There is a short list of people who genuinely, truly inspire me. Ernest Shackelton, we’ve talked about. Stanislaus Schmajzner is coming up shortly. Lech Walesa will get an article soon.
But today would have been the 132nd birthday of Eddie Rickenbacker.
And if you’ve never heard of him, join the club. And yet in his day – and he had a long day – he may have been the ultimate manifestation of what it meant, and means, to be an American.
Rickenbacker was born in Edward Rickenbacher, in 1890, in a poor neighborhood in Columbus Ohio, the son of Swiss-German immigrants. His father died when he was 13; in his autobiography, Rickenbacker said it was an accident; one of his biographers claimed the elder Rickenbacher died after a fight. Young Eddie left school after seventh grade, working a long series of odd jobs, including a job in a foundry. He discovered an aptitude for mechanics, as well as a desire to learn, even taking a corresondence course in engineering.
He supplemented his informal and semi-formal education with lucky bits of practical experience; he told the story of encountering a broken-down car out on the road, with its driver, completely flummoxed by the breakdown. Rickenbacker had never worked on a car – but he took his correspondence-school engineering and natural mechanical aptitude and figured the problem out, and got it back on the road – and left him with the car bug at a time when cars were what the Personal Computer would be in about 1975; a toy of the very wealthy.
Rickenbacker went from an accidental tinkerer to a salesman to, in very quick succession, a race car driver. Staring with the American branch of Peugeot, he quickly went over to the Maxwell team, back in the days when race car drivers were like extreme sports celebs today, barnstorming around the country and racing in cobbled-together tracks, in the days long before drivers wore helmets, much less roll bars. Rickenbacker raced in four Indianapolis 500 races back in the late oughts and the early teens.
He got into aviation the same way he got into cars; he happened upon a barnstorming aviator who’d had mechanical problems; he traded some mechanical help for a ride in the plane. And again, he was hooked. The pilot, fatefully, turned out to be T.F. Dodd, who became one of the pioneers of American military aviation, and served as the top aviation officer for the American Expeditionary Force in World War I.
Around then, World War I broke out. Rickenbacker went to Britain – ostensibly to race, but with an ulterior motive of finding ways to get into the fight. The British treated the celebrity – who at the time still spelled his name “Rickenbacher” – with suspicion, keeping him under surveillance as a potential German spy. He returned to America, believing war was imminent, and hatched a plan to recruit fellow race drivers – mostly daredevils and risk-addicts with strong mechanical aptitude – to serve as pilots.
When the US entered the war, Rickenbacker – he’d changed the spelling to make it look more American – joined the Army as an infantryman, but quickly parlayed his celebrity and his contact with Dodd into a job first as an engineering officer with the first of the US Army’s new fighter squadrons, the 94th Pursuit Squadron. He quickly wangled his way into a flight assignment (he had to roust up another engineer to take his job first).
And then he went on a tear, shooting down six German planes in his first month, becoming an “ace” (five kills), one of America’s first, before an ear infection – serious business in the days before planes were pressurized – grounded him for three months. He recovered and, promoted to captain and squadron leader, banged out 20 more confirmed kills by the end of the war, including two kills on his first day back in action. Most of the kills, as a matter of trivia, were among the hardest targets the German air service had to offer, the Fokker D-7 fighters that were at the time the best fighter plane in the air. He was awarded the Medal of Honor for his exploits (belatedly, in 1931), and remained America’s top fighter ace until World War II, where he was first passed by Marine and future South Dakota governor Joe Foss.
He married his first and only wife, Adelaide, in 1922. Adelaide was something of a throw-forward; outspoken, independent, divorced and both opinionated and not averse to make sure people knew it, she and Rickenbacker were married for the next 51 years, ’til Rickenbacker’s death in 1973.
In 1920, capitalizing on his fame but driven by an urge to build a better mousetrap, he founded the Rickenbacker Motor Company. The company’s goal was to build the most advanced cars on the market, incorporating the latest racing technology into passenger cars. The biggest advance – four wheel brakes. At the time, most cars had brakes on the two rear wheels; as a lifelong winter driver, I can only imagine how fun that must have been on the ice.
It was an era long before the auto market coalesced into a “big three” – there were dozens of manufacturers at the time – but the bigger manufacturers at the time engaged in an epic PR battle to try to squeeze Rickenbacker off the road – fearing, as Rickenbacker related it, that their own backlogs of two-wheeled-brake vehicles would be unsaleable.
Rickenbacker Motor Company only lasted until 1927, but its legacy – the four wheel brake system, among many other advances – lives on today; most American auto makers adopted them within a few years. While the major auto makers squeezed Rickenbacker out of the business, they quickly offered him work; he served as a regional sales director for their “Sheridan”, “LaSalle” and “Cadillac” marques, as well as serving, ironically, as head of American distribution for Dutch-owned Fokker Aircraft, 11 of whose aircraft he’d shot down during the war.
Rickenbacker went on to buy the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, turning it into the national institution it is today (before shutting it down at the beginning of World War II). He sold it after the war, but it was during his ownership that many of the traditions of the storied race, and the Brickyard itself, were instituted.
