Eddie Rickenbacker was a car racing pioneer, war hero, and death-defying legend. Composite by Coffee or Die.
Edward Vernon Rickenbacker is best remembered as the “ace of aces.” He achieved 26 aerial victories during World War I — the most of any US pilot during the war. With a Medal of Honor, seven Distinguished Flying Crosses, and the French Croix de Guerre to his name, Rickenbacker remains one of the most decorated military aviators in American history.
Rickenbacker’s legendary reputation was not just the result of his exploits in the sky. The famous fighter pilot led a life of adventure that invites comparisons to the likes of Ernest Hemingway and Theodore Roosevelt. His tales of derring-do would make the Dos Equis man feel boring. Here are some of the highlights.
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Born in 1890, Rickenbacker grew up in Columbus, Ohio. The son of Swiss immigrants, he worked several jobs as a child, including as a gardener, a paperboy, and a pinsetter at the local bowling alley. Back then, children were allowed to work in the United States.
When he wasn’t pulling weeds or tossing papers, young Rickenbacker was busy pursuing an education. One day, while walking to school, he fell 12 feet into an underground cistern and nearly died. From that moment on, narrowly escaping death would be a consistent theme throughout Rickenbacker’s life.
Eddie Rickenbacker managed to narrowly escape death numerous times throughout his life. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Rickenbacker survived several more disasters before reaching puberty. He was run over by a quarry cart, barely escaped a burning building, and sustained a serious head injury while attempting to “fly” his bicycle off the roof of a shed in an imitation of the Wright brothers’ historic first flight.
Rickenbacker was two months shy of 14 when his father was bludgeoned to death by a co-worker. To help his widowed mother provide for the family of nine, Rickenbacker dropped out of the seventh grade and began working as a mechanic at an auto repair shop. It was there that the future ace of aces fell in love with engines.
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Rickenbacker had a natural aptitude for fixing things. His skills as a mechanic eventually landed him a job as a testing engineer for the Columbus Buggy Co.
Under the tutelage of Lee Frayer, Columbus Buggy’s chief engineer, Rickenbacker learned the ins and outs of automobile engines. He was so adept at troubleshooting faulty engines that at the age of 16 he was called on to figure out why the company’s newest models were overheating. Rickenbacker solved the problem and was soon promoted to chief engineer.
Rickenbacker’s last job with Columbus Buggy was as a salesman. The position led him into the world of car racing, where he saw an opportunity to grow the company’s reputation and increase sales. He failed to finish his first car race after swerving off the track and crashing through a fence. He did not let the mishap discourage him, however. In May 1911, he competed in the first ever Indianapolis 500, serving as a relief driver for Frayer, who finished in 13th place.
In 1911, Eddie Rickenbacker competed in the first Indianapolis 500 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
That small taste of success gave Rickenbacker all the confidence he needed to pursue a serious racing career. Over the next five years, he climbed up the ranks of professional racing to become one of the most successful drivers in America. His fame grew so much it even reached across the Atlantic. In 1917, a British racing team recruited Rickenbacker to help them develop a new car.
While working in England, Rickenbacker occasionally saw airplanes of the Royal Flying Corps in the sky overhead. Despite his disastrous first attempt at bicycle-powered aviation, Rickenbacker was determined to trade in his wheels for wings. He saw his chance in the “war to end all wars” raging just across the English Channel in France.
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Rickenbacker joined the US Army in the summer of 1917. He enlisted as an infantryman with the goal of becoming a pilot. However, in France, his racing experience and aptitude for auto mechanics earned him a job as a driver instead.
Fortuitously, Rickenbacker eventually crossed paths with Capt. James Miller. At the time, Miller was overseeing the construction of the Issoudun Aerodrome, a training complex for American pilots preparing to head to the front lines.
Aware of Rickenbacker’s mechanical background, Miller invited the former race car driver to be the aerodrome’s chief engineer. Rickenbacker agreed, with the stipulation that he be allowed to attend flight school in France.
