*** World War I biographies -- Eddie Rickenbacher

World War I: Biographies--Eddie Richenbacher (1890-1973)

Eddie Richenbacher
Figure 1.--This is a young Eddie Rickenbacker. He was a true American original. His father died when he was only 12 years old. He thus had to quit school and begin working. He took a correspondence course in mechanchics. He developed into a crack mechanic which led to racing. Automobile manufacturers at the time marketed their cars by racing them. So Eddie became a race car driver, eventually. His skill soon made his famous and rich.

Eddie Rickenbacker was a true American original. His father died when he was only 12 years old. He thus had to quit school and begin working. He took a correspondence course in mechanchics. He developed into a crack mechanic which led to racing. Automobile manufacturers at the time marketed their cars by racing them. So Eddie became a race car driver, eventually. His skill soon made his famous and rich. When America declared war, he tried to interest the war Department in a squadron of pilots made up as race car drivers. There was no interest. So he enlisted and was quickly made Gen. Pershing's driver. While in France, he was recruited by General Mitchell as an engineering officer for the fledgling Army Air Corps. While at the Anerican Training Center he got interested in flying. He stood out among American pilots who wee mostly college graduates and from well-to-do families. His skill soon earned their respect. He became the leading American fighter ace in World War I--the American Ace of Aces.


Eddie Rickenbacker's parents were a German-Swiss father and a French-Swiss mother. His father, a construction contractor of moderate circumstances.


Eddie was born in Columbus, Ohio (October 8, 1890. He was the third of eight children. His name originally was Edward Reichenbacher, but he modified the spelling of the family name during World War I to make it less Germanic. He added the middle name Vernon for a touch of 'class'. His father died when Eddie was 12 years old.


Eddie would be a self-made man. His formal education ended with the 6th grade after his father died. He quit school and got a job.


After a series of varied jobs, Eddie entered the automobile industry as an unpaid porter in the Frayer-Miller Company in Columbus. This was a normal kind of job given to boys at the time to give them axstart, rather like an appreticeship. The United States did not yet have child labor laws. After a short time, Lee Frayer who owned the company learned that his voluntary helper had taken a correspondence course in mechanical engineering he was rewarded with an actual wage. Frayer then moved to Columbus Buggy Company, which had just begun manufacturing automobiles, and took Eddie along with him. He impressed his boss with his skill in servicing early tempormental high horse power engines. Eddie by this time was 16 years old and a crack mechanic. He also developed a reputation as a driver-- although he didn't have a driver's license yet. The young Eddie Rickenbacher loved speed. He made a name for himself as a daredevil automobile racer. Frayer and other manufacturers at the time advertised their cars by racing them. Eddie made into a combination racing driver-salesman. Eddie for the following 6 years he traveled all over America, racing and selling cars. Rickenbacherdedcided at age 22 to devote himself entirely to racing (1912). Racing at the time was both hard and dangerous. He had some accidents, but at a time when there were few safety devices, he was able to walk away from them. He rose to become one of this country's leading race car drivers. He raced in the first Indy 500. Car racing ceased in Europe with the War, but not in America. Rickenbacker set a world record of 134 miles an hour in a Blitzen-Benz at Daytona Beach, Florida. He earned $80,000 inn prizes, an incedible sum at the time (1916). That would prove to be, however, his last full year of racing. He had no aviation experience before the War. He attemp a venture in automobile manufacturing, but was unable to compete with larger manufacturers.

