douglas Campbell and Alan Winslow were directed to stand by on the alert at the hangar from six o'clock until ten the same morning. Rickenbacker's patrol got separated in fog and didn't accomplish too much, but as they returned, the "alert" pilots, Campbell and Winslow, intercepted two Boche airplanes and sent them both down. The newspapers made a huge fuss over the first "American" victories of the war.

For ten weeks Rickenbacker flew strafing missions and fruitless sorties before shooting down his first enemy plane. One day he encountered a Spad with French markings that almost shot him down, a lesson well-learned. He made several mistakes in this early period: getting lost, mistaking friends for foes, falling into German aerial ambushes, etc.. He later reflected that these early disappointments and lessons gave him enormous benefits in his subsequent flying.

 

First Victory

 

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April 29th was a wet day; he and Capt. James Norman Hall had the afternoon alert. At five o'clock Captain Hall received a telephone call from the French headquarters at Beaumont stating that an enemy two-seater machine had just crossed the lines, flying south.

Hall and Rickenbacker had been on the field with their flying clothes on and their machines ready. They jumped into their seats and the mechanics twirled the propellers. Just then the telephone sergeant told Captain Hall to wait for the Major, who would be on the field in two minutes. "Rick" scanned the northern heavens and spotted a tiny speck against the clouds above the Forêt de la Reine; it was the enemy plane. The Major was not yet in sight. Their motors were smoothly turning over and everything was ready.

Deciding not to wait for the Major, Captain Hall ordered the blocks pulled away from the wheels. His motor roared as he opened up his throttle and in a twinkling both machines ran rapidly over the field. Side by side they arose and climbing swiftly, soared after the distant Boche. In five minutes they were above the observation balloon line which stretched along two miles behind the front. Rickenbacker could still distinguish their unsuspecting quarry off toward Pont-à-Mousson. He briefly left Hall to pursue a French three-seater, but recognized the ally before firing, and rejoined Capt. Hall.

Hall led them up sun, gaining an advantageous position over the new Pfalz fighter that he had spotted. Coordinating skillfully, Rickenbacker cut off the German's retreat while Hall dived at him, from out of the sun. 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 airplane 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.

Lt. Eddie Rickenbacker had brought down his first enemy airplane without taking a single shot! He and Hall did aerobatics all the way back to their field, where they received the hearty congratulations of their mates, on the squadron's third victory.

 

May, 1918

 

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While April's rainy weather inhibited flying, the 94th saw more action in May. On the 2nd, James Meissner outmaneuvered an Albatros, sent it into a spin, and dived after it. Firing until the German plane spouted flames, Meissner didn't immediately notice the fabric peeling off his left upper wing. With careful flying, he made it back the the 94th, with the squadron's fourth victory confirmed by a French observation post. That same day, the 94th suffered its first casualty when Charley Chapman's Nieuport was flamed by a two-seater. On the 7th, while dog-fighting four Germans with Rickenbacker and Green, the wing of Hall's Nieuport stripped; he crash-landed and was captured. Rickenbacker replaced Hall as commander of the squadron's Number 1 Flight.

Rickenbacker scored his second victory while flying with Reed Chambers. On the morning of the 17th, he and Chambers took off before dawn in an effort to catch some German planes unawares. After fruitless circling at 18,000 feet, Rickenbacker headed for the German stronghold of Metz, losing Chambers in the process. Finding no Hun air activity over Metz, he then flew over an airdrome at Thiaucourt, where he noticed three Albatrosses taking off. He eased down lower, unnoticed by the enemy airplanes until "Archy" gave him away. Diving at 200(?) MPH, he fired a long ten-second burst, until, at 50 yards, the Albatross pilot was hit. When Rickenbacker pulled out of his dive, the Nieuport cracked and the upper wing covering came off. He spun down, apparently a certain casualty, but managed to re-start his engine and pull out at about 2,000 feet. He landed safely, and even had his victory confirmed.

 

Ace

 

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Spad

On May 30, 1918, Rickenbacker claimed two German airplanes, to become an ace. Once again, Jimmy Meissner lost the upper wing of his Nieuport. By then, the American pilots were anxious to discard the Nieuports, for the heavier, stronger Spads, as the French had already done.

