An ace among pilots, an ace among men

From time to time, I derive satisfaction from recalling the lives of great Americans, especially those whose memories of them may be fading as the years pass. One of these outstanding Americans was Capt. Edward Vernon Rickenbacker, who was born in Columbus, Ohio, in 1890 and who died in 1973. He was a successful race car driver, fighter pilot, airline executive, wartime adviser, conservationist, and elder statesman. He personified the soldier’s commitment to duty, honor and country.

His 26 victories during World War I made him the top American ace during that great war, and the fact that this was achieved in a two-month period makes this achievement even more outstanding. For his accomplishments in WWI, he was awarded The Distinguished Service Cross, The Congressional Medal of honor, and the French Croix de Guerre.

Rickenbacker was born into a family of modest means, and when his father died when Eddie was only 12 years old, he quit school to help support his mother. The family name was originally Reicheanbacher, but when this country entered WWI, it was changed to its more familiar form.

His first job was testing cars with one of the many car manufacturers that emerged in the early 1900s, and from that beginning he made his way into automobile racing. He raced three times in the Indianapolis 500 and set a speed record of 134 mph in a Blitzen Benz. He became one of the most successful race car drivers of that era, and for several years made more than $50,000 per annum, a tidy sum for that time.

When the U. S. entered WWI, Rick proposed a flying squadron made up of former race car drivers, but the proposal was rejected by the Army, but it did accept his services as a driver for the general staff in France. Once overseas, he hoped to transfer into the flying service. He got that chance by luck when one day he was asked to repair the motorcar of Col. Billy Mitchell, then Chief of the Army’s Air Service. Mitchell was so impressed with Rickenbacker’s work that he arranged for him to go to flying school in France at the ripe old age of 27. Eddie took to flying like he had taken to driving race cars. He was a natural.

In March of 1918, he was assigned to the newly-formed 94th pursuit squadron of the U.S. Air Service, which adopted the famous “Hat in the Ring” insignia. Several members of the 94th had flown with the famed Lafayette Escadrille unit of the French Air Service, which was made up largely of American volunteers before the U.S. entered the war.

The 94th was given the French Nieuport to fly, but it was obsolete and was inferior to German fighter planes. To the dismay of the Americans, many of the Nieuports arrived without armament. But by August, the squadron was flying the fully-armed French Spad, which was at least as good as anything the Germans could put into the air.

By September, he had assumed command of the 94th, and on Sept. 29, 1918, he achieved his 26th confirmed air victory. He undoubtedly achieved several more victories that were impossible to confirm. As commander of the 94th, he ran a tight ship, insisting that all available aircraft be fully armed, gassed, tuned and ready to fly at all times. Due to several illnesses, he was grounded for considerable periods and was only available for duty for two months during which he made his 26 confirmed kills.

After the war, he started his own automobile company, Rickenbacker Motors, but his design was too far ahead of the times, and the company failed. In the early 1930s, he became affiliated with Eastern Airlines. He was named general manager of Eastern in 1933, and from 1938 to 1958 served as president of this successful company. In 1942, president Roosevelt sent him on a mission to General MacArthur in Australia. His plane went down in the southwest Pacific, and he and seven others underwent the horrifying ordeal of spending 21 days on a rubber raft subsisting on raw fish, sea birds and rain water. Rick was 52 at the time.

In the 1940s, he became intensely interested in conservation and purchased the some 2,000-acre Bear Creek Ranch in the hill country of Texas. There, he raised endangered species of deer and antelope to be given to zoos and other wildlife institutions. In the mid-1950s, however, he abruptly lost interest and donated the ranch to the Boy Scouts of America.

In 1958, I was asked by the Scouts to do some environmental work (pro bono publico) at the ranch, and one day I was looking at some books in the library of the ranch house. One that caught my eye was The History of The U. S. Army Air Corps in World War II. The inscription inside the cover read:

“To Captain Eddie Rickenbacker, an ace among pilots who, in spite of all the honor and glory heaped upon him, managed to remain an ace among men. Happy landings always, Hap.” I presume “Hap” was General Hap Arnold who commanded the Army Air Corps during WWII.

For me, this inscription summed up the life of one of our great American heroes. Let us not forget him.

Dr. Robert Hedeen is a former resident of Maryland’s eastern shore and resided in the Chicago area from 1960 to 1971. He is a retired professor emeritus of biological sciences in the University of Maryland system. He has published more than 30 scientific papers, has written numerous magazine articles, and is the author of two books on the natural history of the Chesapeake Bay.

From the Feb. 8-15, 2006, issue

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