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March 19, 2024

Profiles of Valor: CPT Eddie Rickenbacker (USA)

Know the difference between cowardice and common sense.

Often, with a Medal of Honor recipient, it is difficult to know where to start when profiling their service record. That would be true of Army Air Corps CPT Edward Rickenbacker, a name every Air Force veteran will recognize.

I have mentioned Rickenbacker previously in a profile of Marine fighter pilot MAJ Joe Foss, one of the 1,283 American pilots who became World War II fighter aces, meaning they had five or more confirmed enemy aircraft kills to their credit. Foss had 26 confirmed kills, putting him on the top 10 “ace of aces” list after he matched the 26-kill record held by Rickenbacker, who was America’s top World War I ace. That record was also matched by another famed Marine fighter pilot, LtCol Gregory “Pappy” Boyington.

Eddie Rickenbacker was a native of Columbus, Ohio, the third of eight children born to Swiss immigrants Lizzie and Wilhelm. His father worked for breweries until starting his own construction business, while his mother took in laundry to make ends meet. Like most young people of his era, Eddie worked after-school jobs when not caring on his family’s small farm, where they raised most of their food.

His childhood was littered with near-death escapades, like running into a burning school to retrieve his jacket and the building almost collapsing on him. He would come to believe that God had saved him from many brushes with death and that he would serve a higher purpose.

His father died when he was only 13, which thrust him into ever-greater responsibilities early in life. He dropped out of seventh grade, lied about his age to avoid child labor laws, and took a variety of jobs, including one with an automobile manufacturer. After taking a correspondence course in engineering, the company’s chief engineer, Lee Frayer, stewarded his knowledge, giving him more responsibility. Frayer took Eddie to a Vanderbilt Cup race as his riding mechanic, which sparked his interest in racing.

A year later, working for Harvey Firestone, he competed in several races until returning with Frayer as a relief driver in the first Indianapolis 500. Over the next decade, he would make a name for himself as a daredevil driver. He would finish the last American racing season before World War I with the Duesenberg team in sixth place on the American Automobile Association’s list of competitors. He earned the nickname “Fast Eddie.”

While in England gearing up to race for the Sunbeam team, he became interested in aviation, watching the Royal Flying Corps. He knew his destiny would be aviation if the U.S. were drawn into the war. In June 1917, he enlisted in the Army in order to serve in France, where he became a driver for senior military officers, including Gen. John J. Pershing. With the assistance of one of those officers, CPT James Miller, he gained entrance to a French flight school, and after five weeks and 25 flight hours, he earned his wings.

This was the early era of military aviation when pilots would sometimes shoot at enemy pilots with pistols from their cockpits. It was flying wooden and paper airplanes while being targeted with twin machine guns.

In April 1918, Rickenbacker was credited with his first kill. In his first month, he chalked up six kills, but the sixth was almost his last as he was beset with ear infections that grounded him. He recovered in three months, just ahead of the St. Mihiel offensive. Now flying the Spad XIII, he would score two more kills against German pilots who were flying the Fokker D-VII. Having demonstrated his exceptional dog-fighting skills, he was chosen to lead the 94th Squadron and would turn his pilots into feared fighters using tactics he developed.

At the time, a war correspondent likened him to a football coach, “boning up for the season ahead” with “conferences on methods, blackboard talks, and ideas for air battle tactics.”

His timeless principles of engagement were: Never attack unless there is at least a 50-50 chance of success, always break off an engagement that seems hopeless, and know the difference between cowardice and common sense. However, he continued to fly as he had driven years earlier, aggressively but now with a dash of caution. He was credited with 15 more kills in the last six weeks before the Armistice, becoming the record holder. His 94th Squadron had the highest number of kills of all the American squadrons.

Upon learning of the Armistice, he took to the air over “no man’s land” to observe the ceasefire at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, 1918. He wrote of his experience flying between the trenches that day: “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.” (In 1954, Congress designated Armistice Day to be observed as Veterans Day.)

Rickenbacker flew more patrols and accumulated more hours of flight than anyone in the air service, more than 300 combat hours, before being promoted to Captain. At that time, there was little prospect of logging 300 combat hours and making it back alive, not just because of enemy fire but because of any of the other things that could fail on these fragile aircraft, leading to a fatal crash. He was awarded a record eight Distinguished Service Crosses, the Army’s second highest award. In 1930, one of those awards was upgraded to a Medal of Honor.

