Biography: Wwi Ace Eddie Rickenbacker

Biography of the

The story of America's top, World War One ace pilot began long before the "Great War" and by no means did it end when the Germans signed an armistice on November 11, 1918. Whether by divine intervention or extraordinary luck, Eddie Rickenbacker's life was amazing.

Born on October 8, 1890 to Swiss immigrants William and Elizabeth Rickenbacher in Columbus, Ohio, Edward Rickenbacher changed the spelling of his last name to Rickenbacker in 1918. He was the third of eight children (only seven survived to adulthood).

William Rickenbacher worked as a day labourer and struggled to make ends meet. He built a home on the outskirts of Columbus for his family that had no electricity, indoor plumbing or heat. From all accounts William was a strict father who made his presence known while his wife Elizabeth instilled religion into the Rickenbacher children.

Eddie began working after school for cash when he was only seven years old to support whatever hobby he was interested in at the time. In 1904 his father was killed at a construction site and Eddie quit school to try and help support the family even though his older brother had a full time job. Lying about his age, Eddie got an evening job at the Federal Glass Factory. He had only worked it a few weeks before he was hired at the Buckeye Steel casting Company. From there he had a variety of jobs, which included work in a bowling alley, a cemetery, a beer factory and even the railroad.

The railroad job finally focused Eddie and started him on his future path. With an adventuresome spirit, Eddie went to work in the fledgling automobile industry. In his spare time he took mechanical engineering courses from a correspondence school in 1905 and worked first with Evans Garage then the Frayer-Miller plant in Columbus, Ohio. He also worked for Firestone and then the Duesenberg Co. During this time he began his automobile racing career and formed the "Maxwell Special" racing team. In 1914 he set a world speed record of 134 MPH at Daytona and in 1916 he overcame a lifelong fear of heights and went on his first airplane ride.He had planned on going to England for the 1917 racing season but with the American involvement in World War One, he enlisted into the U.S. Army in May 1917.

Contrary to legend, he was never a driver for Gen. "Blackjack" Pershing. Instead he was chauffer to Col. William "Billy" Mitchell with the rank of sergeant first-class, Eddie was able to get transferred to the air corps thanks to some high-ranking friends and much needling of Col. Mitchell. After training at Tours, France he was promoted to lieutenant, and became the chief engineer at Issodun air training facility. Rickenbacker then trained in aerial gunnery and transferred to the 94th Aero Pursuit Squadron, the first all American flying unit to go into combat. Not fitting in at first with the 94th's Ivy League pilots due to his lack of formal education and age, Eddie preferred working on the engines to socializing with the younger pilots. Training under Major Raoul Lufbery, the training officer, Rickenbacker soon surpassed his coach, get past his initial problems with airsickness and scored his first victory on April 29, 1918. Earning the respect of his fellow pilots and superiors, Rickenbacker was given command of the squadron and the rank of captain thanks to his aggressiveness during aerial battles.

During the last few months of the war, Eddie Rickenbacker raked up an amazing 26 victories and earned not only the nickname of "American Ace Among Aces" but also the Congressional Medal of Honor and the French Croix de Guerre. Eddie's last aerial victory was on November 10, 1918, the day before the war's end. He had survived 134 aerial encounters with the enemy and 300 combat hours. Although he was awarded the rank of Major before leaving active service, Rickenbacker and the public always referred to him as Captain.

Unlike most of the flying aces of World War One, Eddie Rickenbacker didn't fade into oblivion. Instead he founded the Rickenbacker Automobile Company that went under not for being of poor quality but for pursuing technology that was too advanced for its time. It was the Rickenbacker car company that first introduced four-wheel break systems into automobiles. Research and its resulting technology was costly and the competition was able to force Rickenbacker into bankruptcy but Eddie didn't stay down for long. Even with financial troubles, Eddie managed to meet and marry a wealthy divorcee, Adelaide Frost who would remain his wife until Rickenbacker's death fifty-one years later. Together they adopted two boys, David in 1925 and William in 1928.

In 1927 Rickenbacker was able to raise the necessary $700,000 in one month to purchase the Indianapolis Speedway. Having raced in the very first "Indy 500" in 1911, he knew it was a great place to test newly discovered automobile technology as soon as it became available. Rickenbacker retained ownership of the Indianapolis Speedway until 1947 at which time he sold it for what he had paid for it.



While he closed the speedway during the World War Two years, he was far from being out of the public's eye. In the beginning he openly and vehemently opposed the United States entering into the fray. After Pearl Harbor and America's official entry into the war he supported his country, support that almost cost him his life.

In 1941 he had survived an airline crash and during his recuperation, was approached by General H.H. Arnold to tour air bases located throughout the southeastern United States. It was General Arnolds hope that he would be able to inspire the troops, boost morale while also taking a look at the bases and training the pilots were receiving. Eddie participated in this from March 1942 through April 1942 and his reports resulted in Secretary of War Stimson asking him to inspect the bases in England and eventually the Pacific theater.

Rickenbacker completed each of these missions and was flying from Hawaii to Port Moresby, New Guinea with his aide, Col. Hans Adamson and a complete B-17 flight crew when their navigational equipment became faulty. Hundreds of miles off-course they ditched the plane in the Pacific Ocean. After only three days their food ran out and all appeared lost until the eighth day when a seagull took it into its head to land on TOP of Rickenbacker's head. Having better sense than the bird who became dinner, the men used a portion of their dinner as fishing bait. Unbelievably the men were rescued twenty-four days later by Navy pilots more than 500 miles beyond where they were originally supposed to be.

Not the sort to allow little things like exposure, dehydration and near starvation to bother him, Rickenbacker rested a few days and then proceeded to inspect the air bases of the Pacific.

During this time Eddie Rickenbacker had not turned his back upon his love of aviation. Beginning his own aviation company in the 1920s, Florida Airways which he later renamed Eastern Air Transport and Eastern Airlines he once again faced failure in 1926. Going to work over the next few years for GM and Fokker Aircraft Co. as well as American Airways, he restarted his Eastern Airlines, which finally "took off."

After the end of World War Two, Rickenbacker purchased a fleet of the new Lockheed Constellations and took part in designing their eventual replacements. Eastern Airlines also implemented revolutionary training systems and eventually became the richest airline company during the post-war years.

Getting on in age, Rickenbacker stepped down as the CEO but remained with Eastern as chairman of the board until December 1963. After leaving the airlines board of directors in 1963 Rickenbacker began touring the country as a speaker. Earning anywhere between $300 and $1,000 per speech, Eddie divided his earnings between several charitable organizations including the Boy Scouts of America and the Big Brothers Association.

Eddie Rickenbacker, race car driver, World War One fighter pilot, Congressional Medal of Honor winner and renowned speaker died quietly on July 27, 1973 in Zurich, Switzerland. His body was shipped home and buried in Greenlawn Cemetery, Columbus, Ohio.

© High Speed Ventures 2011