October 8, 1890 - July 27, 1973
in his SPAD S.XIII
Place of birth Columbus, Ohio
Allegiance U.S. Army
Battles/wars World War I
Awards Medal of Honor
Distinguished Service Cross (USA)
Vernon Rickenbacker was born Edward Rickenbacher in Columbus, Ohio,
to German-speaking Swiss immigrants. During World War I, he changed
the "h" in his last name to "k" in an effort to
"take the Hun out of his name." As he was already well known
at the time, the change received wide publicity. "From then on",
as he wrote in his autobiography, "most Rickenbachers were practically
forced to spell their name in the way I had..."  He started
using the name "Vernon" as a middle name because he believed
his given name "looked a little plain." He was primarily concerned
with what his new middle initial would be. After settling upon "V",
he selected "Vernon" as a middle initial name. 
Eddie Rickenbacker loved machines and experimented with them, encouraged
by his father's words "A machine has to have a purpose" .
When Eddie Rickenbacker's
father, William Rickenbacher, was killed at a construction site in 1904,
young Eddie chose to quit school at age 13 to support his mother and
siblings. He turned to trade work, first as a night-shift glazer and
then later as a worker in a steel mill.
In what was to become one of the defining characteristics of Eddie Rickenbacker's
life, Rickenbacker nearly died many times, from an early run-in with
a horse-drawn carriage, to a botched surgery, to airplane crashes. His
first near-death experience occurred in 1918, when he noticed himself
bleeding to death from an internal surgery wound. He also was said to
have gone to North Carolina for a break where he went into a river.
An alligator was in the water and he distracted it by tossing a piece
of meat into the water.
Auto racing career
Rickenbacker participated in the formative years of auto racing as a
driver. Before owning and operating the Indianapolis Motor Speedway,
he participated in some of the first 500-mile races held there.
World War Iwanted
to join the Allied troops in World War I, but the U.S. had not committed.
He had several chance encounters with aviators, including a fortuitous
incident where he repaired a stranded aircraft for T.F. Dodd, a man
who would become General "Black Jack" Pershing's aviation
officer and an important contact in Rickenbacker's attempt to join air
Suspected of spying
In 1916, Rickenbacker traveled to Paris, with the aim of developing
an English car for American races. Because of press innuendo and Rickenbacker's
known Swiss heritage, he was suspected of being a spy. En route and
in England, agents closely monitored his actions.
Eager to fight
Rickenbacker helped organize an advance group of soldiers to be ready
if the United States joined the war. When, in 1917, the United States
declared war on Germany, Rickenbacker had enlisted in the U.S. Army
and was training in France with the very first American troops. Rickenbacker
arrived in France on June 26, 1917 as sergeant first-class.
Learning to fly
Most men chosen for pilot training had degrees from prestigious colleges,[citation
needed] and Rickenbacker had to struggle to gain permission to fly because
of his perceived lack of qualifications.
Because of his prodigious
mechanical abilities, Rickenbacker obtained a position as engineering
officer in a flight-training facility at Issoudun, where Rickenbacker
practiced flying during his free time. He flew Nieuport 28 and SPAD
XIII aircraft. He learned to fly well, but because his skills were badly
needed at the training facility, Rickenbacker's superiors tried to prevent
him from attaining his wings with the other pilots.
94th Aero Squadron
Rickenbacker demonstrated that he had a qualified replacement, and the
military awarded Rickenbacker a place in America's first air-combat
squadron, the 94th Aero Squadron, informally known as the Hat-in-the-Ring
Squadron. He flew rudimentary aircraft, sometimes without weaponry,
alongside French pilots. The 94th periodically faced Germany's legendary
Flying Circus, led by the Red Baron, Manfred von Richthofen, until von
Richthofen's death in combat. On April 29, 1918, Rickenbacker shot down
his first plane. During WWI, Rickenbacker and the other pilots developed
important aviation principles that would serve them in civil aviation
and in WWII combat.
Capt. Eddie Rickenbacker, United States Army Air Service, c.1919Respect
for him grew as his successes mounted. Rickenbacker was awarded the
French Croix de Guerre in May 1918, for shooting down five German airplanes.
