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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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