Updated date:

America's "Ace of Aces" of the First World War: Edward Rickenbacker

BA University of Arkansas (Fayetteville) Geography & History

America's Most Decorated Fighter Pilot Of The First World War

Eddie Rickenbacker America's most successful fighter pilot in the First World War Medal of Honor recipient claiming 26 aerial victories. He was born in Columbus Ohio October 8,1890.

Eddie Rickenbacker America's most successful fighter pilot in the First World War Medal of Honor recipient claiming 26 aerial victories. He was born in Columbus Ohio October 8,1890.

Eddie Rickenbacker in his SPAD S.XIII on the Western Front in 1918. He won the Medal of Honor, seven Distinguished Services Crosses, Legion of Honor among others.

Eddie Rickenbacker in his SPAD S.XIII on the Western Front in 1918. He won the Medal of Honor, seven Distinguished Services Crosses, Legion of Honor among others.

Before the First World War Rickenbacker was a well known automobile racer. In 1910 he entered racing as a driver. Through 1916, he competed in 42 races, including 5 Indy 500s.

Before the First World War Rickenbacker was a well known automobile racer. In 1910 he entered racing as a driver. Through 1916, he competed in 42 races, including 5 Indy 500s.

The SPAD Rickenbacker flew over the Western Front during the First World War.

The SPAD Rickenbacker flew over the Western Front during the First World War.

Eddie Rickenbacker later in life as successful businessman. He would build Eastern Airlines into a leader in commercial aviation.

Eddie Rickenbacker later in life as successful businessman. He would build Eastern Airlines into a leader in commercial aviation.

Ernst Udet in front of his Albatros D.III Germany's preeminent fighter of the First World War. Ernst Udet would become the Commander of the Luftwaffe at the start of the Second World War. He would later become a friend of Rickenbacker.

Ernst Udet in front of his Albatros D.III Germany's preeminent fighter of the First World War. Ernst Udet would become the Commander of the Luftwaffe at the start of the Second World War. He would later become a friend of Rickenbacker.

A lineup of Albatros D.III fighters of Jagdstaffel 50 - mid to late 1917. The subdued staffel scheme of black and white stripes and chevrons can be seen on the fuselage of most German figher planes, which are otherwise in factory finish.

A lineup of Albatros D.III fighters of Jagdstaffel 50 - mid to late 1917. The subdued staffel scheme of black and white stripes and chevrons can be seen on the fuselage of most German figher planes, which are otherwise in factory finish.

Albatros D.III

Albatros D.III

A SPAD S.XIII at Air Service Production Center No. 2, Romorantin Aerodrome, France, 1918.

A SPAD S.XIII at Air Service Production Center No. 2, Romorantin Aerodrome, France, 1918.

SPAD XIII Edward Rickenbacker the plane he would claim most of his victories with over the Western Front.

SPAD XIII Edward Rickenbacker the plane he would claim most of his victories with over the Western Front.

The French SPAD XIII  proved to be one of the most capable fighters of the war

The French SPAD XIII proved to be one of the most capable fighters of the war

Rickenbacker's 94th Aero Squadron - Emblem

Rickenbacker's 94th Aero Squadron - Emblem

Eddie Rickenbacker, Douglas Campbell, and Kenneth Marr of the 94th Aero Squadron pose next to a Nieuport 28 fighter, 1918.

Eddie Rickenbacker, Douglas Campbell, and Kenneth Marr of the 94th Aero Squadron pose next to a Nieuport 28 fighter, 1918.

Rickenbacker in his 94th Aero Squadron – SPAD XIII

Rickenbacker in his 94th Aero Squadron – SPAD XIII

94th Aero Squadron, Rembercourt Aerodrome, France, November 1918. Rickenbacker stands in the middle center of this photograph.

94th Aero Squadron, Rembercourt Aerodrome, France, November 1918. Rickenbacker stands in the middle center of this photograph.

Captain Rickenbacker with his fellow pilots at Foucaucourt Aerodrome France 1918.

Captain Rickenbacker with his fellow pilots at Foucaucourt Aerodrome France 1918.

