Hardship creates heroes, not safe spaces. Determination forges heroes, not participation trophies. They seize every opportunity, taking charge even when all the circumstances are against them. Edward was the perfect example of just such a hero.
Edward “Eddie” Reichenbacher was born on October 8, 1890, in Columbus, Ohio. He quit school at age 12 when his father died. The third of eight children, Eddie assumed the responsibility of supporting his family.
When World War I broke out, the nation already knew “Fast Eddie” as a skilled race car driver for General Motors. He also sold their cars. When America entered the war in 1917, his fame took second place to his patriotism. Eddie was among the first to enlist.
Eddie wanted to form a fighter squadron of race car drivers but was denied. The army found a more appropriate place for him. As a Sergeant First Class, he chauffeured for the Commander of the American Expeditionary Force, Major General John J. Pershing. It was among the highest positions an enlisted man could hold.
After helping Colonel Billy Mitchell of the US Army Air Service fix his car, Eddie seized an opportunity. Still wanting to fly, he asked Mitchell to recommend him for flight school. Upon completing the courses, Eddie joined the newly formed 94th Aero Squadron.
Eddie flew his first mission on April 6th, 1918, achieving his first air victory on April 29th. He became the first American Fighter Ace when he downed his fifth enemy airplane on May 28th. On September 24th, Eddie was promoted to captain and became the unit commander when the current commander was shot down and captured. That day, he wrote in his diary:
“I shall never ask any pilot to go on a mission that I won’t go on. I must work now harder than I did before.”
The following day, Eddie led an early morning patrol. He spotted seven enemy aircraft and immediately engaged the planes in a dogfight. During the event, Eddie downed two planes earning him his eighth Distinguished Service Cross.
Armistice Day, later celebrated as Veterans Day, occurred November 11th. The war was over. All told, Eddie won 26 air battles over the skies of Europe. He obtained eighteen of those kills in the 48 days he was commander of the squadron.
Eddie not only received eight Distinguished Service Crosses, he was also awarded the French Croix de Guerre and Legion of Honor. President Hebert Hoover recognized Rickenbacker’s heroic efforts twelve years later. Hoover elevated his eighth Distinguished Service Cross to a Medal of Honor, the highest honor given in the military.
When first arriving in Europe, Edward Reichenbacher believed his German name would attract an anti-German sentiment. Because of this, he tweaked the spelling of his name to Rickenbacker – Eddie Rickenbacker.
After returning home in 1919, Rickenbacker began settling into a normal life. He married, adopted two sons, and began Rickenbacker Motors. After bigger companies forced him out of buiness, Rickenbacker bought the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 1927, which he owned until 1945.
In 1934, General Motors rehired Rickenbacker to improve their Eastern Air Transport Division. He turned the company around in one year, giving it the first profit ever obtained from any airline. That profit increased each year until the government forced GM to sell the company or withdrawal from airline manufacturing. Rickenbacker bought Eastern Airlines on March 2, 1938, out of respect for the men and women who spent years building it.
While flying as a passenger to Atlanta in February of 1941, Rickenbacker’s plane crashed on a mountain due to fog. Rickenbacker sustained a broken leg, broken ribs, a paralyzed hand, a shattered pelvic bone and a torn eyelid, which expelled his left eye. To top that off, debris pinned him next to a steward’s dead body. Regardless, Rickenbacker quickly took charge. He sent the healthiest to go for help and kept the rest of the survivors calm. Rickenbacker forced himself to remain conscious until arriving at the hospital nine hours later.
When America entered World War II, a fully recovered Rickenbacker again offered his services. Secretary of War Henry Stimson sent him to assess European Allied bases.
Stimson then sent Rickenbacker to the Pacific on a similar mission, along with a personal task. Rickenbacker was to personally deliver a secret reprimand from Stimson to MacArthur for publicly criticizing the Roosevelt Administration.
With orders in hand, Rickenbacker boarded a plane in Hawaii in October 1942. Of the eight men on the B-17 Flying Fortress, he was the oldest and only civilian. When they went drastically off course en route to Canton Island, they made a crash landing in the Central Pacific Ocean. The eight injured men promptly jumped aboard life rafts as the plane quickly sank.
Once again “Captain Eddie” took the leadership role. He rationed the only food they had, four oranges, for six days. To keep their spirits high, they said prayers, held devotions, and sang hymns. Millions at home prayed as well.
After eight days, their food, water, and hope were gone. Survival seemed bleak. As Rickenbacker reclined for a nap, a seagull landed on the cap he placed over his face. He skillfully snatched it and rung its neck. The starving men ate the meat while the intestines served as bait to catch fish. Those remains also became bait for more fish.
Occasional rainfall supplied fresh water, which they collected and rationed. The cycle continued for twenty-four days until a passing US Navy OS2U Kingfisher ended their nightmare on November 13th. Only one man, who was already ill, perished during the ordeal.
Despite dehydration, near-starvation, and a severe sunburn, Rickenbacker completed his mission before returning home.
For all of Rickenbacker’s contributions during the 2nd World War, he received the Medal of Merit.
After the war, Rickenbacker returned to his position of CEO of Eastern Airlines. Due to management differences, he was forced from his position in 1959. He remained Chairman of the Board until December 31, 1963.
In his resignation letter, Rickenbacker declared:
“I am going to expand my crusade to save the American way of life for future generations, as I want our children, our grandchildren, and those who follow them to enjoy the American opportunities which have been mine for 73 years.”
Rickenbacker, a stanch conservative, lent his voice to the cause in his retirement. During World War II, Rickenbacker vehemently spoke out against Roosevelt’s New Deal, seeing it as little more than socialism. During the 60’s, he sounded the alarm of destructive government programs. He gave speeches praising America’s greatest gift of the “freedom to go broke”. Rickenbacker believed that one only needed “a chance” to achieve in America. He urged America to withdrawal from the United Nations and to repeal the 16th Amendment.
Rickenbacker suffered a stroke at his home in Miami, Florida, in October of 1972. During a trip to Zurich, Switzerland, the following July, he became ill. Rickenbacker died of a heart condition on July 27, 1973. His remains were flown to his hometown of Columbus for burial.
In all sense of the word, Edward Rickenbacker was a hero. His acts of bravery are astounding. But he is not a hero because he is any more special than anyone else. He is a hero because when situations arose that needed attention, Rickenbacker acted. Rickenbacker became a hero the moment he left school to work to support his family at 12 years old.
Modern American society has taught our children that we are all victims of something. Rickenbacker is a hero because he never allowed himself to be a victim. He turned every situation into a benefit for himself and those around him. This is what heroes are made of.
But that’s just my 2 cents.