Columbus, Ohio

JUNE '03 COVER STORY

A Columbus Album, by Betty Garrett Deeds

obetsydeeds@aol.com

Captain Eddie Rickenbacker
"Columbus' "Ace" Soared Life's Skies

At 1334 Livingston Avenue, a simple frame house, handbuilt (probably in the late 1880s) by a Swiss-born construction worker named William Reichenbacher for his wife Elizabeth and their eight children, now sits abandoned.

Much to the dismay of the Ohio Preservation Society, efforts to save and restore this building - the boyhood home of Edward Vernon Rickenbacker, better known as "Captain Eddie," America's first combat pilot ace during World War I - have failed.

In a 1970 interview with The Columbus Citizen-Journal, Rickenbacker himself (then 80) displayed no great attachment to the place where he grew up. Originally situated on the outskirts of Columbus, the house was without electricity, indoor plumbing or heat, and the rural land around it supported vegetables and goats.

His father was a hard worker and stern disciplinarian, while his mother was very religious and instilled that background into her children. Rickenbacker summed up his childhood simply as "hard times."

He needed both parental traits of discipline and faith to survive the death of his father in 1904. Eddie was only 13 at the time.

"Some fellow came out to the house to sell Mother a tombstone. I was intrigued. Next morning," he recalled, "I went to the monument place and got a job. I (eventually) carved the headstone for my father's grave myself of Vermont marble. It's here in Greenlawn Cemetery."

He quit school immediately and began to work at a series of jobs, employed nights at Federal Glass Factory and days at Buckeye Steel Casting Co., as well as his job with the cemetery yard. He disliked the work, viewing it merely as a means to help support his family.

In 1905, though, he became obsessed with The Automobile. While working at Evans Garage, he studied mechanical engineering from an International Correspondence School and, in 1909, he obtained a job sweeping out an early Columbus car factory. In short order, Eddie was practicing driving at the Columbus Driving Park on the east side, where racing aficionados from all over the country gathered. Barney Oldfield broke the world speed record by driving 60 mph before a crowd of 10,000 people in 1903.

The ambition-driven Eddie decided he could do better &endash; and did. He competed in his first professional auto ace at the Indy 500 in 1911, and within just a few years he set a world speed record of his own: he drove a Blitzen Benz at 134 mph. Then America's foremost racecar driver, making headlines across the nation as the "King of the Dirt Tracks," he also became very wealthy. Records show that he earned at least $80,000 per annum in prizes. An elderly Rickenbacker, proud of his own canniness, later told the Citizen-Journal, "Actually, I earned more than that, but I never told the truth about it because I was afraid promoters would cut the prizes."

That career came to a screeching halt with America's entry into World War I in 1917. While other Americans were still "preaching peace and all that hokum," he preached men, money and munitions and "took the Hun out of (my) name by removing the Reich and making it Rick." The newly named Edward Rickenbacker enlisted in the U.S. Army Signal Corps and arrived in France on June 26, 1917. Just as he had been single-minded about cars, so now was he fixed on aviation. He immediately proposed the formation of a flying squadron staffed by racecar drivers. Because of his background, he was made a driver for the Army general staff instead.

Rickenbacker had the devil's own luck at times. In this instance, he had a chance to fix a car carrying Colonel Billy Mitchell, chief of the Army's Air Service. He engaged Mitchell's interest and, at what was then considered the advanced age of 27, entered pilot training (which included learning aerial gunnery). By March, 1917, he was assigned to the 94th Aero Squadron, dubbed "The Hat in the Ring" Squadron. Many of its members were from the upper classes or aristocracy, or formerly associated with the famed Lafayette Escadrille, and viewed the blunt, crude American with some scorn.

That changed as he went into action against Germany's formidable Flying Circus with its famous ace Baron von Richtofen ("The Red Baron"). Richtofen, whose skill had downed 80 American planes in four years, died just four days before Rickenbacker began flying, so they were never to confront each other personally. The Allies actually sent an entourage of their pilots to attend the Baron's funeral. There was apparently a certain chivalry and courtliness still shown in World War I, as there had been in the Civil War. It never again prevailed.

"Captain Eddie," as he insisted on being called the rest of his life, found himself plagued by airsickness while first flying, but concluded that "there is no courage without fear," and there was plenty of it to combat once he realized, "Aerial warfare is scientific murder." While he admitted he didn't enjoy killing, he did enjoy the "competition" of war. His view of life was that "Somebody else has got something you want, or somebody tries to take what you've got. That's as true for nations and corporations as it is for individuals."

