October 8, 1890
July 23, 1973
Aviator and businessman
Eddie Rickenbacker is perhaps best remembered as the young World War I flying ace, pictured leaning against a plane in coveralls and a leather helmet, smiling with cocky self-assurance. Though he had countless brushes with death and may have seemed the kind of hero likely to die young, Rickenbacker survived two wars and lived to be eighty-two years old. During his lifetime, he saw the birth of the automobile and the airplane. He fell in love with those technologies, worked in the industries that produced them, and played a major part in making both automobile and airplane travel accessible to the average American.
Edward Rickenbacher was born in Columbus, Ohio, on October 8, 1890, and spent his early life hard at work in the American Midwest. His parents, William and Elizabeth Rickenbacher, had met in Ohio, where they each had come to from Switzerland in the 1870s. They married and had eight children, one of whom died while still a baby. Their third son was named Edward, though he would always be known to friends as "Rick." In later years, Eddie "Rick" Rickenbacher would take the middle name Vernon and change the spelling of his last name so it would look and sound less German and more "American."
William Rickenbacher was a stern and serious man who worked hard running a construction business. Elizabeth had a deep love of art and poetry and tried to show her children the gentler side of life. The family was quite poor, and young Eddie Rickenbacker was introduced to adult responsibility early. To help support his family, he began working odd jobs when he was seven. He was a tough, adventurous child who smoked cigarettes at the age of five and ran with a group of pals called the Horsehead Gang. His first language was the Swiss German his parents spoke at home, and he was teased and bullied at school because of his accent. In those fights, Rickenbacker learned to stand up for himself.
A Love of Speed
Life did not get easier: In 1904 Rickenbacker's father was killed on the job, and even more responsibility fell on Rickenbacker's young shoulders. He went from job to job, from a steel mill to a beer factory to a bowling alley, looking for a career that was more than a way to bring in money. He was fascinated by the newly invented automobile and decided to take a correspondence course in mechanical engineering. He soon got a job at Frayer Miller, an auto plant in Columbus. It was there he met Lee Frayer, an auto manufacturer and racecar driver.
Frayer introduced Rickenbacker to the world of auto racing, and soon his new employee was hooked. First as a mechanic, then a driver, he participated in races all over the United States from 1906 to 1917, setting a world speed record at 134 miles per hour in 1917. He drove on tracks located in New York to those in California, making thousands of dollars by winning races and earning a reputation as one of the world's most daring racecar drivers.
A Call to War
Rickenbacker's daring would soon be put to a greater test. In 1914, war had broken out in Europe, and Americans whose parents had recently come from European countries felt
especially touched by the war. When the United States entered the war in 1917, Rickenbacker enlisted and was sent to Europe to be a driver on General John Joseph Pershing's staff. However, Rickenbacker had no intention of spending the war behind the wheel of a jeep. He wanted to fly fighter planes, and by August 1917, he had managed to get into flight training for the army air corps in Tours, France. He was assigned to the Ninety-fourth Aero Pursuit Squadron, also called the "Hat in the Ring" Squadron because of the symbol of a top hat in a circle that was painted on its planes. The hat in the ring represented an old custom of throwing a hat into a boxing ring to challenge an opponent to a fight.
On April 29, 1918, Rickenbacker shot down his first German plane. His reputation for courage and boldness spread quickly throughout the air corps and at home in the United States. After shooting down five planes, a pilot received the title "ace," and Rickenbacker was soon being called "America's Ace of Aces." He flew dozens of missions over France and Germany, often going up twice a day. He eventually commanded the Ninety-fourth, and the squadron shot down a total of six tynine enemy planes. Rickenbacker reached a personal total of twenty-six kills on November 10, 1918, just one day before the end of the war. For his bravery and success in the war effort, France rewarded Rickenbacker in 1918 with the Croix de Guerre (Cross of War), a high military honor. He also received the U.S. Medal of Honor, but it was not awarded until 1930.
