Edward Vernon Rickenbacker
Edward Rickenbacker was born in Columbus, Ohio, on October 8, 1890. Upon his father’s death, he went to work at the age of twelve to help support his family. His first interesting job was working in garage-repairing, testing and driving automobiles. Since he liked mechanics, he eventually signed up for an engineering course with the International Correspondence School.
At the age of 15 he went to work for the Frayer-Miller Automobile Company in Columbus. When Lee Frayer, the owner, learned that he was studying engineering, he took a liking to him. Frayer was greatly interested in auto racing and invited the young man to ride with him in the 1906 Vanderbilt Cup Race. This was an exciting experience and a great influence upon his life.
Going to work for the Columbus Buggy Company he sold their cars by giving driving demonstrations. But this was too tame. He liked to pull the throttle wide open and before long he was racing in local county fairs.
By 1910 he was in the big time. For six years he was one of the nation’s leading race car drivers. He established a world’s record of 134 miles an hour at Daytona Beach and he participated in the Indianapolis 500 races up through 1916. When America entered the war he suggested organizing and training a squadron of flyers selected from among his racing associates. Their quick responses and decisions were among the prime requisites for good pursuit pilots. Unfortunately, his idea never penetrated the red tape of wartime officialdom. He received, instead, a telegram ordering him to report to New York City for duty overseas. General Pershing wanted him to be his official chauffeur in Europe. In several months’ services he saw the Front only once. Pershing didn’t seem to appreciate the racing speed with which he was driven but his repeated requests for transfer to pilot training were rejected. However, after an incessant behind-the-scenes campaign, he got himself transferred to the AEF’s Aviation Instruction Center in Issoudun. Here he learned the barrel-roll, tail-slip, spin and Immelmann turn which had become the repertoire of the combat pilot. The skill in performing these tricks in the “Dog flights” determined whether pilots lived or died.
Upon entering his training, he was commissioned a First Lieutenant and promptly assigned as Chief Engineering Officer at the Center, another ground job! No matter how much he argued, his superior, Major Carl “Tooey” Spaatz, wouldn’t send him to aerial gunnery school. Being quite resourceful he got himself sent to the hospital so someone else had to take over his engineering job. When “Tooey” found out he said. “I don’t want you around here”, and sent him on to aerial gunnery. He did very well at the school except he invariably shot out the rope between the tow plane and the target. The tow plane pilots were happy when he left the Front.
In March 1918 he was assigned to the newly established 94th Aero Squadron, the Hat-in-the-Ring Squadron. It was Raoul Lufbery who became commander of the 94th and taught him the fine points of air combat. He learned to concentrate on his adversaries movements and to use the glare of the sun and the clouds to conceal himself. He learned to maneuver into the enemy’s blind spot before firing, and not expose his own vulnerable gasoline tanks. He learned to operate his guns and controls by instinct which was to save his life in the days of combat ahead.
On April 29, he shot down his first enemy plane in a spectacular fight while flying with James Hall over the Montsec area. For his bravery in action the French awarded him the Croix de Guerre with Palm. One morning, while returning from a flight over Metz he saw three German Albatrosses taking off far below him. He dived full throttle and shot down the rear plane. As he pulled back on the stick for a sharp climb, the canvas from his plane’s upper right wing tore off. He cut the engine as the plane went out of control, spinning crazily toward the earth. In desperation he yanked the throttle wide open and was able to take the Nieuport home, grazing the top of the hangar as he pancaked in, and walked away unscratched.
On May 31, he got his fifth and sixth victories and became an “Ace.” He was placed in command of the 94th, after Raoul Lufberry’s burning death leap. In his diary he wrote, “We have learned to love and respect each other and then forget each other in a brief few minutes.” So it was with Raoul. The following morning he achieved his first double-kill, when he attacked single-handed a flight of five Fokkers and two LVG’s. For this action, he was to receive the Congressional Medal of Honor twelve years later.
