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Captain Eddie by Robb Hill

Captain Eddie by Robb Hill

Squadron commander Rickenbacker beside his World War I plane.

 

United States World War I "Ace of Aces" and Congressional Medal of Honor Eddie Vernon Rickenbacker was one tough customer. Born on October 8,1890, in Columbus, Ohio to German-Swiss parents, he was the eldest in a family of seven. His life proceeded normally until age 12 when his father died. The day after the funeral his scholastic career ended, to be replaced by a gruelling 12-hour, 6 days-a-Week job. He was assigned the position of pulling hot newly-made bottles from the furnace at the Columbus Glass Company. For his weekly efforts he received the grand salary of $3.50. He was now the newly-established "breadwinner" of the family. Within a short time, he increased the family income to $6.00 per Week by taking a back-breaking job at the Columbus Foundry. Eddie toiled at this and other similar jobs until age 15, when he took a pay-cut and employment as a novice auto mechanic at a Columbus garage.

His fascination with automobiles was intense and he soon learned to drive a one-cylinder Oldsmobile and a steam-powered Locomobile while working at the garage. He was soon smitten by the "Racing Bug" and moved onto a position with the Frayer-Miller Automobile Manufacturing Company. The owner and racing enthusiast, Lee Frayer, saw potential in young Rickenbacher and soon made him his "riding mechanic". The two competed on the racing circuit promoting the merits of the Prayer-Miller entry. Within a year, young Eddie broke into auto racing as driver for Frayer-Miller and proved to be a natural at the game. In 1908, he placed first in eight important County Fair races. The following year he became relief driver for the company's entry into the Indianapolis 500 mile race.

By age 19, Eddie was an old-hand at auto racing. He left Frayer-Miller and was soon driving and Winning for such prestigious racing teams as Duesenburg, Firestone and Maxwell. His racing career spanned the years from 1908 through 1917 and included setting a World speed record of 134 miles per hour at Daytona Beach, driving a "Blitzen Benz" racing machine. In addition were, of course, numerous racing "Wins" against the toughest competitors of his day, such as Ralph Depalma & Mario Resta. If Eddies car held together throughout a race, he most often took the checkered flag.

In 1914, Rickenbacker skimmed a Blitzen Benz over the sands of Daytona Beach to a worlds record of 134 miles per hour:

 

Sgt. Rickenbacker as General Pershings chauffeur

 

While auto-racing engrossed his life, he was truly aware of the threat to America and the democratic Way of life posed by Germany. The war was Well into its third year when Eddie traveled to England to purchase some racing cars. The sales were never consummated as Eddies teutonic surname of Richenbacher placed him under immediate suspicion by the British government. He was placed under surveillance as a spy and it took all of the influence of the British racing fraternity to convince the government otherwise. The result of this experience was so traumatic to an intensely patriotic individual such as Eddie that he immediately changed the spelling of his last name to Rickenbacker to avoid any further possible suspicion concerning it.

In the aftermath of this incident, the United States entered the WWI conflict and Eddie quickly returned home. Several months later, however he was headed back to England as U.S. Army Sergeant Eddie Rickenbacker, personal chauffeur to Commanding General John J. Pershing. Apparently the General found Eddies driving a bit too racy for his tastes and had him quickly reassigned. Eddie had, by that time, become intrigued with the aircraft of WWI and became intent on becoming a fighter pilot. Over-coming some major obstacles, the "iron-willed" Eddie soon became qualified in the fledgling art of flying. He was first assigned to Nieuport Fighters and mastered the intricacies of that aircraft quickly and sufficiently to bag his first enemy aircraft on April 29, 1918. After his initial victory, he never looked back and his adversary total rose quickly. After his 12th victory, he was promoted to Captain and given command of the famous 94th "Hat in the Ring" Squadron.

Eddie was as much a natural at flying as he was at racing. His combat exploits soon became legendary. He once single-handedly attacked a flight of seven German fighters, and shot down two of them without receiving so much as a scratch. Later in his career four deadly "Fokker From Von Richthofens Flying Circus" overtook and surrounded his aircraft. Things looked dim but a narrative of the episode was supplied by Captain Eddie himself. He stated, "I had to start something fast. I dived at full speed on the plane nearest me below, shooting with both guns. He ran straight through my line of fire. Flames shot out of his gas tank and I believe that several bullets passed through his body." "Then I blind-looped and reversed in the belief
that the planes above would now be close on my tail and ready to shoot. Again I guessed correctly and they were so staled they turned tail and lit out for their own lines. I followed and got one behind their lines!"

Bombing a German base in 1918.

 

Captain Eddie always loved the lime light, but was quick to attribute much of his combat success to two of his most influential motivators, Americans Raoul Lufberry and James Norman Hall. Both of these famed fighter pilots had served as volunteers with the famous Lafayette Escadrille prior to our entedng the war. These two men taught Eddie the deadly tricks of the air combat trade and he took them quickly to heart and was soon making history. By wars end, Eddie has amassed a grand total of 26 aerial victories and had probably shot down another seven aircraft which went unconfirmed. This made him far and away the nations leading ace.

