By Bill Federer
Edward Vernon “Eddie” Rickenbacker
He began his career as an auto racer, gaining international fame by competing in the Indianapolis 500 four times, earning the nickname “Fast Eddie.” When World War I started, he was sent to France in 1917, becoming the personal chauffeur driver of General John J. Pershing. His name was Edward Vernon “Eddie” Rickenbacker, born Oct. 8, 1890.
During World War I, Germany’s Red Baron was dominating the skies. Eddie Rickenbacker requested that he be transferred to the air service where he eventually became the commanding officer of the 94th Aero Pursuit Squadron, with its now famous “Hat-in-the-Ring” insignia. This Squadron was responsible for destroying 69 enemy aircraft, the highest number shot down by any American Squadron.
Flying over 300 combat hours, Eddie Rickenbacker personally shot down 26 enemy aircraft. He was awarded the Medal of Honor by President Herbert Hoover in 1931
Eddie Rickenbacker wrote his World War I experiences in the book, “Fighting the Flying Circus,” 1919, such as one story: “… three-quarters of an hour of gasoline remained … and no compass. Then I thought of the north star! Glory be! There she shines! I had been going west instead of south. … Keeping the star behind my rudder I flew south for fifteen minutes, then … found myself above … the River Meuse … picked up our faithful searchlight and ten minutes later I landed. … As I walked across the field to my bed I looked up … and repeated most fervently, ‘Thank God!’”
Eddie Rickenbacker wrote of the courage of fellow pilot Lt. Quentin Roosevelt, the son of President Theodore Roosevelt: “Quentin flew about alone for a while, then discovering, as he supposed, his own formation ahead of him he overtook them, dropped in behind. … To his horror he discovered that he had been following an enemy patrol all the time! Every machine ahead of him wore a huge black maltese cross on its wings and tail! … Quentin fired one long burst. … The aeroplane immediately preceding him dropped at once and within a second or two burst into flames. Quentin put down his nose and streaked it for home before the astonished Huns had time to notice what had happened.”
Quentin was shot down in a dogfight, July 14, 1918, as Rickenbacker wrote: “Quentin Roosevelt’s death was a sad blow to the whole group.”
In recounting barely escaping death himself, Eddie Rickenbacker wrote: “I want to make it clear that this escape and the others were not the result of any super ability or knowledge on my part. I wouldn’t be alive today if I had to depend on that. I realized then, as I headed for France on one wing, that there had to be something else. … I had seen others die, brighter and more able than I. I knew there was a power. I believe in calling upon it for aid and for guidance. I am not such an egotist as to believe that God has spared me because I am I. I believe there is work for me to do and that I am spared to do it, just as you are.”
After World War I, Eddie Rickenbacker started an automobile company – the Rickenbacker Motor Company, including technological innovations such as the first four-wheel brake system.
In 1925, in a highly publicized case, Eddie Rickenbacker supported General Billy Mitchell, who was courtmartialed for criticizing the military’s failure to upgrade their airplanes.
Gary Cooper starred in a 1955 movie distributed by Warner Brothers titled “The Court-Martial of Billy Mitchell.”
In 1927, Rickenbacker became owner of the Indianapolis Speedway, renown for its annual 500 mile auto race. He worked for Eastern Airlines, and eventually bought it.
Rickenbacker opposed President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal policies as socialism, which drew criticism from the liberal media. Roosevelt’s administration even ordered NBC Radio not to broadcast Rickenbacker’s remarks.
In 1942, Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson asked Rickenbacker to go on a special mission to the Pacific to inspect the military bases. Flying from Hawaii to New Guinea to meet with General Douglas MacArthur, the plane’s inadequate navigational equipment resulted in them being hundreds of miles off-course. Out of fuel, the plane ditched in the ocean, Oct. 21, 1942.
For 24 days, in almost hopeless conditions, Eddie Rickenbacker and seven others drifted aimlessly on the open sea.
Lt. James Whittaker described in his book, “We Thought We Heard The Angels Sing” (1943), that they shivered wet all night but baked in the burning sun all day, and fought off sharks: “… Those giant swells hadn’t looked so bad from high in the air, but down among them they were mountainous. … Rick maintained with a perfectly straight face that he was not in the least upset. … A swift movement beside our raft caught my eye and I turned. … The water about the raft fleet was alive with the triangular, dorsal fins of sharks. …”
The crew would have given up had not 52-year-old Eddie Rickenbacker, the oldest person on the raft, continued to encourage them.
