Edward Vernon Rickenbacker or Eddie Rickenbacke

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Edward Vernon Rickenbacker or Eddie Rickenbacker (October 8, 1890 – July 23, 1973) was an American fighter pilot in World War I and a Medal of Honor recipient.[1][2] With 26 aerial victories, he was the most successful and most decorated United States flying ace of the war.[3] He was also a race car driver, an automotive designer, and a long-time head of Eastern Air Lines.[1]


Early life[edit]

Rickenbacker’s childhood home

Rickenbacker was born Edward Rickenbacher in Columbus, Ohio.[4] He was the third of eight children born to German-speaking Swiss immigrants, Lizzie (née Liesl Basler) and Wilhelm Rickenbacher.[4] Later in life, he changed the spelling of his last name to Rickenbacker and adopted a middle name, Vernon.[4]

His father worked for breweries and street-paving crews and his mother Lizzie took in laundry to supplement the family income. In 1893, his father owned a construction company.[4] With a loan from Lizzie’s parents, the couple purchased a lot and built a small home on 1334 East Livingston Avenue, 2 miles (3.2 km) southeast of downtown at the edge of the city limits in 1893.[5][4] The house lacked running water, indoor plumbing, and electricity.[4] This is where Edd, as he was called by his parents, spent his childhood.[5]

Growing up, Rickenbacker worked before and after school.[6] He helped in the garden where the family grew potatoes, cabbages, and turnips and cared for the family’s chickens, goats, and pigs.[6] He earned money by delivering papers, setting up pins at a bowling alley, and selling scavenged goods.[6] He gave most of his earnings to his mother but spent some on Bull Durham tobacco, a habit he picked up from his older brother Bill.

As a child, Rickenbacker was accident-prone.[7] Before entering school, he toddled into an oncoming horse-drawn streetcar and fell 12 feet (3.7 m) into an open cistern.[7] His brother rescued him from a passing coal car twice.[7] Once, he ran back into his burning school building to retrieve his coat and nearly paid for it with his life. Sixty years later when producing his autobiography, he found significance in these close calls. He came to believe that God had repeatedly saved him for a higher purpose.[8]

Young Rickenbacker had an artistic side and enjoyed painting watercolors of animals, flowers, and scenery.[9] He tried to design a perpetual motion machine, but. his father berated him for wasting time on an invention with no purpose.[10] He was also “sort of the leader” of the Horsehead Gang, with whom he smoked, played hooky, and broke streetlamps.[11] With the Horsehead Gang, he constructed pushcarts that were a precursor to the Soapbox Derby. Once, the Horsehead Gang took a “roller coaster ride” in a quarry cart and his leg was run over and badly sliced. After the Wright brothers’ first airplane flight, Rickenbacker famously tried to “fly” a bicycle outfitted with an umbrella off of his friend’s barn roof.[10]

The summer before Rickenbacker’s fourteenth birthday, his father was injured in a brawl. After being hit in the In head with a level, Rickenbacker’s father was in a coma for almost six weeks before his death on August 26, 1904[12] His assailant was convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to ten years in prison.[13]

Career beginnings[edit]

Though his older siblings Bill and Mary were working, Rickenbacker felt a responsibility to help replace his father’s lost income. He dropped out of the seventh grade and went to work full-time, lying about his age to work around child labor laws.[4] He worked eight different jobs during the next two years. While working at the Oscar Lear Automobile Company in 1905, he took an engineering course from the International Correspondence School.[4] Chief engineer Lee Frayer took Rickenbacker under his wing, giving him more responsibility in the workshop.[4]

Two months later, when it came time to compete in the 1906 Vanderbilt Cup race, Frayer brought Rickenbacker to New York as his riding mechanic. After two practice runs, their engine overheated and they failed to get to the starting line for their qualifying run.

Back in Columbus, Rickenbacker followed his mentor to the Columbus Buggy Company as a chief testing engineer, supervising upwards of a dozen men in his department. The sixteen-year-old Rickenbacker’s hard work and mechanical acumen impressed Harvey S. Firestone, his new employer. Firestone chose Rickenbacker for special assignments, including troubleshooting in Atlantic City and demonstrating at the 1909 Chicago Automobile Show.