It was via his ongoing interest in aviation that he persuaded GM to invest in “North American Aviation”. One of its subsidiaries, “Eastern Air Transport”, was a fledgling and failing airline; GM appointed Rickenbacker to take over the struggling carrier. He merged it with Florida Airways, turned it into one of the country’s major air carriers, and then arranged to buy the airline from GM in 1938.
It was around this time that Rickenbacker first delved into politics; although he never ran for office, he was an outspoken critic of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal, earning the ire not only of the administration but of much of the press; liberal media bias is nothing new. In 1934, he got into direct conflict with Roosevelt over the President’s decision to cancel all commercial air mail contracts and have the US Army Air Corps deliver the mail. Rickenbacker savaged this decision; when a number of Army pilots, untrained in all-weather cargo flight, were killed in accidents, Rickenbacker condemned the action as “legalized murder”; Roosevelt in turn ordered NBC radio to stop broadcasting Rickenbacker’s statements about Roosevelt.
Still, Eastern thrived.
On February 26, 1941, Eastern Flight 21, on approach to an airfield near Atlanta, crashed into a hillside. Rickenbacker, flying to Atlanta on business, was gravely injured – massive internal injuries, many broken bones and dislocated joints, and an eyeball popped out of its socket. He was trapped, immobilized, and – most frightening of all to Rickenbacker – soaked in aviation fuel. The plane and its survivors sat on the mountainside until morning before searchers found them. Although he’d spent the night encouraging the other survivors to hang on, Rickenbacker had passed out from shock and internal bleeding; he was initially left for dead, and taken off the hillside when the ambulance crews started hauling “bodies”. He was left for dead again at the hospital; his injuries looked unsurvivable. It wasn’t until a doctor noticed he still had a pulse that they worked on trying to save him, the better part of a day after the accident. The newspapers announced that he had been killed in the accident.
It wasn’t the last time in his life that they’d have to retract that story.
In his autobiography, Rickenbacker described the scene – and his battle to stave off death – with riveting intensity. He felt death calling to him – not for the first time in his life, naturally – and described the internal, mental battle to hold on, by far the most intense of his many brushes with death. He was in the hospital for months, and took the better part of a year to get his eyesight completely back. There were eight dead and eight survivors.
While he was recuperating, World War II began. Rickenbacker wanted to fly again – but between his injuries and the usual fifty-year-old stuff, he knew he wasn’t in the game in that way anymore. He visited flight schools, inspected pilots and aircraft, and lent his name and his expertise to the Air Force as it got ready to go fight. And as US forces went into action around the world, he visited – partly as a morale-builder, partly because of his own vast technical knowledge of aircraft.
It was on one of these missions that Rickenbacker had another brush with death. On an inspection tour of bases in the Pacific, and carrying a message from President Roosevelt to General MacArthur in Australia, Rickenbacker’s plane – a B17 Flying Fortress – was en route to a planned fuel stop on Canton Island in the central Pacific. A defect in a damaged navigational instrument caused the crew to fly the plane hundreds of miles off course; they ran out of fuel in the middle, almost literally, of nowhere. The plane “ditched” – carried out an emergency landing in the ocean – and the plane’s crew of six, Rickenbacker and his assitant, all of them injured to one degree or another (and with Rickenbacker still walking with a cane and very much still hurting from the plane crash) climbed aboard three small life rafts.
After a few days lost at sea, the newspapers again declared him dead. His wife prevailed on the Army and Navy not to give up the search.
The rafts’ emergency food supplies ran out after three days. Rickenbacker described their battle to survive; they soaked their clothing with water from passing rain showers, caught and ate raw fish and a small shark, and whatever came their way. In one memorable incident, when the fish gave out, Rickenbacker led the crew in a prayer for salvation – and a seagull landed on his head. He grabbed the hapless bird, killed it, and the crew ate it raw. One of the men died – but Rickenbacker led the crew to keep their spirits until, after 24 days floating at sea, a US Navy search plane found the rafts, on November 13 1942. They had drifted on the current for thousands of miles before being picked up near Tuvalu.
After the war, Rickenbacker continued running Eastern, making it the most profitable airline in the country for many years (he was forced out as CEO during a downturn in 1959, and spent the rest of his life as a conservative activist (who urged respect but caution for the Soviets, whom he’d visited extensively during the war). He wrote his biographpy, “Rickenbacker” in 1967 – I probably found it on my dad’s bookshelf when I was nine or ten years old – and clearly remember reading in the newspaper that Rickenbacker died of a stroke in 1973. For the first time, there was no retraction.
And Rickenbacker’s example, like those of Shackelton and Schmajzner – never, ever give up – has kept me going through an awful lot of much, much lesser trials.
But even when he wasn’t dodging, out-muscling and throwing the finger directly at death, Rickenbacker was an example for the ages. As we watch our school systems crumble, Rickenbacker was a classic example of the self-taught person, and of the power of a curious, agile mind to learn on its own. As a tireless businessman, he was perhaps one of the greatest entrepreneurs in American history – and had the conservative worldview to show for it.
And as the second-generation son of immigrants, he’s one of the greatest examples of what the American spirit should be.
It’s a crime that the story of his life isn’t required learning in our schools today. We’d be a better nation for it.