A fighter in every sense of the word, “The Great Indestructible” expired in a country that hasn’t fought a war since 1847 and is internationally-known for its neutrality. He failed in several commercial adventures before succeeding marvelously in the business world. President Franklin D. Roosevelt disliked the man and declined to meet with him on numerous occasions, which may be understandable since The Great Indestructible publicly criticized FDR and continuously referred to him as a “Socialist.”
The Grim Reaper tried to claim The Great Indestructible untold times, including a near fatal airliner tragedy near Atlanta in February 1941; the time he ditched in the South Pacific during World War II and was set adrift in shark-infested waters for 24 days; as a passenger on a plane that struck a house; some close calls as a speed-demon race car driver; and 134 aerial altercations in The Great War (World War I), flying a total of 300 combat hours.
The Great Indestructible changed his surname at the outbreak of World War I, dropping the ‘h’ in Rickenbacher and inserting a ‘k’ to make it Rickenbacker so his last name sounded less Germanic. The third of seven children, he was born in Columbus, Ohio, to German-speaking Swiss immigrants in 1890. Little did they know their third offspring would become the highest-scoring American fighter pilot of The Great War, America’s Ace of Aces with 26 confirmed kills, Capt. Eddie Rickenbacker.
His lifelong skirmishes with death, hard work and mischief-making started early. At age 5, he began his morning routine, fetching a stack of newspapers from the Columbus Dispatch at 4 a.m. to sell on a street corner. He also started smoking.
A couple of years later, he headed a group of young ruffians called the Horsehead Gang, and the police visited his home with great predictability.
Most, if not all, of Rickenbacker’s mischief-making came to an abrupt end in 1904 with the death of his father. At 13, young Rickenbacker became a family bread-winner. He tossed newspapers, peddled milk and eggs, worked in a shoe and a glasswork factory and a foundry, capped bottles in a brewery, and polished and carved monuments, including etching the word FATHER in his Dad’s headstone.
From the moment young Rickenbacker saw his first car, a two-passenger Ford runabout, he was stuck on automobiles and engines. In 1906, the hard-working future fighter pilot landed a position with the famous race-car driver Lee Frayer, and rode in numerous races as his mechanic.
Rickenbacker sold cars for the Columbus Buggy Co., raced for Peugeot before joining the Maxwell Race Team, competed four times in the Indianapolis 500, set a world speed record of 134 mph at Daytona in 1914, and had his first plane ride in 1915 while in California competing in the Vanderbilt Cup Race. He fell in love with airplanes. Oddly, he was afraid of heights.
Contacts he’d made on the racing circuit helped Rickenbacker land a chauffeur’s assignment when America entered World War I. Many claimed he drove for Gen. John “Blackjack” Pershing, but in truth, he chauffeured Col. William “Billy” Mitchell.
Rickenbacker wanted wings, but was already two years over the 25-year age limit and did not have the required college degree. He pestered the hell out of Billy Mitchell before the general finally agreed to allow Rickenbacker a shot at flight training. And the age limit? Rickenbacker lied.
He’d picked up some free flying time during a stint as an engineering officer at the 3rd Aviation Instruction Center at Issoudun. Rickenbacker flew skillfully, yet unheard of in today’s age of high-tech aircraft, he earned his wings and 2nd Lieutenant bars in just 17 days. He reported to the Gengoult Aerodome near Toul, France, in April 1918, and joined the 94th Aero Squadron — the famous “Hat in the Ring” Squadron.
First assigned the Nieuport 28, a French bi-winged fighter the French rejected but offered to the anxious-for-airplanes American squadrons, Rickenbacker used the highly maneuverable Nieuport to good advantage. He claimed his first victory on April 29 and shot down his fifth German plane, an Albatros, on May 28 to become an Ace (five kills). After shooting down another Albatros on May 30, Rickenbacker was sidelined by pain in his right ear.
He was diagnosed with a serious ulcer. The illness nearly ended Rickenbacker’s flying career — the Grim Reaper couldn’t do it. Rickenbacker had landed his plane with the cloth blown off the upper wing, survived near-collisions with adversaries in mid-air, and narrowly escaped on several occasions after his guns jammed.
During his convalescing, things started to change. The younger men of the “Hat in the Ring” Squadron, who first snubbed the uneducated “old man,” found a new admiration for the incredibly confident fighter pilot called Rickenbacker. While he was hospitalized, the 94th received the new French Spad XIII fighter.
Returning to the 94th, Rickenbacker took the Spad XIII into combat and scored a shoot-down of a Fokker D.VII on Sept. 14. He made several “kills” against the Fokker D.VII, one of Germany’s best fighters, flown by the likes of German Ace Hermann Goring.
Now a captain, Rickenbacker took command of the 94th on Sept. 25. Flying a solo patrol the same day, he spotted seven German aircraft in the vicinity of Billy, France. Rickenbacker didn’t hesitate. He dove into the enemy formation and shot down two planes. The courageous exploit earned him the French Croix di Guerre and the U.S. Medal of Honor. During his days of combat, Rickenbacker also was awarded seven Distinguished Service Crosses.
On Oct. 30, his total victories reached 26. Praised by his peers and superiors alike, hailed by the press corps as America’s “Ace of Aces,” the childhood kingpin of the Horsehead Gang had become a national hero.
Much like another World War I hero, Sgt. Alvin York, Rickenbacker was wined and dined by the power elite upon his return from the war. And, like York, Rickenbacker refused deals to exploit his fame for profit. He turned down movie offers and book deals, instead choosing to go on a Liberty bond tour.