A short time after the WWI armistice on November ll, 1918 Captain Eddie returned home, a national hero at age 28. He Was, to say the least, a "hot property" during the early post-War years. He authored "Fighting the Flying Circus" which sold Well, and he was in great demand on the lecture circuit. His personal endorsement of any product or commercial venture nearly guaranteed its success. In 1920, his interest returned to the automotive industry and he founded the Rickenbacker Motor Car Company with much fan fare. Unfortunately, memories of past Wartime glory have a habit of fading with time and the nations economy was fading swiftly by 1929. As a result, the Rickenbacker Car Company declared bankruptcy with Captain Eddie owing a debt of $200,000, which he was unable to pay. For Eddie this was a grave setback, presenting him with one of his lifes greatest challenges. This indomitable man would have to humbly pick up the pieces and begin his life anew. His entrepreneurial days were temporarily over and he would seek what employment he could find. His past record did get him a job as Assistant Sales Manager with Cadillac and went well for a short period. Soon a syndicate of investors who purchased the Indianapolis Motor Speedway asked him to assume the position of President. Eddie accepted and remained with them until the lure of the fledgling aviation industry took him from it. He accepted the position of Vice-president of Fokker Aircraft, manufacturers of most of the Worlds airlines in the early l930s. This, in turn, led to a Vice-presidency with American Airlines. At this juncture of his career, Eddie, who always held strong and vocal opinions on matters of national importance, voiced his dissent against the newly-elected President of the United States, Franklin Delano Roosevelt. The issue was over the government seizing the mail routes from the airlines and turning them over to the U.S. Army Air Service.

Captain Eddie predicted a disastrous end to FDRs move and was proved correct. Not only did it devastate the country's fledgling airline industry, but it jeopardised the lives of military aviators. Their aircraft and training Were unsuited to the task at hand and 12 died before the futile experiment was abandoned. Eddie resigned his Reserve Colonels Commission in protest in 1934 and would never, strictly of his own choosing, hold military rank again. One year after the military airmail fiasco, Eddie joined Eastern Airlines as General Manager and embarked on yet another chapter of his dynamic destiny. For the next three years he devoted his total energies toward building Eastern's status in the industry. His control over the airline was, however, subservient to a board of directors, but in 1938 a most fortuitous event would change that. North American Aviation, the holding company for Eastern, was placed under government pressure to divest itself of Eastern. This came about as a result of a 1934 act which forbade the same company to manufacture aircraft and hold U.S. mail contracts. Captain Eddie marshalled all of his influence with key investors to come up with the $3,500,000 required to purchase Eastern. The airline, now under Eddies total control virtually soared. Within three years he moved it from Obscurity to 2nd in the industry. Captain Eddie was a tough dynamic leader. It was his Way or no Way but he was the man of the hour for Eastern. By 1941, he was at the top of his profession but would soon suffer a setback that would do everything but kill him.

 

A close-up of the terrible crash in Atlanta, Georgia

 

Eddie hovered between life and death for weeks. but his iron nerve was unbroken.


While commuting aboard a scheduled Eastern DC-3 flight on February 21, 1941, the airliner crashed into the trees near Atlanta, Georgia. All eight of his fellow passengers were killed upon impact and the aircraft was unrecognizable as such from the crash. As rescue crews approached the battered wreckage, a small but firm Voice was heard imploring everyone to,Please be calm. Please don't light any matches. It Was, of course, Eddie. His broken body lay for six Weeks hovering between life and death. Then one miraculous day, it became evident he Would live and his amazing recovery began. At first he could not walk, then only with crutches. Those were replaced by a cane. Then it, too, was discarded and the 51-year-old President of Eastern Went back to Work.

Americas entry into WWII would soon occur and Eddie would again be called upon to serve his country. He would do so, on strictly his own terms. At the outbreak of the War, the United States Army Air Forces Commanding General, Hap Arnold, Wanted Eddie to serve on fact-finding missions, do public relations and serve as a high-level liaison emissary representing the U.S. throughout the World. ln an effort to induce Eddie to accept the position, he was offered a Major Generals commission in the U.S.A.A.F. Captain Eddie emphatically declined this prestigious position as a general but agreed to serve his country in that capacity for $1.00 a year, paying his own expenses. When Hap Arnold suggested he would be more effective in the role as a high-rankng officer, he retorted, replaying, "No sir, when I get back, I want to be able to pound the table, point to the facts, and get some action." After the conclusion of several fact-finding missions, he did just that. Within the first year of the War, he had traveled over 14,000 miles investigating military facilities and delivering morale talks. He focused all his energies on his new mission, getting results, but on an important mission, Eddies luck appeared to run out. In mid-October of 1942, he began a highly secret journey which would take him from San Francisco, California, to Port Moresby, Australia, to deliver a message to General MacArthur.