Oct. 18, 1918, 1st Lt. Eddie Rickenbacker, 94th Aero Squadron, American ace, standing up in his Spad plane near Rembercourt, France. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Throughout the fall of 1917, Rickenbacker managed to rack up 25 hours of flight training while also tending to his duties at the aerodrome. In January of 1918, he completed gunnery school and in doing so finally achieved his goal of becoming a fighter pilot.
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Rickenbacker’s career in aviation got off to a turbulent start. During his first sortie, he got lost in heavy fog and nearly crashed. He managed to regain his bearings and return to base, while his wingman was forced to conduct an emergency landing.
Two weeks later Rickenbacker won his first dogfight. Over the next month, he shot down five more enemy planes, earning the title of ace, then he shot down one more.
An infection forced Rickenbacker to spend three months away from the front, but he managed to recover in time for the St. Mihiel offensive: a major French and American assault on the Germans that took place in September of 1918.
A Spad XIII with the “tipped-hat” insignia of the 94th Fighter Squadron. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
During the offensive, Rickenbacker flew with the 94th Fighter Squadron and scored two more kills. His skill behind the stick combined with his natural leadership abilities earned him the respect of his comrades and he was eventually promoted to squadron commander.
As commander of the 94th, Rickenbacker made it his priority to foster a strong team mentality. He praised the squadron’s aircrews and mechanics who kept the Spad XIII airplanes running properly and made sure they knew that their work was just as important as the pilots’.
On Sept. 25, 1918, Rickenbacker conducted a solo mission in order to demonstrate his willingness to put himself in danger before his men. Flying alone near the town of Billy, he shot down two enemy planes. For his actions, he was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, which was later upgraded to the Medal of Honor.
By the end of the war, the 94th had earned the distinction of being the deadliest fighter squadron in the US Army Air Service. Rickenbacker himself logged an impressive 300 hours in the air — more than any other US pilot — and also achieved the record of most confirmed aerial victories with a total of 26. His combat record would not be surpassed until Maj. Dick Bong scored 40 kills in World War II.
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In his 1919 memoir, Fighting the Flying Circus, Rickenbacker explained that since childhood he had felt personally protected by God. The close calls he survived as a boy left him with a sense of invincibility that he said enabled his bold actions during World War I.
Divine protection or just plain luck, whatever helped Rickenbacker survive the battlefields of France would continue to serve him well after he left the Army.
This is the celebrated fishing kit with which every Navy lifeboat is equipped. The experience of Eddie Rickenbacker and others showed how these kits could provide the means of saving lives at sea. Office of War Information photograph, courtesy of the Library of Congress.
On Feb. 26, 1941, Rickenbacker — now a civilian and national celebrity — was a passenger on a commercial flight that crashed near Atlanta. Half of the 16 passengers were killed. Rescuers mistook Rickenbacker for a dead man when they first arrived on the scene. With a dented skull, multiple bone fractures, and one of his eyes popped out of its socket, he was in such bad shape that the rescue crew removed several of the bodies before realizing he was still alive.
Then, in 1942, Rickenbacker was called on to deliver a message from Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson to Gen. Douglas MacArthur. While traveling across the Pacific Ocean in a B-17, the pilot got lost and the plane ran out of fuel, forcing them to crash-land in the water, hundreds of miles off course.
The eight men on board the aircraft all survived the crash with various injuries. They divided themselves into three life rafts and clung together. On the eighth day at sea, Rickenbacker captured a seagull with his bare hands. The group divided and ate the bird, then used the scraps as fishing bait. After two weeks adrift, one passenger drank seawater and died of severe dehydration.
On the 24th day at sea, a Navy patrol plane found and rescued Rickenbacker and his fellow survivors. Rickenbacker was suffering from exposure, sunburn, and dehydration, but in true Rickenbacker fashion, he carried on with his mission and delivered the message to MacArthur.
The ace of aces died of pneumonia on July 23, 1973. He was 82.
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Mac Caltrider is a senior staff writer for Coffee or Die Magazine. He served in the US Marine Corps and is a former police officer. Caltrider earned his bachelor’s degree in history and now reads anything he can get his hands on. He is also the creator of Pipes & Pages, a site intended to increase readership among enlisted troops. Caltrider spends most of his time reading, writing, and waging a one-man war against premature hair loss.
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