World War I

When the United states deckared war on Germany (April 1917), Rickenbacher was in England buying motors for a racing team. He hurried home and attempted to interest the War Department in organizing an air squadron of former racing drivers. Finding no interest, he enlisted (May 27, 1917) as a sergeant in the Signal Corps and immediately sailed for France because of his reputation as General Pershing's chauffeur. Americacdid not have an army in being at the tome it declared war. The Germans knew this which is on reasin they gambeled on resuming uncondiriinal submsrine warfare. Once in France, Gen. William Mitchell recruited him to to be chief engineering officer of the fledgling Army Air Corps as a first lieutenant (August 20, 1917). He was assigned to the American air training center at Issoudon. He took on the Red Bron's Flying Curcus. America did not have a real air force when it entered the War. Thus American pilots had to fly planes provided by the British and French. From his enginnering post, he transferred to combat flying. He stood out among American fighter pilots. Not only was he 2 years over the pilot age limit of 25 years, but he had working-class background. The other pilots were college men with well-to-do backgrounds. He was given command of a fighter squadron (September 24, 1918). He wrote in his diary, "Just been promoted to command of 94th Squadron. I shall never ask any pilot to go on a mission that I won't go on. I must work now harder than I did before." And that is just what he did. The following day, he led a patrol before breakfast--the dawn patrol in World Wr I terms. He saw a flight of five German Fokker pursuit planes escorting two observation planes headed toward Billy. He immeduately put his Spad fighter into a power dive, approaching the Germans at high speed down out of the sun--the classic World War I fighter tactic. Hhe fired a long burst. One of the Fokkers fell out of formation and spiraled down. The other Fokkers broke formation. Rikkenbacher used their disaray to go after the slow observation planes which had turned and were headed back for the Gernman lines. He made several unsuccessful passes at the planes while their rear gunners were firing at him. As this transpired, the dogfight gradually moved from an area over France to being fought behind German lines. The Fokkers had regrouped and increased alditude and were closing on him. He made one final attack. He succeded in downing one of them which were flying together. He then headed for home. He called it a 'double-header'. And the engagement earned him Congressional Medal of Honor. He was to say, "I was glad it had come this morning ... effect it would have on the other pilots." A historian describes air combat, "Exhileration las only a second as the other two enemy planes swooped from the height advantage that his attck has conceded and broke into a 'dogfight.' a newly minted term, which, like much military slang, capturd the savage immediacy and concentrated violence of the action. Seeing a dramatic reversl, Ricenbacker jerked back hard on his sticm 'bouncing,' his nose upward in a gut wrenching change of direction, With loud crack, the favric ovr the leading edge of his upper strbord wing peeled back from the spar and begn to snap like a flag in a stiff wind." [Ross] He went on to become America's 'Ace of Aces. He shot down 22 German planes and four observation balloons, despite the fact he flew for a relatively short period. For many years Rickenbacher was credited with only downing 21 planes, but he claimed 22 planes. The Air Force finally approved his request for correction of the official record and granted him with downing 22 planes which along with the observation baloons meant his 26th kill.



Rickenbacker returned to America from World War I America a national hero. He liked to be addressed as Captain Eddie. Actually he was a colonel in the reserve, but insisted that the title of captain was the only one he had really earned. After the War, Rickenbacher entered the fledgling airline business. At the time no one was sure that it could be made either safe or orifitable which was j, Mr. Rickenbacker was the first man to prove that airlines could be made profitable. The industry was at first deoendnt on Government air mail contracts. He was conservative to the core. He disliked both labor unions and government interference and regulstion. One of his favorite expressions was that the greatest privilege this country had to offer was the "freedom to go broke," and that "a chance" was the only "favor" needed to succeed in the United States. He was the first to prove that airlines could be operated profitably without a Government subsidy. Rickenbacker retired chairman of Eastern Air Lines, a major Amrican carrier.

World War II

Rickenbacker survuved a harrowing irdeal adriftin the Pacific without food and water.

Last Years

After retiring from Eastern Air Lines (1963) he devoted himself to ultra-conservative and right-wing causes. He announced that he would devote himself to "awakening the American public to the grave problems facing them." He died in Zurich (1973).


Ross, John F. Enduring Courge: Ace Pilot Eddie Rickenbacker and the Dawn of the Age of Speed (2014), 320p.


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Created: 10:18 AM 8/25/2012
Last updated: 6:33 AM 6/28/2014