As Americans, we hold to the belief that everyone should have the opportunity to reach for the sky, regardless of his or her circumstances. Irrespective of background or parentage, success should depend only on a person’s own merits. During World War I there was a young American who was the son of poor immigrants but who, through dedication and hard work, had already risen above those humble beginnings to achieve some measure of national fame. With the outbreak of war, he turned his eyes skyward and eventually became America’s first great fighter pilot. His name was Eddie Rickenbacker. This is the story of his journey from junior high dropout to America’s Ace of Aces.
From his earliest days, Edward Rickenbacker seemed driven to overcome his present circumstances to achieve success. The third child of Swiss immigrants, Eddie grew up in the bustling city of Columbus, Ohio. Due to his family’s poverty, even as a young boy he worked to help provide for his family. After his father died when he was thirteen, he became the principle breadwinner for his mother and siblings, leaving school to support his family. Despite a lack of formal education, Eddie discovered he had a knack for mechanical things and for leadership. His fascination with machines led him to success as an automobile mechanic and later as a racer. In a country now obsessed with the automobile, his employers quickly recognized Eddie’s potential and chose him to drive their cars in the fledgling American sport of auto racing. He had found his niche. Even after suffering a severe corneal injury from a burning train ember that left a permanent blind spot in his right eye, he refused to give up the exciting life of a racer. Known around the racetracks as “Fast Eddie,” he was at the peak of his career and wanted nothing more than to become the national champion. It turned out, however, that God had other plans for him.
The year was 1916 as Eddie reached the top tier of racing’s elite. An approaching storm darkened the horizon, however. World War I had already been raging for two years in Europe, and it increasingly impacted American life. In the racing world this meant the absence of new European racing cars and their European drivers. Some of the drivers Eddie had competed against were now serving their respective countries in a combat role. Eddie saw this, but he still remained determined to become America’s grand champion. His attitude changed when he paid a visit to England in late 1916. He observed the effects of war; more importantly, he had the opportunity to observe a new tool of warfare, the airplane. Returning home, he determined to serve America in the air if war was declared. He did not have to wait long. On April 2, 1917, President Woodrow Wilson asked Congress to declare war on Germany. Both the Senate and the House of Representatives immediately acted. The American Expeditionary Force (AEF) rapidly assembled under the command of General John J. “Black Jack” Pershing. The Army rejected Eddie’s idea of a flying squadron manned by racecar drivers, but after he joined it did utilize his skills as a driver by assigning him to drive for the Army General Staff under General Pershing. He was soon off to war, though not exactly in the role he had envisioned.
As an American fighting man, or “doughboy” as they were often called, Eddie travelled first to England and then to France with Pershing and his staff. Although officially a member of Pershing’s staff, he had little contact with the American commander as Pershing conferred with other military commanders in Paris and established the American army’s front. Only a few stories record any interaction between the two; even Eddie later denied an association. While he may not have had much direct contact with General Pershing, Eddie did serve as the personal driver for an influential, and later controversial, American officer, Lt. Colonel Billy Mitchell, a leading proponent of air power. On several occasions, Eddie impressed Mitchell with both his driving skills and his mechanical skills, but his real desire was still to become a pilot in the Army Air Service. Convincing Mitchell he would be of more service in the skies, he was finally granted permission to enlist in the newly emerging branch of the American military.
Keeping his eye defect secret, Eddie immediately applied for a physical examination. He was deemed fit, despite being two years over the legal limit for pilots. Eddie completed pilot training after only seventeen days and was commissioned a first lieutenant. His first assignment was as a chief engineer to an air base commanded by Carl A. “Tooey” Spaatz, later a famed Army Air Corps general of World War II. Eddie was in charge of maintaining the base’s upkeep, but he wanted combat duty. Seeing his desire, Spaatz allowed him to enroll in gunnery training. Despite his eye injury, he excelled and received orders for advanced training before being formally assigned to the 94th Pursuit Squadron, the famed “Hat in the Ring” squadron. In his Nieuport biplane, he anticipated the chance to strike at the Germans, particularly the “Flying Circus,” first formed and led by Baron Manfred von Richtofen, the “Red Baron.”
Over the next few weeks, Eddie participated in several airborne missions and faced both German antiaircraft fire and German aircraft. When he went up, he often demonstrated the same aggressive spirit that had marked his career as a racer, in part inspired by the fact that he had yet to engage in actual combat with the enemy. Then, on April 27, 1918, he experienced the thrill of air combat for the first time. He and a fellow pilot received word of an approaching enemy plane. The two men rushed to their planes and quickly intercepted the German aircraft. Eddie and his companion opened fire and after a brief engagement, the plane was shot down. Returning to base, Eddie received his first confirmed kill. In response, he was decorated for bravery and promoted to flight leader. Throughout May he continued to undertake dangerous missions but also added to the number of enemy aircraft shot down, both airplanes and balloons. By the end of the month, he had his fifth kill, making him an ace. The status brought him not only national recognition but also a promotion to assistant commander of the 94th Squadron.
As assistant commander, Eddie continued to personally lead missions throughout the summer of 1918 as the Germans launched a final series of attacks to attempt to turn the tide of the war. Never the definition of a reckless pilot, Eddie’s new command responsibilities convinced him to be particularly vigilant on subsequent missions. His new restraint did not, however, keep him from shooting down two more enemy planes, bringing his total number to seven and making him America’s most senior surviving ace. As the war entered its last phase, Eddie assumed command of the 94th Squadron. On September 25th, the same day he assumed command, Eddie took off on a solo patrol. In his Spad 13, he spotted and engaged a flight of seven German fighters, downing two. By mid-October, he had eighteen kills to his credit, and in the final weeks of combat, he added another eight to his total. World War I officially ended on November 11, 1918. Eddie Rickenbacker returned home to a hero’s welcome with a grand total of twenty-six credited kills, rightfully dubbed America’s “Ace of Aces.” He was a champion at last.
After the war Eddie published his memoirs of the war, Fighting the Flying Circus, before briefly returning to his pre-war association with automobiles. He even founded his own company and bought the Indianapolis 500 racetrack. He knew all along that the future really belonged to air power though and became a staunch advocate for the manufacture of more planes. He closely resembled his old commander Billy Mitchell in that respect. In fact, Eddie would serve as a defense witness for Mitchell who, in his ardent advocacy of air power, was court-martialed for challenging the Army establishment. Always enamored with aviation, Eddie helped found and manage Eastern Airlines for over twenty-five years. In 1941, he barely survived a horrific and deadly crash of a DC-3. Despite open and acrimonious disagreements with President Franklin Roosevelt, he would go on to serve his country again in World War II. During the war he acted as an aircraft inspector for the U.S. government, travelled extensively on behalf of the government, and even survived a ditching in the South Pacific where he was adrift for twenty-four days. He died in 1973 and was eulogized by none other than Air Force Lt. General Jimmy Doolittle.
Eddie Rickenbacker’s life held many triumphs, but his climb to the pinnacle of success in so many different areas was a tribute to his drive and determination. One of his greatest moments came in 1930 when he was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for his actions on September 25th, 1918. Though given specifically for bravery and service to his country, that award also represented the true character and lifelong qualities of its recipient. Eddie Rickenbacker, from his humble origins, proved to all the heights one can attain with dedication and hard work. For Eddie and for us — the sky’s the limit.