Rickenbacker continued to prowl the skies, looking for victories and learning more. On the 4th of June, he cornered a Rumpler, two-seater observation plane with number '16' painted on its fuselage. His gun promptly jammed, and number '16' escaped. The next day, flying Lt. Smyth's plane while the guns in his plane were being repaired, he chanced upon Rumpler number '16' again! This time the Rumpler pilot evaded by zooming upward and giving Rickenbacker a taste of its floor-mounted machine gun. Its skillful pilot kept him at bay for over half and hour, working his way back over German lines. "Rick" regretfully turned home, and his engine froze up; he had exhausted its oil supply in his two-and-a-half hours of combat flying. Once again, he squeaked through to a safe landing. For the next two days, he stalked the predictable number '16' which easily evaded him by seeking higher altitudes, even when he used the Nieuport in the squadron reputed to have the highest ceiling. Some wags suggested that he could gain some extra altitude by leaving his guns behind, or perhaps even more by omitting that heavy fuel!

After this useless exercise, he took a leave in Paris. He didn't fly much in June, due to a persistent ear infection. But late in month, he did participate in an early American effort to emulate the large organized formations of fighters that the Germans used so effectively. The three U.S. squadrons got hopelessly mixed up. Early one morning he, Reed Chambers, Jimmy Meissner, Thorn Taylor, and Lt. Loomis organized an early morning attack on German observation balloons, Drachen, which was depressingly unsuccessful. On June 27, all four of the U.S. Pursuit Squadrons in France (the 94th, 95th, 27th, and 147th) moved from the Toul to Chateau-Thierry sector, to "an old French aerodrome at Touquin, a small and miserable village some twenty-five miles south of Château-Thierry and the Marne River."

July was not much better; little flying an no victories. He was briefly hospitalized with pneumonia and then visited Paris on the 4th of July. He dropped in at the U.S. supply depot at Orly, found some new Spads there, and flew a "borrowed" one back to the 94th.

 

Spads

 

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By August 8, the 94th received newer, faster Spads to replace their Nieuports, promising even greater results. But Rickenbacker's ear infection grounded him for much of August, as well.

On that day, He went up with 11 Spads of the 94th, escorting a pair of French two-seater photo planes over Vailly. When two small groups of Fokkers attacked, the 94th pilots successfully protected the photo planes. Rickenbacker and Chambers both believed they had downed Fokker, but their claims were unconfirmed, as the combat took place well over German lines. On a similar mission on the 10th, when escorting some Salmson photo machines over the Vesle and Aisne rivers, they met some Fokker D.VII's, but all Rickenbacker got was three bullet holes in the fuselage of his Spad. He spent late August in the hospital, returning on Sept. 3, when the 94th Squadron moved back to the Verdun sector, to a little town named Erize-la-Petite.

 

September

 

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This month, he scored four more victories and rose to command the 94th Squadron.

He assumed command on Sept 24; the first thing he did was check the operations records and he found that the 27th Squadron was leading the 94th in victories, largely due to Frank Luke's balloon-busting spree. By the end of the month, the 94th had recaptured the lead.

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While flying over Etain on the 25th, Rickenbacker picked up a pair of L.V.G. two-seater machines, escorted by four Fokkers. He climbed into the sun unnoticed, got well in their rear, and made a bee line for the nearest Fokker. With one long burst, he sent it down. The other Fokkers scattered, and he took the opportunity to make a pass at the LVG's. After several maneuvers, he flamed one of those, too.

Sept. 26, 1918 was a big day. Forty thousand American doughboys were going over the top, in an offensive from the Meuse River to the Argonne forest. In support of this, the 94th Pursuit Squadron was charged with destroying German observation balloons. He and five of the 94th's best pilots, Lieutenants Cook, Chambers, Taylor, Coolidge and Palmer; gathered for an early breakfast, and went over their plans. Two balloons assigned to the 94th, and three pilots were delegated to each balloon. Both lay along the Meuse between Brabant and Dun. They eluded the Archy fire to bring down both balloons; and "Rick" downed a Fokker

As commander of the 94th, nicknamed the "Hat in the Ring" Squadron, he displayed the managerial skills that served him so well in later endeavors. He drove his men hard and demanded results. They rose early for calisthenics; inspections were frequent and detailed; waste was not permitted. Rickenbacker insisted:

Every plane must be ready to take-off any moment, day or night, guns loaded, gassed, engine tuned. [If all was not correct] the war could be lost.

He also spent as much time as possible leading patrols in the air, delegating operational issues to different officers. Billy Mitchell was delighted at his protégé's success. His reports glowed with both Rickenbacker's aerial and organizational successes.

