Eddie Rickenbacker

This Page is still Under Construction.

"Jump Station" to the Sections of His Life

Other Pages in the Series

Edward Rickenbacher was born on October 8, 1890 in Columbus, Ohio. He adopted his middle name, "Vernon," later and changed the spelling of his last name to "Rickenbacker" in 1918. His father, William, and his mother, Elizabeth (Basler), were Swiss immigrants who met and married in Columbus. "Eddie" was the third of eight children, seven of whom lived to adulthood.

After 1893, William Rickenbacher operated his own construction company, but the family remained mired in poverty.101-98-066-3008 Eddie recalled that most of the land surrounding their home (handbuilt by William but without electricity, indoor plumbing, or heat) on the outskirts of Columbus was used for growing vegetables and pasturing goats. William was a stern disciplinarian, present- and practical-minded, and Elizabeth instilled in Eddie a great reverence for religion, attributes that seemed to form the nucleus of Eddie's personality.

Eddie worked at odd jobs since he was seven years old, earning cash for his own projects. This changed in 1904 when William was killed at a construction site. Eddie attributed his father's death to an accident, but the Dictionary of American Biography entry by Dr. W. David Lewis concludes that William "was killed by an assailant." Nevertheless, Eddie quit school immediately to find work to support his family.

Though his older brother (also named William) worked full-time, Eddie decided it was his job to support the family. He knew his mother and brother would oppose him, so he decided to present them with a fait accompli. He lied about his age to circumvent the child-labor laws and got a night job as a helper at the Federal Glass Factory. In a few weeks he quit to take a day job at the Buckeye Steel Casting Company. From there he worked in a beer factory, a bowling alley, a cemetary monument yard, and with the Pennsylvania Railroad as an apprentice.

He was unhappy and viewed every job only as a way to make money for his family. His stint in the machine shop of the Pennsylvania Railroad combined with his lust for adventure lured him into the naescent automobile industry. He began his automotive career in the Evans Garage. To upgrade his mechanical skills, he took the mechnical engineering course from International Correspondence School in 1905. He also successfully campaigned to land a job with the Frayer-Miller automobile manufacturing plant in Columbus.

Return to the top of the page

Auto Racing and Manufacturing

101-96-066-3312Like many young men of his era, Eddie was obsessed with technology and speed. The automobile combined both, and it became one of his life-long passions. He indulged it early, as in this photo above that shows Eddie driving orator, statesman, and politician William Jennings Bryan (seated behind Eddie) on a Texas speaking tour in 1909. Eddie was in Texas helping Firestone-Columbus establish dealerships, and thought of driving Bryan as an advertising stunt.

Eddie worked for the Frayer-Miller automobile company until 1907 when he followed Lee Frayer to Firestone-Columbus. In 1910, as Firestone's branch sales manager for the mid-west, Eddie raced his employer's cars on small-town dirt-tracks. He raced for Lee Frayer until 1912, then took a job with Fred Duesenberg at Mason Company. He raced through a series of companies but spent most of his racing career on his own. He formed the "Maxwell Special" team, racing with it until October, 1916, when he planned a trip to England to open that country's 1917 racing season. In the meantime, Eddie raced for Duesenberg again and closed his racing career with a win at Ascot park, Los Angeles, CA. He made the trip to England, but enlisted in the U.S. Army rather than working in the British automobile industry.

From 1925 through 1927 Eddie was the "front man" for the Rickenbacker Automobile Company, manufacturers of a car he claimed to be "worthy of its name." Unusual in appearance, the Rickenbacker autos incorporated highly-advanced systems such as four-wheel breaks that later became common on all cars. The company pursued technology too aggressively and were too far advanced for their time. Their competition was able to manipulate consumer conservatism and eventually drive Rickenbacker into bankruptcy.

Undaunted by financial failure, Eddie raised $700,000 in one month in order to buy the Indianapolis Speedway in 1927. The "Brickyard," as it was called, was host to the most famous of all American automobile races, the Indy 500. Eddie had raced in the first "500" in 1911, and he knew the importance of the race as a testing ground for automotive technology. Eddie closed the Speedway during World War II. By the time the war was over, his attention had turned toward running Eastern Air Lines. The repairs needed to make the Indianapolis Speedway usable after years of neglect were too much for Eddie. He sold the track in 1947 for what he had paid for it. Nevertheless, Eddie stayed in contact with automotive racing for the rest of his life.