A Captain of Industry
Back in the United States after the war, Rickenbacker married a woman of society lady named Adelaide Frost and began a new life as a family man. He started the Rickenbacker Motor Company in Detroit, Michigan, to manufacture his own cars, but in 1926 the factory closed. He worked for Cadillac Motors and General Motors for short periods, then renewed his interest in airplanes and went to work for several different aircraft companies. Just as in his youth, Rickenbacker seemed to be searching for the perfect career. In 1934, he accepted the job of general manager at Eastern Air Lines. The company had been newly formed from Eastern Air Transport and was not doing well, losing $1.5 million in 1934. Under Rickenbacker's management, however, things began to turn around. In 1938, Eastern made $38,000 in profits, and Rickenbacker was made president. From then until 1963, when he retired as president, Eastern made a profit every year, proving Rickenbacker's talents as a manager and businessman.
By the end of the 1930s, the United States was once again approaching war, but this time Rickenbacker was not enthusiastic. An extreme political conservative, Rickenbacker was sympathetic to many of the ideas of the Nazi Party in Germany, and he did not think the United States should get involved in the war. (The Nazis were a political party led by Adolf Hitler that promoted racism and the expansion of state power.) However, when war came, he did not refuse to serve his country. He acted as a representative of the secretary of war, traveling to various military bases as an inspector and advisor. On one of these trips, flying from Honolulu, Hawaii, to New Guinea, the plane he was flying in crashed into the Pacific Ocean. Once again courage and endurance were demanded of the former flying ace. He and six other passengers drifted on a raft for twenty-three days before being rescued. With characteristic toughness, Rickenbacker rested only a few days after his rescue, then completed his mission.
In 1950, Rickenbacker's picture appeared on the cover of Time magazine, which honored him not only as a veteran of two world wars, but also as a leader of industry who helped shape modern air travel. Rickenbacker was revered by many for his heroic wartime actions and his sharp business sense, but he was criticized by others for his right-wing (conservative) political views. He was an active anti-communist and had disliked President Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal, a system of government aid that helped people financially during the Great Depression of the 1930s. Rickenbacker had racist attitudes toward blacks and Jews and believed that the only proper role for a woman was as a wife.
Rickenbacker was nevertheless a loving husband to Adelaide and a good father to their three sons. After his retirement, Rickenbacker and his wife moved to Florida. He died there in 1973, surrounded by his family.
For More Information
Farr, Finis. Rickenbacker's Luck: An American Life. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1979.
Rickenbacker, Edward V. Rickenbacker. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: PrenticeHall, 1967.
Halacy, Dan. "Rickenbacker: America's Ace of Aces." Boys' Life, December 1980, 38–43.
"The Charmed Life of Eddie Rickenbacker." [Online] http://www.thehistorynet.com/AviationHistory/articles/1999/0199_text.htm (accessed April 2001).
"Rickenbacker Papers: Historical Sketch of Eddie." Auburn University Archives. [Online] http://www.lib.auburn.edu/archive/flyhy/101/eddie.htm (accessed April 2001).
Rickenbacker the Psychic?
During his lifetime Eddie Rickenbacker saw great changes in society and technology. He saw transportation progress from horsedrawn wagons to superhighways and supersonic jets. He witnessed the development of the telephone, the television, and the early computer. Perhaps because he saw such tremendous change, he loved to wonder and predict what changes the future might bring.
The last chapter of Rickenbacker's autobiography, published in 1967, is filled with his predictions of the technological advances he thought could happen within fifty years. In the future, Rickenbacker said, airplanes would carry a thousand passengers or more and travel at speeds of up to five thousand miles per hour. Most individuals would own helicopters, and cities would have central heliports where commuters could land. Those who did not fly helicopters to work might wear rocket belts, which would allow them to fly without a vehicle. New engines, based on the jet engine, would be invented to power automobiles. The sky would be filled with space stations that would offer regular flights to other planets as well as shuttles back to Earth.
Rickenbacker came closer to reality in his financial predictions. In the future, he guessed, money for payments and investments would not have to be physically transported from place to place; it would be transferred instantly through the use of electronics and television screens. Bills and orders for products also could be instantly sent and received in this way. Though the world has yet to see rocket belts for sale, Rickenbacker's instanttransfer machines bear an amazing resemblance to modern computers and fax machines. As for his other predictions—the plane Rickenbacker flew in World War I would probably have seemed just as unbelievable to Rickenbacker's grandparents as a thousandpassenger jet seems to people at the beginning of the twenty-first century.