He proved it by attacking the "Archys" (Germans) with both caution and vengeful determination. Aerial combat in that era was highly personal, literally conducted between pilots at least 15,000 feet in the air at an eye-to-eye distance of anywhere from 50 to 150 feet apart. Looking back when 80, he called it "a competition between a machine and a man, and you and your machine. They weren't too strong in those days, you know. Either you killed or got killed. No ifs, ands or buts."

The first time Rickenbacker flew over German lines and eyed the trenches below, he was greeted by some German anti-aircraft fire, but considered it fairly uneventful. After landing, though, Major Raoul Lufbery criticized him for failing to notice other planes that were firing at him. Lufbery poked his fingers into several shrapnel holes in Eddie's Nieuport biplane. As he recalled in his 1917 memoir, Fighting the Flying Circus, "Our Nieuports had a droll habit of shedding their fabric when plunged too furiously through the air." Later he was able to change to Spads.

"Preparation for combat fighting in the air was gradual." Despite weeks and weeks of disappointments that attended my early fighting career, I can now most solemnly affirm that (if) I had won my first victory during my first trips over the lines, I believe I would never have survived later combats." With practice, he became considerably more observant and skilled.

On April 29, while one of his comrades was "having a delightful time with the Archy gunners, doing loops, barrels, side-slips and spins over their heads," Rickenbacker spotted a plane coming. "I knew it was a Hun the moment I saw it, for it had the familiar lines of their new Pfalz."

When the German pilot spotted him, he tried to retreat, but "I was gaining on him and had my sights trained dead upon his seat. At 150 yards, I pressed my triggers. The tracer bullets cut a streak of living fire into the rear of the Pfalz tail. The next minute, he crashed into the ground just at the edge of the woods a mile inside their own lines. I had brought down my first enemy aeroplane and not been subjected to a single shot!" His jubilation at his first "down" was matched by that of his comrades, who now accepted him as a victor. Rickenbacker concluded that receiving praise from one's squadron for a victory was "worth more to a pilot than the applause of the whole outside world."

Caution as well as stunning skill marked the rest of his flying career, a period of just four months of actual combat from April 29, 1918 to October 30, 1918. Captain Edward V. Rickenbacker downed 22 German planes and four of their balloons, 26 victories which made him "America's Ace of Aces." He was awarded 19 decorations for valor: the Croix de Guerre, the Legion of Honor, several Distinguished Service Crosses, and later the Congressional Medal of Honor.

When the war ended, "Capt. Eddie," America's hero, was greeted here in Columbus with an incredible parade.

For the man "whose delight in turning the tables on seeming hopeless odds took him to the top," according to The New York Times, the question for Rickenbacker became what to do next. He went on a lecture tour of the country after the war, but turned down offers to make a movie.

He often said that the greatest privilege America offered was "the freedom to go broke," and that the only "favor" needed to succeed here "was a chance." Accordingly, he returned to his first love: automobiles. In 1922, he lined up financial backers for a new company bearing his name: Rickenbacker Motors. He also married a new love that year, Adelaide Frost, a beautiful, wealthy divorcee. They adopted two sons, David (1925) and William "Bill" in 1928. While they were in boarding school, Eddie wrote them letters which William later collected into a book.

During the early years of their marriage, he traveled extensively to promote The Rickenbacker, the first car ever produced with four-wheel brakes. "We were just too early with them," he analyzed (they are now standard on American cars). When the venture failed in 1927, he was left with $200,000 in debts and no job. According to The New York Times, "He resolved to pay off the big debt," and did, also "raising $700,000 more." With that money he bought the Indianapolis Speedway, where he had raced so often earlier. "He ran it until 1945 when he sold out to devote his full time to aviation."

In 1934, while working for General Motors, he was sent as a trouble-shooter to salvage what he could of their Eastern Air Transport Division, which owned Eastern Air Lines." Rickenbacker managed it for four years, and from his first turn at the helm, it turned a profit for the first time in its history. By 1938, Rickenbacker owned Eastern Air Lines.

Over the years, he often stopped in at Port Columbus to check on progress there and on Columbus life. It was a great and profitable success, but life still did not become serene for him.