Later that year, Firestone sent Rickenbacker to Texas to figure out why the new Frayer-designed engines were overheating. Rickenbacker solved the problem and stayed on to head up Columbus Buggy’s Dallas agency. At eighteen, he was the chief engineer, experimenter, demonstrator, mechanic, and salesman.[14] During this time, he served as a chauffeur to the visiting William Jennings Bryan, getting his picture and his cars in the newspaper. He made three sales as a result. In March 1910, Firestone sent Rickenbacker to direct the Upper Midwest Agency out of Omaha. At nineteen, Rickenbacker was in charge of six men, covering sales, distribution, and maintenance of Firestone-Columbus automobiles in four states. He earned $125 per week.[15]

Automobile racing[edit]

Rickenbacker at the 1915 American Grand Prize at San Francisco

To draw attention to his company’s car, Rickenbacker entered a 25-mile race in Red Oak, Iowa. He failed to finish in his first automobile race after crashing through an outer fence. That summer, Rickenbacker went on to win most of the dirt track races he entered, including five of six races at Omaha’s Aksarben Festival in October. When reporting on races, newspapers misspelled his name as Reichenbaugh, Reichenbacher, or Reichenberger, before settling on Rickenbacker.[16][17][18]

The following May, Lee Frayer invited his protégé to join him in another racing venture: the first ever Indianapolis 500. As relief driver, Rickenbacker replaced Frayer in the middle portion of the race, driving the majority of miles and helping his former boss take thirteenth place. The next year he drove Frayer’s Red Wing Special by himself but was forced out after 100 miles with mechanical difficulties. Rickenbacker quit his sales job and went on the county fair circuit with a Flying Squadron team.

In October 1912, the American Automobile Association (AAA) cracked down on drivers known for flouting safety regulations. Rickenbacker was barred from the track for the next twelve months.[19] He joined the automobile workshop of Frederick and August Duesenberg in Des Moines, Iowa. For the next year, he worked sixteen-hour days at $3 a day, developing a Mason race car, named for Duesenberg’s chief investor.

In July 1913, Rickenbacker received dispensation from AAA to compete in his hometown Columbus 200-mile race. Somehow, he kept his racing reinstatement through the rest of the season. He won three times and finished the season in 27th place on the AAA standings with 115 points.[20][21] In 1914, the Duesenberg team separated from their investor, Edward R. Mason. Winning the prize money became vital for Rickenbacker because he would be out of racing for the season if Duesenberg ran out of funds. With some hard driving, he won the Fourth of July race at Sioux City. A third-place finish by another Duesenberg driver brought in $12,500 and ensured that the team would complete the season. Rickenbacker finished the year in sixth place in the AAA standings.[22][23]

Rickenbacker was now a national racing figure, earning the nickname “Fast Eddie”.[24] One sportswriter called him “the most daring and…the most cautious driver in America today.”[25] The top-ranked Peugeot team lured Rickenbacker away from Duesenberg at the start of 1915. However, a couple of bad outings caused him to abandon Peugeot and switch to the Maxwell team. Looking back decades later, Rickenbacker called this “the major mistake of my racing career.”[26] Still, he finished the season ranked fifth among all racers, with three victories to his credit. In September 1915, Rickenbacker received financial backing from Indianapolis Speedway owner Carl Fisher and his partner, Fred Allison. They made Rickenbacker the leader of a new Presto-Lite team, giving him free rein over three drivers and four mechanics as they developed four Maxwell Special race cars.[27]

In 1915, newspapers began spelling his name with a second ‘k’ or more frequently, with his active encouragement. He also decided his given name “looked a little plain” and adopted a middle initial, signing his name 26 times with different letters before settling upon “V.”[28] The Hartford Courant referred to him as “Edward Victor Rickenbacher” after his win at Sheepshead Bay in 1916.[29]