Return to the top of the page

World War I
101-96-084-1019Eddie enlisted in the U.S. Army in May, 1917 and arrived in France on June 26. Although interested in aviation, the AEF assigned him as staff driver for General John Pershing at the rank of sargent first-class. With the connivance of high-ranking friends in the AEF, Rickenbacker was accepted into the air corps. He trained at Tours, France, was promoted to lieutenant, and became the chief engineer at Issodun air training facility. In March, 1918, after training in aerial gunnery at Cazeau, Eddie was assigned to the 94th Aero Pursuit Squadron, the first all-American air unit to see combat (April 14, 1918). He became an ace, and won the French Croix de Guerre, in May by shooting down five German airplanes and was named commander of the 94th, the "Hat-in-the-Ring" Squadron, on September 24. The following day, Eddie shot dow two more German airplanes, victories for which the U.S. government awarded him a belated Congressional Medal of Honor in 1930. His twenty-sixth confirmed victory occurred on October 30, and the last victory (the 69th) for the 94th occurred on November 10, 1918. World War I ended the next day.

Return to the top of the page

World War II
Rickenbacker vehemently opposed the United States' entry into World War II and even joined the "America First" 101-96-066-3282committee. Nevertheless, Eddie supported the war effort once the U.S. committed itself, though he spent the first three months of the war recuperating from an airliner crash. At the request of General H.H. "Hap" Arnold, Eddie toured Army Air Corps training bases throughout the Southeast during March and April of 1942 to bolster morale, impress pilots with the seriousness of their mission, and secretly examine the bases and training pilots received. In September, Secretary of War Henry Stimson asked Rickenbacker to tour bases in England "as a continuation of your tour of inspection" and to seek out evidence of espionage.

Rickenbacker returned from England in October. Stimson immediately sent him on a tour of the Pacific theater. After visiting bases in Hawaii, Eddie, his aide Col. Hans Adamson, and their B-17 flight crew flew for Port Moresby, New Guinea. The first leg of their trip should have ended on Canton Island, but with inadequate navigational equipment and a faulty weather report, the B-17 overshot its mark. Hundreds of miles off-course and out of fuel, the pilot ditched his plane in the Pacific. Rickenbacker and company were lost at sea for twenty-four days. Their meager supply of food ran out after three days, but on the eighth a sea gull lighted on Eddie's head (as he shows in this photo). The unfortunate bird became dinner and fishing bait. Navy pilots rescued the crew in the Ellice Island chain on Friday, November 13, 1942, more than 500 miles beyond Canton Island.

Suffering from exposure, dehydration, and starvation, Rickenbacker rested a few days then proceeded on his original mission to inspect facilities at Port Moresby, Guadalcanal, and Upola. He reported to Secretary Stimson and General Arnold on December 19, then returned to New York the following day.

In April, 1943, Eddie took on yet another assignment for Stimson, this time visiting bases and production facitlies in North Africa, the Middle East, India, Burma, China, the Aleutian Islands, and the Society Union.

Return to the top of the page

Eastern Air Lines
Eddie retained his interest in the potential of aviation throughout the 1920s. After passage of the Air Mail Act of 1925, he worked with Reed Chambers, his 94th Areo Squadron flying buddy, to build Florida Airways, later to become Eastern Air Transport and Eastern Airlines. The hurricane of 1926 ruined this venture, but in June, 1929, Eddie found a position as vice-president of sales with General Motor's newly-acquired Fokker Aircraft Company. From there he moved to American Airways for one year, 1932-33, then moved back to GM to run its aviation properties. By 1938, Eddie had revived Eastern Airlines for GM, which then entertained John Hertz's $3 million offer to buy it. Eddie raised $3.5 million in one month to purchase Eastern before Hertz could exercise his option.