His memoir, “Fighting the Flying Circus” (Germany’s crack fighter squadron), was published after the war.
In 1920, Rickenbacker plunged head-first into the auto business when he started the Rickenbacker Motor Co.
In 1922, he married a woman five years his senior, the outspoken and free-spirited Adelaide Frost Durant.
From 1927 until the breakout of World War II, America’s “Ace of Aces” owned and operated the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. However, in the political arena, the once-adoring press corps harshly condemned Rickenbacker when he criticized President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal work program.
When not running the speedway, Rickenbacker immersed his energy into commercial aviation. He persuaded GM to obtain North American Aviation, which included Eastern Air Transport. After the purchase, GM assigned him as manager of Eastern in 1935. With other investors, Rickenbacker merged Eastern Air Transport with Florida Airways, to create Eastern Airlines. Rickenbacker’s work ethic and penny-pinching ideas kept the airline profitable into the late ’50s.
The Grim Reaper knocked on the door again on Feb. 24, 1941. With Rickenbacker aboard as a business passenger, a Douglas DC-3 slammed into trees on its approach into Atlanta. The two pilots and 11 passengers perished.
Rickenbacker, soaked in aviation fuel and grievously injured, clung to life, so much so that he initially was given up for dead by the surgeons.
But after months in a hospital and extensive home care, Rickenbacker was back in action, walking with a slight limp that he would have for the rest of his life.
The “Ace of Aces” next served his country in another great struggle called World War II. And the Grim Reaper tried again.
Supporting the war effort as a civilian, Rickenbacker inspected troops, equipment and used his fame to inspire and encourage a worried public. He pledged Eastern planes and people for war usage and visited England in September 1942 at the request of Secretary of War Henry Stimson. Rickenbacker was given broad permission to observe and make recommendations pertaining to the war effort.
Due to Roosevelt’s and Rickenbacker’s ongoing dislike of each other, Stimson became Rickenbacker’s pivotal government contact during the war. Upon his return from England in October, Stimson immediately sent Rickenbacker to the Pacific Theater on a comparable mission that included a word-of-mouth, hush-hush message from the president to Gen. Douglas MacArthur.
Rickenbacker inspected military facilities in Hawaii before boarding a B-17D Flying Fortress to continue his secret mission. The refueling stop was a petite speck of sand and coral called Canton Island (present population 24), more or less halfway between Hawaii and Fuji Island.
The plane never made it. It drifted hundreds of miles off course, ran out of fuel, and had to ditch, pretty much in the middle of nowhere. With varying injuries, some serious, the crew, Rickenbacker and his business partner Capt. Hans Adamson, gathered what survival equipment they could before the bomber sank, then set adrift in three life rafts, tied together, in the vast Pacific Ocean.
There sat Rickenbacker in a life raft, dressed in a fedora and business suit, with no official rank or authority. He parceled a few oranges taken from the B-17, used his fedora to catch water, and became overseer of the netting used for fishing. Sharks were constant companions.
If a blistering sun wasn’t baking the men, rain squalls chilled them to the bone. Days drifted like the rafts. No search planes appeared. Morale descended into despondency.
To encourage the men, to give them something to fight for, Rickenbacker amused them, talked to them, and when necessary, berated and insulted them. Several survivors later reported they were determined to outlive Rickenbacker for the sheer enjoyment of burying him at sea.
During the second week, search planes came close, but not close enough. After lengthy bickering, it was decided to cut loose the rafts to let each one drift separately in hopes of being spotted by search aircraft. Newspapers back home reported that the “Ace of Ace’s” legendary luck had run out.
But Rickenbacker refused to go to his own funeral. After 24 days, a Navy Kingfisher float-plane spotted some of the survivors (one man did die and was buried at sea). One raft was rescued. Another landed on an uninhabited island where the men eventually were found by a missionary. The men in Rickenbacker’s life raft were picked up by a Navy Catalina flying boat. Barely alive, Rickenbacker endured salt water ulcers, severe sunburn, and a 60-pound weight loss, but the “Ace of Aces” was alive. The Boston Globe’s article on his phenomenal survival capped his picture with “The Great Indestructible.”
Incredibly, instead of going home to another hero’s welcome, Rickenbacker chose to continue his mission. Returning home, he briefed Stimson, then suggested a fact-finding mission to the Soviet Union.
Pulling strings as well as playing politics, Rickenbacker received unprecedented access to the highly-secretive dictatorship of Josef Stalin. British Prime Minister Winston Churchill interviewed Rickenbacker afterward; President Roosevelt did not.
The Great Indestructible updated Eastern Airlines fleet after the war, but was caught off-guard by the influx of jets into commercial aviation. He resisted the change based on economics. He reluctantly retired from Eastern on New Year’s Eve in 1963. He was 73 years old.
Rickenbacker and Adelaide bought a ranch near Hunt, Texas, but five short years later, they donated the spread to the Boy Scouts of America. Bouncing between homes in New York City and Coconut Grove, Fla., Rickenbacker made speeches, plugged commercial aviation and published his autobiography.
During a visit to Switzerland pursuing unique medical management for Adelaide, The Great Indestructible suffered a stroke, which was complicated by pneumonia. Capt. Eddie V. Rickenbacker, America’s “Ace of Aces,” departed this life on July 23, 1973, in Zürich. At his memorial service in Key Biscayne, Fla., the eulogy was given by Lt. General Jimmy Doolittle.
Rumor has it, even the Grim Reaper wept.
Pete Mecca is Vietnam veteran, columnist and freelance writer. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or aveteransstory.us.