In the 1915–16 seasons, Rickenbacker won at Sioux City for the third year in a row, as well as Tacoma and Sheepshead Bay (New York). In September, he was in a three-way tie for the championship with Dario Resta and Johnny Aitken. He needed a win at the Indianapolis Harvest 100 to take first place. He had the lead in the penultimate lap but had driven his car into the ground. Driving on three wheels, Aitken passed Rickenbacker’s broken-down Maxwell Special. Rickenbacker called it “one of the grandest free–for-alls I ever was in.”[30] He finished the year in third place in the standings but with a win in Los Angeles. He was now one of the most famous race car drivers in America and was earning $40,000 a year.[31]

Signing with the British Sunbeam team for the upcoming season, Rickenbacker sailed to England to work to develop a new race car. Before he could debark at Liverpool for his new job with Sunbeam, Rickenbacker was detained by two plainclothes agents from Scotland Yard. A 1914 Los Angeles Times article had fabricated a story claiming that the young driver was Baron Rickenbacher, “the disowned son of a Prussian noble.”[32] With Britain deep into World War I, Scotland Yard considered him a potential spy.

In England, Rickenbacker worked at the Sunbeam shop in Wolverhampton during the week and spent weekends at the Savoy Hotel in London. The English police surveilled Rickenbacker the entire six weeks he was in England and for another two weeks when he was back in the United States.[33] In 1917, after his experience as a suspected spy and to anglicize his name, he officially changed the spelling of his name from Rickenbacher to Rickenbacker.[31] A few years later, he settled on the middle name “Vernon” after the brother of his boyhood crush, Blanche Calhoun.[34]

World War I[edit]

Rickenbacker’s uniform on display at the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center

Pre–U.S. entry[edit]

While in England, Rickenbacker watched Royal Flying Corps airplanes fly over the Thames from the Brooklands aerodrome. He began to consider a role in aviation if the United States entered the European war. The month before, while he had been in Los Angeles, Rickenbacker had had two chance encounters with aviators. Glenn Martin, founder of Glenn L. Martin Company and more recently with Wright-Martin Aircraft, gave Rickenbacker his first ride aloft. Next, Major Townsend F. Dodd was stranded with his plane in a field and Rickenbacker diagnosed a magneto problem. Dodd later became General John J. Pershing‘s aviation officer and an important contact in Rickenbacker’s attempt to join air combat.[35]

Back in the United States after the revelation of the Zimmermann Telegram, Rickenbacker shared his idea for an aero squadron composed of race car drivers and mechanics with a New York Times reporter: “War would practically put a stop to racing, and we have a training that our country would need in time of war. We are experts in judging speed and in motor knowledge.”[36] After the April 6 declaration of war by the United States, Rickenbacker went to Washington, D.C. to propose his idea without success.

Flight training[edit]

Rickenbacker with airplane

In late May 1917, a week before he was to race in Cincinnati, Rickenbacker was invited to sail to England with General John J. Pershing.[37] By mid-June, he was in France, where he enlisted in the United States infantry.[37] He was assigned to drive Army officials between Paris and A.E.F. headquarters in Chaumont, and on to various points on the Western Front. Rickenbacker earned the rank of Sergeant First Class but never drove for General Pershing.[38] Rather, he mostly drove for Major Dodd. A chance encounter with Captain James Miller on the Champs–Elysees put Rickenbacker on the track to becoming a fighter pilot. Miller asked Rickenbacker to be the chief engineer at the flight school and aerodrome he was establishing at Issoudun. Rickenbacker bargained for the chance to learn to fly at the French flight school outside Toul. He received five weeks of training or 25 hours in the air in September 1917. Then, he went to Issoudun to start constructing the United States Air Service’s pursuit training facility,[39]

During the next three months, Rickenbacker took time from his work schedule to continue his flight training, standing in at the back of lectures and taking airplanes up on his own to practice new maneuvers. In January 1918, Rickenbacker finagled his way into a release for gunnery school, the final step to becoming a pursuit pilot.