At the time, just prior to the Second World War, all airlines in the United States used government subsidies to stay 101-96-066-3301financially sound. Eddie vowed to wean Eastern and did so in 1939. The only government monies he accepted into Eastern's coffers came from air mail contracts, money Eastern was willing to sacrifice in the interest of building its empire. This occurred when Eddie put in a sealed bid of $0 for carrying the mails across south Texas. His reward was that he secured another leg of his dream route across the U.S.'s southern tier of states and into Mexico.

Immediately following World War II, Eddie purchased new Lockheed Constellations and Eastern was the first airlines to fly them. Eastern collaborated in designing its successors, the Super-Constellation and the Electra. It also re-designed its operations to be open and responsive, and implemented a training system that prepared entry level workers to move up the corporate ladder. The pay-off to Eastern was that it was the most profitable airline in the country in the post-war era.

By the late 1950s, however, Eddie's ideas began to age. Eastern had to struggle to keep up with its competition. Eddie became less flexible as time went on, and a series of bad business decisions, particularly his insistance that Eastern continue to use turboprop rather than jet planes, started Eastern on a financial slide. Upper management forced Eddie out as Eastern's chief executive officer on October 1, 1959. Eddie remained as chairman of the board until December 31, 1963, less than two weeks after Floyd Hall brought in a new mnagement team from Trans World Airlines.

Return to the top of the page

Post-war Politics
Politically, Eddie was always an arch-conservative. He made no pretense about his feelings that the New Deal of the 1930s created in the United States a "socialized welfare state," and he had often spoken on the subject. As his duties at Eastern Airlines diminished after 1959, he devoted more time to speaking for conservative causes and, by his own account, opened "a new chapter in my public-address experience" with his hour-long speech to the Chicago Economic Club in April 1961.

Entitled "Conservatives Must Face Up to Liberalism," it touched a nerve among his listeners, many of whome were from the economic and political elite of Chicago. Eddie eventually had the speech printed as a pamphlet, and he found many other opportunities to deliver similar addresses. He divided the honoraria from these speeches, $300-$1000 per appearance, among eight "uplift" organizations such as the Boys' Clubs, Big Brothers, and Boy Scouts of America.

Over the years, Eddie's tenor changed more than his political opinions. He seemed to grow increasingly bitter in his public utterences. He also injected disturbing racial imagery into his writings during the 1960s and 1970s as backlash against the U.S. civil rights movement increased. Even his opinions about world affairs changed from resistance to Communist ideological domiation of the world to fear of Communist-inspired race war in Asia and Africa.

Return to the top of the page

Life at Home
Although Eddie was away from home for extended periods and his income during the 1920s was unstable, he married Adelaide Frost. She was a beautiful and wealthy divorcee whose first husband, R. C. Durant, was also a 101-96-066-3102race car enthusiast and driver. Their courtship was brisk, and they married in the Cumberland Presbyterian Church of South Beach , CT, before a small party of witnesses on September 16, 1922. Eddie announced the marriage to his mother that evening via telegram. He and Adelaide honeymooned in Italy and France. The photo at right shows them in St. Mark's Square, Venice. It was not the only time a bird landed atop Eddie's hat.

Before the end of the decade, the Rickenbackers adopted two sons. David was born in 1925 and William in 1928. When old enough, the boys attended boarding school. A great deal of William's correspondence survives in this collection.

Adelaide and Eddie's marriage lasted until his death in 1973, a total of 51 years. Eddie credited Adelaide with saving his life when he and his air crew were lost at sea in late 1942. After days of fruitlessly searching the South Pacific, the Army Air Corps was ready to abandon the lost crew. Adelaide cajoled General "Hap" Arnold into extending the search for another week. The lost airmen were found within a few days.

The correspondence between Eddie and Bill, from c. 1936 until just before Eddie's death in 1973, demonstrates a strong bond of affection between father and son. Bill also attests to this affection in his 1970 book, From Father to Son: The Letters of Captain Eddie Rickenbacker to His Son William, From Boyhood to Manhood. Correspondence and testimony from David are rare, but we can extrapolate from available evidence to say that a similar relationship existed between him and his famous father. Though loving, Eddie held his sons to high standards of conduct. He required that they live up to his ideas of hard work and honor as well.

Return to the top of the page

Return to the Rickenbacker Papers homepage

Return to the History of Aviation Index