Eddie Rickenbacker in his SPAD S.XIII
Nickname "Eddie" Place of birth Columbus, Ohio Allegiance U.S. Army Battles/wars World War I Awards Medal of Honor
Croix de Guerre
Other work Indy racecar driver
Rickenbacker car company
Indianapolis Motor Speedway
Eastern Air Lines
Eddie Rickenbacker (born October 8, 1890 – July 27, 1973) was best known as a World War I fighter ace. He was also a race car driver and automotive designer, a government consultant in military matters and a pioneer in air transportation. During his lifetime, Rickenbacker worked with many influential civilian and military leaders. He had keen insight into technology, and vision for future improvements. Among other events, he participated in or observed Armistice Day on the Western Front and the Hindenburg explosion.
- 1 Early life
- 2 Near-death experiences
- 3 Auto racing career
- 4 World War I
- 5 Personal philosophy and family life
- 6 Post-war: Business and technology
- 7 World War II
- 8 1943: Mission to besieged USSR
- 9 Post-World War II
- 10 Non-military awards
- 11 Trivia
- 12 References
- 13 Other References
- 14 External links
Edward Vernon Rickenbacker was born Edward Rickenbacher in Columbus, Ohio to German-speaking Swiss immigrants. From childhood, Eddie Rickenbacker loved machines and experimented with them, encouraged by his father's words "A machine has to have a purpose" (Rickenbacker, 1967, page 28). When Eddie Rickenbacker's father, William Rickenbacher, was killed at a construction site in 1904, young Eddie chose to quit school at age 13 to support his mother and siblings. He turned to trade work, first as a night-shift glazer and then later as a worker in a steel mill.
In what was to become one of the defining characteristics of Eddie Rickenbacker's life, Rickenbacker nearly died many times, from an early run-in with a horse-drawn carriage, to a botched surgery, to airplane crashes. His first near-death experience occurred in 1918, when he noticed himself bleeding to death from an internal surgery wound. He also was said to have gone to North Carolina for a break where he went into a river. An alligator was in the water and he distracted it by tossing a piece of meat into the water.
Auto racing career
Rickenbacker participated in the formative years of auto racing as a driver. Before owning and operating the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, he participated in some of the first 500-mile races held there.
Indy 500 results
Year Car Start Qual Rank Finish Laps Led Retired 1912 16 13 77.300 22 21 43 0 Intake valve 1914 42 23 88.140 19 10 200 0 Running 1915 23 20 81.970 20 19 103 0 Rod 1916 5 2 96.440 2 20 9 9 Steering Totals 355 9
Starts 4 Poles 0 Front Row 1 Wins 0 Top 5 0 Top 10 1 Retired 3
World War I
Eddie Rickenbacker wanted to join the Allied troops in World War I, but the U.S. had not committed. He had several chance encounters with aviators, including a fortuitous incident where he repaired a stranded aircraft for T.F. Dodd, a man who would become General "Black Jack" Pershing's aviation officer and an important contact in Rickenbacker's attempt to join air combat.
Suspected of spying
In 1916, Rickenbacker traveled to Paris, with the aim of developing an English car for American races. Because of press innuendo and Rickenbacker's known German heritage, he was suspected of being a spy. En route and in England, agents closely monitored his actions.
Eager to fight
Rickenbacker helped organize an advance group of soldiers to be ready if the United States joined the war. When, in 1917, the United States declared war on Germany, Rickenbacker had enlisted in the U.S. Army and was training in France with the very first American troops. Rickenbacker arrived in France on June 26, 1917 as sergeant first-class.
Learning to fly and adversity
Most men chosen for pilot training had degrees from prestigious colleges, and Rickenbacker had to struggle to gain permission to fly because of his perceived lack of qualifications.
Because of his prodigious mechanical abilities, Rickenbacker obtained a position as engineering officer in a flight-training facility at Issoudun, where Rickenbacker practiced flying during his free time. He flew Nieuport 28 and SPAD XIII aircraft. He learned to fly well, but because his skills were badly needed at the training facility, Rickenbacker's superiors tried to prevent him from attaining his wings with the other pilots.
94th Aero Squadron
Rickenbacker demonstrated that he had a qualified replacement, and the military awarded Rickenbacker a place in America's first air-combat squadron, the 94th Aero Squadron, informally known as the Hat-in-the-Ring Squadron. He flew rudimentary aircraft, sometimes without weaponry, alongside French pilots. The 94th periodically faced Germany's legendary Flying Circus, led by the Red Baron, Manfred von Richthofen, until von Richthofen's death in combat. On April 29, 1918, Rickenbacker shot down his first plane. During WWI, Rickenbacker and the other pilots developed important aviation principles that would serve them in civil aviation and in WWII combat.