On September 24, 1918, now a captain, he was named commander of the
squadron, and on the following day, he shot down two more German planes,
for which he was belatedly awarded the Medal of Honor in 1931. Rickenbacker's
26 victories constituted an American record that stood until World War
The military determined
ace status by counting the number of aircraft shot down by a pilot,
and verifying reports with ground witnesses and the affirmations of
other pilots. If no witnesses could be found, a reported kill was not
counted. In 1969, the U.S. Air Force released Historical Study 133.
This study converted the whole victory credits awarded into fractions,
to show which credits were shared and to calculate the number of enemy
aircraft actually covered by the credits. This was more in line with
the criteria the Americans applied in World War II, but it did not reflect
the actual credits awarded. Confusion resulted, because researchers
using Historical Study 133 would sometimes add the fractions of flyers
to get their aerial victory credit totals. Rickenbacker's official score
of 26 still stands, which can be seen at the USAF Historical Research
Agency. While the US Air Service credited "out of control"
and other nonfatal victories, in terms of aircraft destroyed, Rickenbacker's
tally was six airplanes and three balloons in the air, plus two balloons
on the ground. (Several other Americans were credited with more enemy
aircraft destroyed but fewer victories, including Frank Luke; Raoul
Lufbery, who flew with the French; and Frederick Gilette and Harold
Kullburg of the RAF.) Nevertheless, Rickenbacker flew a total of 300
combat hours, reportedly more than any other U.S. pilot in the war.
The most successful
American ace at that time, Rickenbacker was dubbed by the press as America's
"Ace of Aces." He claimed his 26th and final plane on October
30, 1918, 12 days before the end of the war.
learned of the Armistice, he flew an airplane above the western front
to observe the cease fire and the displays of joy and comradeship as
the formerly warring troops crossed the front lines and joined in celebration.
of war events, more fame
After World War I ended, Eddie was approached for publicity exploits.
He chose to go on a Liberty bond tour, but declined to use his renown
for more celebrity or personal gain. Rickenbacker described his WWI
flying experiences in his memoirs, Fighting the Flying Circus. published
after the war. In this book, he also describes the character, exploits,
and death of fellow pilot Lt. Quentin Roosevelt, the son of American
President Theodore Roosevelt. Fighting the Flying Circus is now in the
public domain, and the text is available online. .
Bombers of WWI (file
Video clip of Rickenbacker conducting a bombing run over German lines.
Problems seeing the videos? See media help.
In 1925 Rickenbacker was a defense witness-along with Hap Arnold, Tooey
Spaatz, Ira Eaker and Fiorello H. LaGuardia-in the court-martial of
General Billy Mitchell.
and family life
Rickenbacker expressed strong patriotism, beginning in childhood. Realising
that his German name appeared to undermine his credibility as a fully
American citizen, Rickenbacker changed the spelling of his name while
in France in WWI. He professed a strong Christian faith (though he was
not accustomed to sharing it until after his experience of being stranded
on the Pacific Ocean for 24 days in 1942), and urged honest dealings,
corporate and personal. Eddie Rickenbacker promoted technology and innovation
and predicted many events that eventually came to pass, such as the
prevalence of air transportation, and the critical role an air combat
division would play in future wars. Many of his ideas that eventually
occurred were met with scepticism or outright disbelief when he expressed
also adamantly opposed to Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal policies, seeing
them as little better than socialism. For this he drew criticism and
ire from the press and the Roosevelt Administration, which ordered NBC
Radio not to allow him to broadcast opinions critical of FDR's policies
after Rickenbacker harshly denounced FDR's use of Air Force pilots to
carry Air Mail; the primary reason for the denunciation was that several
of the pilots died in crashes while carrying the mail.
In 1922, Rickenbacker
married Adelaide Frost; their marriage lasted for the rest of his life.
Although they spent considerable time in Florida, Texas, and Ohio, the
Rickenbackers lived chiefly in New York City. They adopted two sons:
David, in 1925, and William, in 1928. Adelaide represented an unconventional
wife for the era; she was five years older than her husband, had previously
married, and was outspoken and active. As independent as she was, Adelaide
fully supported Rickenbacker's endeavors until his death in 1973. In
1977, Adelaide committed suicide.
