An Ace is a combat pilot who has 5 aerial kills confirmed by an outside party, such as a balloon observer or observation aircraft. Eddie Rickenbacker, the American Ace of Aces for World War I, was born in 1890 to William and Elizabeth Rickenbacker. He was the third of eight children. When his father died in 1904, he started working any job he could find in order to support his family. It was through these jobs, that he landed in the growing automobile industry. This, combined with his interests in technology and speed led him to seek out automobile racing.
Rickenbacker began working with cars in Evans Garage. He took a mechanical engineering course from the International Correspondence School in 1905, in order to become more proficient at working on cars. Later that year, he became employed with the Oscar Lear Automobile Company in Columbus, where he worked under Lee Frayer until 1907. He then followed Lee Frayer to work at the Columbus Buggy Company in Columbus, Ohio. It was there he started his racing career, participating in the first Indianapolis 500. He kept racing for the Columbus Buggy Company until 1912, when he left to pursue a professional racing career. He raced for the Mason Company until the end of 1914. He went on to become the manager of the Prest-O-Lite Racing Team which lasted until the end of 1916.
In 1917, Rickenbacker enlisted in the Army after Major Lewis Burgess asked him if he would like to be one of General Pershing’s chauffeurs. Rickenbacker enlisted in May, 1917, arriving in France on June 26 as a part of the American Expeditionary Forces. His first assignment was as a driver for General Pershing, however his goal was to fly. With the help of higher ranked officials, such as Major Billy Mitchell, Rickenbacker was able to get into flight school and became a pilot in the U.S. Army. Rickenbacker was assigned to the 94th Aero Squadron, the first American Squadron to see combat in WWI.
Rickenbacker and Captain Douglas Campbell, were chosen by Major Raoul Lufbery, to take part in the squadron’s first combat patrol. Major Lufbery was considered the best American war pilot at this time.
“After days of schooling and nights of anticipation, I woke up on this day to find the first of my dreams come true. Major Raoul Lufbery, the most famous of our American flyers, and Commanding Officer of our group, announced that he would lead a flight that would take off after breakfast for a look over the German lines. In fact, this patrol was to intrude over enemy territory in the Champagne sector. ‘Who is to go?’ was the thought in every pilot’s mind, as we all stood by in more of less unconcealed eagerness. None of us had as yet caught a glimpse of our future arenas. We all had vague ideas of the several kinds of surprises in store for us over Hun lines and every one of us was keen to get into it” (Page 1).
“Major Lufbery looked us over in silence. He was a very quiet man, but very droll on occasions. He had seen almost two years of service with the Lafayette Escadrille and had shot down seventeen enemy airplanes before any squadron of the American Air Service had reached the front. ‘Rick,’ said the major casually, ‘you and Campbell be ready to leave at 8:15.’ I tried to act nonchalant when I replied, ‘Yes, sir.’” (Page 1)
“That memorable morning was the 6th day of March, 1918. I had joined the Hat-in-the-Ring Squadron just two days before at Villeneuve.” (Page 2)
Rickenbacker’s first time over the lines was quite eventful. He met what the aviators at the time called “Archy”, which is more commonly known as anti-aircraft fire from the ground.
“I had hardly gained control of myself when I was startled by an explosion which seemed to crash out only a few feet behind me. There was no time to look around, for with the initial concussion my plane began to roll and toss much worse than before. The very terror within me drove away all thoughts of airsickness and in the next few minutes several more roars buffeted my plane and the repeated thuds of continued explosions hammered my ears. But no matter what happened I had to look around and see what effect, if any, all this was having on my tail surfaces. To my great relief all I could see were four or five black balls of smoke some distance below and well behind my tail. Oh, I knew what they were. These were Archy shells. Eighteen-pounders bursting with shrapnel which were being fired by German antiaircraft guns; and the battery which was firing them was said to be the most accurate Allied aviators had met in this sector.” (Page 5)
Upon returning to the airfield, Rickenbacker and Campbell were questioned by Major Lufbery about what they had seen.
“We both repeated as easily as we could that we hadn’t seen any other airplanes in the sky.”
‘Just what I expected. They are all the same!’ was the major’s only comment.
“We indignantly asked him what he meant by addressing two expert war pilots in such tones?”
“Well,’ said Lufbery, “one formation of five Spads crossed under us before we passed the lines and another flight of five Spads went by about fifteen minutes later and you didn’t see them, although neither one of them was more than five hundred yards away. It was just as well they were not Boches! Then there were four German Albatros two miles ahead of us when we turned back and there was another enemy two-seater nearer us than that, at about five thousand feet above the lines. You must learn to look about a bit when you get in enemy lines.”
