WWI Top Ace: Eddie Rickenbacker

E dward Vernon “Eddie” Rickenbacker, was the United States’ top ace during World War I. He received eight Distinguished Service Crosses I for extraordinary heroism in aerial combat–one of which was subsequently converted to a Medal of Honor–making him one of the great airmen of American history.rick4.jpg

Nieuport biplane fighters of Eddie Rickenbacker’s 94th Aero Squadron, the “Hat in the Ring” squadron, warm up for a mission during the Great War. U.S. Army    Born October 8, 1890 in Columbus, Ohio, Rickenbacker was one of eight children of Swiss parents who immigrated to the United States as adults. The Rickenbackers were laborers who owned their own home (though it had no electricity, running water or heat–except from the kitchen stove). Money was tight. Consequently, Rickenbacker received little education. After his father was killed in an industrial accident, then-13-year old Rickenbacker dropped out of seventh grade and went to work full-time.

MACHINIST TO RACER

    In 1905, Rickenbacker went to work as an apprentice machinist with the Pennsylvania Railroad. While working for the railroad, Rickenbacker discovered mechanical aptitude. Though the automobile industry was in its infancy, Rickenbacker became convinced that his future was with the gasoline-powered internal combustion engine and automobiles.

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A British Aircraft Factory S.E.5  fighter of Rickenbacker’s 94th Aero Squadron during the Great War. U.S. Army

    When he was just 16 years old, Rickenbacker began professional automobile racing. Starting in 1911, he drove regularly on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, which was then in its third year of operation. He became a top competitor in races where cars routinely reached 100 miles per hour.

    In those early days, racing drivers were celebrities. The public lionized Rickenbacker. There were financial benefits too: in 1916, Rickenbacker made $60,000.

     Rickenbacker’s fame as a race car driver was the reason he became interested in flying. According to his autobiography, he was driving near Riverside, Calif., in October 1916 when he saw an airplane near a hangar on a grass field. The plane belonged to Glenn L. Martin, who had been an early student of the Wright brothers and had a contract from the Navy to build a “bomber.” Martin recognized Rickenbacker and gave him a ride in the airplane.

TAKES TO THE AIR

    When America entered the Great War in April 1917, Rickenbacker was convinced that racing car drivers would make good pilots. The U.S. Army Signal Corps, which ran the Air Service, did not share this conviction, however. After all, Rickenbacker and his fellow drivers were not college graduates–and applicants for flight training had to have a college education.

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More than 10 years after World War I ended, Rickenbacker received the Medal of Honor by special Act of Congress. In this photograph, taken in November 1930, Rickenbacker wears his World War I Air Service uniform (reflecting his rank as Captain). The Army Type IV Medal of Honor is around his neck; his ribbon bar reflects awards of the Distinguished Service Cross, French Legion of Honor and French Croix de Guerre.  National Archives

    In May 1917, Rickenbacker joined the Army as a sergeant and was appointed to the motor staff of Gen. John J. Pershing, the American Expeditionary Force commander. He arrived in France the following month.

    Rickenbacker never did drive for Pershing, although the American media, still interested in the whereabouts of the ex-race car driver, insisted that he was Pershing’s chauffer. Rickenbacker did, however, drive for Col. William “Billy” Mitchell, who was repeatedly impressed with Rickenbacker’s mechanical abilities. More than once, Rickenbacker performed on-the-spot repairs to disabled automobiles.

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There have been several versions of the “Hat in the Ring” emblem of Eddie Rickenbacker’s squadron. This is the version that was in use late in the Great War and is similar to the version used by today’s F-22A Raptor-equipped 94th Fighter Squadron at Langley Air Force Base, Va. U.S. Army

    When Rickenbacker told Mitchell, the head of the American military aviation in France, that he wanted to fly, Mitchell arranged for his transfer to the Air Service. Rickenbacker then completed flight training at Tours. He had a total of 25 hours of flying time when he earned wings in October 1917, and became a first lieutenant in the Signal Corps.

    His first assignment was as engineering officer with the Third Aviation Instruction Center at Issoudun under then-Major Carl A. “Tooey” Spatz (Spatz, an air pioneer,  later changed the spelling of his surname to “Spaatz.”)  Rickenbacker organized repair shops, spare parts and other materiel. He purchased automobiles for transportation. Although he was the engineering officer, Rickenbacker found time to pilot the several versions of the Nieuport 23 biplane fighter.