Still interested in machines, Rickenbacker started an automobile company
(see: Rickenbacker), selling technologically advanced cars based on
innovations discovered in automobile racing. The Rickenbacker came equipped
with the first four-wheel brake system. Probably due to the resistance
to this idea propagated by other car manufacturers, who had inventory
lacking four-wheel braking systems, Rickenbacker's car company was financially
unsuccessful. He went into massive debt, because of company losses,
and determined to pay back everything he owed. Eventually, all vehicles
manufactured in the U.S. incorporated four-wheel braking.
Managing the Indianapolis
In 1927, Rickenbacker bought the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, which
he would operate for nearly a decade and a half before closing it down
due to World War II. Rickenbacker oversaw many improvements of the facility,
such as banking the curves to enable better and safer turning. In 1945,
Rickenbacker sold the Speedway to Terre Haute, Indiana businessman Anton
Once the Speedway
operations were under control, Rickenbacker looked for additional opportunities
for entrepreneurship, including sales for the Cadillac division of General
Motors and various aircraft manufacturers and airlines.
Eastern Air Lines
Rickenbacker's most lasting business endeavor was his lifelong leadership
of Eastern Air Lines. With the help of friends he had met in the war,
or in car racing, or in other walks of life, Eddie Rickenbacker combined
Eastern Air Transport with Florida Airways to form Eastern Air Lines,
an airline that would grow from a company flying a few thousand air
miles per week to a major international transportation company.
many radical changes in the field of commercial aviation. He negotiated
with the U.S. government to acquire air mail routes, a great advantage
to companies in need of business. He helped develop and support new
aircraft designs. Rickenbacker acquired historic aircraft for Eastern,
including the Lockheed Constellation commissioned by Howard Hughes for
Trans World Airlines (Rickenbacker, 1967, 440). Rickenbacker personally
collaborated with many of the pioneers of aviation, including Donald
Wills Douglas, Sr., founder of the Douglas Aircraft Company that would
become McDonnell Douglas.
He helped convince
the American public to consider flying; but, always aware of the possibility
of accidents, Rickenbacker avoided calling the new method of transportation
"safe." In his autobiography, he wrote "I have never
liked to use the word "safe" in connection with either Eastern
Air Lines or the entire transportation field; I prefer the word "reliable.""
(Rickenbacker, 1967, page 261).
Surviving a fatal
Main article: Eastern Air Lines Flight 21
Rickenbacker often traveled for business on Eastern Airlines flights,
and on February 26, 1941, a DC-3 flying Eddie Rickenbacker and other
passengers crashed outside Atlanta. Rickenbacker suffered grave injuries,
was soaked in fuel, and was immobile and trapped in the wreckage. In
spite of his own critical wounds, Rickenbacker encouraged the uninjured
passengers, offered what consolation he could to those around him who
were injured or dying, and guided the still-mobile survivors to attempt
to find help. They were rescued after spending the night at the crash
site. Rickenbacker barely survived, and this was the first time the
press announced his death while he was still alive.
In a dramatic retelling
of the incident, Rickenbacker's autobiography relates his astonishing
experiences: while still conscious but in terrible pain, Rickenbacker
was left behind while ambulances transported bodies of those killed
in the accident. When he arrived at a hospital, his injuries appeared
so grotesque that doctors left him for dead for some time, instructing
staff to "take care of the live ones." (Rickenbacker, 275)
Rickenbacker's injuries included a dented skull, other head injuries,
shattered left elbow and crushed nerve, paralyzed left hand, several
broken ribs, a crushed hip socket, twice-broken pelvis, severed nerve
in his left hip, and a broken left knee. Most shocking, his left eyeball
was expelled from the socket. (Rickenbacker, 273) He recovered from
these after months in the hospital, and regained full eyesight.
the experience with vivid accounts of his mentality as he approached
death, emphasizing the supreme act of will necessary to stave it off.
His autobiography reported that he spent ten days on the brink of death,
which he illustrated as an overwhelming sensation of calm and pleasure
(Rickenbacker, 1967, 278).
For a time, Eastern was the most profitable airline in the post-war
era. In the late 1950s, Eastern's fortunes changed, and Rickenbacker
was forced out of his CEO position on October 1, 1959. He left his position
as chairman of the board December 31, 1963.
