- - Thursday, June 26, 2014


By John F. Ross
St. Martin’s Press, $27.99, 375 pages

Anyone who was a boy in 1945 remembers this personification of sang froid: Movie actor Fred MacMurray, adrift in a life raft, sits motionless as a seabird perches on his head, then carefully reaches up to grab the bird for his starved companions’ first food in weeks. His cool lies not only in surviving a plane’s ditching in the Pacific, and the ordeal of an open boat, but in making dinner of raw gull.

A brisk and informing read, “Enduring Courage” describes Eddie Rickenbacker, the rock-jawed hero who MacMurray played, as an indefatigable pioneer taming new frontiers in maelstrom decades of our past. Indeed, the book is as much a social history as an oblique biography of the nervy hero who bestrode several eras — the infancy of motorcars, World War I, the rise of commercial aviation, then World War II.

Reading backward through his Olympian resume, Rickenbacker helped the latter war effort with victory tours and clandestine errands. (His fabled encounter with the sea gull occurred after embarking on a secret mission for the secretary of war to deliver a verbal message too incendiary for normal channels: the “stinging reprimand” of Douglas MacArthur for insubordination.)

Between the wars, Rickenbacker nursed Eastern Airlines into an aviation giant. In the previous war, he was one of the pilots who invented the dogfight and became the “ace of aces” who downed the most German planes, including the fabled Red Baron’s. Before that, he raced cars as undisputed champion, a national celebrity. All this after a Horatio Alger boyhood — beatings by a drunk father, grinding work to support his family from the age of 13, then racing up a ladder of serendipity.

John F. Ross, erstwhile Smithsonian editor, wrote a book about risk-taking and then “War on the Run,” a prizewinning biography of the American who codified guerrilla warfare in the 1750s. His engaging new book, surveying the risky realms of racing and air wars, reminds the reader how fast the world changes — and how much remains the same.

“The age of speed,” as Mr. Ross calls it, began with the invention of the internal combustion engine in 1895, took flight at Kitty Hawk eight years later, changed the face of war in the next decade, and transformed American life within a generation. Rickenbacker was aboard or aloft for all of it. His life is an apt vehicle for its history.

Rickenbacker began racing as a teenage mechanic riding beside the driver to operate the oil pump and warn when tire treads wore down to bare fabric. Thrown from these open cars, which lacked fixed seats and windshields, mechanics lost their lives sooner than drivers, who at least had steering wheels to hang on to.

Rickenbacker’s life provides ample grist for thrilling narrative (and gruesome detail). Yet serving the good purposes of history, Mr. Ross artfully strikes resonances between eras. In the worst attack on U.S. soil since 1812, German-American saboteurs destroyed the Black Tom arms depot in New York harbor in 1916, detonating its 2 million pounds of explosives and causing a tremor felt in Philadelphia. Twenty-five years later, Franklin Roosevelt said, “we don’t want any more Black Toms,” thus rationalizing the internment of Japanese-Americans.

Mr. Ross notes the chronic penchant of military bureaucrats for gross stupidity: “Swivel-chair” brass withheld parachutes because they thought that if doughboy pilots had a way to survive engine failures or dogfights they might bail out and lose costly planes. He offers statistics unique to a historical moment, then tweaks the reader with a wry aside. In World War I, the U.S Air Service grew from a cadre of 1,100 officers and men to a corps of more than 200,000, more “than fought on both sides at Gettysburg.” But their rickety biplanes were lethal; flight training “killed eleven students out of a hundred — and that before anybody started shooting at them.”

Portraying the ultimate daredevil in an age of daredevilry, Mr. Ross wrings out as much excitement as the material holds in describing Rickenbacker’s violent worlds. Yet, he discovers the man to be rational, a controlled egotist, whether on the car track or over the Western Front. “It wasn’t always recklessness,” Eddie wrote of racing. “It was a predetermined chance or hazard, and you tried to think ahead to what would happen to you if. And in so doing, you usually kept away from that breaking point.” As for fighting the Hun, he took his wood-and-canvas craft to perilous altitudes, risking blackout and frostbite, then dove out of the sun at hapless adversaries below, like a hawk on pigeons. Rising to command, he ordered his comrades not to take even 50-50 chances, but always to improve their odds.

Mr. Ross states his purpose: “Examining his life offers us an extraordinarily rich salient into the intersection of fate, luck, will and intention — as well as the early twentieth-century American spirit that launched a self-absorbed nation into becoming a world power. Ultimately, Rickenbacker’s story boils down to courage. Not the kind of raw courage that comes in a blinding rush to push a car off a child or charge a machine-gun nest. But one that is trained to purpose and gets stronger, wiser and more effective with experience.”

Which recalls the life raft and the bird. Lost in an empty ocean, Rickenbacker saw his raft-mates starting to give up, but he had “one weapon left”; namely, “to brutalize and jar those whose chins sagged too far … I raged at them until they found reason to live.” Survivors of that 24-day ordeal said Rickenbacker’s torrents of abuse made them hate him enough to make them stay alive — and let them eat gull.

Philip Kopper, publisher of Posterity Press in Bethesda, writes about America’s history and culture.

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