The Magazine

The Ace of Aces

Eddie Rickenbacker in the nation’s service.

Jun 2, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 36 • By GABRIEL SCHOENFELD
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The F-22 Raptor is America’s fifth-generation, supersonic, super-maneuverable,air-superiority fighter, capable of engaging in electronic warfare, collecting signals intelligence, and launching fire--and--forget/-beyond--visual--range/-air--to--air missiles. The life story of Eddie Rickenbacker, the World War I ace, is, among other things, a remarkable reminder of how far military aviation has come in one century. 

Eddie Rickenbacker

Eddie Rickenbacker

AP

As we learn from Enduring Courage, Rickenbacker, born in 1890 in Columbus, Ohio, began life as a prodigy. At an early age, and despite (or perhaps because of) grinding poverty and family dysfunction, he came to know and understand everything there was to know about an amazing new contraption known as the automobile. By the age of 17, he was supervising entire teams of auto engineers as chief of design at the Columbus Buggy Company, which, according to author John F. Ross, still boasted of producing “some of the nation’s finest horse-drawn vehicles.” Rickenbacker’s specialty became the design and construction of racing cars, which he began to drive himself.

Rickenbacker became famous as a racecar driver, but it was not his skill at driving fast that elevated him from fame to glory. When America entered the Great War, and Woodrow Wilson ordered General John Pershing to take an expeditionary force to Europe, the president suggested that he ask Rickenbacker to come along. Not as a pilot—Rickenbacker had only once briefly held the controls of an aircraft belonging to a friend—but as Pershing’s personal driver. 

Thanks to a combination of willpower, finagling, and cajolery, Rickenbacker rose from that lowly station to supervise the construction of an air base, and then became chief mechanic for repairing airplanes that the French and Americans were throwing into the fray. He enjoyed ready access to planes, and he practiced on them, quickly learning to perform maneuvers well beyond what they were designed to do. Flying in those years, under any circumstances, was a perilous occupation; in 1910 alone, reports Ross, 37 “experienced” American pilots perished, a huge proportion of the trade. And that was in peacetime. Once the shooting started, the death rate would be far higher. 

But at first, military aviation did not involve much shooting: Planes were initially used for reconnaissance alone. But then, quaintly, pilots began to carry pistols and other small arms with which to blind the “aerial scouts” of the enemy. Some attempted to drop hand grenades into enemy cockpits. By March 1918, when Rickenbacker first made it into the pilot’s seat in combat, a rudimentary machine gun was already in use. So, too (as Rickenbacker flew missions patrolling the front lines), was enemy flak. 

With American pilots dying by the day, Rickenbacker rose to take command of 1st Flight, one of three groups within the 94th Aero Squadron. On his own missions, he racked up more kills than any other American flier, shooting down 26 German planes—a number scrupulously verified by matching affirmations from other pilots with reports by observers on the ground. (Rickenbacker’s unverified kills were not counted.) This tally brought him to the eye of an American public far broader than racing fans, and his fame was bolstered by the plain-spoken humility that reflected his humble roots. By war’s end, and before he knew it, Captain Eddie Rickenbacker had become the most recognizable and famous hero of the war.

Returning to the United States, Rickenbacker began a hugely successful business career in which he fused together his expertise with automobiles and airplanes. In 1920, he founded the Rickenbacker Motor Company, manufacturing technologically advanced cars that incorporated the latest innovations from automobile racing, such as the rearview mirror. The company failed, but over the course of the 1920s and ’30s, successful investments enabled Rickenbacker to buy a fledgling airline called Eastern. Under his leadership, it became the most profitable airline in America. 

Unfortunately, Adolf Hitler came along to interrupt Rickenbacker’s adventures in entrepreneurship and return military aviation to center-stage. Like his fellow (and rival) aviator Charles Lindbergh, Rickenbacker was initially a supporter of the isolationist movement America First. But Rickenbacker did not share Lindbergh’s anti-Semitism, nor did he require a surprise attack at Pearl Harbor to open his eyes to the dangers facing the United States. As Great Britain struggled to survive, Rickenbacker resigned from America First and became an ardent supporter of aiding the British.  

In 1941, he suffered serious injuries and narrowly escaped death in a devastating aircraft crash near Atlanta. (He was not at the controls; it was a commercial flight.) Following his recovery, Rickenbacker was selected by Secretary of War Henry Stimson to transport and personally deliver a reprimand to General Douglas MacArthur, then supreme commander of the Southwest Pacific Area, headquartered in New Guinea. MacArthur had publicly criticized President Roosevelt. Rickenbacker was chosen, according to Ross, because there were few Americans who could stand up to such a “war god.” 

But another aviation disaster followed: The B-17D Flying Fortress ferrying Rickenbacker got lost in the Pacific and was forced to ditch at sea. Together with the rest of the crew, Rickenbacker spent 24 harrowing days adrift on a life raft without food or water. The story of his survival and rescue is the most gripping part of Enduring Courage. Suffering from starvation, dehydration, and extreme sunburn, Rickenbacker nevertheless made it to MacArthur and delivered Stimson’s admonition. (The New York Times headline reporting that Rickenbacker had been found alive read: “Rescue of Airman Delights Millions.”) 

Nowadays, of course, you don’t see headlines like that in the New York Times, and we don’t have national heroes remotely like Eddie Rickenbacker. But we do have amazing warplanes like the F-22 Raptor. Is there a correlation?

Gabriel Schoenfeld is the author, most recently, of A Bad Day on the Romney Campaign: An Insider’s Account