JOINS THE HAT-IN-THE-RING GANG

    In January 1918, the first pilots who had completed the Issoudun course were ordered to the school of aerial gunnery at Cazeau in southern France, the last stop before combat. Rickenbacker’s name was not on the list. He was bitterly disappointed. Spaatz insisted, however, that Rickenbacker was too valuable to lose.

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Edward V. Rickenbacker in a Jeep on a South Pacific island after being rescued in World War II. He was on a goodwill mission for Secretary of War Henry Stimson when his plane went down and he spent three weeks in a raft, awaiting rescue. U.S. Navy

    Rickenbacker continued to push for a combat assignment. Spatz relented. Rickenbacker attended the school at Cazeau and learned to fire a a Nieuport-mounted machine gun. In March 1918 was assigned to the 94th Aero Squadron, the second all-American combat squadron.

    Rickenbacker flew several dangerous operations over German lines with the famous ace, Maj. Raoul Lufbery. These patrols were nerve wracking because the Americans were unarmed; they did not have machine guns on their Nieuport 28s.

    In April 1918, the Americans finally received guns, ammunition, instruments, flying clothing, spare parts and spare planes. Realizing that the 94th would now go into combat against German aviators, the Americans decided they needed a distinctive insigne for their planes. Maj. John Huffer, then the commanding officer, suggested Uncle Sam’s stovepipe hat with the Stars and Stripes for a hatband. This was meant to symbolize the old American custom of throwing a hat into the ring as an invitation to battle. A pilot, 1st Lt. Johnny Wentworth, came up with the final design, which was painted on the side of every Nieuport in the 94th. The “Hat-in-the-Ring” squadron was born.

    Rickenbacker flew his first combat mission April 14, 1918 and eleven days later, held down both triggers on his machine guns until the German Pfalz fighter in front of him caught fire and crashed–his first “kill.”

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Rickenbacker (second from right) getting a real meal after three weeks on a rubber raft in the Pacific during World War II. U.S. Navy

    The Americans piloted Nieuport 28s because they had been donated by the French (who no longer wanted them). Although they were maneuverable, Nieuports had to be flown carefully. They often lost their upper wing while diving–certain death for the pilot.

    Despite the shortcomings of their aircraft, Rickenbacker and the Hat-in-the-Ring squadron were successful in combat against German Baron Manfred von Richthofen’s “Flying Circus.” Rickenbacker shot down his fifth plane and became an ace on May 30, 1918. The French awarded him the Croix de Guerre. He received his fifth Army Distinguished Service Cross for this victory.

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His back to the camera and wearing a pith helmet atop his civilian attire, former Capt. Edward V. Rickenbacker addresses members of his 94th “Hat in the Ring” Fighter Squadron, 1st Fighter Group, in North Africa in 1942. One of the squadron’s P-38 Lightning fighters is in the background. U.S. Army

    A few weeks before, Rickenbacker had taken over as the commander of Number One flight in the squadron after Lufbury was killed in action.  Now, in addition to leading his flight on routine patrols, Rickenbacker followed Lufbury’s example and flew what he called “lone wolf patrols” across enemy lines. Soon, Rickenbacker soon had more hours in the air than any other American flier.

FLYING SPADS

    In July 1918, Rickenbacker flew his first SPAD XIII, a French plane built by the Societe pour Aviation et ses Derives, from which it took its name. A SPAD could do 130 miles an hour and climb to 22,000 feet. The SPADs replaced the Nieuport, giving the Americans a faster and more rugged airframe.

    Unfortunately, then-Major Rickenbacker was grounded by a severe ear infection, and was not able to take to the air for several months. His next aerial victory was on September 14, 1918, when he shot down a German Fokker. He downed another Fokker the next day for his seventh kill–and was now proclaimed as the “American Ace of Aces.” Rickenbacker only held this honor for a short time as Frank Luke, a bold and aggressive Air Service pilot, shot down fourteen enemy aircraft (and ten balloons) over an eight-day period to become the new “American Ace of Aces.” Luke was later killed and became the first American flier awarded the Medal of Honor. 

