It was undoubtedly fortunate for Britain that America declared war on Germany on April 2, 1917, with the American Expeditionary Force, commanded by Gen. John Pershing, arriving in France in June of that year. But well before then, brave young Americans were engaging in deadly duels with German pilots in the skies above France. They formed the Lafayette Escadrille. Although not a member of that elite squadron, Eddie Rickenbacker earned himself a remarkable reputation. In two months of aerial combat, he downed 21 German aircraft and five balloons, earning the Distinguished Service Cross Oak Leaf Cluster.
William Reichenbacher and Elizabeth Basler emigrated to the United States from Switzerland. They met and married in Columbus, Ohio. Edward Reichenbacher — he added “Vernon” to his name later — was born there on Oct. 8, 1890. Edward, the third of eight children, knew poverty as a child. His father was killed in a construction accident when Edward was 12. His mother lived until 1946.
The young Reichenbacher had a variety of jobs, most significantly with car manufacturers. In due course, he became a successful racing driver. His racing career ended in May 1917, when he enlisted, initially as an Army driver. At this time, he changed his name to Rickenbacker. He availed himself of any opportunity he could to learn to fly.
In March 1918, he joined the newly formed 94th Pursuit Squadron, flying Nieuport 28 scouts. At first, the planes they flew were unarmed. When this situation changed, Rickenbacker the fighting pilot emerged. His first victory occurred on April 29, 1918, when he downed a Pfalz D.111.
He shot his seventh German aircraft, one of 13 Fokker DV11s, out of the sky on Sept. 14. By then, Rickenbacker was flying the vastly superior Spad X111. These were superb fighting biplanes. All his successes occurred over France. Although often facing long odds, he was fearless.
The French recognized his valor and skill, awarding 1st Lt. Edward Rickenbacker the Croix de Guerre. He was promoted to commander of the 94th Aero Pursuit Squadron. Hailed as America’s “Ace of Aces,” he became a civilian again in 1919.
Already holding the rank of captain, he was promoted to major but preferred to call himself by his former rank.
His postwar career was an uneven one. He formed and became vice president of the Rickenbacker Motor Co., but this failed in 1925. He found time to write his memoirs, “Fighting the Flying Circus.” After other aviation ventures, he became vice president in 1933 of a company later known as Eastern Airlines. In 1938, he became the owner. This company flourished.
Although opposed to the United States becoming involved in World War II, he had no hesitation about serving his country. In 1942, during a tour of Pacific air bases, the B-17 Rickenbacker was piloting ran out of fuel, and he had to ditch. Without either food or water, on three rafts, the crew was lucky to survive. Finally, after 24 days, a U.S. Navy patrol aircraft rescued them. Sadly, one member of the crew died.
Having returned to Eastern Airlines once the war was over, Rickenbacker found himself in frequent conflict with governmental regulation of the airline industry.
On Sept. 16, 1922, at South Beach, Conn., Rickenbacker married Adelaide Frost Durant. She was the wealthy widow of William C. Durant, whose father had founded General Motors Corp. It was a marriage that would last. Although they had no children of their own, they did adopt two boys, David in 1925 and William in 1928.
From 1959, his duties with Eastern Airlines diminishing, Rickenbacker became a respected public speaker. Unfortunately, an increasing amount of bitterness seems to have crept into these talks.
Edward Vernon Rickenbacker, survived by Adelaide, died of pneumonia in Zurich, Switzerland, on July 27, 1973. His body was brought home, and he lies in Greenlawn Cemetery in Columbus, Ohio. His memory lives on as a man of strong opinions, unflinching courage and personal integrity.
• Peter Cliffe, a retired corporate administrator, lives in Hertfordshire, England. He became interested in American history while working with a multinational firm in this country.
By Rand Paul
Obama acts as though we no longer have a Constitution
Independent voices from the TWT Communities
Al Maurer provides a common sense, conservatarian, Constitutional conservative perspective from the battleground state of Colorado
A twenty-something’s musings on religion and today.
In a world that is increasingly complex, we need to seek greater awareness of the blending of cultures and America's changing role in a global community.
Television commentary, reviews, news and nonstop DVR catch-up.
Benghazi: The anatomy of a scandal
Vietnam Memorial adds four names
Cinco de Mayo on the Mall
NRA kicks off annual convention
California wildfires wreak havoc