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

BA University of Arkansas (Fayetteville) Geography & History

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 beacons 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 many decided to learn to fly. During that time period 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 a 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, 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 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 observers 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 other's front lines.

This information would give leaders on both sides an idea was 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.

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 an 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 they 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.

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

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