In February and March, Lieutenant Rickenbacker and the officers of the nascent 1st Pursuit Group completed advanced training at Villeneuve–les–Vertus Aerodrome. There he came under the tutelage and mentorship of the French flying ace, Major Raoul Lufbery. With regards to flying, Rickenbacker said, “All I learned, I learned from Lufbery”.[40] Lufbery took Rickenbacker and Douglas Campbell on their first patrol before their Nieuport 28s were outfitted with machine guns. Rickenbacker earned the respect of the other fliers, who called him “Rick.”

Both squadrons relocated to Toul, in the St. Mihiel sector, where Rickenbacker had begun his training with the French seven months earlier. Now the American air service had its aerodrome at the nearby Gengoult. Before beginning their patrols, the two squadrons chose an insignia to paint on their planes. The 95th chose a kicking mule. The 94th chose an Uncle Sam stovepipe hat, tipped inside a surrounding circle. One officer remarked, “Well, I guess our hat is in the ring now!”, and the squadron became known as The Hat-in-the-Ring Gang.[41]

Early aerial combat[edit]


Film footage of Rickenbacker on a bombing run over German lines

Rickenbacker’s first sortie was with Reed Chambers on April 13, 1918. It almost ended in disaster when both became lost in the fog and Chambers was forced to land. Flight commander David Peterson called Rickenbacker a “bloody fool for flying off in a fog.”[42] Two weeks later, on April 29, Rickenbacker shot down his first enemy plane. On May 28, he claimed his fifth victory and became an ace. Rickenbacker received the French Croix de Guerre that month.[43] However, Rickenbacker was not perfect: he almost fired on friendly planes several times, his gun jammed, and he nearly crashed when his Nieuport’s fabric wing tore off in a dive.

On May 30, 1918, he achieved his sixth victory, but it would be his last for three and a half months. In late June, he had a fever and ear infection that turned into an abscess and grounded him most of the Chateau Thierry campaign.[44] While recovering in a Paris hospital in July, Rickenbacker reflected on his shortcomings as a pilot, deciding he needed more self-discipline and less impetuosity.[45]

Rickenbacker was out of the hospital in time for the St. Mihiel offensive based out of Rembercourt Aerodrome on September 12, 1918. By this time, the 94th and the other squadrons of the 1st Pursuit had converted from their agile but temperamental Nieuport airplanes to the more rugged, higher-powered Spad XIII. The Spad was a good fit for Rickenbacker’s style of attack.[46] He made another kill on September 14 against a Fokker D-VII, and another the day after that. Although Rickenbacker’s performance was rising, the 94th squadron’s was still disappointing. After a sluggish summer at Chateau Thierry, Major Harold Hartney wanted new leadership to lead the Hat-in-the-Ring Gang to its former greatness. He chose Lieutenant Rickenbacker over several captains as the new commander of the 94th Squadron.

Commander of the 94th Aero Squadron[edit]

Capt. Eddie Rickenbacker, United States Army Air Service, c. 1919

Rickenbacker went to work turning his men “back into a team.”[47] He gathered his pilots and exhorted them to stay focused on their mission. Reminding the mechanics that he was one of them, he stressed the crucial importance of their work. Above all, he let them know that he was a “gimper” or “a bird who will stick by you through anything”[48] and “would never ask anybody to do anything that [he] would not do [him] self first or do at the same time.”[49] To underscore his point, Rickenbacker took a solo patrol over the line and shot down two enemy planes the next morning. His victories above Billy, France earned him the Medal of Honor, awarded by President Herbert Hoover in 1931.