 

October

 

He and Reed Chambers shared a victory over a Hanover recon plane on the 2nd, this on a day when they were flying low-level ground-support patrols. Within a few minutes of this action, a flight of Fokkers appeared, chasing Rickenbacker down toward the ground. Reed Chambers and other Spads arrived in the nick of time, and the whole circus was soon climbing to gain the shelter of some low-hanging clouds. Recovering from his dive, Rickenbacker and Chambers sought a place between the Fokkers and their lines where they might be expected to issue out and make for home. They caught them and promptly sent two of them crashing inside the American lines. All three of their victories were promptly confirmed.

Twelve years after the war ended, he was belatedly awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for his accomplishments.

 

Rickenbacker Motors

 

In the early 1920's, he secured backing for a new automobile company under his name. It was a well-designed, even advanced car featuring four wheel brakes, but offered at the wrong time. Soon, his new company was bankrupt.

 

Eastern Airlines

 

Starting in the early 1930's, he owned or managed various commercial airlines, notably Eastern Airlines, which had its roots as a division of General Motors. He became General Manager of Eastern in 1933, and in 1938, with a group of investors, he bought it and became its president. Starting with an aggressively low bid ($0!) for a government air mail contract, he managed the company profitably for twenty years.

 

Twenty-Two Days In A Raft

 

During WW2, he carried out special assignments for Henry Stimson, the Secretary of War. In October, 1942, flying in a B-17 over the Pacific, on such a mission to Douglas MacArthur, the plane went down in the Pacific. In a horrifying ordeal, Rickenbacker and seven other men, rode a raft for twenty-two days before they were rescued. One man died; Rickenbacker, the oldest man in the raft, lost 54 pounds.

 

Later Life

 

He became a spokesman and advocate for conservative causes, convinced that government "socialist" programs were ruining the country. He died in 1973

It's a good book, well-written, but quite immodest. Of course, to paraphrase Winston Churchill, Rickenbacker "was a man with a lot to be immodest about."

 

 

America's "Ace Of Aces"

Eddie Rickenbacker

 

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Eddie Rickenbacker received the Medal of Honor for his flying exploits during World War I.

America’s top ace of World War I and a pioneer in commercial aviation, Edward "Eddie" Rickenbacker was born in Columbus, Ohio, in 1890. His father died when he was twelve, and he began working at a garage repairing automobiles. Soon, he decided to leave school to take a correspondence course in engineering so he could move up in the automobile field. Rickenbacker moved fast in the world of automobiles and went from garage mechanic to sales before he settled into auto racing in 1910. For the next six years, he was one of the nation’s top racecar drivers. He raced in the Indianapolis 500 and established the world record of 134 miles per hour (216 kilometers per hour) at a race at Daytona Beach, Florida.

When the United States entered World War I in April 1917, Rickenbacker decided to apply for flight school with the U.S. Army Air Service. He was rejected because he was too old and did not have a college education. Instead, he joined the Army and because of his fame as a driver, he was assigned to the post of personal driver to General John Pershing. This post offered him opportunities to meet many of the most important officers of the war, including Billy Mitchell, combat air commander of the American Expeditionary Forces. While driving Mitchell, Rickenbacker was able to convince Mitchell to transfer him to flight school.

Rickenbacker received his wings after 17 days of training and was assigned to the 94th Aero Squadron based outside of Toule, France. After coaching by ace Raoul Lufbery, he had his first shared victory on April 29, 1918, and his first solo on May 7. Flying Nieuport 28 and Spad XIII aircraft, Rickenbacker scored 24 more victories before the war ended. His fighting technique was to fly close to the enemy aircraft, closer than others dared, and then fire his guns. Occasionally, his gun jammed and he escaped only due to good luck. He lost several planes and sometimes returned to base with a fuselage full of bullet holes and once with a mark on his helmet from a passing enemy bullet. But his luck always held up, even on September 25, when he single-handedly attacked a flight of 5 Fokker D.VIIs and 2 Halberstadt CL.IIs and downed one of each type of plane. For this action he received the Medal of Honor--the highest medal given by the U.S. military. When the Armistice was declared he was flying over the trenches, and down below in "No Man’s Land" he saw soldiers of both sides celebrating as "friends never to shoot at each other again."

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Capt. Rickenbacher signed this picture when he was with the 94th Aero Squadron during World War I

Rickenbacker returned to the United States a national hero, a position he knew was fleeting. He was promoted to the rank of major, but he felt that the captain’s rank was the one he had earned and used that title for the rest of his life. He turned down offers for commercial endorsements and movie roles, although he was broke. And he also found that the aviation industry did not have a place for him.