Respect for him grew as his successes mounted. Rickenbacker was awarded the French Croix de Guerre in May 1918, for shooting down five German airplanes. On September 24, 1918, now a captain, he was named commander of the squadron, and on the following day, he shot down two more German planes, for which he was belatedly awarded the Medal of Honor in 1931. Rickenbacker's 26 victories constituted an American record that stood until World War II.
The military determined ace status by counting the number of aircraft shot down by a pilot, and verifying reports with ground witnesses and the affirmations of other pilots. If no witnesses could be found, a reported kill was not counted. In 1969, the U.S. Air Force released Historical Study 133. This study converted the whole victory credits awarded into fractions, to show which credits were shared and to calculate the number of enemy aircraft actually covered by the credits. This was more in line with the criteria the Americans applied in World War II, but it did not reflect the actual credits awarded. Confusion resulted, because researchers using Historical Study 133 would sometimes add the fractions of flyers to get their aerial victory credit totals. Rickenbacker's official score of 26 still stands, which can be seen at the USAF Historical Research Agency. While the US Air Service credited "out of control" and other nonfatal victories, in terms of aircraft destroyed, Rickenbacker's tally was six airplanes and three balloons in the air, plus two balloons on the ground. (Several other Americans were credited with more enemy aircraft destroyed but fewer victories, including Frank Luke; Raoul Lufbery, who flew with the French; and Frederick Gilette and Harold Kullburg of the RAF.) Nevertheless, Rickenbacker flew a total of 300 combat hours, reportedly more than any other U.S. pilot in the war.
The most successful American ace at that time, Rickenbacker was dubbed by the press as America's "Ace of Aces." He claimed his 26th and final plane on October 30, 1918, 12 days before the end of the war.
When Rickenbacker learned of the Armistice, he flew an airplane above the western front to observe the cease fire and the displays of joy and comradeship as the formerly warring troops crossed the front lines and joined in celebration.
Personal account of war events, more fame
After World War I ended, Eddie was approached for publicity exploits. He chose to go on a Liberty bond tour, but declined to use his renown for more celebrity or personal gain. Rickenbacker described his WWI 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 American President Theodore Roosevelt. Fighting the Flying Circus is now in the public domain, and the text is available online. .
- Bombers of WWI (file info)
- Video clip of Rickenbacker conducting a bombing run over German lines.
- Problems seeing the videos? See media help.
Personal philosophy and family life
Rickenbacker expressed strong patriotism, beginning in childhood. Realising that his German name appeared to undermine his credibility as a fully American citizen, Rickenbacker changed the spelling of his name while in France in WWI. He professed a strong Christian faith (though he was not accustomed to sharing it until after his experience of being stranded on the Pacific Ocean for 24 days in 1942), and urged honest dealings, corporate and personal. Eddie Rickenbacker promoted technology and innovation and predicted many events that eventually came to pass, such as the prevalence of air transportation, and the critical role an air combat division would play in future wars. Many of his ideas that eventually occurred were met with scepticism or outright disbelief when he expressed them.
Rickenbacker was also adamantly opposed to Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal policies, seeing them as little better than socialism. For this he drew criticism and ire from the press and the Roosevelt Administration, which ordered NBC Radio not to allow him to broadcast opinions critical of FDR's policies after Rickenbacker harshly denounced FDR's use of Air Force pilots to carry Air Mail; the primary reason for the denunciation was that several of the pilots died in crashes while carrying the mail.
In 1922, Rickenbacker married Adelaide Frost; their marriage lasted for the rest of his life. Although they spent considerable time in Florida, Texas, and Ohio, the Rickenbackers lived chiefly in New York City. They adopted two sons: David, in 1925, and William, in 1928. Adelaide represented an unconventional wife for the era; she was five years older than her husband, had previously married, and was outspoken and active. As independent as she was, Adelaide fully supported Rickenbacker's endeavors until his death in 1973. In 1977, Adelaide committed suicide.
Post-war: Business and technology
Rickenbacker automobile designs
Still interested in machines, Rickenbacker started an automobile company (see: Rickenbacker), selling technologically advanced cars based on innovations discovered in automobile racing. The Rickenbacker came equipped with the first four-wheel brake system. Probably due to the resistance to this idea propagated by other car manufacturers, who had inventory lacking four-wheel braking systems, Rickenbacker's car company was financially unsuccessful. He went into massive debt, because of company losses, and determined to pay back everything he owed. Eventually, all vehicles manufactured in the U.S. incorporated four-wheel braking.