His initial flight took him from San Francisco to Hawaii aboard a Pan American Clipper. This portion of the long journey went uneventfully, but the next would be aboard a B-17 taking him to Port Moresby via Canton Island for a refueling stop. Canton Island lies some 1900 miles southwest of Hawaii and Eddies B-17 never made it. Faulty navigation and lack of direction-finding equipment were blamed when the B-17 was reported long overdue. A massive area search was initiated without result but somewhere in the South Pacific a tiny group of three life rafts, with the entire crew aboard, drifted on a merciless ocean. After running out of fuel, the pilot, Captain Bill Cherry, successfully Ditched the bomber in rough seas. Three life rafts were quickly launched from the stricken bomber. All personnel, including two injured in the Water landing, climbed aboard as the three life rafts, now lashed together, drifted away from the sinking B- 17. The realization that virtually no food and Water had been retrieved, sank him. Almost immediately in the aftermath of the ditching Captain Eddies indomitable personality took command, as he became the defacto leader of one of the most harrowing sea survival sagas in history.

Weak, but still on his feet, Cape. Rickenbacker is helped from the Navy Catalina Flying Boat which made the rescue.

 

For the first Week, the eight survivors had to endure the agony of hunger and, more importantly, thirst. On the 8th day, it rained and men were able to drink, and retain some water entrapped in the rafts for a day or two. During this period, tempers flared and Eddie had to keep the peace as Well as console and care for the two injured crew-members. One of the two, U.S.A.A.F. Sergeant and Aircraft Crew-Chief, Alex Kacmarczyk, had just recovered from appendicitis and jaundice and was returning to his unit. His weakened condition, combined with minor injuries sustained in the crash (in addition to the ordeal itself), proved too much to overcome and he died on the 13th day out. The remaining injured man, Colonel Adamson, also a passenger on the flight clung stubbornly to life as the relentless ordeal continued. Occasionally the gallant little flotilla would be blessed with the capture of an errant bird or fish, which would then be divided equally between all. The problem was that most, being so parched from thirst, were unable to partake of the exceedingly unpalatable fare. On the 17th day out, with hopes of rescue ebbing, a single-engine seaplane was spotted in the distance. Amid shouting and waving of arms it flew off, oblivious to the plight of the men, whose ordeal would continue.

The next day two planes appeared, but flew off before Contact could be made. The desperation of the survivors became such that a decision was made to cut the three rafts adrift in hopes that at least one would be spotted before it was too late. Captain Eddie was against the decision but did not vehemently oppose it. On the 19th day the rafts slowly drifted out of sight of one another. Now alone and adrift, Captain Eddie and his two weakened companions tenaciously held out hope of rescue. It mercifully came in the form of a land-based search plane which circled above their raft. Just before sunset, a seaplane landed nearby and the three survivors, all near death, were gathered aboard. The decision to split up the rafts was probably responsible for the rescue of all of the group. The pilot, Captain Cherry's raft had been spotted and the survivors rescued on the previous day. This insured that all available search aircraft would be searching for the remaining survivors. Although Captain Eddies Weight had dwindled from 180 to 125 pounds, his resilience and subsequent recovery from the long ordeal was truly amazing. He had, once again, cheated death and was anxious to get on with his Work, which Within a matter of weeks, he did. One extremely positive result of his crash ordeal was to virtually revolutionize the type and amount of survival gear contained within and carried aboard military aircraft. His recommendation based on his groups grim experience, and their implementation saved the lives of many many men. Eddie would continue his cantankerous outspoken Ways throughout the War. He would travel over 55,000 miles and speak to over 300,000 service men. When he noted deficiencies in a theater of operations, he would emphatically state his case, bang on the table, and do his utmost to get something done about it.

The war would soon come to an end and, once again, all-American Captain Eddie would make a vital contribution to it. To say that he held a lifelong conservative viewpoint would be a gross understatement. One of his peers, Bob Six, President of Continental Airlines, stated, Compared to Eddie, a John Bircher Was a liberal. In all fairness to Captain Eddie, his extreme patriotism, combined with his indomitable will and marvelous accomplishments, made him a true hero of the 20th century. Eddie was once again looking for ways to expand Eastern and he found them until his tenure as President ended in 1953. He remained as Chairman of the Board until 1963. Eddies career and places in history Were assured from his exploits during WWI, but as far as he was concerned it had just began. During the next 35 years, he led Eastern Airlines from obscurity to greatness, and made a vital contribution to our victory in WWII. Finally, this seasoned veteran of both World wars, who knew both the thrill of victory and the devastation of defeat was laid to rest in 1963.

Eddie the indestructible comes home again

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