The Dawn of the Twentieth Century: A Shrinking World

At the turn of the twentieth century, the everyday life of the human race was still centered around the horse and buggy era, but that was soon being upended by a rapid chain of events. With the dawn of electricity and the invention of Edison's bright incandescent bulbs cities became beacon's of light on the American landscape. It was a century where its inventions would revolutionize everyday life of the human race. These changes were on a scope and magnitude not yet seen in human history, the Yankee ingenuity of America's independent inventors such as Thomas Alva Edison, Orville and Wilbur Wright, Henry Ford, Alexander Graham Bell, thrust civilization into a new age of technology. Yet possibly the most significant invention of the twentieth century was the internal combustion engine, which would power the first practical car in 1895 and make sustained, heavier-than-air flight possible only eight years later. Within a few short years of Ford's introduction of the Model T in 1908, every American had a chance to speed across the countryside. Speed was now available for a whole host of new purposes. For the first time in history Americans could operate a machine regularly capable of outdistancing the fastest stallion.

In an age where the globe began to shrink as flight would become an accessible Eddie Rickenbacker decided to take his first steps into the earth's unforgiving atmosphere. Mindful of the delays of getting into the flying service he accepted General Pershing's invitation to join the U.S. Army as his chauffer. He enlisted in the infantry and became Pershing's driver at the front, where he wisely foresaw he would find a quicker opportunity for entering the flying service. In eighteen short months after enlisting into the Army he returned to the United States as an hero, the American Ace of Aces. Captain Rickenbacker became as the known as the Commanding Officer of America's Hat-in-the-Ring Squadron its most successful fighter squadron of the First World War . It totaled more hours of flying over enemy lines than any other American Squadron.

Major Raoul Lufbery one of America's most famous fighter pilots, he would help Rickenbacker gain "the vision of the air" which he needed to survive in the air over the enemy's battlefield. Lufbery had served with the French Air Service for almost four years before the United States entered the war. On March 4,1918, Rickenbacker joined the Hat-in-the-Ring Squadron at Villeneuve, France. Two days later he would fly over the Western Front at 17,000 feet with Lufbery and experience the horror of anti-aircraft fire. On May 19,1918, Lufbery would attempt to intercept a German aircraft over his airfield, and was struck down by the enemy aircraft's fire, dying in a fiery crash in front of his shocked fellow pilots at the age of thirty-three. His death would grab International headlines. Largely forgotten Lufbery was the state of Connecticut's greatest hero of the First World War.

The Western Front : The First World War 1914-18

eddie-rickenbacker-americas-ace-of-aces-wwi
eddie-rickenbacker-americas-ace-of-aces-wwi
Soon after the First World War aerial observation became a vital factor in warfare.

Soon after the First World War aerial observation became a vital factor in warfare.

Soon after the First World War began both sides became locked in a stalemate along the Western Front.

Soon after the First World War began both sides became locked in a stalemate along the Western Front.

Even poison gas was used during the First World War.

Even poison gas was used during the First World War.

Both sides during the war would use heavy artillery to destroy each others line of defense.

Both sides during the war would use heavy artillery to destroy each others line of defense.

Downed German plane somewhere along the Western Front.

Downed German plane somewhere along the Western Front.

 Albatros D.III fighters of Jasta 11 at Douai, France. The second closest aircraft was one of several flown by Manfred von Richthofen known as the "Red Baron" leading Ace of the First World War with eighty combat victories.

Albatros D.III fighters of Jasta 11 at Douai, France. The second closest aircraft was one of several flown by Manfred von Richthofen known as the "Red Baron" leading Ace of the First World War with eighty combat victories.

In April 1915, Fokker set to work upon producing an 'interrupter gear', a timing mechanism whereby the machine gun would stop firing whenever the propeller passed directly in front of the machine gun.

In April 1915, Fokker set to work upon producing an 'interrupter gear', a timing mechanism whereby the machine gun would stop firing whenever the propeller passed directly in front of the machine gun.

Frenchman Roland Garros the world's first ace. He mounted a machine gun directly in front of him, so aiming the plane aimed the gun.

Frenchman Roland Garros the world's first ace. He mounted a machine gun directly in front of him, so aiming the plane aimed the gun.