“Campbell and I stood aghast, looking at each other. Then I saw he was thinking the same thoughts as I. The major was ragging us from a sense of duty, to take some of the conceit out of us. But it was only after weeks of experience over the front that we realized how true his statements were. No matter how good a flier the scout may be and no matter how perfect his eyesight, he must learn to see before he can distinguish objects either on the ground or in air. What is called ‘vision of the air’ can come only from experience and no pilot ever has it upon his arrival at the front.” (Page 9)
On April 29, 1918, Rickenbacker downed his first enemy aircraft, a two-seater Pfalz reconnaissance aircraft.
“At 150 yards I pressed my triggers. The tracer bullets cut a streak of living fire into the rear of the Pfalz tail. Raising the nose of my airplane slightly the fiery streak lifted itself like the stream of water pouring from a garden hose. Gradually it settled into the pilot’s seat. The swerving of the Pfalz course indicated that its rudder no longer was controlled by a directing foot. At two thousand feet above the enemy’s lines I pulled up my headlong dive and watched the enemy machine continuing on its course. Curving slightly to the left the Pfalz circled a little to the south and the next minute crashed onto the ground just at the edge of the woods a mile inside their own lines. I had brought down my first enemy airplane and had not been subjected to a single shot!” (Page 41)
It was around mid-June in 1918 when Rickenbacker officially became the second American Ace.
“Furthermore, confirmations had been secured for my fifth victory and several cablegrams from America were handed me, congratulating me on becoming the second American Ace. The news had reached the States before it had found me in Paris!” (Page 154)
Rickenbacker became the leader of the 94th Aero Squadron on September 24th, 1918.
“The night of September 24, Major Marr returned from Paris and announced that he had received orders to return to America. Shortly afterward Major Hartney handed me an order promoting me to the command of the 94 Squadron!” (Page 259)
Rickenbacker’s 25th and 26th confirmed kills, the last ones he would ever get, came about on October 30th, 1918.
“But before I reached Grand Pre I noticed them coming toward me. I was then almost over the town of Emecourt and quite a little distance within their lines. They were very low, and not more than a thousand feet above ground at most. I was twice this height. Like lambs to the slaughter they came unsuspectingly on not half a mile to the east of me. Letting them pass I immediately dipped over, swung around as I fell and opening up my engine dived with all speed on the tail of the nearest Fokker. With less than twenty rounds, all of which poured full into the center of the fuselage, I ceased firing and watched the Fokker drop helplessly to earth. As it began to revolve slowly I noticed for the first time that again I had outwitted a member of the von Richthofen crowd. The dying Fokker wore an especially brilliant nosepiece of bright red!”
“As my first tracer bullets began to streak past the Fokker his companion put down his nose and dived for the ground. As he was well within his own territory I did not venture to follow him at this low altitude, but at once began climbing to avoid the expected storm of Archie and machinegun fire. Little or none of this came my way, however, and I continued homeward, passing en route over the little village of Saint-George, which was then about two miles inside the enemy lines. And there directly under my right wing lay in its bed a German observation balloon just at the edge of the village. On a sudden impulse I kicked over my rudder, pointed my nose at the huge target and pressed the triggers. Both guns worked perfectly. I continued my dive to within a hundred feet of the sleeping Drachen, firing up and down its whole length by slightly shifting the angle of my airplane. Not a human being was in sight! Evidently the Huns thought they were quite safe in this spot, since this balloon had not yet been run up and its location could not be known to our side. I zoomed and climbed a few hundred feet for another attack if it should be necessary. But as I leveled off and looked behind me I saw the fire take effect. These flaming bullets sometimes require a long time to ignite the balloon fabric. Doubtless they travel too fast to ignite the pure gas, unmixed with air. The towering flames soon lit up the sky with a vivid glare and keeping it behind me, I speeded homeward, with many self-satisfied chuckles at my good fortune.” (Page 348-349)
Rickenbacker learned of the end of WWI almost 2 weeks later from Jack Mitchell, Captain of the 95th Squadron. “’Peace has been declared! No more fighting!’ he shouted. ‘C’est le finis de la Guerre.’” (Page 358). It was the end of the Great War, and Rickenbacker shone out among American airmen, having 26 confirmed kills to his name, making him the American Ace of Aces
Research Intern: Aidan Blankenship
Rickenbacker, Eddie. Fighting the Flying Circus. New York : Frederick A Stokes Company, 1919.