World War II
Rickenbacker supported the war effort as a civilian. In 1942, he toured
training bases in the southwestern United States and in England. He
encouraged the American public to contribute their time and resources
to success in WWII, and pledged Eastern Airlines equipment and personnel
for use in military activities.
the military extensively, inspecting troops, operations, and equipment,
and serving in a publicity function to increase support from civilians
and soldiers. In 1942, with a sweeping letter of authorization from
Henry L. Stimson, U.S. Secretary of War, Rickenbacker visited England
on an official war mission and made ground-breaking recommendations
for better war operations.
Adrift at sea
One of Rickenbacker's most famous near-death experiences occurred during
the service of the United States war effort. In October 1942, Rickenbacker
was sent on a tour of the Pacific theater to review conditions, operations,
and to personally deliver a secret message to General MacArthur. After
visiting bases in Hawaii, the B-17D, 40-3089, in which he was flying
went off course hundreds of miles from its first scheduled stop at Canton
Island. The airplane had flown in an undetected tailwind, which carried
them faster than they knew and rendered their calculations ineffective.
This accident later resulted in improved navigation tools for aircraft,
and improved survival gear provided on aircraft. The pilot ditched the
plane in the Pacific, dangerously close to Japanese-held enemy territory.
For 24 days, Rickenbacker,
his friend and business partner, and the crew drifted at sea without
food or water aside from an occasional fish and rain. Rickenbacker still
suffered from the airline crash, his friend Hans Adamson sustained serious
injuries in the water landing, and others in the crew were hurt to varying
degrees. The crew's food supply ran out after three days. On Day 8 a
seagull landed on Rickenbacker's head. Rickenbacker painstakingly caught
it, and the survivors meticulously divided it equally and used some
for fishing bait. They lived on sporadic rain water and similar food
"miracles." Rickenbacker assumed a role of leadership, encouragement,
and browbeating to help the others survive, and encouraged them to turn
to God for solace. According to Rickenbacker, each person on the rafts
converted to Christianity after the experience. The U.S. Army Air Forces,
unable to find them, intended to abandon the lost crew after searching
unsuccessfully for more than two weeks, but Rickenbacker's wife convinced
them to extend the search another week. Once again, the press reported
that Rickenbacker had died.
Navy pilots rescued
the surviving members of the crew, suffering from exposure, dehydration,
and starvation, on November 13, 1942. One serviceman had died and was
buried at sea. Rickenbacker completed his assignment and delivered MacArthur's
secret message. No one ever made the message public.
It should be noted
that Rickenbacker initially thought that he had been lost a mere 21
days, and wrote thus in a book about the experience published by Doubleday.
It was not until later that he recalculated and corrected the error
in his 1967 autobiography.
1943: Mission to
Still determined to support the U.S. war effort, Rickenbacker suggested
a fact-finding mission in the Soviet Union to provide the Soviets with
needed technical assistance for their American aircraft. His private
objective was to gain knowledge about ever-more hostile Soviet military
to enter the Soviet Union
Rickenbacker approached Soviet diplomats, and avoided requesting help
from President Franklin Roosevelt, alluding to personal disagreements
between the two. With the help of the Secretary of War and by trading
favors with the Soviet ambassador, Rickenbacker secured unlikely permission
to travel to the Soviet Union.
The War Department
provided everything Rickenbacker needed, including a highly unusual
letter stating that the bearer was authorized to "visit ... any
... areas he may deem necessary for such purposes as he will explain
to you in person," signed by the Secretary of War (Rickenbacker,
around the world
Rickenbacker's trip took him over South America, where he made important
observations about conditions there. He stopped in Africa, China, and
India, at each stop reviewing American operations and making notes to
report to authorities. In Iran, Rickenbacker offered to bring along
an American officer, whose unapproved request to travel to the Soviet
Union delayed Rickenbacker's party for a few days.
