From Race Car Driver to Fighter Ace
New book follows Eddie Rickenbacker into war in a canvas airplane
Eddie Rickenbacker was the child of poor immigrants. He lost his father at a young age. Despite this, he became a successful race car driver … and then one of America’s first fighter aces. For his heroics during World War I, the Army awarded him the Medal of Honor.
“He’s such an interesting character,” historian John F. Ross told War is Boring.
Ross grew up fascinated by Rickenbacker, reading his autobiography and press reports about his exploits. Now Ross has written his own book on Rickenbacker, Enduring Courage.
But in telling Rickenbacker’s story, Ross struggles to separate the myth from the man. The author’s own admiration for his subject only compounds the difficulties.
Enduring Courage is a literary balancing act. It celebrates Rickenbacker’s legend while also depicting the ace and his fellow World War I pilots as actual human beings. Men who grappled with fear and uncertainty as they flew largely untested new warplanes in deadly combat.
Ross dug through diaries and correspondence to understand what drove young men to take to the sky in these newfangled flying contraptions. “I really got to know these kids and what they were about,” Ross says.
He discovered which books they read, what music they liked and the sort of food they ate at their wartime airfields.
The birth of speed
Ross recounts a warm day in Columbus, Ohio in 1905, when a traveling salesmen showed off a brand-new, 10-horsepower Ford Model C. It was the first time anyone in the city had ever seen a car.
Indeed, it was among the first functioning automobiles. The animated salesmen extolled to the crowd the merits of this new technology. The crowd was skeptical of the volatile—and honestly scary—machine.
It’s easy to see why. The loud, violent, sputtering engine spelled death for people not accustomed to it. They also scoffed at the salesman’s claim that in a few years, nearly every American would own one.
Rickenbacker was a young street urchin in the crowd—and the automobile enthralled him. The salesmen pointed to the boy and asked him if he wanted to take a ride. It was a pivotal moment. Rickenbacker would soon join the country’s first generation of car mechanics.
He liked his cars experimental … and fast. Rickenbacker competed in the first Indy 500. “Fast Eddie” was his nickname.
“Nobody was thinking about risk management,” Ross tells War is Boring. There were no windshields and no rear-view mirrors. Drivers rarely wore helmets—Rickenbacker was one of the first to do so. Technology was advancing faster than engineers could adapt to it. Safety features played catch-up.
But Fast Eddie wasn’t merely a speed-crazed adrenaline junkie. He made an effort to understand the technology. During races, he began winning races despite driving slower cars than his competitors. He just drove smarter.
To the skies
Airplanes were little more than a decade old when World War I broke out in Europe in 1914. It was obvious this flying technology had military applications. For starters, an airborne scout could see the whole battlefield at a glance.
The young war pilots were pioneers—and, in a strange sense, comrades even when they fought for rival armies. The first time aviators from the opposing Entente and Central Powers met in the air, they waved at each other.
Chivalry didn’t last long. Pilots began taking pistols into the air—to use against enemy fliers. Then they brought machine guns.
“The technological advancement you saw over four years was mind-blowing,” Ross says. Just a few years after the Wright brothers first flew over North Carolina, warplanes darted around the skies with ever more sophisticated weapons.
But it was still rudimentary technology. Engineers made planes from wood and canvas. Pilots fly totally exposed entirely to the elements. Their mounts jerked and shook violently while airborne. The engines were touchy, to say the least.
“You couldn’t have a tinderbox more ready to go up [in flames],” Ross comments.
America entered the war in 1917. Rickenbacker joined up. For him, the fighting represented an opportunity to go faster than he could as a race car driver. But the U.S. Army did not have planes of its own, so the French stepped in to provide the wings and the training.
Training was a dangerous affair. It was rushed, and there were few procedures regarding how training should be conducted. Instructors offered a few tips then sent their trainees into the air. Those who didn’t crash became front-line pilots.
The American fliers faced off with Germany’s “Flying Circus,” the legendary fighter squadron commanded by the ace Manfred Von Richthofen. The unit got its name from its brightly colored planes.
Flying into battle, the pilots attempted spins and other dangerous maneuvers that aircraft engineers had never considered.
Today the FAA recommends the planes never go higher than 10,000 feet without a pressurized cabin, due to the thin air. But during World War I, pilots routinely flew their planes at near double that. They suffered from nausea and extreme cold. “They didn’t know anything about limitations,” Ross says.
Even when pilots survived the deadly battles and dangerous conditions, they sometimes succumbed to crashes while landing. Rickenbacker began to suspect that the exhausted aviators were miscalculating their landings as a result of altitude sickness and adrenaline. He suggested that every pilot circle the airfield twice before landing, giving them time to calm down and orient.
“These guys were literally inventing things on the fly,” Ross points out.
Fear and excitement
The nature of World War I aerial combat forced pilots to make some frightening decisions. “What happens at 15,000 feet and your plane catches fire?” Ross asks.
American pilots were not issued parachutes, although the technology did exist at the time. U.S. commanders saw parachutes as “defeatist.” If pilots had parachutes, officers reasoned, they would be less aggressive and probably bail out at the first sign of trouble.
If a plane caught fire, its pilot had few options. One was to ride it out and hope that the wind blew out the blaze. Some fliers decided to take control of their fates by either jumping or shooting themselves in the head with their service revolvers.
It took a while for American leaders to decide that experienced pilots, not the planes, were hardest to replace.
Rickenbacker served in a tight-knit group that counted huge personalities in its ranks. Former U.S. president Theodore Roosevelt’s son Quentin was among them. The young Roosevelt did not survive the war.
Already a celebrity from his racing days, Rickenbacker’s war service further bolstered his public image. After the war, he co-founded Florida Airways with fellow fighter ace Reed Chambers. He also started his own automobile firm, the Rickenbacker Motor Company. He even bought the Indianapolis Motor Speedway where he’d made his debut.
During World War II, he was active as an aviation expert. While delivering a message to Gen. Douglas MacArthur, Rickenbacker’s B-17 transport crashed in the Pacific. He and his comrades—one died—drifted for 24 days before a seaplane spotted them.
He was offered several movie deals, but mostly shunned them. Rickenbacker did release two books, both ghostwritten, and wrote the popular comic strip Ace Drummond from 1935 to 1940.
“He was a master of deflecting questions,” Ross says. Rickenbacker carefully crafted a cool, calm persona. “America … wanted a hero. They wanted a tough guy.”
Today we’re much more careful with our technology. We have seat belts and handrails and, yes, parachutes. “We’ve moderated risk so much,” Ross says, adding that he hopes Rickenbacker’s story reminds people that risk-takers shape the future.
Even when it’s scary as Hell.