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Although Rickenbacker claimed exclusive use of the “Hat in the Ring” insigne for his automobile company in the 1920s and 1930s, it returned to the 94th Fighter Squadron on the eve of World War II. Today, collectors would pay a fortune for the “Hat in the Ring” flight jacket worn by this 94th squadron P-38 Lightning pilot in Italy in 1943 or 1944. U.S. Army

    On September 24, 1918, Rickenbacker was named commanding officer of the 94th. He did everything possible to surpass other squadrons in aerial victories. He insisted that all pilots be in the best possible physical condition before combat. For example, there was no drinking 24 hours before a mission.

   

RECEIVES MEDAL OF HONOR

    Rickenbacker continued to lead by example. On September 25, near Billy, France, he single-handedly attacked seven German aircraft (five Fokkers protecting two Halberstadt photographic planes). Disregarding the odds, Rickenbacker dived on them and shot down a Fokker and a Halberstadt. Although he received the Distinguished Service Cross for this action, the Congress subsequently used this event as the basis to pass a special act awarding the Medal of Honor to Rickenbacker. President Herbert Hoover put America’s highest decoration around Rickenbacker’s neck on November 6, 1930. A certificate given to Rickenbacker with the award refers to the “Congressional” Medal of Honor, even though the adjective is incorrect.

    In October 1918, Rickenbacker shot down an amazing 14 enemy aircraft. On October 30, he scored his 25th and 26th victories. Because World War I ended twelve days later, on November 11, these were his last. No other American pilot had more victories, so Rickenbacker reclaimed the moniker, “Ace of Aces.”

A LEADER FIRST   

    Despite his impressive flying record, Rickenbacker was more proud of the 94th Pursuit Squadron (as his unit was now named). 94th  pilots had shot down 69 enemy aircraft during the war–more than any other American squadron.

    Rickenbacker later wrote that his success as fighter pilot was due to two factors. First, he understood that “all fliers were dominated by human qualities,” and the key was to be both bold and cautious. “Caution,” wrote Rickenbacker, “was important…but never timidity…boldness could be the most intelligent course of action and therefore the most cautious.” Second, Rickenbacker decided that a pilot had to be “connected” with his plane. He had to understand the mechanics of the machine he flew.

    Rickenbacker fought a total of 134 air battles and, for his extraordinary heroism during World War I, he received the following awards:  Medal of Honor, Distinguished Service Cross with six oak leaf clusters (his eighth DSC was revoked when Rickenbacker received the Medal of Honor for the same action), two awards of the French Croix de Guerre, and the French Legion of Honor.

LIFE AFTER THE WAR

    Rickenbacker’s life after World War I was every bit as fascinating as his combat career. When he returned home in 1919, the nation welcomed him as a war hero. He started his own automobile company in Detroit–the Rickenbacker Motor Company. He introduced technological advances for cars like four wheel brakes.

    In 1926, Rickenbacker purchased a controlling interest in the Indianapolis Speedway. Later, he  began a new career as an engineer at General Motors. In 1935, General Motors appointed Rickenbacker as general manager of Eastern Airlines, which was experiencing severe financial difficulties. Rickenbacker turned the company around and made it profitable in record time.

AT WAR ONCE AGAIN

    During World War II, Rickenbacker visited his old outfit, the P-38 Lightning-equipped 94th Fighter Squadron, 1st Fighter Group in North Africa. Subsequently, Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson sent him to the Pacific to inspect fighter bases. While en route in October 1942, however, his B-17 Flying Fortress bomber radioed that it was low on gasoline and vanished in the Pacific 600 miles north of Samoa. Rickenbacker and all aboard were feared dead.

    Miraculously, Rickenbacker and three other men drifted in a rubber raft for three weeks, living on fish and rainwater. Rescued by a Navy PBY Catalina flying boat, Rickenbacker spent  two weeks recovery in a hospital.  Rickenbacker made a similar inspection tour of bases in the Soviet Union in 1943.

RETIRED FROM SERVICE

    After the war, Rickenbacker went back to Eastern Airlines and became chairman of its board in 1954. Under Rickenbacker’s leadership, Eastern implemented a training system subsquently adopted by other industries. Rickenbacker understood every phase of the airline’s operations and transformed it into an industry giant.

   

    Rickenbacker retired in 1963 and died ten years later in Zurich, Switzerland, on July 23, 1973. Today, Rickenbacker remains an inspiration to Americans who know the story of his life. “I can’t tell you what an honor it is to be here,” said F-22A Raptor pilot Lt. Col. Kevin “Uncle” Fesler, the present-day commander of the 94th Fighter Squadron. “Eddie Rickenbacker is a role model for ev eryone in the Air Force.”

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