When I was in basic training at Lackland AFB in August 1968 I looked over at a man standing next to me and noticed the name Rickenbacker on his name tag. I asked him if he was related to Eddie Rickenbacker and he replied "he's my grandfather". I knew that Rickenbacker was our greatest Ace of World War I, with 26 kills, but beyond that I didn't know much about him. In later years I learned that he had been the CEO of Eastern Airlines. What I didn't know was how smart, tough, patriotic, and brave that he was. He was born on October 8, 1890 and died on July 23, 1973. He only had a seventh grade education due to his father being killed in a fight at a young age.. Rickenbacker had many brushes with death in his life. The first was when he was nearly crushed to death in a wagon accident at a young age. Then he almost died as a result of a botched tonsillectomy. A near fatal commercial airliner crash in 1941 and the following year when his bomber crash landed in the Pacific he drifted for 24 days in a life raft. By a miracle he avoided being captured by the Japanese. Rickenbacker was a race car driver that earned the name "Fast Eddie" who raced in the Indianapolis 500 four times before World War I. When war was declared he changed his name from Rickenbacher, because of his German heritage to Rickenbacker to sound more American. As soon as America entered World War I, in April 1917 he joined the Army Air Force and upon arrival in England was a Sergeant First Class. Because of his lack of education he had a hard time becoming a pilot. He would overcome much hardship and bias but he would eventually rise to the rank of Captain scoring 26 kills and becoming a squadron commander. Five of these were heavily armed balloons.
Rickenbacker would put in more than 300 combat hours which was more than any other American pilot. He would not receive the Medal of Honor however until 1931 when he was awarded it by Herbert Hoover. He had a strong character that was reminiscent of Alvin C. York. He was awarded the rank of Major after the war but he felt that he had only earned the rank of Captain. Rickenbacker was also offered movie roles for his fame but like York he turned them down. He was an entrepreneur that started a car company in 1920, pioneering in four wheel braking but the company went bankrupt in 1927. He owed 250,000 dollars to creditors, which is about a million in today's money, but he insisted on paying it back even after he was no longer legally liable for it. Eddie married, adopted two boys, and the couple were together until his death in 1973. Between the wars he was a defense witness in the court martial of General Billy Mitchell. In 1927 he bought the Indianapolis Speedway and operated it for a decade and a half. Rickenbacker did not like the New Deal policies of Franklin Roosevelt. He considered them to be socialism and he was banned from NBC radio for his criticism of Roosevelt's policies. On February 26, 1941 he was a business passenger on a Eastern Airlines DC-3 that crashed near Atlanta Georgia. He was gravely injured, soaked with aviation fuel, and trapped in the wreckage. He gave encouragement to the injured and dying passengers around him. The passengers that were still alive were not found until the next morning.Because of the seriousness of his injuries he was one of the last survivors taken to the hospital. When Rickenbacker arrived his injuries was so bad he was left for dead. The doctors were told to "take care of the live ones". He had a fractured skull, other head injuries, shattered left elbow with a crushed nerve, a paralyzed left hand, broken ribs, a crushed hip socket, a broken pelvis in two places, a severed nerve in his left hip, and a broken left knee. One of his eyeballs was blown out of his eye socket. He spent ten days at deaths door describing it as a period of "overwhelming sensation of calm and pleasure" and that it took a supreme act of will to stay alive. Rickenbacker was in the hospital for months and it took a while to regain his eyesight.
After Pearl Harbor Rickenbacker toured training bases in America and England inspecting troops, equipment and operations. In October 1942 he was sent on a mission by the Secretary of War Henry Stimson. He was to tour bases in the Pacific and to deliver a secret letter of rebuke to General Douglas MacArthur from Roosevelt for some unauthorized public comments made by the popular general. After visiting Hawaii, Rickenbacker was given an old B-17 with faulty navigation equipment. The bomber flew hundreds of miles off course and the pilot was forced to ditch near Japanese held islands. The survivors drifted for thousands of miles in an open life raft. Some of the men were seriously injured and after 3 days their food supply ran out. On the 8th day a sea gull landed on Rickenbacker's head and the bird was used for fishing bait which became a source of food for the survivors. Rickenbacker took a leadership role encouraging and browbeating the survivors. One man died and was buried at sea. The military wanted to give up the search after two weeks but Rickenbacker's wife made them agree to keep looking. The newspapers reported Rickenbacker dead. Finally on November 13 1942 they were spotted by air and rescued. They had been adrift at sea for 24 days. Rickenbacker was able to deliver Roosevelt's letter to MacArthur. He would also write a book about this experience called "Seven Came Through". Rickenbacker formed and owned Eastern Airlines that was one of America's most successful airlines. However it suffered a decline throughout the 1970's and 80's because of labor problems and was finally liquidated in 1991. Rickenbacker suffered a stroke while visiting Switzerland in 1973 and died of complications. Besides earning the Medal of Honor he earned the Distinguished Service Cross eight times, the World War I Victory Medal with six battle clasps, the Legion of Honor, the Croix de guerre with two palms. In 1977, at the age of 92,Rickenbacker's wife Adelaide was completely blind, suffering from failing health, and still grieving severely from the loss of her husband. She committed suicide by gunshot at their home on Key Biscayne, Florida.
|Eddie Rickenbacker on a visit to Nashville|