World War I: American Ace Eddie Rickenbacker

Eddie Rickenbacker
Captain Eddie Rickenbacker. Photograph Courtesy of the US Air Force

Born October 8, 1890, as Edward Reichenbacher, Eddie Rickenbacker was the son of German-speaking Swiss immigrants who had settled in Columbus, OH. He attended school until the age of 12 when following the death of his father, he ended his education to help support his family. Lying about his age, Rickenbacker soon found employment in the glass industry before moving on to a position with the Buckeye Steel Casting Company.

Subsequent jobs saw him work for a brewery, bowling alley, and cemetery monument firm. Always mechanically inclined, Rickenbacker later obtained an apprenticeship in the Pennsylvania Railroad's machine shops. Increasingly obsessed with speed and technology, he began developing a deep interest in automobiles. This led him to leave the railroad and gain employment with the Frayer Miller Aircooled Car Company. As his skills developed, Rickenbacker began racing his employer's cars in 1910.

Auto Racing

A successful driver, he earned the nickname "Fast Eddie" and participated in the inaugural Indianapolis 500 in 1911 when he relieved Lee Frayer. Rickenbacker returned to the race in 1912, 1914, 1915, and 1916 as a driver. His best and only finish was placing 10th in 1914, with his car breaking down in the other years. Among his achievements was setting a race speed record of 134 mph while driving a Blitzen Benz.

During his racing career, Rickenbacker worked with a variety of automotive pioneers including Fred and August Duesenburg as well as managed the Prest-O-Lite Racing Team. In addition to fame, racing proved extremely lucrative for Rickenbacker as he earned over $40,000 a year as a driver. During his time as a driver, his interest in aviation increased as a result of various encounters with pilots.

World War I

Intensely patriotic, Rickenbacker immediately volunteered for service upon the United States' entry into World War I. After having his offer to form a fighter squadron of race car drivers refused, he was recruited by Major Lewis Burgess to be the personal driver for the commander of the American Expeditionary Force, General John J. Pershing. It was during this time that Rickenbacker anglicized his last name to avoid anti-German sentiment. Arriving in France on June 26, 1917, he commenced work as Pershing's driver. Still interested in aviation, he was hampered by his lack of a college education and the perception that he lacked the academic ability to succeed in flight training. Rickenbacker received a break when he was requested to repair the car of the chief of the US Army Air Service, Colonel Billy Mitchell.

Fighting to Fly

Though considered old (he was 27) for flight training, Mitchell arranged for him to be sent to flight school at Issoudun. Moving through the course of instruction, Rickenbacker was commissioned as a first lieutenant on October 11, 1917. Upon completion of training, he was retained at the 3rd Aviation Instruction Center at Issoudun as an engineering officer due to his mechanical skills.

Promoted to captain on October 28, Mitchell had Rickenbacker appointed as the chief engineering officer for the base.  Permitted to fly during his off hours, he was prevented from entering combat.

In this role, Rickenbacker was able to attend aerial gunnery training at Cazeau in January 1918 and advanced flight training a month later at Villeneuve-les-Vertus. After locating a suitable replacement for himself, he applied to Major Carl Spaatz for permission to join the newest US fighter unit, the 94th Aero Squadron. This request was granted and Rickenbacker arrived at the front in April 1918. Known for its distinctive "Hat in the Ring" insignia, the 94th Aero Squadron would become one of the most famous American units of the conflict and included notable pilots such as Raoul Lufbery, Douglas Campbell, and Reed M.


To the Front

Flying his first mission on April 6, 1918, in company with veteran Major Lufbery, Rickenbacker would go on to log over 300 combat hours in the air. During this early period, the 94th occasionally encountered the famed "Flying Circus" of the "Red Baron," Manfred von Richthofen. On April 26, while flying a Nieuport 28, Rickenbacker scored his first victory when he brought down a German Pfalz. He achieved the status of ace on May 30 after downing two Germans in one day.

In August the 94th transitioned to the newer, stronger SPAD S.XIII. In this new aircraft Rickenbacker continued to add to his total and on September 24 was promoted to command the squadron with the rank of captain. On October 30, Rickenbacker downed his twenty-sixth and final aircraft making him the top American scorer of the war. Upon the announcement of the armistice, he flew over the lines to view the celebrations.

