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World War I: American Ace Eddie Rickenbacker

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World War I: American Ace Eddie Rickenbacker

Captain Eddie Rickenbacker wearing his Congressional Medal of Honor

Photograph Courtesy of the US Air Force

Eddie Rickenbacker - Early Life:

Born October 8, 1890, as Edward Reichenbacher, Eddie Rickenbacker was the son of German-speaking Swiss immigrants who had settled in Columbus, OH. He attended school until the age of twelve, when following the death of his father, he ended his education to help support his family. Mechanically inclined, Rickenbacker soon was working in a machine shop for the Pennsylvania Railroad. This led to employment with the Frayer Miller Aircooled Car Company. As his skills developed, Rickenbacker began racing his employer's cars in 1910.

Eddie Rickenbacker - Auto Racing:

A successful driver, he earned the nickname "Fast Eddie" and participated in the 1912, 1914, 1915, and 1916 Indianapolis 500s. His best and only finish was placing 10th in 1914, with his car breaking down in the other years. Among his achievements was setting a race speed record of 134 mph while driving a Blitzen Benz. In addition to fame, racing proved extremely lucrative for Rickenbacker as he earned over $40,000 a year as a driver. During his time as a driver his interest in aviation increased as a result of various encounters with pilots.

Eddie Rickenbacker - World War I:

Intensely patriotic, Rickenbacker immediately volunteered for service upon the United States' entry into World War I. After having his offer to form a fighter squadron of racecar drivers refused, he was assigned to be the personal driver for the commander of the American Expeditionary Force, General John J. Pershing. It was during this time that Rickenbacker anglicized his last name to avoid anti-German sentiment. Still interested in aviation, Rickenbacker received a break when he was requested to repair the car of the chief of the US Army Air Service, Colonel Billy Mitchell.

Though considered old (he was 27) for flight training, Mitchell arranged for him to be sent to flight school at Issoudun. Upon completion of training, he was retained at Issoudun as an engineering officer due to his mechanical skills. Permitted to fly during his off hours, he was prevented from entering combat. After locating a suitable replacement for himself, he applied to Major Carl Spaatz for permission to join the newest US fighter unit, the 94th Aero Squadron. This request was granted and Rickenbacker arrived at the front in April 1918.

Flying his first mission on April 6, 1918, in company with veteran Major Raoul Lufbery, Rickenbacker would go on to log over 300 combat hours in the air. During this early period, the 94th occasionally encountered the famed "Flying Circus" of the "Red Baron," Manfred von Richthofen. On April 26, while flying a Nieuport 28, Rickenbacker scored his first victory when he brought down a German Pfalz. He achieved the status of ace on May 30 after downing two Germans in one day. In August the 94th transitioned to the newer, stronger SPAD S.XIII.

In this new aircraft Rickenbacker continued to add to his total and on September 24 was promoted to command the squadron with the rank of captain. On October 30, Rickenbacker downed his twenty-sixth and final aircraft making him the top American scorer of the war. Upon the announcement of the armistice, he flew over the lines to view the celebrations. Returning home, he became the most celebrated aviator in America. After speaking on a Liberty Bond tour, Rickenbacker wrote his memoirs entitled Fighting the Flying Circus.

Eddie Rickenbacker - Postwar:

Settling into postwar life, Rickenbacker married Adelaide Frost in 1922. The couple soon adopted two children, David (1925) and William (1928). That same year, he started Rickenbacker Motors with the goal of bringing racing-developed technology to the consumer auto industry. Though he was soon driven out of business by the larger manufacturers, Rickenbacker pioneered advances that later caught on such as four-wheel braking. In 1927, he purchased the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Operating the track until 1945, he introduced banked curves and significantly upgraded the facilities.

Continuing his connection to aviation, Rickenbacker bought Eastern Air Lines in 1938. Negotiating with the federal government to purchase air mail routes, he revolutionized how commercial airlines operated. During his tenure with Eastern he oversaw the company's growth from a small carrier to one that was influential on the national level. On February 26, 1941, Rickenbacker was nearly killed when the Eastern DC-3 on which he was flying crashed outside Atlanta. Suffering numerous broken bones, a paralyzed hand, and an expelled left eye, he spent months in the hospital but made a full recovery.

Eddie Rickenbacker - World War II:

With the outbreak of World War II, Rickenbacker volunteered his services to the government. At the request of Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson, Rickenbacker visited various Allied bases in Europe to assess their operations. Impressed by his findings, Stimson dispatched him to the Pacific on a similar tour as well as to deliver a secret message to General Douglas MacArthur. En route, his plane went down in the Pacific. Adrift for 24 days, Rickenbacker led the survivors in catching food and water until they were rescued.

In 1943, Rickenbacker requested permission to travel to the Soviet Union to aid with their American-built aircraft and to assess their military capabilities. This was granted and he reached Russia via Africa, China, and India. While he successfully accomplished his mission, the trip is best remembered for his error in alerting the Soviets to the secret B-29 Superfortress project.

Eddie Rickenbacker - World War II

With the war concluded, Rickenbacker returned to Eastern. He remained with the company until a downturn in economic conditions forced him from his position as CEO in 1959. He stayed on as chairman of the board until December 31, 1963. Now 73, Rickenbacker and his wife began traveling the world enjoying retirement. The famed aviator died at Zurich, Switzerland on July 27, 1973, after suffering a stroke.

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