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America’s Top WWI Ace

By David T. Zabecki
4/3/2018 • Military History Magazine

Captain Eddie Rickenbacker
94th Aero Squadron
Medal of Honor
France
Sept. 25, 1918

World War I ace Edward Vernon Rickenbacker is one of the most highly decorated American airmen of all time. Captain Eddie, as he was known, earned an unprecedented eight Distinguished Service Crosses (DSCs) for aerial combat during a brief 140-day period near war’s end. Multiple awards of America’s second-highest combat decoration are exceptionally rare. Besides Rickenbacker, only four other Americans have received more than three DSCs. In November 1930, Rickenbacker’s eighth DSC was upgraded to the Medal of Honor.

Rickenbacker was a self-taught engineer and well-known racecar driver in the years before America entered the war, competing in the Indianapolis 500 four times. Rickenbacker enlisted in 1917 and was among the first American soldiers to reach France. Serving briefly as General John J. Pershing’s driver, Rickenbacker became an engineering officer at the flight-training center at Issoudun, where he learned to fly on his downtime. Qualifying as a pilot, he cajoled his way into an assignment with the 94th Aero Squadron, which he later commanded. He shot down his first enemy aircraft on April 29, 1918, and by May 28 he had shot down four more to achieve ace status. After scoring his last two air-to-air victories on Oct. 30, 1918, his total stood at 26, making him the top-scoring American ace of the war.

Aerial warfare was new in 1918, and the Medal of Honor and Distinguished Service Cross were essentially the only two American decorations for valor in World War I. Thus it is all too easy to conclude that Rickenbacker was awarded a DSC every time he went up and shot something down. In fact, his decorations were for actions involving only his first 10 kills. According to his DSC citations, he repeatedly initiated attacks against larger enemy formations and, while fighting outnumbered, won. On two occasions he was outnumbered 3-to-1; once 4-to-1; twice 5-to-1; and once 6-to-1. During the action on September 25, for which he would later be awarded the Medal of Honor, he took on a flight of seven German aircraft, downing two. That brought his total to 10. Over the next 35 days he shot down 16 more enemy aircraft, including two each on five different days, but he received no awards for those later kills.

Rickenbacker’s military career ended in 1918, but he continued to lead a charmed and storied life. Shortly after the war he formed his own car manufacturing company, but while Rickenbackers were innovative cars, the company failed in 1927. During the 1930s he owned and operated the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. In 1938 he purchased Eastern Air Lines from General Motors, serving as CEO until 1959 and chairman until 1963. In 1973, at the age of 82, Rickenbacker died of a stroke in Zürich, Switzerland.

More than once the newspapers prematurely reported his death. In February 1941 Rickenbacker was traveling as a passenger on an Eastern DC-3 when it crashed on approach in Atlanta. Rescuers found him trapped in the wreckage and soaked in fuel. Though he had suffered critical injuries, he made a full recovery within months. During World War II Rickenbacker traveled widely as a civilian to support the war effort. On a trip to the Pacific in October 1942, the B-17 in which he was riding lost navigational function and hours later ran out of fuel and ditched at sea. The U.S. Army Air Forces had no idea where the bomber went down, and Rickenbacker and the crew survived on a raft for 24 days before rescuers picked them up near Samoa.

Rickenbacker’s World War I uniform is among the exceptional aviation artifacts on display at the Smithsonian Institution’s Steven F. UdvarHazy Center [www.nasm.si.edu/Udvar Hazy] near Washington Dulles International Airport. Contrary to standard regulations, the uniform sports two separate DSC ribbon bars above the left breast pocket to accommodate his seven oak leaf clusters—representing his subsequent DSCs—along with his Croix de guerre and Légion d’honneur from France.

 

Originally published in the September 2009 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here

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