Instead he returned to the automobile industry and started the Rickenbacker Motor Company, serving as vice president and director of sales. When the company failed due to the recession in 1925, Rickenbacker used a loan from a friend to buy a majority share in the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. He served as the speedway’s president until after World War II, a job that allowed him to pursue other opportunities on the side.

Rickenbacker was a popular speaker, traveling the country promoting aviation. Twenty-five different cities credited him with helping to persuade their local governments to develop airports. He also started a comic strip called Ace Drummond and published his World War I memoirs, Fighting the Flying Circus.

In 1926, Rickenbacker joined the commercial aviation industry. He founded Florida Airways, which he soon sold to Pan American Airlines, before becoming vice president with General Aviation Corporation (formerly Fokker). In 1933, he joined North American Aviation as a vice president and general manager of the subsidiary Eastern Air Transport- eventually reorganized as Eastern Air Lines.

Rickenbacker arrived at Eastern in February 1934, just as the government was canceling federal airmail contracts--the Army Air Corps would take over the routes. To demonstrate that the airlines were better qualified to carry the mail than the army, Rickenbacker flew the only Douglas DC-1 ever built coast to coast on February 18-19, 1934, for a transcontinental record of just over 13 hours.

Under his leadership, Eastern grew and showed its first profit in years. He improved salaries, working conditions, and maintenance and passenger service. He replaced the aging fleet with new 14-passenger DC-2s. To inaugurate the fleet, Rickenbacker broke a record flying the DC-2, Florida Flyer, from Los Angeles to Miami. The airline was reborn.

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Edward Rickenbacker on the steps of an Eastern Airlines plane.

In 1938, Rickenbacker joined with several associates and purchased Eastern. He was elected president and general manager. The new Eastern Airlines worked to develop a weather reporting and analysis system. It also reduced fares. And Eastern became the first airline to become a bonded carrier, meaning it could transport goods into the United States. It also operated free of government subsidies, for some time the only airline to do so.

By 1942, Eastern was serving 40 cities with a fleet of 40 DC-3s. But World War II meant big changes for the company. Eastern now had to give half its fleet to the government for military use. Many pilots also left to serve in the Army Air Corps. Rickenbacker volunteered to serve his country again—this time as a non-military observer for Secretary of War Henry Stinson. On a salary of a dollar a year and retaining his title of captain, Rickenbacker toured air bases around the world to evaluate their operations and build morale.

During a late 1942 tour of bases in the Pacific, the B-17 Rickenbacker was flying in ran out of fuel. The crew ditched the plane in the ocean, but in the confusion forgot the emergency rations. The eight men then spent 22 days on three rafts without food or water. Wearing his business suit and fedora, Rickenbacker took over leadership of the group--yelling and insulting the men to keep them in order. He made them pray every night, convinced that God had a purpose in keeping them alive. He used his fedora to collect the rainwater wrung out of clothes. The salt water corroded the few weapons they had, so they lived on fish, until one day a seagull landed on Rickenbacker’s head. He reached up, twisted its neck, and the crew shared it for dinner.

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Eddie Rickenbacker served as personal driver to General John Pershing.

Three weeks later, a Navy patrol plane found the crew. Eddie Rickenbacker was back in the news, his luck having gotten him through another adventure. Yet he refused to go home to recover; he wanted to finish his mission. Later, he returned to Washington to brief Secretary Stinson on recommendations for survival equipment to be added to all Air Corps planes immediately. Among the recommendations were a rubber sheet to protect the crew from the sun and catch water, and seawater distilling kits. Both items are still standard issue on U.S. military lifeboats and airplane life rafts.

After the war, Rickenbacker focused on Eastern Airlines again as it returned to normal operations. He expanded routes and updated the fleet with Lockheed Constellations and Douglas DC-4s. He resisted the change to jetliners, wanting to let his competitors test the new technology first. He was forced to hire female flight attendants, something he had been resisting for 20 years. And he battled government regulation of the industry, saying all it did was create more red tape and discourage new companies.

In 1953, after 25 years of service, Rickenbacker moved up to chairman of the board of Eastern Airlines. He found it difficult to give control to the new president, especially as business became tougher due to competition. Finally in 1963, he retired to a ranch in Texas with his wife Adelaide. The couple found it too remote and after five years moved to Florida. During a visit to Switzerland in July 1973, "America’s Ace of Aces" died of pneumonia.

--Pamela Feltus

Sources and further reading:

Rickenbacker, Edward V. Rickenbacker. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1967.

 Fighting the Flying Circus. Chicago: Lakeside Press, 1997.

 

 

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