He often noted that he had "cheated the Grim Reaper" seven times in his lifetime. "I felt my toes inside the pearly gates so far it pinched." A notable example occurred in 1941. He was in one of Eastern's planes when it crashed into a hillside outside Atlanta. A search party was sent out, and when they finally found the plane, they heard Rickenbacker's voice call out firmly, "Be sure not to light any matches" (around the gas) and directed them to turn their lights on him. A dead companion was lying on top of him and he had numerous injuries and broken bones, particularly in his legs. One of them remained limp for quite a long time.

At this time, of course, war clouds were looming over Europe. However, Ricken-backer did not preach "men and munitions" for his country this time. Initially, he allied himself, as did Charles Lindbergh, with America First and opposed our entry into World War II. Once it began, though, he pitched in and did everything he could to help the War Department. Henry Stimson, its Secretary, convinced Rickenbacker to "carry out special assignments."

In October 1942, flying in a B-17 over the Pacific en route to meet Douglas MacArthur, the plane went down, crashing into the sea. At 52, he was the only civilian in the company of seven men (an eighth died very soon), but he immediately took command. They set out in two 5' by 9' rafts, moored together with a rope from the plane; two men were in one, five the other. (In the entire 24 days they were lost, they were never able to stretch out.) "If we had separated, few if any of us would now be alive. A strong man may last a long time alone, but men together somehow manage to last longer."

In 1943, he wrote a quick account of the near-death ordeal, Seven Came Through. As he looked around at the ocean swells "two times as high as I am tall," he said ironically, "So this is the placid Pacific." Their rations consisted of four oranges salvaged from the plane. "By popular vote," Eddie was custodian and divided them so that they lasted eight days. He and one other man used the rinds of theirs, fashioning a key ring into a hook, as bait for fish. They had competition from sharks that swam around the rafts, snapping up the mackerel they needed. They did catch one shark for themselves and cut it up, but it was "so foul that despite our hunger, we couldn't swallow it." They convulsively retched it up.

The only fresh water they ever had was when squalls would pass over; they would catch it in a Mae West life preserver, wringing it out of their clothes.On the eighth day - not the seventh, mind you - as they were dreaming and sometimes hallucinating about food, Eddie felt something land on top of the wide-brimmed hat he always wore. Reaching up, he retrieved a seagull! Clutching it as hard as possible, he "wrung his neck, defeathered him, carved up the body, and divided the meat evenly, holding back only the intestines for (fish bait). They soon caught a small mackerel, then a sea bass.

Somehow they sustained themselves in that fashion until the 24th day, Nov. 13, 1942, when a Navy plane rescued them. All were suffering from exposure, dehy-dration and near-starvation. Rickenbacker had lost more than 50 pounds, and still had a bad leg from the Atlanta crash, but after resting a few days, he proceeded on and completed his original mission. In fact, he continued to take assignments from Stimson until the end of the war.

He also continued his work at Eastern throughout the late '50s, according to Auburn University's Internet archives, but "his ideas began to age." He was forced out as Eastern's CEO in 1959, though he remained chairman of the board until 1963.

He had always been ultra-conservative, but became more so during the '60s and '70s when he made speeches which reflected a backlash against the civil rights movement and his fear of Communist ideological domination of the world. When asked by The Citizen-Journal in 1970 if he had visited his birthplace, he said he had not. Why? "'Those people' are out there now," he said quietly.

Such a mindset was an ugly aspect of a life that was, otherwise, one marked by remarkable skill and achievement. Eddie Rickenbacker was "America's Ace of Aces," and a vital contributor to the history of Columbus as well as the country.

When he died on July 24, 1973, at 82, ironically, he was not at the Florida home he and his wife shared, but in a hospital in Switzerland, his parents' birthplace. Adelaide Frost Rickenbacker had his body cremated privately and his ashes flown back to Columbus. His cremains are buried in Greenlawn Cemetery, where his father was interred.

According to local historian Ed Lentz, there is no evidence of a family plot as their graves are not close together. Captain Eddie's is marked by a large white stone, at least 2-3 ft. wide and three feet high. It is right by the road on the western side of the cemetery, and easily visible.

One thing is certain about it: Eddie Rickenbacker did not carve that stone himself. Well, probably not. But the odds are extremely high that he had pre-planned it to the final word.

e-mail obetsydeeds@aol.com

Courtesy of Columbus Metropolitan Library