Major Raoul Lufbery would give Rickenbacker the experience he needed to survive in the air above the Western Front. Photo of Gervais Raoul Lufbery (1885-1918). Born in 1885, Lufbery grew up in a tiny French village with his grandparents.

Major Raoul Lufbery would give Rickenbacker the experience he needed to survive in the air above the Western Front. Photo of Gervais Raoul Lufbery (1885-1918). Born in 1885, Lufbery grew up in a tiny French village with his grandparents.

The famed German fighter Ace "Red Baron" of the First World War. He was shot down April 21,1918, and die most likely from groundfire.

The famed German fighter Ace "Red Baron" of the First World War. He was shot down April 21,1918, and die most likely from groundfire.

A replica of Richthofen's Fokker Dr.I triplane, at the Berlin Air Show in 2006. The Dr. I triplane was his airplane of his choice due to its maneuverability.

A replica of Richthofen's Fokker Dr.I triplane, at the Berlin Air Show in 2006. The Dr. I triplane was his airplane of his choice due to its maneuverability.

The First World War

The First World War would become a war of firsts starting with the machine gun which would give the defending army an advantage over the attacker. The British and French armies managed to stop the German invasion of France soon after the war began in late 1914. Both sides were soon locked in a stalemate along a front later termed the Western Front which would ebb and flow for the next four years. Millions of men on both sides would die in the no man's land between the waring armies on both sides. In an attempt to gain an advantage both sides would take to the air looking for weaknesses along each other fronts.

Aerial observation became a vital factor in warfare. Observation balloon observer's were used effectively, but a balloon observer's range was limited. An airplane could travel back and forth over the enemy's lines, reporting not only on the disposition of troops but also on the location of ammunition and food dumps and troop movements far to the rear of each others front lines. This information would give leaders on both sides an idea were the next attack would take place and when it might begin, giving them time to prepare their defenses against a possible breakthrough. At first planes were unarmed, but it was not long before airmen began trying to knock one another out of the skies.

Planes on both sides developed rapidly. No matter what innovation one side might develop, the other was quick to find out about it, copy it and incorporate it in a new design. In most cases the secrets were learned from planes that had been shot or forced down behind enemy lines. A Frenchman named Roland Garros introduced aerial combat as we know it. He mounted a machine gun directly in front of him, so aiming the plane aimed the gun. To prevent the bullets from shooting away the wooden propeller, he screwed metal plated on the blades. He was a terror on his first forays over the lines. It must have been like shooting fish in a barrel. He became the world's first ace. But soon his engine conked out over German lines, and the secret was out.

A Shrinking World

Orville demonstrating the flyer to the U.S. Army, Fort Myer, Virginia September 1908.

Orville demonstrating the flyer to the U.S. Army, Fort Myer, Virginia September 1908.

A Wright engine, serial number 17, circa 1910, on display at the New England Air Museum

A Wright engine, serial number 17, circa 1910, on display at the New England Air Museum

First flight of the Wright Flyer, December 17, 1903, Orville piloting, Wilbur running at wingtip

First flight of the Wright Flyer, December 17, 1903, Orville piloting, Wilbur running at wingtip

America's Ace of Aces

September 25,1918, was an especially critical day on the Western Front for the newly arrived American First Army. Nearly 250,000 American soldiers and equipment were steadily moving into the frontline trenches, between the Meuse and the Argonne Forest, preparing for the first large American offensive of the war. Before the attack the Germans had been launching observation balloons and sending up photographic air reconnaissance patrols in a effort to determine the scope of the Allied attack.

Just ten days before the Meuse-Argonne offensive Eddie Rickenbacker had been named America's "Ace of Aces" in aerial combat. In the months prior to the distinction he had shot down seven enemy planes in as many months. Rickenbacker had received the title because all of the former recipients of the honor had been killed, he couldn't help but expect his fate to the mirror previous holders.

As that decisive day dawned over the Meuse and Argonne Forest , Rickenbacker was speeding along at 3,000 feet in his French built Spad XIII, a new compact, durable single-seat fighter with a 220-horspower engine armed with two Vickers .303-caliber machine guns. Below his plane he could see both the German and Allied fronts winding off into the distance with the forbidding and empty no-man's land in between. Hundreds of thousands of men had met their fate in the small space between the trenches during the battle of Verdun in 1916. The day was clear and cool, with no clouds to hide in, when suddenly out of the blue two enemy planes appeared along the distant horizon. He soon recognized them as a pair of German LVG's, two seater biplanes with 7.92mm Spandau machine guns in the front and rear of the plane, they would be difficult and dangerous to attack. They flew out of Germany from the direction of Metz for a photo reconnaissance mission over American lines.