Lt. James Whittaker wrote: “Col. James C. Adamson … suddenly raised himself over the side of the raft and slid into the water. Quick as a flash, Rick had him. We hurriedly pulled the rafts in close and helped push the Colonel back into his boat. … Rick took over. I will not put down all the things he said. They would scorch this paper. But from then on, woe betide the man who appeared about to turn quitter. … That man Rickenbacker has got a rough tongue in his head.”
Lt. James Whittaker continued: “At length Private Johnny Bartek got out his Testament and by common consent we pulled the rafts together for a prayer meeting. We said the Lord’s prayer. … I didn’t have the least notion that this open-air hallelujah meeting was going to do any good. … I observed that Rick seemed to encourage the suggestion and appeared inclined to take part. … Col. Adamson was reading from the Testament. Suddenly Cherry stopped him. ‘What was that last, Colonel?’ he demanded. ‘Where is that from?’ ‘It is from the Gospel According to Matthew,’ Col. Adamson replied. ‘Do you like it?’ ‘It’s the best thing I’ve heard yet. Read it again, Colonel.’ Col. Adamson then read from the 31st through the 34th verses of the sixth chapter of Matthew: ‘Therefore, take ye no thought, saying: What shall we eat? or What shall we drink? or, Wherewithal shall we be clothed? For these are things the heathen seeketh. For your Heavenly Father knoweth that ye have need of all these things. But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and His righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you. Take therefore no thought for the morrow; for the morrow shall take thought for the things of itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.’”
Lt. James Whittaker continued: “I was somewhat impressed and said so. Then I was a little surprised at myself and added that the evil certainly had been sufficient unto the last two or three days. … I thought of these words during the wet, dreary night that followed. I dismissed them finally with the decision I would believe when I saw the food and drink. I was destined to see something startlingly like proof the following night. …”
Flight Engineer Private Johnny Bartek of Freehold, New Jersey, wrote in his book, “Life Out There” (1943) that on the eighth day, after reading from the Bible, Matthew 6:31-34, a sea gull landed on Rickenbacker’s head: “… but as we went on we all began to believe in the Bible and God and prayer. … We prayed and prayed for the sea gull to land so we could catch him. … After reading the passage, about twenty minutes later, that’s when the sea gull landed on Eddie Rickenbacker’s head…”
Rickenbacker caught it and they used it for food and fish bait, with a fishhook made from a bent key ring.
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Succumbing to exposure and dehydration, Lt. James Whittaker wrote further in “We Thought We Heard The Angels Sing” (1943): “We said the Lord’s prayer again. … While we rolled and wallowed over the crests and into the troughs I was thinking that this was God’s chance to make a believer of Jim Whittaker. … Eventually I became aware something was tugging insistently at my consciousness. I looked over to the left. A cloud that had been fleecy and white a while ago now was darkening by the second. While I watched, a bluish curtain unrolled from the cloud to the sea. It was rain – and moving toward us! Now everyone saw the downpour, sweeping across the ocean and speckling the waves with giant drops. ‘Here she is!’ Cherry shouted. ‘Thanks, Old Master!’ Another minute and we were being deluged by sheets of cold water that splashed into our parched mouths and sluiced the caked salt off our burned and stinging bodies. We cupped our hands to guide the life-giving rivulets down our throats. … We soaked and wrung out our shirts until all the salt was washed out of them. Then we saturated them again and wrung the water into our mouths. …”
Eddie Rickenbacker described their survival in his book, “Seven Came Through” (1943).
Regarding America, Eddie Rickenbacker wrote: “I pray to God every night of my life to be given the strength and power to continue my efforts to inspire in others the interest, the obligation and the responsibilities that we owe to this land for the sake of future generations – for my boys and girls – so that we can always look back when the candle of life burns low and say, ‘Thank God I have contributed my best to the land that contributed so much to me.’”
Eddie Rickenbacker confided: “It was clear to me that God had a purpose in keeping me alive. … I had been saved to serve.”
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