Eddie Rickenbacker was America’s Ace of Aces with 26 kills during World War I. Despite his initial rejection into flight school because of his 8th grade education, Eddie eventually became the leading ace, Medal of Honor winner, darling of the Allied media, and commander of the 94th “Hat in the Ring” Squadron. The world knows him for such heroics, but they were just expressions of who he really was–a quiet, every day over-achiever who never took himself too seriously or forgot his roots.
Losing his father at 13, Eddie Rickenbacker instantly became the man of the house. The third of 9 children, but the one who felt the responsibility most for his family, Eddie dropped out of school , lied about his age, and got his first of many jobs. Each employer loved him, his work ethic, and his thirst for knowledge, and before most kids today have even considered earning a paycheck, Eddie had worked for a glass manufacturer, a machine shop, a bicycle shop, and an automotive repair shop. He paid the family bills, paid off his mother’s mortgage, and resolved to never let her suffer like she did upon the loss of her husband. This compassion and ‘never quit’ attitude–along with what he considered a large amount of Divine protection–created one of the greatest personal success stories of the Twentieth Century.
Starting World War I as a personal driver for high-ranking officers, his tenacity and mechanical knowledge soon helped him secure a pilot slot and commission with the help of Brigadier General Billy Mitchell. Initially mocked by his fellow pilots for his lack of education and poor roots, each of them learned to respect him for his drive, his skill as a pilot, and his uncanny ability to stay alive and beat even the best the German Air Force threw at him. He walked away from multiple mishaps that killed lesser pilots, saved the life of many a wingman, and religiously taught his younger pilots the finer points of combat flying, leading from the front. It was his squadron mates who eventually petitioned to have him as their commander.
Returning from the war, Rickenbacker was offered a $100,000 movie contract, endorsement deals, cush jobs with companies that wanted a poster boy, and many other opportunities. True to his character, Rickenbacker refused all of these opportunities because he wanted to make money and be known for his honest work and innovation. He was not hungry for power, fame, or even money if he could not ‘earn’ it. He first built an auto company, consulted in aircraft design, saved the Indianapolis 500 from certain closure and turned it into the auto venue that it is even today, and became president of Easter Airlines. With each success, his characteristic drive and leadership were hallmarks.
Even in his early fifties, with the onset of World War II, Rickenbacker’s ‘luck’ preserved him from some miraculous accidents and allowed him to continue his service to his fellow man. As a passenger on a transcontinental Eastern flight in 1941, he was involved in a crash that killed half of the crew and broke his back, pelvis, and left him with multiple other scars and handicaps. Recovering despite predictions of his demise, he became General Hap Arnold and Secretary of War Stimson’s personal advisor, traveling around the world inspecting training programs. On one such trip to the Pacific, the crew he was with became lost in the South Pacific and ditched in the ocean. Rickenbacker’s leadership–and, according to him, Divine protection–kept 7 of the 8 crew members alive for 24 days until rescued. Despite the resulting health challenges, Rickenbacker continued on his work and finished inspecting Allied forces around the world. Not asking for a generalship or a political appointment, Rickenbacker served because he felt it was the right thing to do.
As a father, his love to his wife and children was evident in personal letters and public expressions of affection for each of them. I’m sure that his family did not see him as a national hero or chief executive. They saw him as a father and husband, a friend.
In a world of selfies, or even in a time when even ‘good’ leaders sought the spotlight, Eddie Rickenbacker sought goodness. He sought self-improvement. He sought innovation and progress. He could have been a politician, a general, or a movie star, but instead just wanted to be good, and to earn an honest day’s wage for an honest day’s labor. When everyone tries to capitalize on their thirty seconds of fame, how nice it would be to have a few leaders like Eddie Rickenbacker today.
Eddie was a national hero, but his true heroism had nothing to do with the worldly exploits. He was a hero for the kind of person he was, and how he applied that character to life’s challenges.
Thanks to Bryce Gibby for most of the facts from this article. His work, “Valiant Young Men”, brought this ace of aces and gentlemen of gentlemen to life for me many years after I first studied his history over thirty years ago. Great read.