Details of his World War I record of 26 kills can be found in his aptly-named book, Fighting the Flying Circus.

Writing about his effort to return home at night after one engagement, he wrote: “Three-quarters of an hour of gasoline remained … and no compass. Then I thought of the north star! Glory be! There she shines! I had been going west instead of south… Keeping the star behind my rudder I flew south for fifteen minutes, then … found myself above … the River Meuse … picked up our faithful searchlight and ten minutes later I landed. As I walked across the field to my bed I looked up … and repeated most fervently, ‘Thank God!’”

He also wrote in great detail about one of his fellow pilots, Lt. Quentin Roosevelt, the son of another Medal of Honor recipient President Theodore Roosevelt: “Quentin flew about alone for a while, then discovering, as he supposed, his own formation ahead of him he overtook them, dropped in behind… To his horror he discovered that he had been following an enemy patrol all the time! Every machine ahead of him wore a huge black maltese cross on its wings and tail! … Quentin fired one long burst… The aeroplane immediately preceding him dropped at once and within a second or two burst into flames. Quentin put down his nose and streaked it for home before the astonished Huns had time to notice what had happened.”

He was shot down in a dogfight on July 14, 1918, and as Rickenbacker wrote, “Quentin’s death was a sad blow to the whole group.”

Eddie’s Medal of Honor citation notes plainly: “For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity above and beyond the call of duty in action against the enemy near Billy, France, 25 September 1918. While on a voluntary patrol over the lines, 1st Lt. Rickenbacker attacked seven enemy planes (five type Fokker, protecting two type Halberstadt). Disregarding the odds against him, he dived on them and shot down one of the Fokkers out of control. He then attacked one of the Halberstadts and sent it down also.”

After returning stateside to a hero’s welcome, Rickenbacker owned a small car company, launched Florida Airways, owned the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, became an aviation executive with General Motors’s post-war aircraft production with Fokker Aircraft Corporation of America (the company whose fighters he downed in battle), and merged Eastern Air Transport with Florida Airways, forming Eastern Air Lines — eventually becoming its owner.

In October 1942, U.S. Secretary of War Henry Stimson sent Rickenbacker on a tour of air bases in the Pacific Theater of Operations, carrying a secret message from President Roosevelt to Gen. Douglas MacArthur. In route to one of those bases, due to faulty navigation by the pilot of his B-17D Flying Fortress, the plane ran out of fuel and was forced to ditch in the South Pacific.

For a harrowing 24 days, Rickenbacker, his friend, Army Captain Hans Adamson, and six crewmen drifted for thousands of miles at sea, surviving in two tiny life rafts. Their emergency rations were exhausted in three days, but on the eighth day, Eddie grabbed a seagull as it was about to land on his head, and that became bait for fish hooks and their survival.

Some of the men would perish as the search for their plane was abandoned after 14 days. The rafts split up, and of the ordeal and the survivors in his raft, Rickenbacker wrote, Seven Came Through.

Eddie survived four more decades, dying on July 23, 1973 (aged 82). His memorial service was held at the Key Biscayne Presbyterian Church, and the eulogy was delivered by LtGen Jimmy Doolittle. At the time of his death, he was the last United States Army Air Service Medal of Honor recipient.

CPT Eddie Rickenbacker: Your example of valor — a humble American Patriot defending your fellow warriors and Liberty for all — above and beyond the call of duty, and in disregard for the peril to your own life, is eternal. “Greater love has no one than this, to lay down one’s life for his friends.” (John 15:13)

Semper Vigilans Fortis Paratus et Fidelis
Pro Deo et Libertate — 1776

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The Patriot Post and Patriot Foundation Trust, in keeping with our Military Mission of Service to our uniformed service members and veterans, are proud to support and promote the National Medal of Honor Heritage Center, the Congressional Medal of Honor Society, both the Honoring the Sacrifice and Warrior Freedom Service Dogs aiding wounded veterans, the National Veterans Entrepreneurship Program, the Folds of Honor outreach, and Officer Christian Fellowship, the Air University Foundation, and Naval War College Foundation, and the Naval Aviation Museum Foundation. "Greater love has no one than this, to lay down one's life for his friends." (John 15:13)


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