Building on the leadership skills he developed with Maxwell, Rickenbacker turned the 94th Squadron into a winning team. He was determined to “blind the eyes of the enemy” by taking out their observation balloons.[50] The giant gas bags appeared easy to bring down, but were heavily guarded and dangerous to attack. Rickenbacker led planning sessions for multi-squadron raids of as many as fourteen planes. One reporter likened him to a football coach, “boning up for the season ahead” with “conferences on methods, blackboard talks, and ideas for air battle tactics.”[51] Rickenbacker was credited with bringing down five balloons,

Rickenbacker inculcated the squadron with his new principles of engagement, which germinated while he was confined in the hospital: Never attack unless there is at least a fifty-fifty chance of success, always break off an engagement that seems hopeless, and know the difference between cowardice and common sense.[52] He continued to fly aggressively, but with calculated caution. He also flew more patrols and spent more hours in the air than any other pilot in the service—a total of 300 combat hours. He brought down fifteen aircraft in the final six weeks of the war. In September 1918, he received the rank of captain. At the end of the war in France, the 94th had the highest number of air victories of the American squadrons.[53]

When Rickenbacker learned of the Armistice, he flew an airplane above the No Man’s Land to observe the ceasefire as it occurred at 11:00 a.m. on November 11, 1918. He later wrote, “I was the only audience for the greatest show ever presented. On both sides of no man’s land, the trenches erupted. Brown-uniformed men poured out of the American trenches, gray-green uniforms out of the German. From my observer’s seat overhead, I watched them throw their helmets in the air, discard their guns, wave their hands.”[54]

Military achievements[edit]

Rickenbacker received the Distinguished Service Cross a record number of eight times.[55] In 1930, one of these awards was upgraded to the Medal of Honor.[55] In addition, he received the Legion of Honor and the Croix de Guerre from France.[56]

He brought down 26 aircraft during the war, making him the United States ace of aces for the war.[44] His 26 victories remained the American record until Richard Bong‘s forty victories in World War II. The following data is from Rickenbacker’s book, Fighting the Flying Circus. New York: Frederick A. Stokes, 1919, pp. 363-364.

Rickenbacker in his SPAD S.XIII

SPAD XIII in the colors of the 94th Aero Squadron. The aircraft is marked as Eddie Rickenbacker’s aircraft.

Verified Aerial VictoryDateTimeAircraftOpponentLocation
1Apr 29, 19181810NieuportPfalz D.IIIBaussant
2May 7, 19180805NieuportPfalz D.IIIPont-à-Mousson
3May 17, 19181824NieuportAlbatros D.VRibécourt
4May 22, 19180912NieuportAlbatros D.VFlirey
5May 28, 19180925NieuportAlbatros C.IBois de Rate
6May 30, 19180738NieuportAlbatros C.IJaulny
7Sep 14, 19180815SPAD XIIIFokker D.VIIVillecy
8Sep 15, 19180810SPAD XIIIFokker D.VIIBois de Warville
9Sep 25, 19180840SPAD XIIIFokker D.VIIBilly
10Sep 25, 19180850SPAD XIIIHalberstadt CForet de Spincourt
11Sep 26, 19180600SPAD XIIIFokker D.VIIDamvillers
12Sep 28, 19180500SPAD XIIIBalloonSivry-sur-Meuse
13Oct 1, 19181930SPAD XIIIBalloonPuzieux
14Oct 2, 19181730SPAD XIIIHannover CLMontfaucon
15Oct 2, 19181740SPAD XIIIFokker D.VIIVilosnes
16Oct 3, 19181707SPAD XIIIBalloonDannevoux
17Oct 3, 19181640SPAD XIIIFokker D.VIICléry-le-Grand
18Oct 9, 19181752SPAD XIIIFokker D.VIIDun-sur-Meuse
19Oct 10, 19181552SPAD XIIIFokker D.VIICléry-le-Petit
20Oct 10, 19181552SPAD XIIIFokker D.VIICléry-le-Petit
21Oct 22, 19181555SPAD XIIIFokker D.VIICléry-le-Petit
22Oct 23, 19181655SPAD XIIIFokker D.VIIGrande Carne Ferme
23Oct 27, 19181450SPAD XIIIFokker D.VIIGrand Pre
24Oct 27, 19181505SPAD XIIIFokker D.VIIBois de Money
25Oct 27, 19181635SPAD XIIIBalloonSt. Juvin

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