In the Soviet Union, Rickenbacker observed wartime conditions, extraordinary
dedication and patriotism by the populace, and ruthless denial of goods
and services to unproductive members of society. He befriended many
Soviet officials, and shared his knowledge of the aircraft they had
received from the United States. He was lavishly entertained and recalled
attempts by KGB agents and officials to intoxicate him and gain sensitive
information. Rickenbacker's mission was successful. He discovered that
a commander of Moscow's defense had stayed at Rickenbacker's home in
1937, and personal connections like this and the respect the Soviet
military personnel had for Rickenbacker greatly improved Rickenbacker's
effectiveness at information-gathering. When he left the Soviet Union,
Rickenbacker understood Soviet defense strategies and capabilities,
knew about brand-new strategies against advancing tank battalions, and
had memorized a map of the Soviet's front line showing standard military
location markers for all major units. (Rickenbacker, 1967, 422). He
was also provided with unprecedented access to the Shturmovik aircraft
factory. But it was comments made by Rickenbacker during his trip that
alerted the Soviets to the existence of the secret B-29 Superfortress
that the Soviet Union's practices favored capitalism and that it would
become a capitalist nation (Rickenbacker, 1967, 425)
Winston Churchill interviewed Rickenbacker about his mission. In the
U.S., Rickenbacker's information resulted in some diplomatic and military
action, but President Roosevelt ignored the information and did not
meet with Rickenbacker about his groundbreaking visit to the U.S.S.R.
(Rickenbacker, 1967, 438).
Post-World War II
In the 1960s, Rickenbacker became a well-known speaker. He shared his
vision for the future of technology and commerce, exhorted Americans
to respect the enemy (the Soviet Union) during the Cold War, yet uphold
American values, and endorsed conservative ideals.
After retiring from
Eastern Air Lines, Adelaide and Eddie Rickenbacker traveled extensively,
until Eddie Rickenbacker had a stroke while in Switzerland seeking medical
treatment for Adelaide there. He died in 1973 in Zürich, Switzerland,
and his body was buried in Columbus, Ohio, at Greenlawn Cemetery.
Captain Eddie Rickenbacker
was born Oct. 8, 1890 in Columbus, Ohio. A pioneer in military and civilian
aviation as well as in automotive development, his skillful leadership,
courage and perception made him a legend in his own time.
His parents, William
and Elizabeth Basler Rickenbacker were both native of Switzerland, though
they had met and married in Columbus.
Tragedy struck the
family when William was killed on the job. Eddie was only 13 and had
to drop out of the seventh grade to get a job with the Federal Glass
Factory. There he earned $3.50 for working from 6p.m. to 6a.m. six days
a week. He worked at the Zenker Monument Company where he made the tombstone
that marks his father’s grave in Greenlawn Cemetery.
As he was growing
up, Eddie found himself attracted to the “horseless carriages”
that were appearing on the streets of Columbus. He responded to this
fascination by learning to drive and working for Evens Grage, the Frayer-Miller
automobile company and eventually the Columbus Buggy Company. To promote
the automobiles he was selling, he started racing. By age 22, he left
his job to race full-time, making headlines across the nation as “King
of the Dirt Tracks”.
When World War I
broke out, Eddie was recruited in May 1917 to be part if a secret troop
movement to France as an Army Staff Car Driver.
With help from Gen.
Billy Mitchell and a flight surgeon-who listed his age as 25 instead
of 27-Eddie was assigned as a student to the Aviation Training School
in Tours, France.After completing the school, he was commissioned a
first lieutenant in the Army Air Corps.
his first combat mission in a French Nieuport on April 14,1918.He scored
his first aerial victory a few days later.Eddie shot down four more
planes in May to become an ace.Then he was grounded for three months
while undergoing mastoid operations.About this time he wrote a letter
to a friend in Detroit, spelling his name RickebacKer-emphasizing the
second “K.”Eddie had once been suspected by the English
of being a German spy and newspapers hailed the new spelling of his
name as “taking the hun out of it.”Soon everyone in the
family used the new spelling.
After getting out
of the hospital, Eddie picked up the first Spad to be assigned to the
94th Aero Squadron.Rickenbacker was promoted to captain and made squadron
commander on Sep.24, 1918.His string of victories continued, including
one mission which he shot down two Fokkers and chased away two others.He
won the Congressional Medal Of Honor for that battle.
He reported that
in later October he got his 25th and 26th victories.The Air Force Historical
Research agency, which provides the official accounting of aerial victories,
credits him with 24.33 kills, the most in World War I.
The people of Columbus
hoped that Rickenbacker would make his home here when the war ended,
but he had different plans.He decided to go back into the automobile
business, and became president and director of sales for the Rickenbacker
Motor Company-“A Car Worthy of the name.” Business was good
and in 1922, Rickenbacker married Adelaide Frost Durrant.