With the big attack scheduled for early the next day Rickenbacker didn't hesitate to engage the enemy planes, because if the were successful they would alert the enemy to the upcoming American offensive. Just as he had begun to push his stick forward to engage the German planes, Rickenbacker caught a sudden glimpse of the sky above revealing some sinister company. Five Fokker tri-planes were flying escort above the photographic planes. Immediately Rickenbacker reversed his course and climbed for the sun to gain the advantage over his enemy. Luckily, the German planes didn't notice him as he flew above and to the rear of their formation. Backlit by the sun the German planes were oblivious to Rickenbacker as he assumed the perfect position to attack the nearest Fokker.

By the time the Germans spotted him it was too late. Rickenbacker steeply dived into the enemy formation. As he pressed his attack a blast of bullets from his Spad slashed the enemy fuselage from the rear. The German pilot was killed instantly, as his plane burst violently into flames and crashed just south of the front.

Rickenbacker at first intended to flee upward and protect himself against the remaining Fokkers, but their pilots were so surprised by Rickenbacker's abrupt attack, they continued in their tight formation just long enough for him to maneuver behind the photo reconnaissance planes just ahead. It gave him enough airspace to dive on the LVGs, whose pilots had already seen Rickenbacker's attack on the Fokkers and were diving to the safety of their own airspace. Soon Rickenbacker's Spad was locked in a deadly dogfight with the other six German airplanes as he dodged tracer bullets which whizzed just past his face. As he fought for his life Rickenbacker seized an opening and eased off the gas and began firing as he dropped back. The closest plane passed right through Rickenbacker's machine-gun pattern, and just after he released the trigger buttons the German reconnaissance plane burst into flames and fell like a meteor to the surface. Over his shoulder, Rickenbacker noticed that the five remaining enemy planes were now quickly rushing toward him from various directions, a development that forced him to put his foot on the gas to escape for the safety of his own lines.

For taking on seven enemy planes and shooting down two of them, Rickenbacker was later awarded the Medal of Honor. He remained America's Ace of Aces until war ended returning home as one America's most well known heroes of the First World War.

Eddie Rickenbacker An American Icon

A German LVG photo reconnaissance airplane used during the First World War. Similar to the one Rickenbacker shot down to win his Medal of Honor.

A German LVG photo reconnaissance airplane used during the First World War. Similar to the one Rickenbacker shot down to win his Medal of Honor.

Fokker DR1 triplane similar to the one Rickenbacker shot down on September 25,1918.

Fokker DR1 triplane similar to the one Rickenbacker shot down on September 25,1918.

Rickenbacker would buy Eastern Airlines in 1938 for $3.5 million from General Motors. It had a near monopoly in air travel between New York and Florida from the 1930s until the 1950s and dominated this market for decades under Rickenbacker's guidance

Rickenbacker would buy Eastern Airlines in 1938 for $3.5 million from General Motors. It had a near monopoly in air travel between New York and Florida from the 1930s until the 1950s and dominated this market for decades under Rickenbacker's guidance

Rickenbacker would eventually own the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 1936. He would race in the Indianapolis 500 in 1915.

Rickenbacker would eventually own the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 1936. He would race in the Indianapolis 500 in 1915.

Rickenbacker in 1915 in his Maxell Special at the Indianapolis 500 that year. He would earn the nickname "Fast Eddie."

Rickenbacker in 1915 in his Maxell Special at the Indianapolis 500 that year. He would earn the nickname "Fast Eddie."

Sources

Lewis, David. Eddie Rickenbacker: An American Hero in the Twentieth Century. John Hopkins University Press, 2715 North Charles Street Baltimore, Maryland 21218. 2005.

Rickenbacker, Edward V. Rickenbacker: An Autobiography. Prentice-Hall Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey NJ 07632 United States, 1967

© 2021 Mark Caruthers

Related Articles