Managing the Indianapolis Motor Speedway
In 1927, Rickenbacker bought the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, which he would operate for nearly a decade and a half before closing it down due to World War II. Rickenbacker oversaw many improvements of the facility, such as banking the curves to enable better and safer turning. In 1945, Rickenbacker sold the Speedway to Terre Haute, Indiana businessman Anton Hulman, Jr..
Once the Speedway operations were under control, Rickenbacker looked for additional opportunities for entrepreneurship, including sales for the Cadillac division of General Motors and various aircraft manufacturers and airlines.
Eastern Air Lines
Rickenbacker's most lasting business endeavor was his lifelong leadership of Eastern Air Lines. With the help of friends he had met in the war, or in car racing, or in other walks of life, Eddie Rickenbacker combined Eastern Air Transport with Florida Airways to form Eastern Air Lines, an airline that would grow from a company flying a few thousand air miles per week to a major international transportation company.
Rickenbacker oversaw many radical changes in the field of commercial aviation. He negotiated with the U.S. government to acquire air mail routes, a great advantage to companies in need of business. He helped develop and support new aircraft designs. Rickenbacker acquired historic aircraft for Eastern, including the Lockheed Constellation commissioned by Howard Hughes for Trans World Airlines (Rickenbacker, 1967, 440). Rickenbacker personally collaborated with many of the pioneers of aviation, including Donald Wills Douglas, Sr., founder of the Douglas Aircraft Company that would become McDonnell Douglas.
He helped convince the American public to consider flying; but, always aware of the possibility of accidents, Rickenbacker avoided calling the new method of transportation "safe." In his autobiography, he wrote "I have never liked to use the word "safe" in connection with either Eastern Air Lines or the entire transportation field; I prefer the word "reliable."" (Rickenbacker, 1967, page 261).
Surviving a fatal crash
Rickenbacker often traveled for business on Eastern Airlines flights, and on February 26, 1941, a DC-3 flying Eddie Rickenbacker and other passengers crashed outside Atlanta. Rickenbacker suffered grave injuries, was soaked in fuel, and was immobile and trapped in the wreckage. In spite of his own critical wounds, Rickenbacker encouraged the uninjured passengers, offered what consolation he could to those around him who were injured or dying, and guided the still-mobile survivors to attempt to find help. They were rescued after spending the night at the crash site. Rickenbacker barely survived, and this was the first time the press announced his death while he was still alive.
In a dramatic retelling of the incident, Rickenbacker's autobiography relates his astonishing experiences: while still conscious but in terrible pain, Rickenbacker was left behind while ambulances transported bodies of those killed in the accident. When he arrived at a hospital, his injuries appeared so grotesque that doctors left him for dead for some time, instructing staff to "take care of the live ones." (Rickenbacker, 275) Rickenbacker's injuries included a dented skull, other head injuries, shattered left elbow and crushed nerve, paralyzed left hand, several broken ribs, a crushed hip socket, twice-broken pelvis, severed nerve in his left hip, and a broken left knee. Most shocking, his left eyeball was expelled from the socket. (Rickenbacker, 273) He recovered from these after months in the hospital, and regained full eyesight.
Rickenbacker describes the experience with vivid accounts of his mentality as he approached death, emphasizing the supreme act of will necessary to stave it off. His autobiography reported that he spent ten days on the brink of death, which he illustrated as an overwhelming sensation of calm and pleasure (Rickenbacker, 1967, 278).
For a time, Eastern was the most profitable airline in the post-war era. In the late 1950s, Eastern's fortunes changed, and Rickenbacker was forced out of his CEO position on October 1, 1959. He left his position as chairman of the board December 31, 1963.
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 their time and resources to success in WWII, and pledged Eastern Airlines equipment and personnel for use in military activities.
Rickenbacker served the military extensively, inspecting troops, operations, and equipment, and serving in a publicity function to increase support from civilians and soldiers. In 1942, with a sweeping letter of authorization from Henry L. Stimson, U.S. 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 during the service of the United States war effort. In October 1942, Rickenbacker was sent on a tour of the Pacific theater to review conditions, operations, and to personally deliver a secret message to General MacArthur. After visiting bases in Hawaii, the B-17D, 40-3089, in which he was flying went off course hundreds of miles from its first scheduled stop at Canton Island. The airplane had flown in an undetected tailwind, which carried them faster than they knew and rendered their calculations ineffective. This accident later resulted in improved navigation tools for aircraft, and improved survival gear provided on aircraft. The pilot ditched the plane in the Pacific, dangerously close to Japanese-held enemy territory.