Following the exploit, he put in more combat time over enemy lines than any of the pilots under him. By the Armistice his score tallied twenty-two airplanes and four balloon victories, totaling twenty-six. He was America’s “Ace of Ace.” He was along in his plane a thousand feet above the trenches at the moment of the Armistice. He wrote “I witnessed the most starling sight man has ever seen. Helmets were being thrown into the air by thousands on both sides of No Man’s Land, and star shells and rockets of all colors were being released, and men were throwing away their guns. They were dancing like madmen, not in the trenches, but on top. Slowly, but surely, men from both sides were meeting in No Man’s Land congratulating each other. Instead of enemies, they were friends never to shoot at each other again.”
For his war efforts, in addition to the Congressional Medal of Honor, he was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross with nine Oak Leaves. The French awarded him the Croix de Guerre with Four Palms and the Legion of Honor Medal.
When he returned home from the war, he received a hero’s welcome. He was awarded the Mackay Trophy and offered $100,000 to do a movie on his exploits. Instead, he bought a second-hand car and a hunting rifle and disappeared into the mountains of Arizona to find peace of mind after the horrors of war. After a while, he helped organize an automobile manufacturing company and although his car was very advanced in design, being the first four-wheel brakes, it went out of production in 1926.
He then founded Florida Airways with Reed Chambers and after a year and a half sold it to Pan American Airways. In late 1927 he joined General Motors and served as Vice President and Director of Sales for the General Aviation Manufacturing Corporation. Next, he served briefly as Vice President of American Air ways, Inc. In 1932 he became Vice President and General Manager of Eastern Air Transport Division of North American Aviation. Eastern was sharing general distress of the Aviation industry at the time. The government’s cancellation of the Air Mail contracts in February 1934 added to his woes. On the eve of the cancellation, he helped fly the last mail from Los Angeles eastward in a brand new DC-2 and set a new transcontinental records of just over 13 hours. In 1935 he set another transcontinental record of just over 12 hours in a new DC-3. Under his skillful controls Eastern turned the corner in 1935 and showed the first profit in years, and it was renamed Eastern Airlines. In 1938 a group raised $331 million and purchased Eastern Airlines, and he was elected President and General Manager.
Tragedy struck in 1941 when he was critically injured in an airliner crash in which eight fellow passengers were killed. After hovering between life and death for weeks, he recovered. During Work War II, he again volunteered his service to his country and toured air bases around the world to evaluate their effectiveness. He traveled thousands of miles building up the morale of a new generation of American fighter pilots.
In October 1942 he left Hawaii for the southwest Pacific in a B-17 with seven companions aboard. The plane overshot its tiny island landing strip, got lost and ran out of fuel. The crew ditched the plane safely on the water. But in the confusion of scrambling into three life rafts, the emergency food rations and water supply were left behind in the sinking plane. It was the beginning of weeks of hell for the men. “It was the worst I have ever known” he wrote. “The sun beat down fiercely all day. I even imagined I smelled flesh burning. Face, neck, hands, wrists, legs and ankles burned, blistered, burned raw and burned again. I would sometimes come out of a nightmare and pull in the towlines of the other rafts until I knew the others were there.” An occasional fish and rainwater squeezed from handkerchiefs were their only subsistence until a seagull, unbelievably, came out of the sky and landed on his head. Stunned at first at the situation, he reached up slowly with his right hand. He closed his fingers hard and quickly wrung the gull’s neck and then divided the raw salty meat among the men.
After three weeks, a Navy patrol plane found the three rafts 400 miles from where their plane went down. He shrugged off the cheers of the Navy crew as they were taken aboard saying, “There’s no great honor attached to saving your skin.” He said he knew he was close to death on this experience because he had heard beautiful soft music. “But such time as I moved close to death”, he said, “I began to fight harder. I had faith in power above and I had the will to believe. “With them, I would have been dead long ago. It is the easiest thing in the world to die. The hardest is to live.” He received the Medal of Merit for his war services.
Eddie Rickenbacker passed away at the age of 82 on July 27, 1973 in Zurich, Switzerland and buried in Columbus, Ohio, USA.