Returning home, he became the most celebrated aviator in America. During the course of the war, Rickenbacker downed a total of seventeen enemy fighters, four reconnaissance aircraft, and five balloons. In recognition of his achievements, he received the Distinguished Service Cross a record eight times as well as the French Croix de Guerre and Legion of Honor.  On November 6, 1930, the Distinguished Service Cross earned for attacking seven German aircraft (downing two) on September 25, 1918, was elevated to the Medal of Honor by President Herbert Hoover. Returning to the United States, Rickenbacker served as a speaker on a Liberty Bond tour before writing his memoirs entitled Fighting the Flying Circus.


Settling into postwar life, Rickenbacker married Adelaide Frost in 1922. The couple soon adopted two children, David (1925) and William (1928). That same year, he started Rickenbacker Motors with Byron F. Everitt, Harry Cunningham, and Walter Flanders as partners. Using the 94th's "Hat in the Ring" insignia to market its cars, Rickenbacker Motors sought to achieve the goal of bringing racing-developed technology to the consumer auto industry. Though he was soon driven out of business by the larger manufacturers, Rickenbacker pioneered advances that later caught on such as four-wheel braking. In 1927, he purchased the Indianapolis Motor Speedway for $700,000 and introduced banked curves while significantly upgrading the facilities.

Operating the track until 1941, Rickenbacker closed it during World War II. With the end of the conflict, he lacked the resources to make necessary repairs and sold the track to Anton Hulman, Jr. Continuing his connection to aviation, Rickenbacker bought Eastern Air Lines in 1938. Negotiating with the federal government to purchase air mail routes, he revolutionized how commercial airlines operated. During his tenure with Eastern he oversaw the company's growth from a small carrier to one that was influential on the national level. On February 26, 1941, Rickenbacker was nearly killed when the Eastern DC-3 on which he was flying crashed outside Atlanta. Suffering numerous broken bones, a paralyzed hand, and an expelled left eye, he spent months in the hospital but made a full recovery.

World War II

With the outbreak of World War II, Rickenbacker volunteered his services to the government. At the request of Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson, Rickenbacker visited various Allied bases in Europe to assess their operations. Impressed by his findings, Stimson dispatched him to the Pacific on a similar tour as well as to deliver a secret message to General Douglas MacArthur rebuking him for negative comments that he made about the Roosevelt Administration.

En route in October 1942, the B-17 Flying Fortress Rickenbacker was aboard went down in the Pacific due to faulty navigation equipment. Adrift for 24 days, Rickenbacker led the survivors in catching food and water until they were spotted by a US Navy OS2U Kingfisher near Nukufetau. Recovering from a mix of sunburn, dehydration, and near-starvation, he completed his mission before returning home.

In 1943, Rickenbacker requested permission to travel to the Soviet Union to aid with their American-built aircraft and to assess their military capabilities. This was granted and he reached Russia via Africa, China, and India along a route that had been pioneered by Eastern. Respected by the Soviet military, Rickenbacker made recommendations pertaining the aircraft provided through Lend-Lease as well as toured an Ilyushin Il-2 Sturmovik factory. While he successfully accomplished his mission, the trip is best remembered for his error in alerting the Soviets to the secret B-29 Superfortress project.  For his contributions during the war, Rickenbacker received the Medal of Merit.


With the war concluded, Rickenbacker returned to Eastern. He remained in charge of the company until its position began to erode due to subsidies to other airlines and a reluctance to acquire jet aircraft.  On October 1, 1959, Rickenbacker was forced from his position as CEO and replaced by Malcolm A. MacIntyre. Though deposed from his former position, he stayed on as chairman of the board until December 31, 1963. Now 73, Rickenbacker and his wife began traveling the world enjoying retirement. The famed aviator died in Zurich, Switzerland on July 27, 1973, after suffering a stroke.


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Your Citation
Hickman, Kennedy. "World War I: American Ace Eddie Rickenbacker." ThoughtCo, Sep. 5, 2017, Hickman, Kennedy. (2017, September 5). World War I: American Ace Eddie Rickenbacker. Retrieved from Hickman, Kennedy. "World War I: American Ace Eddie Rickenbacker." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 17, 2018).