For 24 days, Rickenbacker, his friend and business partner, and the crew drifted at sea without food or water aside from an occasional fish and rain. Rickenbacker still suffered from the airline crash, his friend Hans Adamson sustained serious injuries in the water landing, and others in the crew were hurt to varying degrees. The crew's food supply ran out after three days. On Day 8 a seagull landed on Rickenbacker's head. Rickenbacker painstakingly caught it, and the survivors meticulously divided it equally and used some for fishing bait. They lived on sporadic rain water and similar food "miracles." Rickenbacker assumed a role of leadership, encouragement, and browbeating to help the others survive, and encouraged them to turn to God for solace. According to Rickenbacker, each person on the rafts converted to Christianity after the experience. The U.S. Army Air Forces, unable to find them, intended to abandon the lost crew after searching unsuccessfully for more than two weeks, but Rickenbacker's wife convinced them to extend the search another week. Once again, the press reported that Rickenbacker had died.
Navy pilots rescued the surviving members of the crew, suffering from exposure, dehydration, and starvation, on November 13, 1942. One serviceman had died and was buried at sea. Rickenbacker completed his assignment and delivered MacArthur's secret message. No one ever made the message public.
It should be noted that Rickenbacker initially thought that he had been lost a mere 21 days, and wrote thus in a book about the experience published by Doubleday. It was not until later that he recalculated and corrected the error in his 1967 autobiography.
1943: Mission to besieged USSR
Still determined to support the U.S. war effort, Rickenbacker suggested a fact-finding mission in the Soviet Union to provide the Soviets with needed technical assistance for their American aircraft. His private objective was to gain knowledge about ever-more hostile Soviet military capabilities.
Gaining permission to enter the Soviet Union
Rickenbacker approached Soviet diplomats, and avoided requesting help from President Franklin Roosevelt, alluding to personal disagreements between the two. With the help of the Secretary of War 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, 1967, 390).
55,000-mile side-trip around the world
Rickenbacker's trip took him over South America, where he made important observations about conditions there. He stopped in Africa, China, and India, at each stop reviewing American operations and making notes to report to authorities. In Iran, Rickenbacker offered to bring along an American officer, whose unapproved request to travel to the Soviet Union delayed Rickenbacker's party for a few days.
In the Soviet Union, Rickenbacker observed wartime conditions, extraordinary dedication and patriotism by the populace, and ruthless denial of goods and services to unproductive members of society. 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 intoxicate him and gain 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 Rickenbacker greatly improved Rickenbacker's effectiveness at information-gathering. When he left the Soviet Union, Rickenbacker understood Soviet defense strategies and capabilities, knew about brand-new strategies against advancing tank battalions, and had memorized a map of the Soviet's front line showing standard military location markers for all major units. (Rickenbacker, 1967, 422). He was also provided with unprecedented access to 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 predicted that the Soviet Union's practices favored capitalism and that it would become a capitalist nation (Rickenbacker, 1967, 425)
Winston Churchill interviewed Rickenbacker about his mission. In the U.S., Rickenbacker's information resulted in some diplomatic and military action, but President Roosevelt ignored the information and did not meet with Rickenbacker about his groundbreaking visit to the U.S.S.R. (Rickenbacker, 1967, 438).
Post-World War II
In the 1960s, Rickenbacker became a well-known speaker. He shared his vision for the future of technology and commerce, exhorted Americans to respect the enemy (the Soviet Union) during the Cold War, yet uphold American values, and endorsed conservative ideals.
After retiring from Eastern Air Lines, Adelaide and Eddie Rickenbacker traveled extensively, until Eddie Rickenbacker had a stroke while in Switzerland seeking medical treatment for Adelaide there. He died in 1973 in Zürich, Switzerland, and his body was buried in Columbus, Ohio, at Greenlawn Cemetery.
In 1974, the Lockbourne Air Force Base in his home town of Columbus was renamed Rickenbacker Air Force Base.
- He was inducted into the International Motorsports Hall of Fame in 1992.
- He was inducted into the National Sprint Car Hall of Fame in 1992.
- Rickenbacker was inducted into the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America in 1994.
- He was a distant relative of Adolph Rickenbacker, co-founder of Rickenbacker Guitars. The last name was purposely chosen for its recognition factor as associated with Eddie Rickenbacker.
- In the 1999's computer game System Shock 2 a spaceship is named after him.
- Fighting The Flying Circus (Wings of War) (1919)
- Rickenbacker, Captain Edward V., Seven Came Through, Doubleday, Doran and Company, Inc., Garden City, New York, 1943.
- Adamson, Hans Christian, Eddie Rickenbacker, The Macmillan Company, New York, 1946.
- Adelaide Frost Rickenbacker
- Rickenbacker, Edward V., Rickenbacker: an Autobiography, Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1967.
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