That year, three
Rickenbackers were displayed at the New York auto show:a $1,485 touring
car, a $1885 coupe and a $1,995 sedan.Rickenbacker put four-wheel brakes
on his car in 1924 and claims the company was driven to bankruptcy in
1927 by claims of other automakers that four-wheel brakes were a safety
He maintained his
interest in aviation and was chosen to operate Eastern Air Transport,
a small airline on the East Coast.After the 1934 Air Mail Act was passed,
Rickenbacker was able to raise $3.5 million to buy the airlines from
North American Aviation.
He developed it
into a major north-south airline and is credited with making southern
Florida a year-round destination for tourist.The Rickenbacker Causeway
in Miami honors him.
borrowed money and bought controlling interest in the Indianapolis Speedway,
which kept him busy until 1941, when World War II caused the cancellation
of the races.
Taking on the role
of civilian advisor, Rickenbacker accepted assignments from Secretary
of War Henry L. Stimson to visit our forces throughout the world.His
travels took him to England and North Africa, and to China, and Russia,
where he observed the use made of Lend Lease equipment.
While serving in
this capacity, Rickenbacker was asked by Stimson to deliver a personal
message to Gen. Douglas MacArthur.On the second leg of the trip, he
was to fly from Hawaii to Canton Island, some 1,800 miles to the southeast.
The flight was to be in a B-17D bomber.
The tail wind was
greater than they had been predicted for the flight and, unknown to
the eight men on board, the B-17 passed the small Canton Island without
it being seen.
The plane had to
ditch at sea because of lack of fuel. The men on board ended up in two
“five-man” and one“ two-man” life rafts. They
had left their water and most of their food aboard the airplane, which
The men had three
oranges, which they divided and ate. The nights were cold and the equatorial
sun in the daytime burned the flesh of the men.Sharks circled around
the men in prayer services, encouraging their will to survive. One day
after such a service, he felt something on the gray hat he wore. He
cautiously reached up and grabbed the legs of a seagull that had landed
on his head.
The men ate the
bird and saved the innards for bait to catch a few fish. The fishing
ended when the sharks stole the lines.
A few rainsqualls
were seen at sea and the men paddled to get in them. They collected
rainwater in their clothes and squeezed the water out into bailing buckets.
One of the eight
men died at sea. Rickenbacker believed it was because he drank seawater
in an effort to quench his thirst.
It was believed
that all the men had died. They remained in the rafts for 24 days before
being sighted by American airplanes as they floated near the Ellice
Islands, 500 miles southwest of Canton.
gone from 180 to 126 pounds, but after a few days of treatment he continued
his mission to visit MacAuthur at Port Moresby, New Guinea.
know what his reception would be. He had opposed MacAuthur , who was
against Billy Mitchell’s plan to establish a separate Air Force.
that MacAuthur greeted him with,” God, Eddie, I’m glad to
When the war ended,
Rickenbacker developed Eastern into a major airline. After DC-3, the
airline started flying the four-engine Constellation. Then it went into
the jet age with the DC-8. Rickenbacker talked of a future with supersonic
airplanes and even orbital flight to move people and products quickly
across the earth and beyond.
One of the most
pleasant experiences was in bringing Easter service to Columbus, Ohio.
went along to take a group of Columbus political and business leaders
on an early flight south of Miami. They flew in a Constellation and
made several stops along the way where Rickenbacker introduced the Columbus
contingent to leaders of the cities that Eastern served in the South.
heard one of the Columbus passengers complain about the time it took
to get refreshments on the plane, he put on a cap and served champagne
to the passengers.
After his retirement
at 73 as head of the airline, Rickenbacker still took an interest in
aviation matters. He was at Cape Kennedy to watch Apollo 11 blast off
to take Americans to the surface of the moon.
Eddie and Adelaide
went to Switzerland to find the home of their parents. In Zurich he
suffered a fatal illness and died July 23,1973. By his own count, Rickenbacker
had defeated death 135 times. When his time finally came, he died peacefully.
He is now buried
in Green lawn Cemetery. At the funeral service, John W. Wolfe talked
about knowing Capt. Rickenbacker as a young boy and how Edgar T. Wolfe
Sr. tried to get Rickenbacker to make his future in Columbus after World
War I. Rickenbacker had other things to do but now he’s home for